Copyright 2010 by Ernesto66. All persons, places, things and events mentioned within this file are fictional, and no inferences should be made regarding their relationship to reality by readers, regardless of how they are represented. The author is responsible for, but not liable for, errors in regard to continuity, geography, weather, the public record, contemporary events, hairstyles, language and his own bad judgment. This story includes descriptions of adult homosexual men in sexual situations. If you are not of legal age to read this, then don't. If you are of age but somehow offended by such material, what the fuck are you doing here?
This file is freely shared, and the author encourages its distribution, dependent on proper attribution to him and only him. The file remains his intellectual (!) property and its unattributed use anywhere outside its orginal forum will result in harsh words to the offending site's host, as if there's anything they'll do about it.
I gratefully thank, and dedicate this story to, authors around the world who inspired me by posting their work online, most especially the two known as Ardveche and Ricardo Cabeza. It was in trying to emulate their beautiful stories that I first sat down to start my own, and writing "Homecoming" went a long way toward helping me through the hardest period of my life.
Thanks as well to my husband David. I started "Homecoming" before I even knew him, and although he had no idea I was writing it (at work), with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Chapter Ten: Coming Home
Michael couldn't see outside for all the steam in the air of the shower stall. The clouded glass of the door in front of him turned everything on the other side into a rectangle of abstract colors. Field of dark cobalt blue accented by copper and white, a crooked grey square of skylight at its top. He closed his eyes and turned his face slightly, into the water. By the time they left he hoped it would be brighter outside. It had to be.
Boiling hot spray beat down on his chest and arms, distracting him from the pain he was feeling and the taste in his mouth. He silently prayed, as much as an agnostic can pray, for the water to wash away his sins. Nothing else would.
It might work, prayer, who the fuck knew? In theory there were a lot of things that might make him clean again. Meditation, exorcism, alcoholism. Theory. In reality...
In reality, just that second, his most recent sin was standing close behind him, its cock buried deep inside his ass and about to fill him up once more. Did he really want to be delivered from that?
They'd been under the water ten or fifteen minutes, rhythmically moving together. Jeremy's arms tight around his middle, knees bumping into the backs of his knees, mouth between his shoulderblades, the only thing separating them a thousandth of an inch of rubber. Michael's hands were braced on either side of the shower door frame, giving him the artistic vision of the bathroom.
The older man's lips were moving, barely parted, as he whispered something to himself. From outside it might indeed have looked like a prayer, he thought. Maybe "I want you, I want you," repeated over and over. Or something close to that. The hiss of the water was so loud in his ears he wasn't sure himself.
They'd unknotted themselves at eight and gotten up, agreed they had no appetite, ate toast and strawberry jam in the kitchen. Made the bed, packed what they'd brought, straightened anything left undone. Nervous energy to burn. So intent they'd hardly spoken, not really looked at each other, hardly touched. Michael felt numb through all of it.
No, not numb - anesthetized. Dulled pain.
This, the weekend, had all been a distraction. A lark, as his grandmother would have said years ago. But it was almost over now, and in an hour they'd be on their way to a funeral, then saying goodbye. There wasn't any way around that. How to put it off? The shower was his last chance to... Prove it all happened. Remember what it had felt like.
As Michael undressed with Jeremy, in Kevin's bedroom, the boy tossed his black briefs across the room to land on the older man's foot. "I'd like to make love again," he said, once he had his attention. And given him another of those blue-eyed looks - taking the glasses off, unadorned - that cut him in half. Like the very first one back at the mall, his downfall.
Michael had made an expression that felt close enough to a smile and said Yes. Who the hell called it that anymore?
He knew where this was leading, knew the scene - scenes, actually - they were headed toward in Louisville. He'd been through them both so many times before. Who hadn't? Acknowledging that with a clear mind might have been what was keeping him from crying just then. So he'd said Yes, and when they were naked together under the shower he said Don't be gentle, and let the boy in him like a corkscrew into a bottle one more time, and now he was positive he was tasting blood in his mouth.
Jeremy's slippery hands moved down to take hold of Michael's hips, and the next moment the fullness below his waist moved forward, hard, and hit the little ball of nerves in the bend of Michael's guts. It burned like hell for a second all along his asshole, and he suddenly felt like his bladder was full. He clenched his jaw and seized both his hands into fists. This is what it had always been like with Billy. Pleasure, pain, pleasure, on and on. More of it pain.
"Oh, shhh... it," he breathed, and lowered his head against the cool glass in front of him.
The body rocking into his stopped, and he heard Jeremy say "Hey man, am I hurting you?"
Michael bit his lip and shook his head. "No." Maybe that was where the taste had come from, maybe he'd been biting it all this time. "It feels great. Do it harder, like before. Put me out of my misery."
Then they were going down the interstate again.
"Obviously you're dying to go first, man, so go."
Michael glanced at Jeremy's profile to his right, sharp against the hills and fields lining 265 going by the passenger window. The leaden color of the sky hadn't brightened in the least. The snow still left on the ground was ashy grey, and the houses and farms going past were only vague shapes.
Despite all this, Michael actually felt better than he had since last night. Getting out of that house and into the cold November air had sharpened his senses and swept away most of the murk he'd awakened with. Jeremy, though, seemed to have gone the opposite direction and wound down after their shower.
He had been pretty quiet the last half hour or so, after leaving Kevin's. They'd said their goodbyes to Miss Catherine, loaded their things into the Jeep, locked the front door and headed back down the road to civilization. Well, New Albany.
Silence overtook the car once the countryside was behind them and the highway lay ahead, and Jeremy's normally open face was now impossible (for Michael anyway) to read.
"I'm not dying- Well, I do have one but you can go first if you want."
And he truly had been trying. Thinking back, it seemed to Michael that he'd been such an emotional mess as a kid, no one could have ever misunderstood what he was thinking, but... Really he'd spent years of his life misdirecting everyone around him, hadn't he? Lying or just shutting down. Being a mess wasn't nearly the same as being transparent. So was this any different?
Things don't change, he thought, until you make them. What would a good mentor do? Talk to the boy. Get him to talk. So he'd suggested the Movie Game again. And surprisingly found a taker this time.
"God, I told you I never played before. Just go already."
Michael looked back toward the road. They still had to stop somewhere and get Jeremy a dress shirt, tie, slacks and shoes. If Louisville was anything like Indianapolis there would be at least a few department stores open on a Sunday morning. And traffic was almost nonexistent, so barring any accidents ahead they were making good time.
Michael smirked. A haircut, then new clothes. Why didn't they work on polishing Jeremy's accent too while they were at it? Henry Higgins he wasn't. Who on earth would be fooled by any of this?
"Sorry, I'm nervous and I'm just rattling. If you don't want to play-"
"No, I'm the same way. It'll distract us, so go on."
"All right. 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' - the Seventies one - 'Star Trek II,' and 'L.A. Story.' What do they-"
Jeremy frowned. "Like that Steve Martin movie? I'm not sure I remember it too well."
"Then alternately..." He thought a second. "'Braveheart.' Although I'm not positive. I hate Mel Gibson so I haven't seen it in forever. I'm pretty sure."
Jeremy chuckled. "That's okay, I've got it! That wasn't so hard. Bagpipes playing 'Amazing Grace.'"
Michael was impressed. "See, not bad. I love this game, it tells you right off how well-matched you are. You can only play against someone who loves movies as much as you do. That was quick, you're a natural."
"Yeah, all my teachers used to tell me that." He shifted the bag in his lap, under his crossed arms. "Look at me now," he said sarcastically. "I bet my first manager at White Castle will say the same thing."
"Don't be so down on yourself. I'm sure with your charm and life experience, your first job will be at Arby's, no trouble."
"Man, you are fun-nay." Michael grinned. "Okay, I have one for you, smart guy. Uhm, 'The Third Man,' 'The Wizard of Oz,' and 'Lord of the Rings.' Ha." He sounded very pleased with himself.
"Give me a minute. Wow, 'The Third Man,' somebody gets Turner Classic Movies. Two old, one new. Or 'Lord of the Rings' could count as three movies. Is that a clue?"
"Duh, the whole thing is just one story."
"Hm. They're all adventures kind of, but one isn't a fantasy. One's black and white, two are classic books, very literate, common enough themes... Hey, I get it." Michael counted on his fingers the best he could without letting go of the steering wheel. "They're all about a mysterious title character, who doesn't even appear until a long time in. He challenges the main character, and gives him a quest-"
"Right, being as I'm a friend of Dorothy. Or her, kind of a quest. Then this person meets lots of new acquaintances, but ultimately the villain isn't all that, and he kind of disappears at the end. Was that it?"
"Wow, that's a lot more complicated than what I was thinking, but sure."
"I look for things to overthink. It's part of my charm. That was really good though."
They rode in silence a moment. "Here's my next one. "'National Velvet,' 'The Road to Morocco,' 'North by Northwest.'"
Michael waited. Truthfully there had to be better car games to kill the time driving to Louisville, but none had sprung to mind. With the Movie Game you had to really search for the answers, so there wasn't a lot of room for other thoughts in your head. The downside being, while your opponent was quietly thinking, there were too many thoughts creeping into your own mind...
So when the sound of the Jeep's tires hissing through the water on the road had gone on long enough, with nothing from the other side of the car, Michael turned his head.
Jeremy said "I'm thinking, I'll get it," without raising his eyes.
Michael shrugged. "Okay." Attention forward again. A sign saying the turnoff was a mile away caught his eye.
This funeral, the city of Louisville, my parents... What do these three things have in common? I know! I don't really want to see any of them today.
Then name three things you do want to see, he told himself. My bed in Indy, piled high with pillows and that quilt Andrew gave me last Christmas. Talbott Street's dance floor on a busy Saturday night. And... what?
Jeremy jostled him out of his thoughts by poking him in the arm and pointing to the right. "It's south, in case you've forgotten."
"You know, it isn't too late to put you-" Michael bit his cheek, hard.
"Go ahead, say it. Put me back out on the road."
"No, bad joke." He signaled the turn and got onto the exit ramp to 65.
Here it comes, he thought. Next stop, your distant past and immediate future. He blinked and realized his throat had gone dry.
They were finally there. Jesus. The last leg of a fucking twenty-year trip. He turned to say something to Jeremy, try to calm himself down with the sound of his own voice.
The boy was resting his chin on his shoulder, against the Wrangler's passenger window. Michael mentally kicked himself in the ankle. Dumbass.
"I'm sorry, Jeremy, I shouldn't have-"
He stirred and waved Michael off. "Oh. Forget it, I'm just thinking. Smell the hair burning? Give me a clue. 'Morocco' is one of those ones with Bing Crosby?"
"Yup, and Bob Hope. That's your clue. Real name Leslie Townes Hope." He lisped the first two names. "What is Tina Turner's real name? Anna Mae Something."
"Yeah. Oh, wait, I have it. The stars are all British, right? Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Hope and Cary Grant were all born in Britain. Even though people think of them as American movie stars." He sat back proudly.
"You're right," Michael admitted. "Good job. Give me a minute and I'll go."
He needed to concentrate. Traffic was picking up the closer they got to the city. And then-
His heart skipped a beat. Maybe two.
He'd seen something in the distance. It had disappeared again behind some trees, so he couldn't even say what it had been. Lighter blue squares, metallic against the dull slate sky, then gone. It had to have been the buildings downtown. He'd recognized Louisville. Actually seen it. The landscape suddenly felt familiar to him again. He was there.
Michael startled himself and laughed out loud.
"Oh, my god, I'm gonna see Louisville!" he exclaimed. He felt light-headed suddenly, so he took a deep breath and held it. "I can't believe this," he said in a whoosh. He laughed again and saw Jeremy smile back at him. To make up for that skip his heart started beating harder.
Michael kept looking but the skyline frustrated him and remained hidden. Somewhere along the way 65 had stopped being a simple four lanes, parallel with the flat farmland around it, and turned into a wide multi-lane channel surrounded by modern highway life. From inside its grey concrete walls there was nothing around it to see but fast food, roadside attractions and motels, broken up by overpasses and side ramps. And billboards, dozens of billboards it seemed. All of them blocking his view.
But it had to be close. He could see the very tops of the river bridges' towers ahead of them, floating above everything else in the cloudy sky. They were nearly there.
"Any other weekend I'd be hung over right now," he chattered. One or two more curves to go yet. "Still asleep..."
"Or watching HBO On Demand. Trying to remember which friend I'd pissed off at the bar the night before. If you'd told me last week that today I was gonna be here, I'd have said you... were..."
Michael's voice faded on him. The road rose, its many lanes merging into just four or five, up a gentle hill taking them onto the Kennedy Bridge. The bridge towers were like a series of tall gates in front of them. Downtown briefly showed its face again, behind a factory or something, another billboard, more trees. Gone again. So close...
They climbed onto the bridge. Everything else fell away, the land dropped fifty feet to the river, and there it was. Michael stopped breathing.
Louisville. Home. Even on this morning, it was beautiful.
He'd seen pictures, of course, even video on the news sometimes. Indianapolis wasn't that far away. But nothing could have prepared him, to have it spread out in front of him like this.
Downtown wasn't huge, it never would be. It was still only a few square blocks, like always. But there were three times as many tall buildings crammed into it as the last time he'd driven past. Now a multi-shaped variety, where before there had been basically three cracker boxes. No, two boxes and just the fragile framework of the Humana Building, nothing else for miles around more than a few stories high. Today the still startlingly postmodern angles of the solid Humana Building were crowded by so many others.
The two he remembered from his youth were plain in comparison, easy to pick out from the others structures taken root around them. One topped by a triangular spire, another with half a sphere sitting on its roof like a gigantic roll-on deodorant. A hotel, split into three white buildings side-by-side, ribbed with balconies and with what seemed to be... lord, twin lighthouses atop the tallest. And even more, medium- and smaller-sized ones, on every side of these. So many different shapes and colors it was almost a kid's idea of what a city should look like, made from building blocks.
The waterfront underneath hadn't changed much at all. The Belvedere plaza, its edge overlooking the river, still stood over Louisville's busy stretch of I-64. Parking garages and the piers of structures standing on the river made a broad cliff holding downtown up out of the brown-blue water. To the east, though, was a long new swath of green trees and parkland, where Michael remembered there had once been huge piles of industrial debris. To the west was the familiar Second Street bridge, and downstream from that Michael saw the Belle of Louisville and another paddleboat parked at the dockside. Even further down he could just make out the railroad bridge, standing over the unseen locks and falls below.
The thrill he'd first felt in his chest on Friday, that the storm had crushed, bloomed again. He'd made it home, and gotten to see it with his own eyes. Finally.
In one piece and on his own terms, more or less. The city welcomed him, as it had been waiting to do all that time, and would be ready to again when he left tonight-
The thought of leaving tore him away from the panorama of his hometown and over to Jeremy, quietly polishing his glasses on his sweatshirt. He sure wasn't in a rapture over the view. And why would he be?
When the boy noticed Michael's gaze on him he calmly returned it, smiled and exhaled onto a lens. "You should see your face, dude."
"What do you mean?"
"You're like glowing. You look pregnant."
Michael shook his head. "Shut up."
"This must really be something to come back to."
"I can't even... Yeah. I mean, yeah it is." Michael fought back the sting in his eyes. "I mean, look at that, the Humana Building really is pink! I couldn't ever picture it."
"Sure. It's pretty dirty, isn't it? They ought to wash that thing every once in a while."
Interstate 65 took them down through the middle of the city in just a few minutes, and Michael found his way west on 264 and then to Southern Parkway with no coaching from Jeremy.
At the bottom of the ramp to Southern Parkway he could hardly keep his eyes on the road, he was so excited. They were no more than a couple of miles from Beechmont, the last place he'd lived in Louisville. Technically still Jeremy's home, he supposed. Michael turned them onto the four-lane boulevard, not wanting to believe his eyes.
It was just as he remembered it. Nothing had changed. Literally. The familiar tall oaks and maples towered beside the parkway, dark and bare and dripping with icicles. The trees lined both sides of the parkway, on long islands that separated the broad street from the paved bridle path beside it. The trees made a long tunnel toward where they were headed.
Just the other side of the bridle path were the stateliest homes the south end had to offer, their columns and stonework wreathed in snow, their landscaping hidden under a slushy white blanket. Although most of the driveways and walks had been shoveled, the bridle path itself didn't look like it had been touched. Runoff and melted snow left each house sitting behind its own silver lake.
Michael was doing his best to drive carefully, but he had a hard time keeping the car between the lines on the street. He considered pulling over. Everything was too distracting not to try to watch going by. They passed a distinctive Tudor pile he knew he should remember better.
"It really is spooky..." he started.
Jeremy stirred. "What is?" he asked.
Yeah, right. Beechmont is just ahead, he's probably seen this part of town every day for as long as he and his family have lived here.
Michael blinked and smiled at him. "It will sound stupid, like something from V.C. Andrews, but..."
Michael glanced over. The boy sat with his hands over his bag. Didn't seem like he was kidding this time.
"Nevermind. What I mean is it's spooky, how this is almost new to me, but at the same time more than halfway familiar. I know I know these houses, but it was so long ago I don't know exactly why. I walked past them all a million times, going to the library or the grocery. Another life ago."
He looked forword. An intersection was coming up. "Is this Woodlawn Avenue?"
"Yeah. Rueger's is-"
"One over, Sixth Street. That I remember."
They turned right and in another block sure enough there was the library. Speak of the devil and his horns appear.
They turned right onto Sixth and drove by it slowly. One of the area's many Carnegie libraries, squat and dark red brick with grey stone accents and iron railings around its little entrance. Thanks to an addition in the back, now it was twice as big as it had been. But it was basically the same building, no question. The same front steps, the ones Michael had stumbled up with his mom when he was just a toddler, were right there. Later on he'd run up them, to get to the new magazines after school. And-
It was one memory too many. He carefully pulled the car over into the icy slush and took it out of gear. He wasn't going to cry. But he felt incredibly tired all of a sudden.
He leaned back against the seat's high headrest and shut his eyes. He knew this must look weird. "I need a minute, I'm okay," he reassured Jeremy. He heard the passenger seatbelt unbuckle, felt the boy's hand on his arm and heard him lean up to his side.
"I can see Rueger's, man, it's just ahead," Jeremy said softly.
Michael sighed. He wasn't quite ready for all this yet and he knew it.
"Okay. I just wanted to see the neighborhood first. You show me where Meijer's is, and we'll get you outfitted and come back."
Jeremy settled into his seat and buckled in again. "Nearest one's on Dixie Highway, I guess. My house is kind of on the way."
Michael wasn't sure if he was hearing anything in that statement or not. "I know, mine too. If we have time we'll go by."
His eyes stayed on the library, empty of any life on a Sunday. If he watched it long enough, what would he see? Nothing.
"I went there with Billy, when I was your age, to write papers and study for tests. If they haven't thrown them out I could find you the table I carved our initials into with my pen."
Michael put the Jeep into first and they eased back out onto the street. "Sometimes we went to his branch in Bon Air, but it was such a bitch to find diesel fuel, so he usually came over to this side of town and trucked me around. He was good about that. His folks were what I thought of as rich, so it didn't mean that much to me. I took it for granted. But what a pain in the ass that must have been."
Michael slowed the car and turned in his seat to look to the right. So did Jeremy. At the corner of the block, behind an unobtrusive sign bearing its name in green script, was Rueger's. They rolled to a stop in the middle of the empty street.
It was a three-story Victorian, and like the surrounding houses it was on a rise that put it a couple of feet higher than street level. It was solid-looking and skirted with a wraparound porch, its white planks decorated with wainscoting and gingerbread in muted colors. Urns that would be filled with big Boston ferns in spring flanked the double front doors and stood in a row along the porch. A cupola with a peaked roof and weathervane dominated one corner of the house. White-capped shrubs popped up from the snow in the front and side yards.
The house looked busy. Adjacent to it was a parking lot, completely full of cars. A knot of smokers was gathered around one of the far urns on the porch, and a group of four people was making its way up the wet sidewalk toward the cleared steps of the porch.
"I was actually inside Rueger's, years ago..." Michael reflected. "A girl I went to grade school with was killed by a drunk driver, and her service was there. It smelled like my great-grandparents' house. Only with more lilies and formaldehyde."
Jeremy chuckled, but Michael knew the kid was just being polite. He was full of bad jokes today.
They turned again, and after one more right, their fourth, they'd made a square and were back on the parkway. Michael came to Woodlawn a second time, and stopped at the red light there. This time he noticed the gazebo sitting to one side of the intersection.
"That's new." He pointed at it.
Jeremy looked over at him and frowned. "Like back in the Eighties, I think."
"Ish. Newish." The trees along the parkway ahead of them curved, once to the left and then the right. Michael, like he was recalling a dream, knew that around the second bend was the straightaway just before the park entrance. The long stretch where his old house sat.
"You know what?" Michael flipped his turn signal on and got them started right. Right again, he thought, angry with himself for being such a pussy.
"What?" They were going in circles, haunting Beechmont like the frigging Flying Dutchman. Before the light could change they pulled off down Woodlawn. Again.
"There's another way to Dixie Highway over here, right? I know there is." In a second they passed the library building, this time on the boy's side.
Jeremy looked uneasy. "Okay, and...?"
"And, I'm going a different way. I don't want to spend this whole damn day feeling maudlin every time I go around another corner. We'll drive by my old place after the funeral. Right now I want to sightsee, and try to go back to feeling happy I'm here again."
"That sounds like a good idea."
Michael nodded. He hoped it would be that easy. He looked ahead and tried his best to recall where the street they were on ended. "Can you be my guide, for another-" He looked down at the clock behind the steering wheel. "-hour or two?"
"Sure I can. And I understand, Michael. I'm sorry I'm not as enthusiastic as you are about being here. I hope I didn't bring you..."
"No, hell no. I'm just being spastic. I don't expect you to see all this crap through my eyes."
"You know, Sheila used to tell me something." He looked over for permission to go on.
Michael grudgingly admitted "I've given you more than enough advice. Feel free."
Jeremy shrugged. "Okay. Turn left up here. Sheila says if you could see what all you have, like a stranger standing outside your own window, you'd appreciate it more. You probably have a lot more than you think you do."
Michael frowned. "Are you saying... I don't get it. I think I appreciate what I have just fine."
Jeremy laughed his laugh, almost pushing his things onto the floor of the car. "God, it's not all about you, man. I meant me!"
In a sheepish voice Michael said "Oh. Yeah?"
The boy reseated his bag in his lap. "I still live here, y'know, so maybe I should be more grateful for what I've got. If it makes you happy being here, then I should try to be happier about it too. Might be here a while."
Michael silently considered what they'd both just said. In a minute he admitted "Yeah, that makes sense."
"Turn right. Do you know where you are now?"
"Not really. But I'm getting there. Point me the way." No longer driving in circles, they went on toward Dixie Highway, and in a while the older man did feel better. A little.
The two of them returned and walked through the door of the funeral home at just before two o'clock, which was exactly what Michael planned. He and Jeremy had driven all over the south end, shopping and eating and taxing Michael's memory for stories of his misspent youth. As the clock ran down they'd skipped going by either of their houses.
Then at five to two they walked up the porch steps and slipped in with the last of the smokers, just as the attendants were pulling the doors closed. Perfect.
He looked around as they approached the last row of chairs, and thought that Rueger's should somehow be more familiar to him. But 1975 had been even longer ago than most of the rest of his life. The biggest impression on him then was the terror he felt at poor Darlene being sealed forever inside her closed coffin. Now, he could see the place was nothing more than a generic converted old home with arches where walls once stood, bathrooms added at odd corners, no windows in most of the rooms and signs with removable letters bolted to the door frames.
They were in the main parlor, which took up most of the house's first floor. The big room was nearly full, a good number of younger - or at least younger middle-age - people, who by the volume of their whispers seemed pretty well acquainted.
Michael took a very deep breath and made himself let it out slowly. He liked the room's soothing gold and cream paint, and the few paintings of riverboats on the walls. The molding and woodwork had been repainted so many times they were beginning to lose their detail.
He couldn't find them in the crowd. If they were even there, where were his parents sitting?
"Your friend was a popular guy," Jeremy said under his breath as he settled into the aisle seat.
Michael nodded. "Friend to the jocks, the preppies, the pot heads..." he murmured. "Billy could win over anyone eventually."
At the front of the room and to the right was a podium, behind that a few small baskets of flowers. On the opposite side a flatscreen computer monitor sat on a small cherry table. Pictures of some kind were going by in a slideshow on its screen.
And in the middle... He made himself look. What at first glance he'd at first taken for a casket wasn't, it was only a dark stripe of wood paneling against the wall. He sighed and felt Jeremy's eyes on him as he did. So no casket. What he'd dreaded seeing most wasn't even there.
He craned his neck and tried to look closer. Behind the podium was another table, and sitting on it, beside a little basket of chrysanthemums, was a plain ivory-colored stone urn. Billy had been cremated. Michael sighed again. That didn't seem like the man - well, boy - he'd once known. That guy would have wanted a loud Irish wake, with Jack Daniels and Cheap Trick on the stereo.
As quietly as he could he shrugged his coat off and let it drape over the back of his chair. Doing this he accidentally elbowed Jeremy, which seemed to remind the boy he should remove his letterman's jacket too.
While Jeremy was occupied Michael let himself admire how handsome he looked in the maroon sweater, khakis and dress shoes they'd found at Meijer's. With the new clothes and haircut, he was unrecognizable as the beaten and bloodied child he'd been on Friday morning. If he made up with his parents, maybe a new look would be a good start.
Michael turned forward and shut his eyes. His heart, not wanting to be there, thumped in his chest and he concentrated on trying to calm it.
There was a stir up front as someone got to their feet, and the audience fell silent. Michael and a dozen other people all cleared their throats at the same time. In a second he was surprised to feel Jeremy's fingers gently touch his. He smiled and gratefully closed his hand over the boy's warm palm.
A blonde woman carrying a handful of index cards stood up at the front of the room. She was in her late thirties or early forties, and wore a fairly severe black and white suit, with an angular collar and a white flower on its lapel. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her eyes were puffy and red. She'd either forgotten to or intentionally not put any mascara on her pale lashes.
She turned toward the urn for a long moment, bowed her head, then circled the podium and faced the crowd.
Who was this, Michael wondered.
She straightened her cards and began. "Hello, everyone, and thank you for coming today." She had a sweet Southern accent. Thahynk yew.
"It means so much to me and Brad, Don and Mary Jo, and Bill too of course, that you've come through this terrible weather to be here."
She cleared her throat. "I feel blessed to have known Bill for all these years, and I know you feel the same way about him. It seems unfair that he's been taken away from all of us, but our time together was so full of meaning and joy. It's hard for me to put that into-" She put her hand to her lips and waited a second. "Into words."
Michael thought that she'd almost lost her composure just then. She quit reading and looked up from the top of the podium.
"I begged Bill to help me with this, but he had writing of his own to do." She smiled unhappily. "And he told me I was doing fine. So I'm sorry for how badly this sounds."
There was a murmur from her audience. "No, I'm terrible at this kind of thing. But he did tell me to keep it short, he hated going to funerals that went on forever and ever. He told me about his one aunt-"
"Grace," Michael whispered to himself.
"-Grace, and hers went on for so long, with everyone having their say, that they had to break for supper." There was polite laughter and she smiled. "So I apologize, I'm it today."
She restarted. "Bill was everything to me, and over the years I admit I came to think of him as kind of an ideal, as almost perfect." Michael blinked.
"Women do that, you know. Put men on pedestals. Sometimes it's not the other way around." Had he heard her right?
"It may be, he was only perfect in my eyes. But if you reflect, I believe it's possible many of you thought about him the same way. He was your best friend, best son-" She looked to the left, where Don and Mary Jo must be sitting. "-best listener, best relation, best boss, best client. I'll stop there. He'll be getting a swelled head."
A couple of people softly laughed again. Michael was stuck on the "everything to me" part, though. Was she a friend? More? She couldn't have meant that the way it sounded.
"My point being, I don't have to use any complicated words to tell you how I feel, because you already know. There will never be another person like him. He was so beloved, and he was blessed to be surrounded by people who weren't shy about telling him."
She picked her cards up and squared them with a trembling hand. "It seems unnecessary to add to that chorus of friendship and love, that he was also the best husband and father in the world, but I will."
Michael froze. That he couldn't have possibly misheard.
She turned her head slightly, toward the urn, and in a shaky voice said "I love you, honey. Everyone in this room does. Take that with you, where you go from here." She looked up again and slid the cards into her jacket pocket.
"Thank you all again for coming. This service was Bill's concession to me, you know that. He wanted to just have a party." That got a general laugh. "I told him people expect certain things, like sending flowers, even though that wasn't something he liked doing himself. He let me have my way this time.
"Anyone who wants to have a last remembrance of him, please come forward, and we'll go out through this door by me, back to the foyer. Please make sure you're signed in at the register, and then you're all invited to our house. We'll have his party. My mom has set out a buffet fit for an army, and you have got to help me eat it."
The woman smiled weakly once more, came from behind the podium and went to the first row of chairs. She was joined by another person and then they were joined by two more, an ancient man and woman in worn dress clothes. Surely Don and Mary Jo. Hand in hand they all stepped to the urn on its table.
Michael heard and saw this from a distance, and in any case mourners began to stand and file to the front, blocking his view of the proceedings. He remained sitting.
Jeremy got up and tugged at his hand. Michael let him go.
He looked up at the boy. "Did you-?" he started to ask, but Jeremy's guilty face answered the question. "You knew, about him being married. That's what you were talking about last night."
Jeremy hesitated and Michael reassured him. "I'm not mad. It was just the very last thing I expected to hear."
"The Courier-Journal online had his obituary. I was curious what it would say about him. I told you, to remind me to tell you today." He combed his fingers through his hair and shrugged. "I'm sorry, man."
"It's no matter, really. But if I ever imagined I was the romance of his life, like he was mine... That was what I needed to hear today. Life goes on." He laughed. "Of course it does. He wasn't sealed up in a bubble all this time." Michael got to his feet and grabbed his coat. The room was mostly empty by now. They started up the aisle together toward the front, Jeremy a step behind.
Halfway there, Michael raised his eyes enough to finally see the couple who'd remained behind, sitting far to the right and almost against the wall. First one and then the other noticed him looking at them, and they both stood. He couldn't quite believe it.
Jeremy stopped and asked "Hey, isn't that-"
Michael said, "Kevin."
The bear in the long black coat left his chair and met the two of them before they could go any further. Michael fell into Kevin's arms and they hugged for at least a minute unbroken. He'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he repeated.
Kevin released him a little, then put his hand around Michael's arm and pulled him even closer.
"Forget everything I've said to you this weekend. Family and friends do not make suitable judges. Too close and all they see is an innocent, too distant and all they want is to send you to the gallows."
"I'm so sorry for everything..."
As he felt himself folded into the soft wool of Kevin's coat, he heard Jeremy and Ramon introduce themselves, and in a second there was a whisper in his ear.
"Forgive me for doubting your word. He's handsome as hell, and he seems to know exactly who he is. I hope you enjoyed having the house to yourselves."
Michael smiled crookedly. "Don't you worry about that." He stood back and admired Kevin's new look. He'd not only cut his hair but trimmed his full beard back to a bushy goatee.
He sniffled. "You've lost weight." A guess.
Kevin smiled as shyly as his 225-pound frame would let him. "I have a lover to hold on to, not to mention ten-hour days at the coffee shop. Ramon..." He took the hand of the incredibly square-jawed Hispanic man talking to Jeremy, and gently turned him around.
"Ramon, one of my oldest friends in the world, Michael. Michael, the love of my forseeable life, Ramon."
Michael and Ramon seemed mutually pleased to note that Kevin's introduction caused them both to roll their eyes. "I'll say it first," Michael joked as they shook. "I feel for you."
"Tambien," Ramon agreed. "I am very pleased to meet you."
Kevin sighed. "The things I choose not to hear."
Michael put his arm over Jeremy's shoulder and likewise presented him. "This is Kevin Moore, the man whose hospitality we've been abusing all weekend. Kevin, this is Jeremy Duffy."
They shook hands, and Kevin said "It's very nice meeting you. Michael's description didn't do you justice. I hope the next time he deigns to join us that you'll come over too. Actually, you're welcome without him as well."
The boy chirped "Thank you. And for the bed this weekend."
"Yes, thanks again. You saved our lives," Michael added.
Kevin began to wrap a long purple scarf around his neck and then started to dig in his pockets for something. In a second he'd produced his keys.
"It was nothing. One more good deed, if anyone is taking note." He waited for Ramon to retrieve his coat before facing Michael again. "This was a good service. Funerals sober me, I always imagine someone discussing my behavior in front of an audience. I'm glad we got to see you before you left, but we have to get back across the river before dark."
"To finally get back into my own bed? I don't think so. But you, you do."
All four of them hugged goodbye, then Kevin and Ramon adjusted each other's coats and headed for the vestibule. Kevin looked back just as they got to the double doors and mouthed "Call me tomorrow" to Michael, who nodded and crossed his heart with one finger.
When the other pair had gone, the two of them stood in the aisle a second longer. "I really am the luckiest motherfucker in the world, you know that?" Michael wondered.
Jeremy nodded but didn't say anything. Michael shook his head and led them to the front of the room.
Only a handful of people remained now, near the front row - men stiffly shaking hands and women warmly embracing one another. Michael and Jeremy eased around the little crowd until they were standing between the monitor, still flashing its slideshow, and the little table with its simple urn.
The monitor's screen showed a slow progression of fuzzy slides and old snapshots. All Billy, all too young. In them he excitedly cradled a puppy in his lap, held out a lost tooth, fished sitting on a dock, stood with Mary Jo in front of their house in the Highlands, blew out birthday candles. His face became more and more familiar to Michael, less boyish and more defined, more handsome. Until one of him in a white tuxedo with enormous frills and back tie appeared.
Ever the movie queen, a line from "Steel Magnolias" came to him. He'd always wondered what it would feel like, to want to laugh and cry at the same time.
"Oh, my god," he said to Jeremy. "Senior year picture."
"Dude, that tie is huge." He felt a squeeze on his palm and realized at some point he must have taken the boy's hand again.
"I, oh hell. I helped him put that stupid thing on. We went on the same Saturday because of our names. It's not a real tux. It zipped in the back, and completely messed up his hair. Billy was so mad about that, he'd worked on it for an hour to get it right."
"Then I know exactly who you are," Michael heard from behind them. Eggsaictly.
His heart in his throat - who here knew him? - he turned. Jeremy moved aside but didn't let go of him. The blonde woman who'd just spoken was standing behind them.
She was prettier than she'd appeared at a distance. Her face was puffy, but it must have been the overhead lights at the podium that had washed her eyelashes out, and up close she seemed softer and less angular. She smiled at them both and held out her hand.
"I'm Kelly Shepherd," she said. "And don't tell me I'm wrong, please. You must be Michael Selton."
Michael took her hand. "Shelton, yes. I was very sorry to hear about Billy."
"Thank you for coming. I..." She hesitated. "I almost feel like I should be the one telling you how sorry I am."
Confused, he said "I don't-"
"Michael, Bill and I had no secrets from each other." She chuckled and lowered her voice. "At least none that I've discovered yet. And we were married fourteen years, there were plenty of nights we had nothing else to do but talk.
"So I know who you are," she said meaningfully. "I was hoping you'd be here today."
Huh. There was a pregnant pause and Michael, wanting the focus off himself, gestured to the young man at his side. "Kelly, this is my friend Jeremy Duffy." They shook hands and Jeremy said he was glad to meet her.
"And coincidentally, we don't have any secrets either. I've been telling him about Billy and me all weekend."
Kelly didn't blink at what he'd said. "I hope you know how much your friendship meant to him." She put up one finger as if he'd objected. "I say 'friendship,' I know it was a sore spot between Bill and his parents for a long time." Michael looked over her shoulder at the white-haired Don and Mary Jo, standing in the foyer, probably waiting for her. Except for the five of them, the rooms seemed to have emptied out.
She noticed him watching them. "You were lovers. Boyfriends, whatever. I know that. You were his first, and you must know how big a thing that was to him." She took his free hand in both of hers. "Honestly. There were days I wanted to hunt you down and kill you for spoiling him like you must've, and other days I wanted to sit down and ask your advice on what I should do with him."
Michael smirked. "Unless Billy completely changed, the answer to that was always to hear him out, let him rant, then go and do what you already knew was best."
She smiled sadly and nodded, making the flower on her lapel bob. "Men never do grow up, do they?"
He shrugged. "I used to think that." He pulled Jeremy a little closer to his side. "Kelly, thank you so much for saying something to me. I'm... 'Happy' isn't the right word. 'Pleased' to meet you, but that sounds awful too. I can't use any words that make this sound like a good thing."
Michael smiled and settled for taking her hand again. "You'll never know what it meant to me to come back to Louisville again, even for this. I've been away forever and I shouldn't have.
"You were right, what you said. Billy really was the best, and I definitely can say I'm happy to find out he met the right person, met you, and I'm glad he had a good life after all."
"Thank you for coming, Michael." She laughed a little and added "You too, Jeremy. Bill never knew a stranger."
Michael glanced at his watch a second and cleared his throat. "For the thing at your house-"
"No, that's okay, you have another long drive back, I know. And you surely wouldn't know anyone there except Don and Mary Jo. I understand." She turned her head toward the foyer, searching for something. "But please don't leave just yet. Where is..?"
She released him and stepped into the next room, touching Don's sleeve and making him turn and totter slightly, then going around a corner toward the back of the house.
Michael looked down at the monitor again in time to see a picture of an older, slightly heavier, Billy and a younger Kelly posed in front of a church. The Unitarian downtown, he thought, and they were surrounded by family and friends tossing rice over their heads. Billy was grinning from ear to ear.
"I don't know what she's doing," he said to Jeremy in a low voice. "I don't want to hang around much longer. We'll get out of here and get you ho-" He stopped, and felt the boy follow his gaze to see what had caught his tongue.
Not only had his tongue quit on him, though; what he saw finally put his struggling heart to rest.
It was weird, to feel that peaceful calm come over him once again, like it had on the deck Friday night. But there it was.
Kelly stood at the corner of the doorway, and at the end of her arm followed an anxious boy of twelve or thirteen, in a too-big dark blue blazer and black tie. He had long neat blond hair, inquisitive eyes and a beautiful complexion, and he was Billy reborn.
Kelly led the boy to Michael and Jeremy. "This is Bill's and my son, Bradley," she said to them, as if it could possibly be anyone else.
"Bradley, meet Michael and... Jeremy." Bradley looked up and put his hand out for both of them to take in turn.
"It's 'Brad,' mom," he drawled. "I'm glad to meet you, sir," he said to Michael, then reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a white business envelope. "This is you?" he asked, flipping its face around so the printed name and address were readable.
"Yes," Michael answered, feeling on the verge of tears once again. He thought he'd done pretty well so far, all things considered, not giving in to the temptation to let loose with the waterworks. But. Seeing Billy standing there within arm's reach again threatened to completely undo the promises he'd made himself.
"Go ahead," his mother prompted. The kid nodded and formally handed over the envelope. Michael took it from him. For some obscure reason very conscious of Kelly standing so close and watching, he forced himself not to stare at Brad. It wasn't easy.
"You don't have to open it now," Kelly explained, taking his attention. "But so long as everyone was coming anyway, I thought we could avoid possibly losing them in the mail. It's personal," she added.
"Thank you," he repeated, unsure what it even was he was being given.
"You're welcome." She let go of her son's arm and backed toward the doorway. "When you're in Louisville again, please come and see us, both of you. Good-bye." She walked into the other room to join her in-laws.
Michael turned back to Brad and stated, "You are... the spitting image of your father, you know that." He touched the corner of his eye. Nope, it was dry.
"Yeah-" The boy started to return his smile, but checked himself and sobered his expression. In that moment Michael saw Billy even more clearly than before. Brad was doing his best to be solemn and act the adult, but the urge to be a kid, get on with things and quit talking so low, was obviously strong. Billy'd been the same way in school assemblies and in front of teachers.
"Yessir. That's what people say," Brad finally agreed. "He was a great dad. A lot of guys... Eh, T.M.I." He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and looked down.
Michael nodded. "No it's not. I know what you mean. Mine's nothing to brag about. Yours was, you were lucky." Michael worried the edge of the envelope with his finger as they talked. What was in there?
Brad said "So... You knew my dad."
"He was my best friend, a long long time ago."
"A lot of people did. Knew him, I mean. Not just a long time ago."
"I remember." Michael stuffed the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket, to make himself stop playing with it. "I've been telling Jeremy how well he got along with everyone, once they knew him."
Brad looked from Michael to Jeremy. "You didn't know him?"
Jeremy stepped up. "No, but I've heard a lot of good stuff about him. I wish I had."
"I thought you were one of the computer geeks he does-" Brad looked angry with himself, and brushed his hair behind his ear. "Did business with. They all look alike. I'm not gonna be a geek," he said, "Not smart enough."
Michael asked "You want to work in computers?"
Brad shook his head. "My grades aren't good enough to get into anything advanced. It's no biggie."
"Did your dad know?"
"There were more important things to worry about the past year."
Fair enough. "Not that it's really any of my business..." Michael started to say.
"Yeah?" the boy said, looking at him curiously.
"Your dad, we were pretty close, and I know some things about him that maybe even your mom couldn't tell you." Brad nodded, and Michael could feel Jeremy's eyes on him, no doubt wondering what the hell he was about to say.
"It was, um, nineteen-eighty, I think... Give me a second," Michael said, squinting.
He thought back to an afternoon he and Billy spent behind the locked door of his bedroom. Having fun, or trying. Nothing more, not yet. Billy's stomach and the front of his Levi's and Michael's fist wet, searching for the Kleenex-
Jesus, the story. Get on with it!
"Your, um, your grandparents," he started hurriedly. "Don and Mary Jo tried a long time to get your dad into the Advanced Program, and when they finally did he hated it. We treated him pretty badly, 'cause we'd all been friends so long. But he never gave up, and he finally made it in.
"Only once he was there, he couldn't get into any of the clubs the AP students usually did. He hated it, but there wasn't a problem until we got to high school, and then he really wanted into the chess club. It wasn't even an academic club, so he couldn't figure why they kept turning him down. Then one day-"
Working himself into his anger, his face flushed, the handjob wasted, stomping naked back and forth, Michael afraid someone would hear-
"-Uh, he told me our counselor told him the only reason he was in AP at all was because of some quota Jefferson County had, to let guys 'like him' in."
Brad was shaking his head. "God, he never told me that."
"I don't even know if it was true, the counselors were all assh- heh, jerks.
"Billy could be twice as smart as the rest of us, only he wasn't always the most focused, and his grades suffered. He gave a lot of attitude sometimes too. He was never the most popular with our teachers, and a lot of the AP teachers were team coaches.
"But the day he told me that, he was so mad he wouldn't sit down, and he swore that he'd show them up some way."
"Wow, god. Who'd ever think Dad was dumb?" With a bemused look on his face, Brad sat down at one side of the aisle. "I mean, he was like brilliant!"
"I know. Halfway through the year he got his chance, and won a contest in the Courier-Journal coming up with an idea for an educational computer game. He'd gotten a Commodore, I think, and he was crazy about those old text-based story games. I hated them, they were like word problems in Math class.
"Anyway, he won, and the prize was that your school got something, not you. From this one toy store, and he picked the most deluxe electronic chess game they had."
"The principal said something in front of the whole school, and they put his name in the Courier-Journal. And..."
"What? They let him in."
"Right. They offered to let Billy join-"
"And he turned them down!"
Michael shook his head no. "He took it. And he helped win most of our matches for the rest of that year."
"Wow." Brad looked like someone had just told him his father spent years being a circus clown or a British secret agent. For a split second and no more, Michael let his spirits lift, knowing no one else had ever been privileged enough to know that story. Surely if so the boy would have heard it by now.
He finished. "When Billy turned them down, was when they asked him back the next year. His winning streak was too late to get us a title freshman year, but he knew he could have if he reupped. So he chose not to. He finally got to make his point."
Brad appeared to still be absorbing the story. Michael wasn't sure he'd had a solid reason for passing it on, but he was fairly sure Billy would want him to. He hoped so. It was tragic, if true, that he hadn't known his son wanted to follow in his dorky footsteps.
He felt a poke in his ribs on his left side. "Good job, man," Jeremy whispered.
Brad stood up from his seat, and put his hand out for Michael to shake. His chin was trembling but he was smiling, and seemed to be standing a little taller than before.
"Thanks for coming, sir. Thank you for the story."
"I'm glad I thought of it. I think your dad would be proud to see you kick some ass in his name."
The three of them said their goodbyes, then Michael watched as Brad walked out to the foyer to join his mom and grandparents. They paused in their conversation as he approached. He was gesturing and animatedly telling them something, probably the story.
Mary Jo looked across the room at Michael and Jeremy through her eyeglasses and said something to Don. Uh oh. If they'd wondered who he was before, they knew now. Would they come over?
He closed his eyes and took a breath. Talking to either of the Shepherds right now... No way.
"Are you ready?" he asked Jeremy.
"Any time," the boy said.
He took one last look down at the plain urn on its stand, so small. All that was left of a man he'd loved with all his heart. A last remembrance? To think of what it held, and everything that had once been to him. The universe.
He was ready. "Let's go."
Michael steered them down the aisle to the opposite end of the room, and they exited through the doors closest to the front of the house. As Jeremy pulled his jacket on Michael scratched their names in the register by the big double front doors.
"Faster," he whispered. He saw the little group standing at the back of the foyer still gathered around Brad. He waved and Jeremy did the same.
"Thank you for coming, Michael," he heard Kelly call to him. "You too, Jeremy."
Michael looked up at them. Two were waving back, smiling, and two were defiantly not. Those two faces, aged versions of the ones long filed in his memory, were locked in frowns. In fact he noticed they both seemed to be focusing their disapproval on-
Oh. Of course.
Jeremy. It had to be the teenager at his side, the innocent babe in the letterman's jacket and the new clothes. If it hadn't been for him... He wondered what their reaction would have been if he'd shown up with an eighteen-year-old girl instead.
Their son had reformed, gone the straight and narrow path, married and reproduced. But here Michael stood, corrupting yet another youth as he probably had been doing all his life.
He realized that as scared as he'd been of seeing his own mother and father, Michael had feared running into Billy's just as much. Possibly more. His own parents spread the blame for what happened pretty evenly between them both. Billy's had blamed Michael alone, and their little boy not at all. All that anger still.
And as Jeremy said, over nothing. Well to hell with them.
In another lifetime, and certainly before his new bout of discretion, he'd have given them both the finger and taken off. Who the fuck were they to judge him, now or ever?
As it was he was still tempted, but not in front of Kelly and Brad, not today.
Shit. Being good hurt too much.
He smiled and waved to them again briefly, slipped into his coat, took Jeremy's arm, and kissed him full on the lips.
Jeremy, smart as he was, opened his mouth and let Michael's tongue all the way in. It lasted about ten seconds altogether.
He heard the old fart say something quietly outraged to his wife - though not the words - and Michael knew it was time to leave. He let Jeremy go and tugged at the dooknob until it released. They stepped out onto the porch and into the deepening afternoon.