I’ll come right to the point, since we have so little precious time left: I hate you with a passion. I want you dead. I can hardly forgive myself for coming here after all these years. But you’re the only remaining connection to my dead son, so here I am. On your doorstep. In the flesh. Pleased to make your acquaintance.
Flesh. Sins of the flesh. Thoughts of men coupling. I can hardly get myself around the mechanics of it.
My skin revolts. My gorge rises. My eyes go blind. This is not the purpose of a man’s body. This is not the reason I sired a son. I brought him on earth to cure cancer, to make me proud, to sire my grandsons, and because I didn’t know anything better to do and I wanted to sleep with his mother.
“You disgust me,” I blurt.
“This is nonsense,” you say. “This fixation with mechanics.”
“I want to understand how you yield to one another. I don’t get it. These are mechanics I truly don’t understand. How is it you aren’t crushed? What’s left of you?”
You promise to send me links you assure me will assist my enfeebled imagination.
I pretend to be shocked. But of course, I’ve already been there. I’ve forced myself to watch. To see what you have done to my son. It’s just pornography after all. Mostly free. $34.99 a month for the good stuff.
I ask whether you and my son made such films.
“I was never so handsome. He could have. Men offered him money. They’d have given him the chance. He was so beautiful.”
“Don’t push me too far,” I warn.
You look as if you’re considering whether I might want a hug. You’re obviously not instinctively opposed to it. Not needing any yourself, but essential generous. Giving. Smug. Oblivious to the disconnect. The imbalance. Young people are so damn sure of themselves. I actually envy the little twerps, and I admire them: products of politically correct language and bicycle helmets and helicopter parents.
“Come in,” you say. “Leave your shoes at the door. Sand. Salt.”
This is a house money bought. This is tidy. Hardwood floors can suffer — sand; salt. I never kept a place so fancy in all my years.
Was there life insurance? Doubtful, so young. But maybe life insurance bought this house. Why am I so grudging about it? Cranky old bastard. I dare not ask whether you’ve found someone else. Maybe several someones. Who knows how you roll? None of my business, right?
You give me a tour of the premises, as if I’m some swish houseguest at one of your fancy dinner parties. Kitchen. Parlor. (That’s what you call it: a “parlor.” I imagined “parlour.” I give you an English accent because it seems to fit, though you were raised in south Bend, from what my internet research tells me.)
I am inside you. I am inside this house. I am inside this lair. It’s nothing like how I imagined it. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I hadn’t cared to imagine anything at all, preferring a vague vision of a place where something terrible happened, some dark and cobwebbed place where birds never sang and nothing ever grew green. In fact, the rooms are crammed with teacups and orchids and books and art I don’t understand and some modern exercise device for which I have no name. I long to break and shatter every object. To grind them to dust. No anger in it. Just a sullen belief I could spit in the dust, and rub the spittle into mud, and from the mud make a man.
My son’s photograph hangs among others on the wall of the stairwell. I had never witnessed an expression on his face as unguarded as this. It alarms and infuriates me that at the moment of this shot, he was unaware of what lay ahead. In his innocence, he was taken advantage of.
He needs a haircut, I think.
Then I think, Different times.
I think, I should have come here sooner.
In a heartbeat, all sorts of unwanted excuses and weak concessions flood my brain. No, I cannot accept these. I’m a man. A man must have anger. That’s what makes a man: his anger, his pride. Straight from my old man to me, and from me to my son, and so on.
Though, of course, there was no so on. There was only you. God help us. Only you.
I stall at the bedroom threshold.
“This is where you did it?” I ask. “My son and you.”
You look startled. You laugh and run a hand through your hair, which isn’t as full as it once was. That’s a cheap satisfaction, but also a strange derangement, because your receding hairline made what happened to my son happen when you were young, and you aren’t young anymore, and my son is clearly in grave danger of being forgotten, notwithstanding his photograph, which must fade in its frame.
“Oh, no,” you say. “Not here. We didn’t have enough money for a place like this. Stayed back away from the beach. Little motel on Bradford Extension. Not even there any more. Redeveloped for second homes. That and under the dock.”
“You have money now?”
A thin film of darker color shades your irises. The cruelest thing would have been to announce I’m moving to fag-town forever, buying a place just down the street. That would really throw you off your game, because there was no way anyone could be this forgiving for always, even someone like you, who isn’t quite a man at all.
“Enough,” you say guardedly.
“I didn’t come for your money,” I say. “Who do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know you, Mr. Richman.”
“Call me Ed.”
“I don’t know you, Ed. You never let us know you,” he adds gently.
I immediately regret having given him my first name.
The bedroom window overlooks the harbor. Shoulder to shoulder, we overlook the harbor. The tide is out. Mud flats reach nearly to the far side of the harbor. The mud is fog-shrouded, and from the fog comes a small army of dark forms with pitchforks and buckets, like some medieval mob after witches and wizards.
“They’ve come to give me what I deserve,” I mumble.
“Clams,” you explain. “Clamming season. Fridays and Sundays. I have some,” you offer brightly. “From Friday. It doesn’t take long. In broth, seasoned so, dipped in butter, running down the chin.”
“Don’t think you can butter me up,” I warn.
You laugh at the pun.
Your yard is fenced in at both ends. Gated at street and ocean. Locked, the gates would be a fire hazard. A trap. Vines run rampant at one boundary, and big swishes of beach grass at the other. Between them are lots of faded lawn furniture, the ruined dregs of plant pots, and a few scattered Mums, which remind me of graves.
You’re staring at the lush ear hair I can no longer see to pluck due to failing eyesight. I’ve become vain as you, now, when I’ve precious little to justify it and less reason: so little hope of getting laid. The cold damp of sunrise is still in my knees after noon. Old age sucks.
Least satisfying thing of all? You’ve not yet taken offense to a word I’ve said. There’s no edge to the young anymore. No pride. No honor. (Honour?) No Jimmy Dean. They’re all now like people from California, who grow soft and ripe in all that sun. They have nothing to bang up against. How can you ever have a good air-clearing row with someone who is forever trying to understand, no, validate your feelings? It’s perverse. Frustrating. Makes you want to wring necks of chickens.
“Why exactly are you here, Ed?” you finally ask.
You want me to show my cards. I want to shake apart with grief. To forgive you is to forget him. My hatred of you is more alive to me than my son ever was.
You remind me quietly that neither of you knew who got infected first. Never asked. What difference would it make? How would blame help?
I can’t make sense of anyone with such a puny sense of justice. My outrage is outsized. I long to put it all in the balance, and I’d never flinch from the result, come what may.
“He got sick first,” you say. “Symptomatic, I mean. Mine came later. That made all the difference. Science is a slow process, but it was fast enough for me.”
“That alone’s reason enough to hate you,” I point out. “You survived.”
“Do you really hate me, Ed?”
I hate my fists, which are now useless for fighting. I hate my tongue, which says things that betray me. I hate my yearning, which exhausts me.
“I’d give my front teeth for upbeat untroubled young people to hang out with, but I’ve already given ‘em to God.” Tonguing my dentures, I say, “The tooth fairy is wasted on the young.”
“I thought you hated fairies,” you say.
I resist laughing. I assure you I’m laughing on the inside. I assure you I’m dead serious. Shadows of my son are everywhere: a painting of his, a notebook, a French press, a shirt in the closet I recognize. How can you part with a single belonging of his? How can you not burn it all up? Each choice is intolerable.
Again observing the army of clammers, you say, “Do you see way back there, beyond the clammers, beyond the fog, between the point and the edge of the incoming tide? It’s almost a half-mile out or more.”
I nod because my eyes aren’t that good. I let you tell me what to see because I’ve forgotten my glasses, which I’m too vain to wear in public.
Almost as if it’s in another world, you describe a windsurfer with a brilliant sail, and a skillful rider in a black wetsuit, and jets of spray where it cuts through the whitecaps, and every once in awhile, you say, the windsurfer skips above the wave, and a little glance of sun shows between the board and the water, so bright and piercing, you have to look away.
“You see that?”
Nodding, I pretend to see what you see, and I look away, and that makes you satisfied.