Saint Agnes House by Justin Carmickle
“‘How much work can sitting with an old man possibly be?’ Ian’s mother…”
A Lonely, Cold Place by Barbara Harroun
“I rise in the dark brutality of mid-February, feel for my slippers, grope for my warm, parka-like robe and cinch it at my waist…”
Built to Sink Biannually by Jaap Kemp
“Our ideals were at once immortal and despondent, seeking the sense of perpetuity that only death can afford…”
Tusk by David Nelson
“I knew there was nothing to say. You kept glancing down the line, then looking over at me to see if I’d caught you…”
The Good Sentinel by Alex Pruteanu
“Many years later, as he stepped up to the gallows…”
Ghostland Blues by Billy Wallace
“I can tell that Bennie’s no townie. He wants to smoke, but doesn’t want to leave his drink…”
The Ninety Day Wonder by Judy Bolton-Fasman
“Decades after he was in the Navy, when I was no more than six or seven years-old, my father tracked the weather as if he were still on the bridge of his supply ship…”
HG Pieces by Michael Levan
“Over the next three days, he realizes his life is ruled / by numbers…”
Plumb from a String: An Essay in Nine Sutures by Connor O’Neill
“It was something like the sound of two clocks ticking just out of sync, my brother’s bandages being cut….”
Dead Animal Farm by L.B. Thomas
“The goat screamed all night. It sounded like a human child yelling at the top of its lungs…”
How Not to Spell Gymnasium by Roy Bentley
“As for the rest, they spat consonants and vowels
in correct order while I was…”
Tucson in the Future by Kayla Rae Candrilli
“In the time it takes to fly across
the desert again…”
Girl in the Cave by Tasha Cotter
“For years, the messages go unanswered…”
Life in Outer Space by Tasha Cotter
“The people vowed never to leave…”
After Eden: Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town by Karl Plank
“After Eden he made his way to Pennsylvania
tracing the coal seam with bruised feet…”
Still Life with Pronoun and Scalpel by Christina Stoddard
“With this blade, I must trim you…”
Saint Agnes House
“How much work can sitting with an old man possibly be?” Ian’s mother, Yolanda, said to him. “It’ll give you some cash, get you out of the house.” Having abandoned grad school the year before, Ian wasn’t in the position to reject the part-time job at the rectory. And it was noncommittal: while Father Effie’s sister ran errands and did her volunteer work, Ian would sit with the partially senile, arthritic priest. Originally they’d asked his mother, but she was too busy cleaning the lower levels of Saint Agnes House which consisted of the residence of the acting priest, and the rectory offices. Father Effie and his sister lived on the top level.
“He’s never to be out of your sight,” the priest’s sister, Blanche, explained on the first day. “Leave him alone and he’ll turn on the oven, leave the house, you name it. Once he made it five blocks to the Piggly Wiggly. Found him praying with a checkout girl.”
Ian did find some relief: the old man was capable of wiping himself and was not one of those violent dementia victims who loved to strike and claw. Monday through Thursday he sat with Father Effie from noon until five, during which hours Father Effie’s favorite pastimes were Chinese checkers and listening to the old turntable that sat in the corner of the musty old den, opposite Father Effie’s recliner. Ian would hold one record after another in front of the man’s face, like middle school flashcards, until finally he would lift an arthritic hand and croak, “Yes, that’s the one.” Eventually, Ian stopped pointing out the many options in the rather eclectic collection—Koko Taylor, Lightin’ Hopkins, Ma Rainey—because Effie was only ever interested in listening to someone named Cecil Baldwin.
It was as though Father Effie had picked the most obscure musician on Earth and said, “I’ll spend an eternity listening to that!” Only three out of what Ian estimated to be hundreds of albums belonged to this Cecil: Tennessee Tyrant, Brother Call Me Home, and one simply titled Live Recordings. After Googling the man, Ian discovered these were his only albums and that he was still alive, born 1940, which would put him around Father Effie’s age. There was only one somewhat out of focus photo to be found, a black and white Cecil smiling on a shadowed stage, his teeth big and straight in his small black face. He’d lived and mostly performed in Chicago at small joints, disappeared by 1970. His albums were nowhere online. One day, while Father Effie’s sister Blanche was laying out the food Ian was to warm up for lunch, Ian blurted, “What did Father Effie do before he became, you know, a priest?”
“Oh, before he entered the seminary,” she said, stacking the plastic containers next to the microwave, “he studied music, mostly piano.”
“University of Chicago.” She narrowed her eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“Curiosity, I guess.” Perhaps he had seen this Cecil play while in Chicago. Ian started to ask more, but Blanche wagged her old lady finger at him.
“You’re not writing his memoirs.” She shook her head, her gaggle of skin swaying beneath her chin like a chicken’s. Still eyeing Ian, she pulled a shawl over her shoulders. She stepped into the handicapped elevator that was next to the staircase in the foyer, which divided the den and formal living room. “This is a small town, you should try being a bit more private with your life.” Just as the elevator door was closing, called, “See to it he eats the entire bowl of pea soup!”
Ian doubted anyone liked pea soup, and sure enough, Father Effie only poked at it for about an hour till Ian threw it away. “I wouldn’t eat that either.”
“My dear sister believes in soup like a doctor in penicillin,” Effie said. “She seems to think it’ll keep me going forever. The Energizer Bunny.”
“Let’s see what we have,” Ian called over his shoulder and opened the refrigerator. He located some thinly sliced ham, a block of cheese. “Ham and cheese? Mayo or mustard?”
“Mayo, of course.”
Ian nodded and prepared the sandwich, smearing an extra layer of mayonnaise across one of the bread slices, their secret “screw you” to Blanche. He sliced the sandwich into two triangles, took it into the den along with a glass of sweet tea. When he placed the food on the small, circular table to Effie’s right, Ian said, “I used real sugar in the tea. Don’t go crazy on me, all right?”
Father Effie chuckled and picked up his sandwich, at first nibbling at the corners like a rabbit, then taking a bigger bite. He then turned his head to the music, his chin seeming to rise and fall along with the beat.
Feeling claustrophobic in the stale room, Ian went to one of the big windows that lined one side of the den. Beyond the windowpane the sky was milk white and dry, the drizzle having stopped about an hour before. He noticed the other houses on the street were all one level, dwarves compared to Saint Agnes House. It was the largest house in Loogootee, the green shuttered, red brick mammoth kissing the sky at four stories,
“When was this place built?” Ian yanked the window open with a squeak, craned his head out and stared at the small yard below.
“What?” Effie asked. After a moment, he muttered, “Oh, 1880 or thereabouts. Long time ago, eh?”
“It’s kind of gaudy, I think. The size of it, I mean.”
Loogootee was so small Ian thought if he squinted he might be able to make out the house he shared with Francisco. He placed his right pointer finger in front of him, covering the town square which was just a few blocks over. He saw his mother leave the house and walk along the sidewalk, toting a black garbage bag. She hefted the bag into the plastic dumpster at the curb, and stood for a moment. When she waved up at Ian with a smile, he left the window. She looked too pleased with herself, having put him to work as a babysitter.
“Will you just be quiet and walk?” Francisco was behind Ian, hands over Ian’s eyes, leading him from the bedroom into the hallway.
“Excuse me, we were having a conversation!”
“Bitching. You were bitching about your job.”
“All I’m saying it is that it’s kind of dull—”
“Careful, bonito,” Francisco said, steering Ian from some paint cans that were at the middle of the hall, in front of the spare bedroom.
The master bedroom and kitchen were the only finished rooms in the house.
Francisco and Ian had been living together for just over a year, but up until a few months before they’d lived in a rental. Then Fran, who worked as a contractor for a man amiably known as Fat Tony, bought this small bungalow on contract. “A fixer upper,” he called it, smiling broadly. At twenty-six, it was the first home Fran had lived in that he or his family owned. And need fixing it did. The spare bedroom had so many tiny holes in the walls it looked as though a demonic child had run about punching his fists through the plaster. The paint in nearly every room was faded and peeling like sunburned skin. A good deal of the woodwork was warped and scratched, totally ruined, which actually gave Fran a good deal of pleasure since working with wood was his forte. On Fat Tony’s crew, Fran was the “floor specialist,” which Ian often teased him about again and again, whispering in bed, “Tell me about floors, baby, it gets me so hot.”
“Watch out for the lumber,” Francisco warned, hands still over Ian’s eyes.
“You built a sex dungeon, didn’t you? I knew you were a deviant, that the pretty Catholic boy was just a ploy to lure—”
“You talk too much.” Francisco shifted his hands so that one covered Ian’s eyes, the other his mouth. “Much better.”
Over the course of three months Fran had gradually remodeled first the kitchen, then the bedroom, with only the help of two cheaply paid Amish teens. Now the bathroom was nearly complete with its glimmering porcelain and gray tile, which Fran had insisted Ian pick out, saying it was his home too, a sentiment that greatly pleased and yet confused Ian.
Francisco’s hands were rough against Ian’s face. He reached up and briefly touched a hand against Fran’s, liking the warmth. Suddenly his shoes made a squeaking noise and he knew they were in the kitchen, on the new linoleum. With each improvement Fran made to the house, Ian was reminded that his boyfriend was practically building a home with his own two hands, while Ian had never built or stuck with anything. Not graduate school, certainly not with a man. As his relationship with Fran neared the eighteen month mark, it was the longest he had ever been in. The newness around him gave him chills.
“Ta-da!” Francisco released his hands.
Ian took a second to adjust his vision to the bright kitchen light. Next to the table was a circular metal cage with a five foot girth standing on a pedestal that made it eye level; inside was a blue, yellow, and green macaw parrot, its beak black against the shocking white of its face. “What the hell?”
“It’s Bradley. This old Bolivian woman, we’re remodeling her house. And she, what’s the word? She bequeathed it to me.”
“Why would she do that?”
Francisco shrugged. “Liked my smile.”
Ian finally took his eyes off the bird and looked at Francisco.
Francisco waved his hands about. “What was I supposed to do? Let it loose?”
“That’s one option!”
“That’s terrible, Ian.”
Ian plunked down on a kitchen chair. Bradley was doing a little dance where he lifted one claw and placed it back onto the perch, then the other, all the while bobbing his head up and down. It looked like when a person over forty tried dancing, moving to music they didn’t recognize. Finally done, Bradley shook himself, feathers making a swooshing sound. At last he spoke directly to Ian, “Mother.”
“Lord!” Ian shrieked, wide eyes. “What did that thing call me?”
“Lord!” Bradley squawked. “Lord! Mother.”
Francisco was bent over the sink, shaking. He was laughing. Ian pointed at the bird. “Francisco, do you have any idea how long those things live? It’s a major life commitment, like having a goddamn child.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. It’s just a pet, for fun. He’s real cute.” Francisco grinned. “When I was a boy I always took our chickens as my pets. I’d chase them around the house, playing tag.”
“You played with chickens?” Ian fought back a smile.
“It was Nogales! My aunts and uncles had dirt floors, with our wood floor we were rico!” He looked suddenly sorrowful. “Then mi madre would take them like this,” Francisco said, his fists in front of him twisting in opposite directions, “and wring their necks. She never chopped their heads off, no way, because once she did and the thing ran around the backyard spraying blood all over her and the clothes on the line. ‘That chicken ruined my sheets,’ mi madre always said to visitors, ‘Now, I wring their necks. No sangre eso manera!’”
Francisco touched Ian’s hair. “Look, we’ll give him a few days to grow on you. If he doesn’t, we’ll find him another home. But I’m thinking you two will be best friends in no time.”
The next day was a Sunday and Francisco had to lay tile in the Bolivian woman’s bathroom, even though he hated to work on Sundays. Ian sat reading in the living room, surrounded by unfinished walls of plasterboard. He was making his way through early Modernism, and was currently engrossed by Lawrence’s Women in Love. He found the nude male wrestling fabulously queer. But every so often he would hear Bradley coo, “Mother,” or more often squawk it. He didn’t limit his ranting to this, though, and once Ian heard the bird say, “Guinea Pig for lunch again!” and “Teatime!” Eventually he slapped the book onto the coffee table and went into the kitchen to the bird. “Mother,” it squawked, then flapped down to the bottom of the cage to the food bowl filled with seeds and nuts. He picked up a pecan in his claw and lifted it to his black beak, nibbled like an old lady.
“Do I look like your mother?” Ian poured a glass of water and took a long gulp. From the window he could see into the neighbor’s backyard, their swimming pool and tacky tiki torches. The two small girls were swimming about, pink plastic floats attached to their arms. Maybe they’d like a parrot. Ian rinsed the glass, placed it in the dish drainer.
All around him were things he and Francisco had bought together: the table and chairs, the mini-blinds, even the glass he’d just drank from. It was all so permanent. He recalled a few nights before how Francisco had gushed to his madre about Ian. When Ian brought this up later, Francisco had blushed, lowered his eyes. Ian had felt scared.
Luckily the cage was on wheels—a rolling carriage for his highness. Ian told the bird, “Before someone brings something like you home, it’s a given you talk about it.”
He pushed Bradley and his cage into the spare bedroom and closed the door.
Ian was grateful Father Effie babbled less than the bird. In fact, aside from occasional moments, he seemed fairly with it. Much of the second week unfolded similarly to the first: Ian would play checkers with him, and when he lapsed into the mush of his brain Ian would play both sides and let the man win. There were daily jam sessions with Cecil Baldwin, during which Ian would sit in the corner and watch Effie, looking for the slightest change in his demeanor. Typically Father Effie just sat and listened, but once, he closed his eyes and said, “Listen to that voice. It’s the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.” The sun had been shining on his face, and Ian thought that for the first time the priest looked like more than a corpse. He looked alive.
At two o’clock Ian would heat up whatever sludge Blanche had prepared, her efforts in the kitchen minimal and limited to goopy soups and miniature sandwiches with awful pimento cheese spread between buns hard as croutons. By the third week Ian was simply stuffing Blanche’s food down the garbage disposal and feeding Effie chicken breast he’d brought from home, or even pizza, which made the priest’s pale face crinkle like a piece of paper unfolded from the trash.
“The air is good for you,” Ian said one afternoon. He pulled the windowpanes in the den up, allowing the June air to waft in, billow the blue cotton curtains.
The record player popped. Side B of Brother Call Me Home had finished. Ian returned the record to its sleeve and said, “Do we really need to listen to another? Why not Miles Davis? Bitches Brew? Father, you’ve got to admit, he’s so much better than this dude.”
“What do you know about music?” Father Effie said, matter-of-factly, staring toward one of the open windows. “Just play it again.”
“Cecil Baldwin it is then.” With a pst the record began to turn. “I’ve practically memorized these three albums.”
“I did a long time ago.” Father Effie shifted in his chair, lips moving silently to Baldwin’s singing.
Ian sat on the couch with a thud, put his feet up. “Does that sister of yours ever let you out of this cave? She ever take you for walks? To the park?” Ian sighed, and said, “Of course not. Lord if she did, she’d eat a child.” He lay there for several minutes, pleased the room’s odors were clearing out. It was surprising the bird had begun stinking up their house so soon. Francisco’s house. Ian had to keep reminding himself.
The cordless in the kitchen rang. “Hello?”
“Oh, Ian, thank goodness you picked up!” Blanche said breathlessly. “I was so worried you wouldn’t.”
“Are you OK? You sound, I don’t know, out of breath.”
“I’m at the hospital, reading. I always do that twice a week as you know. You did know, I assume? Anyway, I remembered I forgot to give Father Effie his Plavix. He needs it for his heart.”
“Gotcha. Where is it?”
“In the kitchen, on top of the fridge. It’s in the little container that has all the pills for the whole week,” she wheezed. “Do you see it?”
Ian lied, “Sure, right here it is.”
“Give it to him with a glass of water. I really can’t believe I forgot it this morning. I never forget his medications.”
Dozens of pill bottles lined the sink. When he was a boy sometimes he’d place two Tylenol and a glass of water on his mother’s night stand, the morning’s armor against the previous night’s partying. “I could take a look in the mornings, make sure each day’s capsule is empty.” Ian paused, not wanting to be too helpful to the old woman. “If you want.”
“Really? Oh, well.” Her voice softened. “That would help a lot, my old brain and all.”
Ian liked her better when she lost her composure. “No problem. Getting the Praxis now.” He took the container down from the refrigerator.
“Good, good. I really must go. Reading calls!”
The line went dead.
“You’re welcome,” Ian muttered, as he popped the pill from the container. He took the pill and a glass of water to Father Effie. “I think your sister has a soft spot for me, wants me to start calling her Granny. Drink up.”
“If you do that, God help you.”
Ian sat on the sofa for a moment, but soon grew tired of the music that had become like an elevator jingle, never-ending, tolerable yet annoying hell. He decided to tell Effie about Francisco bringing home the bird.
“What type of name is Francisco?” Father Effie asked.
“Mexican. He’s a Catholic, like you.”
“Good. There is hope for him yet.” He winked then, or maybe blinked.
“Here comes that hate speech.” Ian stood and paced the room, ended up at the bookcase. He examined the books, smirking at the dull titles. Typical Evangelical hatred.
“I don’t hate anyone,” Father Effie said. The corners of his mouth lifted into a sly smile.
“You mean that, don’t you?”
“Would a man of the cloth lie?” He laughed. “Well, he would. But no, I do not hate. I do not have that in me.”
Ian believed Effie, saw that beyond the gray hair and dentures and brittle bones, there was something young and yearning pulsing through him.
When Francisco discovered Ian was putting the bird in the spare bedroom during the day, he wheeled the carriage into the living room and stood next to it, hands on his hips, fuming. “Is this how you treat an innocent bird?”
“What?” Ian asked. “I just put it in another room!”
“Parrots like attention.” He tapped at the cage. “It’s how they expand their vocabulary.”
“They don’t talk. They mimic.”
“Sure they do. Hey, Bradley. Talk. Bradley?”
“Bradley,” the bird squawked.
“See,” Francisco said smugly.
“It was just mimicking what you said.”
“Can dogs do that? Cats?” Francisco took the remote, and shut off the TV.
“Were you so pissy when your hooker boyfriend got you a gift?”
“He made adult videos.” Ian reached for the remote. “Give it.”
“He was a bastard, your ex.” Francisco put the remote in his back pocket.
“I’m missing my show.” I said. Why did gays always want to gossip about their exes?
“‘He made me feel like shit,’ that’s what you said to me when we met. I told myself I would never be like him.”
“You aren’t like him, trust me.”
Ian stood. “Stop talking about him.”
“What’s really going on with you?”
Suddenly Ian hadn’t wanted to keep dancing around the issue. It was too exhausting. “It’s not the bird, not really. Well, it’s a combination.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “On the phone, you told your mother I was the one. Then you bring home this thing that is going to live for another fifty years. And you’re remodeling this house, and asking me which color I want the kitchen to be. Do you see?”
The next few days Ian and Francisco didn’t talk much, especially not about that conversation. Or the bird. But Francisco did plenty of talking, Ian discovered, with Ian’s mother, Yolanda. She left voicemail after voicemail, saying, “Ian, you better not screw this up, he’s good for you. He’s not like the others,” and “You know I love you, Son, but you’re being an idiot. You two need to talk to each other.” On and on. Ian had been deleting them, not calling back.
Yolanda tried to confront Ian in person, waiting for him in the foyer of the main entrance to Saint Agnes House. A bucket on wheels and mop were at her side. She had her arms crossed over her bleach stained T-shirt. “You haven’t been returning my messages. You’re avoiding me.”
“Like the plague.” Ian rushed past, nearly slipping on the wet floor.
“Watch the floor! I just mopped that.” She grabbed the tail of his shirt. “Hey, what has gotten into you? Fran is really upset and—”
“And the most dramatic person alive. A drama queen.”
“He’s the drama queen?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.” Ian pointed at the floor. “Mother, you missed a spot.”
Before she could reply he hurried up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time.
That day, only hallway through his pizza, Father Effie drifted off. Or Ian hoped he was sleeping. Ian snapped his fingers next to Effie’s head, praying he hadn’t died on his watch. He snapped his fingers again, and this time his head shot up.
“What?” Father Effie said. “What were you saying a minute ago?”
“That it’s awful working in the same perimeter as my mother. I guess what I have to say puts you right to sleep.”
“If I wanted to hear someone complain, I’d go with my sister on her errands.”
“Aren’t you being catty today.” Ian smirked. “I like it.”
“I need a nap,” Father Effie mumbled. “I’m tired.”
Ian killed the record player and helped Father Effie down the hall to his bedroom. He leaned heavily against Ian, and Ian found himself thinking it was nice to be needed. When he was a boy his mother would wobble around after she’d hit the bottle all evening and night. Even though drunks are like bobble heads—they always get back up—he’d nevertheless been concerned. “I won’t let you fall,” he would say at nine or ten, or thirteen, putting her arm over his back and leading her along like a blind woman. Once Father Effie was in bed, Ian pulled the sheet and comforter up to his stomach, making sure his arms were free. His blurry eyes stared, and he gave a huge grin. Spittle pooled at the corner of his mouth.
“What are you grinning at?” Ian laughed.
“Hold to what you have. I know you think you know everything, but you’re just a little shit.”
“You’re a joker,” Ian laughed, and looked for a tissue, but there were none.
“God,” Father Effie said. The drool was running down his cheek now. “I chose to marry God.”
“An exciting marriage.” Ian took the sheet and wiped his mouth.
“Oh, I just thought of something. Go over to the closet. I have something for you, for your bird.”
“What is it?”
“It’s hanging on the left side. Parrots mate for life, you know. In a way, perhaps humans could learn from them.”
Ian opened the closet, which was a walk-in cluttered mostly with duct taped boxes labeled “Books.” They lined the shelves and floor. A silver was mirror hanging on the left-hand side of the wall, and there was a cherub in each of the four corners, their faces staring toward it, as though admiring what was being reflected. Ian took it down, turned and held the mirror up in front of him.
Father Effie sat up on his elbows. “Yes, yes. Quite beautiful, eh? It was my mother’s. She kept it near her dressing table. Since your bird has no mate, this will keep him from getting lonely.”
“I don’t know.” Ian ran his fingers along the silver frame. “It looks expensive, and it must have sentimental value.”
“I’m old.” He fell back into bed. “Time to start clearing this apartment out.” Ian nodded and placed the mirror on the floor. He looked back into the closet, at the boxes on the floor labeled “Books” and found himself curious. He stood waiting for a moment, listening for the sucking noise he knew was Father Effie sleeping, a noise that came quickly. Ian decided while he was there, he might as well take a look. What did it matter?
He peeled back the tape from one of the boxes. Walt Whitman and Yeats, Dickens and the Bronte sisters were at the top and there were multiple titles by each. But the contents at the bottom of the third box surprised him. Tattered, well-worn hardbacks. Edmund White’s autobiographical trilogy. Oscar Wilde. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Even obscure ones Ian had only heard of from one of his gay professors, like the stories The Body and Its Dangers by Allen Barnett, who apparently died of AIDS the year after he published it, his only book. He pulled out The Plays of Mart Crowley, recalling the first time he’d seen how he’d been overwhelmed by the protagonist’s self-hatred.
Ian found it amusing Father Effie was so well versed in the tawdry literature. But the books, in a way, further stirred in him the curiosity he felt about the Cecil Baldwin albums, the suspicion that Father Effie had once lived a much different life. That he had chosen to make a sacrifice, or the decision had been forced upon him.
Nothing else to do, Ian was also napping, sprawled out on the sofa in the den. He was awakened by a knock at the door. Looking through the peephole, he saw his mother, working on pulling her red hair back into a ponytail. There seemed to be more bleach spots on her shirt then just hours before. He wished she wore one of those black and white maid uniforms.
He stood still. Maybe she would go away.
“Ian,” she hissed, “I know you’re in there. Open up!”
Ian swung the door wide, stepped back and dramatically ushered Yolanda from the stairwell into the apartment. “Why are you here?”
“Relax, I know what’s her name doesn’t return till five.” Yolanda studied the formal living room. “There’s so little life in here I barely have to clean.”
“Lucky you,” Ian said from behind her. He shook his blond hair out of his eyes and sat on the Colonial sofa. “I’m busy, you know. Too busy for a follow-up lecture.” There was a Good Housekeeping on the coffee table, and he leaned in to pick it up.
“Sleeping.” Ian studied the pudgy woman on the glossy cover. GH managed to get the worst B celebrities.
“Busy, huh?” She touched the leaves of the wilting fern, dangling in the corner like an ugly chandelier. “A depressing house, isn’t it?”
“I imagine it’s a lot like a nursing home.” Ian crossed his legs. He scanned the magazine’s table of contents, read aloud, “7 Things Anyone Can Do to Be Happy.”
Ian shook the magazine at her. “This.” He flipped the pages. “You’re a wife, a mother, step-mother. Don’t you subscribe, if only for the happiness tips?” She thought she had all the answers, the key to Ian’s happiness. He wasn’t buying it, nor was he buying into the advice the magazine doled out, words undoubtedly written by a chubby virgin, ignored in her cubicle.
“Maybe you should take some advice from it yourself. I bet number one says, ‘Don’t spoil a good relationship because they’re few and far in between.’” She studied the dying fern closely.
Ian sighed. “Say it.”
“I don’t need to, but I will. You’re being an idiot with Francisco.”
“Fran got us a bird.”
“He told me.”
“Did he also tell you he told his mother I’m the one?”
“No.” She was plucking more of the leaves. “These are all brown. They’re dead.”
“Leave them.” Ian tossed the magazine back onto the coffee table. He thought about the many, many men his mother had until finally she’d found the one. Now she handed out advice like a self-help book. “What if he’s not the one? What if I keep doing the same thing like…”
“Like me?” Yolanda gave him a soft smile.
“You’re not me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Mothers know their sons.”
After a moment of silence, Ian eyed the desk in the corner, and said, “Let’s snoop.”
“Is that a good idea?”
“It’s not like Father Effie will know.”
“Fran told me you talked a little.”
“Talk, talk. So helpful.” He went through the desk drawers. “Nothing but paper clips.”
“What’s the other option? Leave? Like you did the last one.”
“He was an asshole, and you know it.” The bottom drawer was just filled with tissues, a phone book, and cough drops. Typical old person stuff.
“Yes, that’s what you say.” Yolanda crossed her arms. “Is Fran?” “Opinionated, yes. An asshole, no.”
“Mother,” Ian groaned. He motioned around him.
“There is nothing for me here!”
“That has nothing to do with Fran. That’s because you’re lazy.” She stared at him severely. “You have no direction, Ian. That’s nothing new.”
Ian led her into the kitchen. “You should see the food she wants me to feed him. Awful.”
“You scare me. Your refusal to see anything out scares me.”
Ian squatted in front of the refrigerator. “Nothing but a bunch of sludge she cooked up in her witch’s pot. Beef stew, green bean casserole, blah blah.”
“What? I wasn’t listening, sorry.”
“Yes, you were.”
“This is how I pass my days here, snooping, preparing his food, listening to those idiotic records.” He glanced up. “There’s something weird with him.”
“I’m going home. Everything’s been cleaned, I’m off the clock.”
“Don’t let me keep you, then.”
“Right. I’ll see you later,” Yolanda said, and left.
When Ian heard the click of the door, he leaned against the refrigerator door.
He sucked in a large amount of air, and then slowly exhaled. He felt his mind clear. To distract himself, Ian returned to the bedroom and closet. He worked silently so as to not wake Effie. Working without method, Ian riffled through the box, this one filled with loose photos, both Polaroids and those that had been commercially developed. He searched for a photo that would reveal something of interest, or some transgression—perhaps a naked woman, or love letters to a parishioner—that would add a bit of life to the Ian and Father Effie Happy Hour. No front page sins like molestation or selling tickets to eternal life. There were snapshots of Father Effie performing christenings, meeting some Bishop, good deeds in soup kitchens. Photos from his childhood when he’d been equally knobby and pale, Blanche still as gross as a sack of potatoes. Their parents, Christmases, birthdays, the usual memories.
Ian was about to give up, when, tucked in the bottom fold of the box, he found one last photo. He pulled it out and held it up to the light. Two men, one white and one black, with their arms around each other’s waist. It was clearly a younger, very fit Father Effie. They were on a beach, wearing loose tanks and speedos, smiling. Behind them a beach house. On the back of the photo was scrawled, E & C, Montrose Beach, 1962.
Ian couldn’t believe it. He’d wanted something juicy, something he could laugh about. An inside joke between him and Father Effie. But this? After stashing the photo in his pants pocket, he put the others away, and wasn’t sure what he should feel. What had made him walk away from Cecil, from that life? And to go to the opposite end of the Earth: the priesthood. It was so extreme, this decision, that Ian couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He stepped out of the closet and stared at the bed, feeling disoriented, short of breath. Father Effie was awake, and Ian pulled out the photo and held it in front of Effie’s face.
“Cecil?” Ian asked.
With a shaking hand, the old man reached out and gently took the photo. He wetted his lips and seemed ready to speak, but instead just placed the photo on his stomach, with his hand covering it. Ian nodded. “Okay, then. Hold onto that.”
Francisco prepared some salmon and a cranberry salad for dinner that evening, but both just picked at it with their forks, saying very little. They ate in the living room, to be closer to Bradley; Francisco had taken an old bookcase and removed the shelves, placed a metal rod in the center, a foot of chicken wire enclosing the bottom, where he’d placed old newspapers to catch the droppings. “Wine?” Ian asked, and Francisco merely shook his head. “More for me.” He poured nearly to the brim.
In his bookcase, Bradley watched them, occasionally tossing out the random word, or phrase. “What’s that he just said?” Francisco asked. He placed his plate on the coffee table.
“I was watching The L Word earlier, it’s a line from the theme song. I don’t know why he decided to parrot that one.”
“Maybe he’s a fan?”
Ian grinned, but didn’t say anything. He wanted to talk about the photo. Really, he wanted to talk about them. If they talked it out, maybe everything would be good again. It was possible. They took their dishes to the kitchen and dishwasher. Ian began to speak, but Francisco unknowingly interrupted, “By the way, a couple people I work with, Cindy and Chad—you don’t know them—are going out for drinks, and I thought I might tag along.”
“Well, I’m going to shower first.”
Ian nodded, disappointed. “How long do you think you’ll be?”
Francisco turned on the dishwasher, then looked at Ian. “Isn’t keeping track of one another like that a little too serious for you?”
“Actually, it’ll do us good to have a night apart.” Francisco moved past him. “You could watch Netflix, or read.”
That night Ian curled on his side beneath the covers, the room dark. Above the ceiling fan hummed. Always he needed a bit of noise to sedate him into sleep. The last week there had been the accompanying noise of Bradley, which to Ian’s surprise, had become so a part of the house that he no longer jumped or shuddered each time the bird squawked, spoke, or loudly ruffled his feathers. Sometimes he would wait for it in a way similar to how a person counts sheep.
Ian lay envisioning Francisco out with Chelsea and Carl, or Chris? He couldn’t remember. The two C’s. They’d gotten pitchers of wheat beer, or perhaps mixed drinks. Francisco wasn’t afraid to drink colorful drinks in public, and Ian guessed this was because he was used to growing up with manly men drinking margaritas burning with cheap tequila and salt. Once they got tipsy, they would shoot pool, or play darts. The few times they’d played darts, Francisco always tallied the score in Ian’s favor.
In angry red the alarm clock showed it was just after one in the morning. The two sole bars in Loogootee, the Wander Inn and Break Time, both closed at three. Surely they wouldn’t stay out till closing. Francisco wouldn’t be okay to drive if he did. Ian picked up his phone to make sure the ringer was on, just in case Francisco called for a ride. If he did, they would talk on the way back to the house. With alcohol Francisco became almost overwhelming with the degree of emotion he felt; Ian joked this up to his Latin heritage, which always made Francisco cartoonishly throw his hands into the air and sigh, “I’m in love with a gringo, through and through. Any passion is too much for him!”
It was after five when Ian next glanced at the clock. He checked his phone: no missed calls. He dialed Francisco. No answer. He waited perhaps five minutes, then tried again, and then once more. The fourth time Ian left a voicemail, “Fran, where are you? The bars are closed.” He paused. “Is everything all right? Give me a call.” Ian couldn’t stand the emptiness of the bedroom, being alone, so he called his mother. He knew he’d be waking her, but felt too anxious to do anything else.
When Yolanda picked up, Ian immediately began talking, telling her how Francisco had gone out and not returned. He tossed scenarios at her that sounded like bad movie plots: “What if he was in a car accident? Nobody would know to call me,” and “I did it, I drove him away. You were right, I fucked it up. He’s fucking Carl.”
“Who is Carl?” Yolanda asked tiredly. “Do I know Carl?”
“Of course you don’t know Carl! I don’t even know him.” Ian was sitting up, clenching the sheet with his free hand. “Carl isn’t important. Where is Fran?”
“Baby, calm down.”
“I am calm.” Ian padded down the hall to the living room, flipped on the light, and Bradley shook to life.
“You don’t sound it.”
“I’m up moving around.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to bother you and is sleeping one off at a friend’s.”
“He would have answered his phone.” In the kitchen, Ian poured water into a coffee mug, then placed it in the microwave. “Now I’m drinking tea. I’ll be bouncing off the walls like Bette Crackhead!”
“Maybe that’s what he’s doing, getting coffee and food. He’s at Denny’s.” She let out a long yawn. “They’re open all night.”
“Mother, he would never do that to his body.” Silence. “I just don’t know what to do.” From the living room Bradley was still repeating his favorite word, Mother, over and over. “This is so inconsiderate of him. But I can’t blame him, can I? I practically asked for this.”
The microwave dinged and Ian took out the mug. He placed a chamomile teabag into it, plus some milk. “Do you think I should try calling again?” No answer. “Mother? Hello? Are you there?”
“Mother, are you there,” Bradley mimicked.
“I think she fell asleep.” Ian said, hanging up. Then he realized he was talking to the bird, as though it could actually carry on a conversation. He sat on the sofa stirring his tea. “Lord, I’m talking to a bird.”
“Lord is right.” Ian felt himself calming. He knew Francisco was not with another man. It was embarrassing Ian had even considered it. He felt foolish, and stared at Bradley over the rim of his steaming mug. “You’re lucky you think your lover is your reflection in the mirror. What a stress-free relationship.”
“Fran,” Bradley squawked extra loudly. Ian wondered if the bird was mimicking his voice when he was annoyed with Francisco. Great, now it was two against one.
The house felt lonely. It made him think of Father Effie’s apartment, and how for hours on end there would be only silence if Ian didn’t converse at the old man, or play his records. Ian wondered if Father Effie’s old lover ever thought about him, or if there had been too many years, too many men that their time together had nearly faded. Yet, even in his muddled state, Father Effie seemed to cling to some distant memory. If a man with dementia retained flickers of their years together, or months, or whatever, Ian felt hope that the other man remembered as well. Sadly, somehow Ian knew those memories were more blurred by a life of fear than by senility.
Leaning against Bradley’s bookcase was the mirror Father Effie had given him. Ian took a hammer and nails from beneath the kitchen sink and tapped a nail into the interior of the bookcase, eye-level for Bradley when he sat on his perch. He hung the mirror, adjusting it so that it was perfectly straight.
“Bradley, where do you think Francisco has gotten to?” Bradley was already staring at his reflection. “Do you even think?”
Bradley simply ruffled his feathers, which looked as though he was shrugging. As they sat waiting, Ian supposed this was how the bird must always feel: whether flying about the rooms or sitting in his bookcase, waiting for people to enter the room and turn on the light, feed and water him, break the silence.
Around eleven that morning Ian woke to the sound of water in the adjoining bathroom. Francisco’s side of the bed did indeed look as though someone had slept there. He couldn’t even recall returning to bed, let alone when Francisco finally came home. He got out of bed and eased the bathroom door open, stared at Francisco’s narrow body behind the fogged shower door, the body he had run his hands and mouth over, had dreamed about, been so eager to please for the last year and a half.
Now he couldn’t imagine not being able to taste its saltiness, the hairs of his legs brushing against Ian’s own. He thought of the mornings Francisco would shower and then lay in bed on his stomach, smiling as Ian’s mouth left the faintest of bruises on his buttocks and across the small of his back. “Tiny kisses,” Francisco always said, turning to admire them in the bathroom mirror. The water stopped and Francisco slid back the door, saw Ian watching, and gave him a lopsided smile. “You voyeur.”
“Sorry.” He handed Francisco a towel.
“Thanks.” Francisco began to dry off. “My phone battery died last night.”
“I figured something.”
“Should have made sure I charged it before I left, I’m sorry.” Francisco stepped out of the shower, rubbing the towel against his loopy black hair. “Shitty of me.”
“It’s not a big deal.” He reached out and took the towel, stood close to Francisco, and began to dry his hair. “You’re always too rough and get it tangled.”
Ian felt Francisco’s breath on his face. It smelled of Colgate. “Do you work?”
“No, thank god. I’m too hung over.” He grabbed Ian’s arm to stop the toweling. “I crashed on Cindy’s couch. I was too far gone to drive.”
Ian nodded, placed the towel in the hamper with the dirty clothes.
“You believe me?”
“Of course.” And he did. Ian reached out and ran his hand down Francisco’s bare side. “What you said to your mother?”
“Was rushing it, rushing you—”
“No.” He kissed Francisco. “It makes me happy.” He went to the bathroom door, saying, “Now let me go make you the hangover cure. My mother’s recipe that she perfected.”
Before Ian mixed the drink, he decided to feed Bradley. Francisco always fed him in the morning, but Ian felt after their late night boy talk, he owed it to the bird. He reached into the part of the bookcase enclosed by chicken wire and placed a handful of seed into the bowl. “How’d you sleep?” he asked. “You look well rested.”
There was a loud pounding at the front door, immediately followed by another. Ian cursed under his breath and wiped his hands on his pajama pants. At the door he was greeted by Blanche, dressed in a hideous trench coat looking thing and dated flowered housedress. She was already shaking her head at him.
“I wanted to get here before you showed up at the house,” she said, and pointed her forefinger at him. “We don’t need you anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Ian was glad the screen door remained between them. “You’re firing me?”
“Oh, you better believe it. Father Effie was so upset yesterday when I got back. In a terrible state! And all because of your nosing.”
“The picture you gave him, you little brat,” she said from behind her fingers, which were pressed to her mouth, trembling. “Why’d you have to do that? Why couldn’t you leave it alone?”
“He wants those records played over and over,” Ian snapped. “He wanted to be reminded of him. He cared about him.”
“Should have left it in the past where it belongs.” Her voice trembling. “He’s a sick, dying old man. And I want our mother’s mirror back, she used that to brush her hair every night. He doesn’t know what he’s giving away.”
She stared off to the side of the house, her hand still covering her mouth. Her eyes darted about but didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. “Do you need to sit down or something?”
“I’m fine!” Blanche pressed her hands to her chest, and focused her eyes into a glare on Ian. “The father’s heart, his heart is bad. He can’t handle stress! Don’t you get it?” She sucked in her breath. “Don’t you know anything?”
“Where is my mother’s mirror?”
“Honestly, I thought it would be good for him. I mean, he has a pretty miserable life.”
“At least he’s alive!” Blanche yelled, then she took a step back and seemed to wobble, held out a hand and said, “Oh.”
Ian grabbed her by the arm. “Hold on,” he said, steadying her. He was surprised by how bony she felt beneath the coat.
Francisco was yelling behind Ian. “You forgot to latch the cage! Close the door!”
“What?” Ian turned just as Bradley’s bright wings flapped past his head and off the front porch. Unevenly he flew about the yard, zigzagging left and right, then back to the left.
Francisco stood watching, shocked. “Look at him. He probably hasn’t flown in years.”
“Go get him!” Ian said, still holding Blanche’s stick arm. “Let me take her inside and I’ll help you catch him.”
“How are we going to do that?” Francisco was holding his hand over his eyes, fighting the sun.
“I don’t know.” Ian led Blanche inside. “Here, sit,” he said, easing her onto the sofa. Then he returned to the front door. “The neighbors, they have a pool. Go get the net they use for leaves!”
Blanche called out, “I’m sorry about your bird. It’s all my fault.”
“Fran will get him. He’ll get him with the net. I doubt he likes it out there anyway, he’s probably never been in the wild.” Ian looked through the screen door as Francisco, net in hand, rushed to the tree.