By Patricia Abbott
He’d never made love to a man under 25—not since he’d passed that age himself. He’d never made love to a parishioner, nor to anyone in a position of subservience. Never to a woman because he knew he was gay, or queer as they called it then, by the age of twelve. Didn’t seem fair trying to pretend otherwise at someone's expense. Probably couldn’t have done it anyway.
God would help him find his way. That’s what he eventually decided. God made him like this for a purpose. Frank Jr.—and then after his ordainment Father Bertram--believed that fervently. How could he not?
He’d only made love with seven men in his life: with a history professor in college, and then with a boy down the hall his senior year, with his roommate in the seminary a few times, and a doctor who’d he’d been sent to with neck problems when he first entered the priesthood, an artist exhibiting his art in a park down the street from his church in Buffalo (only once), a priest in a parish in the Detroit suburbs he’d met at meetings at the archdiocese.
His brother, Howard, was the first. Howard was as fine-featured and slight as Frank Jr. was rough-hewn and large. Was it possible they even shared the same father?
If Frank counted all his sexual encounters with these men over twenty-five years, they’d number less than fifty. He didn’t know how to count the times with his brother. Did what they did in their cold attic room really count as sex? Most of it was touching, caresses, nuzzling. Didn’t all boys do this with other boys? Wasn’t it more about comfort and warmth in their case?
There’d been no other children, or even many people, in their lives back then, living as they did with a mother who rarely left the house except to go to work. Who disliked her boys leaving home.
“They’ll beat you up,” she said. “You’re the only black boys in this town. And sissy ones to boot.” She’d known before they did.
She came to New Hampshire from New Orleans to cook for a rich white man who favored the Creole cooking she'd been taught, and she went straight from his kitchen to their tiny under-heated, under-furnished house—no stops in between every night. Frank. Jr. and Howard did the shopping, negotiated everything else in the outside world. And at nights, they did what they did. At least, in winter, they could pretend they were keeping warm.
There was no Frank Sr. Never had been. It was years before they cottoned to the fact that Frank Sr. was their mother’s invention. They wondered if they even shared a father but couldn’t ask. Every question, even everyday stuff—like could she sign their permission slip to go to the museum in Concord—seemed to bring her pain, anger.
Howard killed himself at twenty-three following a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. Frank Jr. decided to become a priest the next year. His mother had moved in with the rich white man by then, something the man wanted, she said.
“Do you share his bed?” Frank Jr. asked in a shuddering voice, as she helped him pack his bags.
She didn’t look up. “If he wants. I do what he wants.”
His mother was forty-five—the man nearing seventy. He reminded Frank of Colonel Sanders or Mark Twain, some fancy white guy in a loose white suit. Facial hair, red-faced, dour. For Christmas, he’d given the boys school supplies with the admonition to study hard if they wanted a better life. If he gave their mother anything, she didn’t mention it.
He’d never kill himself, Frank Jr. decided, at his brother’s funeral. He’d use the lesson of his brother’s death, his lonely childhood, his mother’s situation, his own perverse desires, to make himself a better priest.
And he was. He taught history and counseled children, taking on a more prominent role after he moved to Detroit and his parish slowly broadened in skin color, tolerance, language. He learned Spanish, computers, the jargon of children. He was careful to never touch a child, never to favor one. To be watchful of his fellow priests in this regard.
Then came the illness. He ruled out his brother, the professor, the seminary roommate, the boy down the hall at college—all too long ago. And like Father Owens—that was the other priest’s name—he didn’t report the disease. The priesthood and AIDS were not a good fit. Homosexuality and celibacy were at odds. He ignored the symptoms as much as possible, hoping the disease would go away with the new treatments, and for a long time, it seemed more a nuisance than a life-threatening situation.
But because he could not confess his ailment nor pursue treatment openly, superior drugs were excluded from his regimen.
And suddenly he was in and out of hospitals for weeks at a stretch. The Church didn’t chastise him—it was too late for that. He didn’t try to track his partner, find his mother back in New Hampshire, do what he should have done. Most of the priests he’d known for years stuck by him. But he died alone.
Alone but for the sound of his brother’s voice.
“Frank Jr.” he heard Howard calling, saw his brother putting out a hand. Frank Jr. reached for him..
Bodiless now, souls intact, they could take comfort in each other purely.
And that’s a true account of what happened to me on the night before the last time I saw Frank, Jr. As far as the last time I did see Frank, Jr.---well, that’s another story. Right now, I have some cash to spend.
The last time I saw him it was an early winter morning and raining in B_______, maybe raining all over the world. The sun had disappeared behind a sky of gray slate several days earlier, and the water fell in continuous blowing sheets. Storm drains in the small town were filling up from the endless rain, maybe filling up all over the world. Water holding leaves, candy wrappers and discarded furtive love notes drifted down the gutters everywhere in the neighborhoods and commercial district.
The night before I had found much the same rain and flotsam and jetsam downtown, where only a few people were brave enough to be out and about on the streets. They were doing their best to look like strangers in raincoats, galoshes and big umbrellas, but I spotted Miranda’s red scarf right away. She was across the street, heading into the café; just like me, she was running a little late for our rendezvous.
“I wasn’t sure I could get away,” she whispered as we sat down in our back corner booth. Angie was already on her way over with two cups of black coffee. “He was supposed to go to one of his stupid board meetings, but it got cancelled. He finally had enough martinis and passed out on the couch.”
At one time that image of my old friend would have bothered me. That was before his wife started to bother me, and not in a bad way. Those days had probably come to a close; now she was beginning to bother me in a bad way indeed. But I was still committed to the plans we had been making for several weeks now.
I decided to cut to the chase and pop the question. “Are you going to be able to get the money?” I tried not to sound too anxious. She was starting to matter to me less and the money more. I got the full effect of her dark hair and green eyes as she stared at me for what seemed so long a time.
“Naturally,” she told me finally. “I’m on top of it.” And any guy whose help you need, I wanted to add. But then I had to admire my self-restraint. “I’ll make sure he gets up for his rehab appointment tomorrow morning. He’s missed the last two and that knee isn’t getting any better by itself.”
“And then what?” I knew, of course, but I wanted to hear her say it—again. I loved to watch her lips moving when she talked.
Another long stare before she spoke. “I’m going to open the safe he thinks I don’t know about, empty the contents into my biggest purse, get into my car and meet you at the airport.” She sounded like she was saying that in her sleep, as if she had been practicing that sentence over and over.
Yes, that was the plan, simple and easy as long as we could leave the country quickly. Neither of us said anything for a while; we just sipped our coffees and considered the possibilities. We could hear the rain hammering against the café’s glass windows and sounding almost like gunshots in the distance.
“Anything I need to bring besides the new passports and stuff?” I tried to keep my tone light.
She put her right hand under the table and ran her fingers up my left leg. “No, honey, you’ve got everything else I need on you already.”
Until the past few weeks that might have been enough for me; I would have executed the plan just as she designed it. I’m the usual sucker for a beautiful woman with a great body and an overwhelming personality. But lately cracks in the wall of that future had appeared. The phone caller didn’t tell me his name, but before long I figured out who he was representing.
He knew all of Miranda’s movements, including her “spa” appointments in the city. He told me when and where and to be there. I hung up. We did this dance for a while and then finally I took his dare. Late one afternoon I followed her up the Interstate and discovered everything I needed to know.
This time nothing Miranda could do would make any difference. We finished our coffee and left the café one at a time. The rain blowing on the glass still sounded like gunshots.
by Frank Webb
I have my father’s eyes—that’s what they tell me anyway—as well as his name. Frank Sr was in a bad way after the crash. They’d had him on life support for several weeks by the time I got the news, and everyone encouraged me to go visit him while there was still time. He never fully regained consciousness. Hell, he was mostly in a semi-conscious state most of his life as it was, so it was a fairly seamless, largely unnoticeable, transition. It had been so long since I’d seen him that I’d forgotten what he looked like. Hell, I’d even forgotten what I looked like!
Back in the day Dad was tone deaf crooner who loved to hear himself sing around the house, only what came out of his mouth was nothing like what he was hearing in his head. While he was belting out Frank Sinatra, the rest of us were getting a barrage of off-key sour notes that would rankle the sensibilities of even inanimate objects. Plants would wither and die before the onslaught, and flowers would close in on themselves when treated to a chorus or verse. The family dog, knowing the score, would make herself conspicuously absent whenever he started clearing his throat by doing a few warm up croaks. What he lacked in musical ability, however, he more than made up with sheer enthusiasm and dramatic gesticulating, waving his arms wildly about as he took in the applause from his imaginary audience. This was mostly in the mornings.
Personally, I think part of the problem was hearing loss from working on his cars. He never could afford a sports car, but liked the idea of having one. He hit upon the strategy of modifying the family Ford’s muffler so it wouldn’t really dampen the engine noise. Our Fairlane sedan would roar out of the garage like it had a Saturn-V booster stage under the hood, but it would only do 0-60 in about 10 minutes, on a good day. This was the automotive equivalent of putting playing cards in the spokes of your bike, and pretending you were riding a motorcycle. He seemed to enjoy it, though, even more so since the neighbors always glared at us when we cranked up the old jalopy and eased out of the driveway. Like a lot of folks, dad lived in his own world, which only now and then, seemingly by accident, shared any noticeable congruency with those around him.
Needless to say, all this was strangely tangential to my nascent sensibilities, musical or otherwise. Somewhere in there I caught Chicken Pox. Don’t really remember it, except as a story they sometimes told about when I was little, and how they packed me in ice like a mackerel to keep my fever down. I’d been in remarkably good health ever since. I’d once strained my credulity, but that was about the worst of it for most of my adult life. I didn’t know it, but the Zoster virus stays in you, and can come back years later as shingles. When that happened, it invaded my face, permanently scarring my eyes. I haven’t been able to see in a long, long time.
I’m just coming out of it now as the anesthesia wears off. Looking around, the room is strangely bright and with an unfamiliar clarity that I’ve only been able to dream of. I made it back before Frank Sr died, but didn’t get to see him. They had time to prep me for surgery before they disconnected him from the machines. The cornea transplant appears to have done the trick and I can see things for the first time in years. I have my father’s eyes. Or so they tell me.