Behind The Silver Screen
By Jerry Miller
As we left the funeral home,
Ben took me to his car. He spoke briefly with Mike's mother, then finally opened
the door and climbed into the driver's seat.
"How are you doing, buddy?" he asked me.
"I'm okay. Where are we going?"
"To Mike's house."
"Mike's mother, Betty, wants to talk with us."
We rode in silence to the house. I looked up at the house and resisted before getting out of the car. Ben tried to encourage me.
"You've been in the house before, haven't you?"
"Yes. With Mike."
"It's okay. You can do this."
As I got out of the car, Ben was right beside me as we walked up the steps to the front door. Betty was there holding it open for us. She closed the door behind us.
"I think the kitchen would be the best place," she said, leading the way.
We all sat down around the kitchen table. I remember Mike and me fixing breakfast and lunch here a few times. Mike's mother took my left hand in hers and Ben took the other.
"How are you doing, Michael?" she asked.
"Okay." I said, feeling comfortable.
"My husband is out of the house now. I told him when my Michael left for boot camp that if anything happened to him the marriage would be over and he would be out. He moved in with his mother. Mike's brother is staying with my mother tonight. So we are alone."
Ben and I just nodded our understanding. Betty looked over at me with caring eyes. Her touch was reassuring.
"The last night Mike was home we had our 'good bye' dinner for him. He looked distant and unhappy during dinner. I knew in my heart that he didn't want to go. Everyone went to bed about eleven. I couldn't sleep so I came down here to bake, which is what I do when something bothers me. I heard someone coming down the steps and it was Mike. He looked terrible. He said he couldn't sleep and came down for a glass of milk."
All I could do was listen to her words. I hoped I could hold it together. I was so tired of crying.
"I asked what was wrong and he said 'nothing'. I pushed him into that chair," she said, pointing at Ben's. "I told Mike that all of his father's rules were off. I wanted to know what it was that was bothering him. He dropped his head onto his arms and began to cry. I hadn't seen Mike cry since he was a small child. His father had forbid it. I hated those damn rules about feelings and emotions, but since he was my husband I honored his wishes so he could 'make men' out of our sons."
She wiped tears out of her eyes.
"I wrapped my arms around Mike and asked him to open up to me and talk to me. After he calmed down he told me about you, Michael, and his love for you. He told me he wasn't homosexual, but he loved you. He told me what I believed to be everything about your relationship."
Oh Mike, why did you do that? She gripped my hand tightly.
"I'm not ashamed of him, Michael. I was happy that someone loved him and that he had experienced love before he left. He told me what his father had made sure that his assignment was Viet Nam. I will never forgive him for that. Never."
She got up and went over to the stove and put water into the tea kettle. She took a jar of Folgers Coffee down from the cabinet.
"Can I get you boys anything?" she asked.
We both said "No."
"Mike said he made promises to you that he feared he couldn't keep. He didn't want to leave you," she said looking at me. "He didn't believe he would survive over there and he was afraid for you. He told me about his friendship with Ben and how he had asked Ben to look out for you."
I looked at Ben and a smile crossed his face. I had questions for him and by the look in his eyes it seemed he could read my mind.
"He also told me how much he missed having been close to me and his brother."
She turned away as the water boiled up. She poured the water into the cup and stirred. Sitting down next to me, she took my hand again.
"In those few precious hours, Mike and I got to really know each other. We shared OUR tears and our affection for each other. I thank God we had that chance."
She took a sip of coffee. Her hand left mine as she wiped her lips with a napkin.
She placed her hand on my face and said, "Because of you, I got to know my son. I got to feel his love before he left and I will always be grateful for that."
My resolve failed me as tears leaked from my eyes. She wiped my eyes with her fingers. Her touch was gentle and loving.
"I made promises to Mike about several things, you in particular. He told me he was probably in love with you. So I was happy to honor his requests," she said. "I had to call the theater if anything happened to him so that way you would find out. He didn't want you to hear about it on the phone, but from someone you knew."
I just nodded my head. He was right as usual.
"He put together some items in a box and slid them under his bed for you. He wanted you to have certain things. I promised I would give it to you."
"Mike was insistent that I meet you. That was an absolute. I promised him that I would. I wanted to meet the young man my son fell in love with."
Yes, I knew he was in love with me, though he never actually said it to me.
She looked over to Ben.
"Mike spoke of you as well, Ben," she said. "He said that you were a wonderful friend to him and wished that he had met you a long ago. He knew you cared a great deal about Mike and was glad that Mike had you in his life to help him get through whatever might happen."
"I really liked him a lot. I've lost a good friend. It hurts, too," Ben said. He wiped his eyes. I squeezed his hand to let him know that I understood very well.
"You must be really strong, Ben," she said. "Not just to feel the loss of a friend, but to comfort a friend in grief as well. Mike was lucky to have met you, too."
"I'm going to miss him," Ben said. "I'm going to miss the years of friendship we would've had."
As Ben's tears fell, I reached up and wiped off his face. I realized that my friend was carrying a great load, his own grief and his support for me. I needed to support him too, I thought.
"I can see the love you have for each other as friends. Though I am sure it hasn't always been expressed, it's there," she said.
Betty was right. I did love Ben, as a friend. I never doubted that Ben cared about me. He proved himself over and over again.
Betty told me about Mike as he grew up. She went to a cabinet and brought out a photo album and shared his pictures with us. I knew I had to give her some copies of the pictures of Mike and me that Ben had taken of us during the month before Mike shipped out.
We spent many hours talking, laughing and crying. Mike had planned this and figured it was the only way for the people he cared about to come together and grieve. When it came time to leave, Ben and I each hugged Betty with much gratitude. I told Betty I wasn't ready for the box. I would come for it later. She said "Anytime."
Ben and I drove to his house, since I was staying there that night. With him alone in his room I gazed at Ben. I felt like I was such a burden on him.
"I'm sorry, Ben."
Ben looked surprised and said, "Why, Mike?"
"Before tonight, it never really hit me that you were grieving so much yourself. I will never forget how you have been there for me. How you held me when I needed it. Listened when I needed to talk. Stood by me when I couldn't bear to be alone. You were there when I lost Jay and are here because of Mike. I couldn't have asked for a better friend."
I hugged him.
"Mike, I'm glad that I was the one who was here when you needed someone. I would never trade this for anything."
I needed him more than he knew, for now at least.
The next day at the funeral I sat with Betty, Betty's parents, Mike's brother, Eric and Ben while Mike's father sat on the other side of the aisle with his mother. I listened to the eulogy of Mike, the soldier. I wanted to hear the words about Mike, the lover, the friend. But those words wouldn't be spoken. Not here, not this day. The four of us rode in the limousine to the cemetery. Mike's dad rode with his Marine buddy. I watched him closely. I wanted to get a sense of the man who sent Mike to his death. I hated him. I wanted to scream at him, tell him what a bastard he was.
Mike was honored with a full military service including a twenty-one-gun salute. The flag was folded into the traditional triangle and handed to his father. He beamed with pride. He held his trophy.
Betty, Eric, Ben and I stayed behind to watch the coffin lowered into the grave. The coffin was placed into the metal crypt and the lid placed over it. We each took a handful of dirt and said our goodbyes to Mike.
Mike had only been in Viet Nam for two weeks when he died. The official report listed him as 'killed in action' when his platoon was ambushed. I have often thought of his last moments, how horrific they must have been. Although I hoped he had died instantly, I felt in my heart his last thoughts were of me. I promised myself, standing at his grave, that I would never forget him. Having known and loved him, even with his death, I was forever changed.
In the limo, Betty hit me with more news unexpected. Mike wasn't done with me yet. It seems that he changed the beneficiary on his life insurance policy the morning he left. With his mother's help and approval, he took his father's name off the policy and put my name there to share the money with her.
I had the money now for a car and my college tuition. This was another demonstration of Mike's love for me. I didn't squander it.
In the fall, I quit the Loew's Northtown and went to work at a drive-in theater in Troy where, since it was non-union theater I could learn how to run the 35mm projectors.
Ben and I got the apartment together and I buried myself in school and work. Ben was always my rock. I found no relief from my grief, but I moved on working and going to school. Ben stayed at Loew's and went to school. When he found himself a girl friend I was happy for him. What about me? I kept to myself and didn't want anyone in my life like that.
Betty would have us over for Sunday dinners when Ben and I could make it. I gave her some of those snapshots of Mike and me and the three of us. She framed those pictures and put them on the shelf with her other photos of Mike and Eric.
On the first anniversary of Mike's death, we gathered at Betty's home. With Ben and Eric, we shared our memories and our tears and honored the life of someone we collectively loved. That day I took home the box that Mike had left me.
I had thought of the box all year. I had been afraid to take it. I knew that whatever the contents were, they meant a lot to Mike. I have always been amazed, even in death, he still reached out to me.
It would be a couple of days before I opened the black, metal box. I didn't want to be alone. As usual, Ben was with me. I lifted the lid and looked inside. A hand written letter laid on top. I removed the envelope and held it.
Mike had written me a letter, but I didn't have the courage to open it. Ben rubbed my shoulders and tried to persuade me to read it. I handed the letter to him and asked him to read it to me. Ben asked if I was sure; I wasn't, but I told him to go ahead. He opened the envelope carefully so as not to tear it. With the pages unfolded, he took a deep breath and began:
"My Sweet Mike,
If you are reading this, then we both know I am gone from this earth. This isn't want I wanted for my life. I wanted to spend it with you. As straight as I am, I loved you with all my heart. It was never easy to write or express my personal thoughts or feelings until I met you. You made the last year of my life the best. You brought Ben into my life as well and I grew to love him as a best friend too."
At this point Ben started to struggle with the reading; he voice cracked with emotion and more tears ran down his face, but he continued for me.
"The items in this box I wanted you to have. They are some personal things that have value to me.I relish with joy and comfort the time you spent with me. I am indebted to you, for without you, I would never have experienced the opportunity to love another person and to receive those same wonderful feelings in return. You gave purpose, meaning and importance to my life.
"I knew how hard it was for you when I left. My heart was breaking when I said goodbye to you outside the car. I couldn't stand to see you that way. I got to my room and cried for us. It was everything I could do to hold it together through dinner with my family. My heart was breaking over and over again while I thought about you.
"Because of you, another wonderful thing happened: my mother and I found each other, finally. I told her about us, Mike, because she saw that I was heart broken leaving you. I told her that I didn't expect to come home, at least not alive.
"I am writing this after our talk. It's morning now, there is no sleep for me. I have spent these hours before I leave thinking only about you. As I write this letter, I pray that you will never have to see it."
Ben's voice broke again and he stopped. My tears were flooding my face. It took several minutes for us to settle down and continue.
"Is there much more?" I asked.
"No, just a couple more paragraphs," he said.
"Okay." I prepared myself, for what little that would do.
"The last shift Ben and I worked together, I asked him to stand by you if anything happened to me. When he told me that he would have anyway, I kissed him on the cheek and hugged him. I think he got a little embarrassed by that.
"Tell Ben "thank you" for being there for you. I am sure he is with you now.
"Go on with your life, Mike. Go to school and be someone special for the world. You were for me. Saying, "I love you" here just doesn't seem enough, but I do so with all my heart."
"He simply signed it 'Mike'" Ben said.
Ben and I held each other, crying.
In the box I found his wristwatch, his high school class ring and a picture of him and me I don't remember being taken. We were dressed in our tuxedos, with our arms around each other and our faces aglow.
On the second anniversary, Ben and I went to the cemetery where Mike was buried. A headstone had been placed there. I had finally gotten to the point where I didn't cry so much. Though my thoughts of Mike made my heart ache, I found some strength to fight back tears. Later that day we had dinner with Betty and Eric. Eric was going to Kent State now. His mother made sure of that.
Since I also blamed Nixon for Mike's death, Ben and I volunteered for the McGovern Presidential Campaign. If he had ended the war like he promised in his 1968 campaign, Mike would be alive today. Nixon got reelected still promising to end the war. I was pleased when his lies caught up with him later.
While I was finishing my two-year degree in business from Sinclair I went to work for a while at the McCook theatre and ran projectors for about six months. In the fall I received an offer from General Cinema and went to work for them in Indiana. Before I left, I stood as best man at Ben's wedding.
Ben and I always stayed in contact. I moved around to several theaters in Indianapolis before I got a call from Mr. Gainer back in Dayton. He was the owner of the McCook and had sold it to the company that owned the Kontiki Theatre and was working for them.
It was summer of 1974 and the union in Cincinnati had pulled a strike against the company at their four indoor theaters: The Esquire, The Ambassador, The 20th Century and the Hyde Park theaters. They also had two drive-ins in town, The Jolly Roger and the Ferguson Hills. But the union operators at those theaters remained on the job.
I was staying with my parents at the time when I started working in Cincinnati, crossing the picket lines and becoming a 'scab' operator. On the second weekend, my car broke down and Mr. Gainer had to pick me up and take me to Cincy. But about two blocks away from my house, he pulled into a gas station and had me call him an ambulance. He was having chest pains.
I was very concerned while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. I could hear the sirens off in the distance. A deputy sheriff's car arrived first. When the ambulance arrived I looked up to see Jay approaching us. My heart thumped hard. I watched in amazement while they ran checks on Mr. Gainer. As a precaution, they loaded him up into the back of the ambulance to take him to the hospital. Just before they left, while others were getting Mr. Gainer comfortable, Jay walked over to me.
"How are you, Mike?" he asked.
"I'm doing good. And yourself?"
"Fine," he said. "Ben told me what happened. I'm sorry."
Jay swung around to walk back to the ambulance, but stopped and turned back to me.
"I would like a chance to talk to you," he said.
"Sure," I said.
"When is a good time for you?"
"I am off Monday and no one will be home. Come around eleven."
"Cool. See ya then."
Jay turned and jumped into the front seat and took off.
I wondered all weekend what Jay wanted to talk about. I hadn't seen him since graduation four years ago. Since I was with Mike then, it hadn't bother me to see him. But when I saw him with the ambulance I felt something. Maybe it was just my imagination.
Her hand reached for mine. The two of us, sitting in the front row of the theater, stared at the nearly empty stage that in a few days would no longer exist.
"I've never been here before, Mike," she said. "I'm glad you suggested I come see it before..."
I told Betty she needed to come inside at least once before they tore it down. I nearly had to force myself to.
"You have good memories of you and Mike here?"
"Yes. Most of my memories of Mike are here."
"It's been nearly five years for us and still he seems to be a large part of who we are," she said.
"I know. He is so much a part of me. He's in my heart. I've never stopped loving him."
"Even though you have someone else now?"
"Mike told me in his letter to go on with my life. I wasn't looking for anyone at the time. I didn't think I was ready. Even now, nothing will ever take Mike from my heart."
"I know. I have gotten to know you Mike, over these last five years. I may have lost my son, but with you, in you, he lives in my heart as well."
"He's here you know. I can feel him."
"He's everywhere, Mike."
"No, I mean it. He's here for us. Right now."
"Yeah. I like to think that he knew we would be here in this theater where he and I fell in love before it's gone."
Betty put her arm around me and pulled me close. She kissed my forehead and got up and walked up the aisle out of the theater.
Sitting there, a chill ran through me knowing that part of Mike and me will be gone when the theater is gone. I took one last look at the screen frame, the space where the speakers once stood and the spot where Mike and I would hide and make out. I got up and strolled up the aisle, past the many rows of seats, taking in as much of the theatre as I could.
As I crossed through the lobby and into the foyer, the concrete dust was everywhere. I walked out the front doors and under the marquee, turned around and looked back inside.
I felt his hand on my shoulder.
"Are you okay, Mike," he asked
"Yeah, I think so."
"What's in your pocket?"
I pulled the keepsake, so to speak, out of my pocket.
"What the hell are you doing with a jar of Vaseline, Mike?"
The end of Chapter Eight.