by James Merkin
Edgar looked up once again from the menu he’d already memorized. A middle-aged man appeared in the doorway to the dining room and scanned the crowded room until his eyes met Edgar’s. They looked briefly at one another for a long moment, then the newcomer shrugged slightly, waved the maître d’ away, and walked to Edgar’s table. The old man rose slowly from his chair as the other man stopped and stood silently.
“Hello, Jeremy,” Edgar said. “Thank you for coming.”
“I won’t pretend I’m glad to be here, Father.”
“Please sit down.”
They sat, and both openly studied the other. Around them conversations swirled amid the clatter of cutlery and the movement of waiters.
“You look well, Jeremy.”
“Father, I’ll try to be polite but I won’t sit here and listen to empty social crap.”
Both looked up as a waiter leaned over their table. “Are you gentlemen ready to order?”
Edgar glanced at Jeremy, who shook his head. “Please bring another carafe of water and come back in fifteen minutes.”
The waiter inclined his head and turned away.
“I wanted to see you.”
“Take a good look.” Jeremy held out his arms as though modeling his jacket, and twisted slightly from side to side. “Did you think I wouldn’t change in twenty years?”
The old man seemed to shrink within himself. “We’ve all changed, Jeremy.”
“Have you, Father?” Jeremy stared levelly at Edgar. “I’m waiting for you to call me a faggot, as in ‘Get out of my sight, you faggot! No faggot is a son of mine!’ I believe those were your last words to me.” He sat back and folded his arms. The buzz of conversation at nearby tables faltered, then resumed at a much lower pitch.
“Jeremy, please hear me out,” muttered the old man.
Jeremy nodded once, then dropped his arms to the chair rests.
“I know full well you don’t trust me, and will doubt everything I say. But something important has happened to me and I need to tell you about it.”
Jeremy leaned forward. “Are you dying?”
“No such luck,” Edgar said softly. Jeremy leaned back a little. “A couple of weeks ago I went down to Walt’s to get my hair cut. Do you remember Walt’s barber shop?”
Jeremy looked at his father incredulously. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“Hear me out!” Edgar said harshly. Jeremy shrugged and sat back.
“I was sitting, waiting my turn, when something I had not known of the history of this town was revealed to me. Billy Vernon was having his hair cut—Jeremy stiffened—when he started in on two long-haired young men, also waiting. He as much as called them ‘fairies’ and talked about how ‘real guys’ should be at football practice.”
Jeremy shifted in his chair. Edgar glanced at him, and continued. “He then went on to recount how back in his day ‘queers’ who made the mistake of going out for football were discouraged from playing. How they ‘handled it privately’ I believe he said.”
Jeremy sat quietly, looking down at the table.
Edgar cleared his throat. “I always wondered why you quit playing football after middle school, Jeremy,” he said softly. “Could that have been the reason?”
Jeremy flashed him a quick, angry glare, then looked away.
Edgar kept his eyes on Jeremy, pausing before he continued. “Another man who had been sitting there jumped to his feet and called Billy Vernon on it. His name was Tom Parks—Jeremy gave a start—and he’s now a backfield coach at the high school. Turns out he’d tried out for the team back then and was on the receiving end of some pretty sadistic beating at the hands of Billy Vernon and his pals. Got hurt to the point that he quit trying to play football, but he never gave up on the game and learned coaching in college.”
Jeremy shifted in his chair and looked nervously around the room.
Edgar took a drink of his water and set the glass down. “Does that sound about right, Jeremy?” Jeremy looked up angrily and opened his mouth to reply. Edgar waved his hand. “I’m not finished,” he said quietly. Jeremy sat back and folded his arms. He looked levelly at his father.
“Turns out the situation never got fixed, and beatings to discourage players seen as effeminate or queer continued right up to the present day. The coaches turned a blind eye and left discipline in the hands of the team captains. Team captains like Vernon’s grandson, Billy Carlisle. Long story short, Carlisle and his goons beat on a young player named Alec Kutsenko, who wouldn’t quit. He was finally rescued by Bobby Buchanan, his boyfriend’s brother and another team captain, and Carlisle and his goons were busted by Coach Parks. Carlisle is now serving time, and Alec turned out to be the kid who won the last two games for the school last year, and this year was voted one of the team captains by his teammates. Alec and his boyfriend were the two boys sitting in the barbershop with me, waiting their turn like everyone else, until Vernon got started on them. Walt threw Vernon out and told him never to come back.”
Jeremy sat for a moment, considering, then looked up at his father. “And all this means…what? It’s a touching story, but then was then and now is now. What do you want, Father?”
“I want to know who you are, son,” Edgar whispered. “I never found out—I never let myself find out—and I…” here the old man swallowed hard, “and I threw you away.” He put his hand out tentatively, then pulled it back.
Jeremy scowled. “Bullshit! You hated me. You hate homosexuals. You wouldn’t even say the word. You called me a faggot and a queer and threw me out.”
“Yes, I did, son. I thought you would bring disgrace to my name.” The old man choked. “I thought all my friends and associates would turn against me.”
Jeremy moved his chair back and prepared to get up.
“Wait!” The old man put out a hand, shaking. “I thought all those things because back then that’s exactly what I would have done to someone else, a neighbor or a friend, if he’d had a queer son. None of us understood a thing, Jeremy. We were all fools, and bigots, and I had no understanding of who you were, what you were going through.”
Jeremy stared at his father. “And now you somehow have changed, become enlightened? Now you are filled with love and compassion and understanding?”
Edgar shook his head. “I don’t know any more than I did then. I just know I did a terrible wrong, one that I can never make up to you. Thank God for your uncle Andrew—“
“Uncle Andrew saved my life,” Jeremy said, flatly. “Did you know I was going to kill myself, that day you threw me out?”
The old man stared at his son, horrified.
“I went to Uncle Andrew to ask for some money. I wanted to buy a gun. He took one look at me and sat me down and we talked.” Jeremy paused, looking away. “No adult had ever been willing to just listen to me before. Not you, that’s for sure. All you ever wanted to talk about was what sort of carbon copy of you I was supposed to become.”
Edgar looked down and twisted his hands together.
Jeremy continued, his words flowing freely now. “I think Mother might have been willing to understand, but I was too young to know what I needed to tell her, before she died.” He blinked and swallowed hard. “But she must have had some idea of what was happening to me, because one of the last things she ever told me was to go to Uncle Andrew if I ever needed anything important. I didn’t really understand, and all I remember was how puzzled I was that she hadn’t said to go to you.”
Jeremy glanced at his father, grimaced, and looked away.
“None of my teachers and certainly no one at that stuck-up church we belonged to had any real interest in what was going on in the lives of the kids they were supposed to care about. And even if one of them had been concerned, everyone understood what to think of a kid who was gay. I had nowhere to turn, no one to turn to. It was just pure blind dumb luck I remembered what Mother had said; but I did and that’s what landed me on Uncle Andrew’s doorstep that day.”
“I didn’t find out until weeks later that he had taken you in, Jeremy,” the old man said. “Your mother’s brother and I had never been close, and we never talked after he started living with his friend Charles. I wouldn’t speak to him even though back then a lot of men who had ‘roommates’ were tolerated, so long as they preserved the fiction of merely sharing a house in order to manage expenses. We were all such hypocrites, then, and I thought I was being noble by turning a blind eye.”
“Just as you were being saintly by casting me out,” Jeremy said bitterly.
They sat, staring at one another. The old man dropped his eyes.
“I can’t ask you to forgive me, Jeremy,” he said softly. “I don’t expect you will ever want to have anything to do with me. But I wanted to tell you what I am planning to do.”
“What you’re planning to do? Why should I care what you’re planning? What, you’re going to offer me some sort of bribe to make me feel good about you?”
“No, I fully realize that I’ve broken our family beyond repair. I went to see Andrew last week, after my barber shop experience shook my neat and tidy world, and as you said he is a wonderful listener. He was willing to listen to me, and he helped me to understand a lot of things.”
“You went to Andrew? I don’t believe this.”
“Check with him if you wish, Jeremy.” Edgar took a sip of water. “He urged me to contact you. I didn’t think it would do any good. I think I may be more right than he was about that, but I wanted to tell you about the foundation.”
“The foundation Andrew and Charles are going to help me organize. I’m an old man with too much money, not much time left and a family I’ve managed to destroy. I want to set up a financial structure to fund a center for troubled youth here in Sanitaria Springs.”
“What! You mean some sort of hangout for gay kids?” Jeremy sneered. “You old fool. Gay teens don’t need to be singled out and made to feel weird and isolated. They deserve to be mainstreamed, fully included in the life of this sorry town.”
“No, no, Jeremy, you misunderstand me! That day is already almost here; I’ve been talking to the school administration, the coaches, even the judges. The authorities are seeing to that, and today’s teens are miles ahead of most adults in their willingness to accept differences. The atmosphere is completely changing from when you were a youngster. Think of what Walt did in his barbershop, and the old men waiting their turn gave him a round of applause.”
“Then what is it you are talking about?”
“I’m talking about setting up an organization whose mission will be to transform bullies into productive citizens.”
“Don’t you see? The real problem has always been the mean kids and the bigoted adults who act on their misunderstanding and their intolerance. Right now what happens? If a juvenile bully is convicted of something like assault, like Billy Vernon’s grandson, the only recourse the judicial system has is to send him to a lockup where he is thrown into contact with other savage kids and experienced criminals. The outcome of that has to be a boy, or a girl, who becomes even meaner, even more committed as a bully and a lawbreaker.”
“They deserve to be locked up, if even they’re ever caught,” Jeremy said vehemently. “Throw the key away.”
“They are caught, Jeremy, if the kids around them won’t stand for what they do, and if the school authorities are quick to follow up. I can’t control that end of it, but I’m told that more and more schoolkids will no longer stand by silently, and the law now requires school administrations to pay attention.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Good for them. So we catch a few bullies, and lock them up. There will always be more.”
“What I want to do is provide an alternative to jail time; a setting staffed by professionals designed to work intensively to transform a kid who’s a bully back into a productive citizen. They just don’t have the means to do that in the public schools. When a youthful bully breaks the law I want to make it possible for him to be sentenced to confinement within a residential community where he can be supervised 24/7 in a setting that couples education with community service so the cycle of brutality and bullying can be broken.”
“What kind of pipe dream is this?”
“I’ve got the unqualified support of the local judiciary; they’re willing to give it a try. Until now, sentencing a kid to ‘community service’ has been more-or-less a joke, a light slap on the wrist that takes a few hours a week and leaves plenty of free time for the bully to go back to hanging out with his buddies. The only alternative is jail, and both cops and judges know what that produces.”
“It’s going to take some big bucks and a lot of staffing.”
“So does jail. I’ve got the bucks, and the justice system is willing to give it a try. I’m going to set up the structure and hire the professionals and let them figure out some pilot programs to see whether we can make this work.“
Jeremy sat back. In spite of himself he was intrigued. Was this old man sitting across the table from him really his father? He compared him to the picture still vivid in his mind of the enraged man who, red faced and screaming, threw Jeremy out of his house only an hour after his high school graduation, because Jeremy had been dumb enough to bring his boyfriend home to meet his father. Could this man actually be serious?
“Father, this won’t change anything between us.”
Edgar sighed, and looked down. “I know. I knew that as soon as I talked to Andrew last week. I’m not doing it for that. I’m doing it to change myself.”
Jeremy looked levelly at his father for a long moment. Then he nodded. “O.K. I guess I can accept that. Maybe after you prove you can change we might try to have lunch again.”
“I’d like that, Jeremy.” The old man watched, sadly, as his son got up and walked away.