We were all friends once. The three of us. Till she caught the two of us together. And when I mean to say together, I mean together not just in the biblical sense, which was true enough, but together as in in love. That was our big secret of course, and when Rose found out, understandably she wasn’t having any of it. I suspect she’d always known Tommy and I were jerking around together behind her back, which I don’t think she minded as Tom says she never was one for sex too much anyway and she probably figured us doing what we did took some of the pressure off her. Maybe. But the look she got when I finally had it out with her that day over at the park, on that little wooden bridge that crossed the little creek that more than half the year was dry, and I told her outright, and she pushed me off that bridge and said she’d see about that. That day, the creek wasn’t dry.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a story here for me to tell if Rose didn’t get her way almost 15 years ago, and the week after high school, she got Tommy to marry her. A guy can’t compete with that. At least I couldn’t, so I put my tail between my legs and hit the road, Jack.
Until I found myself standing outside a long time with only my jean jacket breaking the cold. The house was lit up with old-school Christmas bulbs along the gutters and around the rhodies on both sides of the door. The windows still had Tommy’s mom’s gray drapes. Even from outside I could picture the tree in the corner by the insert, pretty easy, done up in gold garland. I could just as easy smell Tommy’s mom’s cider, and see the table set with the painted china, only now with Tommy at the head. I don’t mean to make it sound like Norman Rockwell, ‘cause it ain’t. The house was too rundown, too on-the-wrong-side-of-town. Always had been. Always would be. Not that I’m one to judge, coming from the same wrong-side-of-town, coming from a house even more crappy. But I got away and they’re stuck, and so for that, I guess I do judge just a little.
I told myself I shouldn’t have come without calling, but I knew that’s just me becoming a chicken shit.
I told myself I shouldn’t have come being a little drunk already, but truth is, that’s the only way I’d find myself here.
I told myself I shouldn’t have come on Christmas Eve, and then I bound up to the door. A girl about ten answered. “Mom?” she called, and Rose, wiping her hands on a towel, came through the kitchen archway that had Christmas cards taped all around it, and beyond I could hear the dinner chatter. She squinted.
“Tom,” she called. She’d stopped about five feet from me.
“Merry Christmas, Rosie.” Her face looked tired, but otherwise she looked just as she had back then, standing there and staring at the Ghost of Christmas Past. Me. And I’m thinking, hey lady, you won, so why you standing way over there?
Tommy came through the arch wearing a Santa suit, his youthful stockiness turned to fat. He stood by Rose so that now both of them were staring at me.
“Hello, Tom,” I said and stepped forward, stumbling a little at the saddle and Tommy stepped to catch me and we sort of fell into an awkward hug. And then in one fluid move, Tommy had me back on the porch, the storm door closed behind us.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, and I couldn’t blame him.
“I come home ‘cause Mom’s dying.” It was a truth I knew he’d already be aware of, on account of that’s how small towns work.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said, sounding to my ears pretty genuine. “But what I meant is, what are you doing here, at my house?”
“I was hoping we could talk a little,” I said.
“See, though, now’s not a good time for that. It’s Christmas Eve. We got company.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I could have kicked myself right in the ass because I’d made a promise I wasn’t going to say that. “I’m just over at Mom’s. I walked over there from here. I mean…. Anyway, she’s resting, so I thought I’d take a walk is all. But, I would like to talk.”
“How’s your mom doing?””
“Yeah. But you know, she’s stubborn. Listen, Tommy, I gotta tell ya, I’m sorry if I’ve been out of touch. You know what it’s like, life in the big city….”
“Hey,” I said, remembering what I had in my back pocket. “Look, wild rhubarb! I cut through the alder stand and found this growing along the trail. Remember how my mom used to make the cobbler?”
“Yeah.” Tommy smiled. He took the withered stalk from my hand and pondered it. “Pitiful looking,” he said. He was talking about the rhubarb but he could have just as easy been talking about me, I guess. “Listen,” he said, returning the stalk to me. “Why don’t you come back after dinner? After Rose and the kids go to church. We can catch up a little.”
That was all I wanted.
As he turned and opened the storm door, I could see that Rose hadn’t moved from her spot, five feet from the door.
“That’d be great. About an hour?”
Tommy looked over his shoulder. “Go back to your mom’s,” he said. “I’ll call you.” And then both doors closed.
I stayed across the street, leaning against the familiar hemlock and smoking, and watched the light flick on in the window to the left of the front door, which I knew to be their bedroom. For sure, I did have things I wanted to say to Tommy, but as I stood there watching their silhouettes argue, like I knew they would, I wondered if maybe this wasn’t part and parcel to the reason I’d come.
I took the path back, gnawing from time-to-time on the rhubarb and sort of enjoying the bitter on my tongue. Mom was still asleep in her room with the TV on, tuned to some giant choir singing Oh Come, All Ye Faithful. I sat at the table and had me another beer, and I must have dozed off because before I knew it the phone was ringing and I was jumping up to knock it off the wall before it woke her.
“I don’t think it’s gonna work out,” he said as soon as I’d said hello.
“Tommy….Rosie’s still got you by the balls.”
“She just doesn’t feel OK with you around the kids. She could tell you’ve been drinking.”
“I thought we had it all planned out, though. Huh? I’d come after they went to church. No kids. Simple.”
“She doesn’t want you in the house. Simple.”
“It’s your house,” I tried to explain. “You grew up in that house!” But Tommy said he wasn’t going to argue about it.
“Come over here, then.” There was a pause and then a sigh and a low, quiet:
He came in by way of the back door without knocking, which made me happier than you might expect from such a small thing, but it was just so goddamn familiar that it broke my heart just a little, which I tried to hide by going straight to the fridge and getting us both beers. But when I set Tommy’s beer in front of him, he put his hand up, which wasn’t goddamn familiar in the least.
“What?” I said.
“Don’t drink no more,” said Tommy.
“You are shitting me.” But he wasn’t shitting me, and he seemed to not want to talk about it all that particularly. He wanted to get to business.
“What did you want to talk about?” he asked. I looked to Mom’s bedroom door and took my time walking over to the stove and then pulling a cigarette out and lighting it on the burner. I held out the pack of cigarettes to Tommy and that same hand of his came popping up. And then I just came out with it.
“Did you love me?” I asked. Tommy sprang to his feet.
“Oh, great hornspoon!” he yelled. That’s when it all clicked together for me – the hand up to the beer, the hand up to the smoke, the swearing without swearing: Tommy’d found religion. I seen it happen in others and it was always the same, a kind of vacancy they’re certain is filled up by God, but when you can stand and look at it from a distance you can see it’s just a hole that they refuse to look at any more. Maybe it’s true. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Only Tommy didn’t looked blissed out right about now. He looked angry.
“Easy,” I said, “or you’ll wake her. Come on, let’s go out to the garage.” I grabbed the rest of the six-pack and then allowed for my own blind faith that Tommy was following me because I didn’t turn to check. Lo, when we got the garage, he was right behind.
“Great hornspoon!” I teased. “Goddamn it, I remember when you used to curse like a drunken stevedore. It was all fuck and shit and piss and cunt and cocksucker.”
“Times change,” he was still angry. “People change.”
“I guess they do,” I said. I cracked another beer and feeling a little devilish I once again offered one to Tommy. I turned a bucket upside down and offered it to Tommy as well, and as well, he shook his head, so I sat on it myself. The fire in the old oil drum stove my old man had built was still smoldering so the garage wasn’t as cold as it might have been.
“Can we cut to it?” he asked, and it struck me so funny I almost had to spit my beer.
“Great hornspoon!” I was feeling pretty drunk. “Honest to God, Tommy, I really thought I had. I really thought I’d gone all balls out and cut to it. So I’m thinking, maybe you don’t remember the question.”
“I remember the question. But you can’t be serious! That’s really why you dragged me out of my house, away from my family, on Christmas Eve? To bring up a bunch of kids’ stuff that didn’t even matter back then? Didn’t even matter almost 15 years ago? Is that really what you’re trying to tell me? Because if that’s what you’re telling me, then I’m telling you, I ain’t got time for this.”
“Remember when Billy Proctor hung himself in that old barn?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” he asked, and I found I was getting pretty damn good at translating in my head from the new Tommy to the old: what the fuck does that have to do with any-fucking-thing?
“Did you know two days before he hung himself, we blew each other? Wasn’t the first time, but it turned out to be the last.” Tommy was quiet. “No,” I said, “of course you didn’t know that, ‘cause I would have never told you that on account of I felt like I was cheating on you when I was blowing Billy. Felt just terrible, until I reminded myself that you were cheating on me with Rosie. Rosie Posey, Puddin’ and Pie, Kissed a Guy and Made Him…a Faggot.” Tommy started for the door. “But here’s the kicker! Turns out, you weren’t cheating on me with Rosie, you were cheating on Rosie with me. Isn’t that right, Tommy?”
Tommy whirled around. “Yes, that is right. Exactly right! Whatever was cheated on and dirty and disgusting was with you. You!” He took a deep breath. “So, is that what you wanted to hear? Is that what you had me come over here for on Christmas Eve? ”
Truth was, in that moment I realized I had pushed him into telling me exactly what I hadn’t wanted to hear. But the venom in me kept rushing.
“How does your God stand hearing that? No matter how dirty or disgusting, you just admitted it out loud,” I said, and against every grain in me that tried to stop it, I pointed my finger at him like some TV preacher with a sphincter for a mouth.
Tommy looked at me a hard, long minute, and then said, softly, “Ours is a forgiving God.”
“Yours is a fucking forgetting God,” I said, “if He doesn’t remember that you loved me.” Again, Tommy turned to go, but the door opened before he could get to it.
“Tommy!” she said. “Oh dear God, what a pleasant surprise.”
“Mom, what are you doing up?” Her bathrobe was open and her nightgown was twisted around her thin body. I went to adjust her but she shooed me away “Stop fussin’. Tommy don’t mind if I don’t look my best.” As she started down the two steps into the garage, Tommy and I each took a hand. “Thank you, boys.” When she was safely on the garage floor, Tommy leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
“Good to see you, Bev. I’m sorry I haven’t been around before now.”
Mom waved it away. “I know you got your life to tend to.” She stood a moment, looking around. “Christ almighty, I haven’t been out here in I don’t know how long. Brings back memories though, seeing you two out here, fire going. Sneaking your beers.” Mom laughed and it turned into a coughing fit before she could continue. “You boys didn’t think I was wise to you, did you? Always telling me you were coming out to the garage to work on a car or fix a broken radio. But I knew you were up to no good. Tell the truth, it always made me chuckle a little, you so certain you were getting away with something. But I always figured so long as you were together and wasn’t going off into the streets acting stupid, so long as I knew where you were, you’d be OK. I always knew you’d look out for each other.” She paused, looked around again, and then said to Tommy: “How’s the family? I used to see Rose and the children at church, back when I could still get myself over there. She always seemed in such a rush, I never got to say hi. Tell her hi for me, won’t you Tommy?”
“Of course, Bev.”
“Well, I’m feeling pretty tired. I best get these old bones back to bed.” Tommy and I again each took a hand and helped her up the two steps. In the doorway she said, “Forgive me for interrupting your time. When I woke and heard voices, I knew I had to say hi to whoever was kind enough to pay us a visit on Christmas Eve. I used to love to have company on Christmas Eve. People you didn’t see but once a year would stop by. Does an old heart good to see that some of the old times haven’t changed altogether. I’m so glad it was you, Tommy.” She turned to go. “Nope,” she added, “I never was one to want to interfere in your affairs.” And with that, she left us alone.
Neither one of us spoke any time soon. And then Tommy said, shakily, “I don’t think I would have recognized her.”
“Pretty bad,” I agreed.
“How long?” he asked.
“Doctor says maybe a month.”
“You sticking around?”
“Yeah. Don’t have much to get back to right now anyway. She needs me.”
“You were always a good son.”
It felt like the memory Mom had just described, of us in high school, sneaking off to the garage with stolen beer and a few smokes from her pack of Salems, talking intimately of all the possibilities still ahead of us, back when possibility still seemed possible. Only we weren’t kids any more. And I for one had long tired of sneaking.
“You’re right,” I said. “I mean, your asking what the fuck we’re doing here – it was the right question.” What had I expected? That I could lure him over and reset the clock? That I would finally be able to prove that holding onto that last, tiny hope hadn’t been in vain, and it would explode into something real and honest and lasting, all I had to do was light the wick? That if given the chance to do it all again, he’d chose different this time? Great hornspoon! What an ass am I? “You can go ahead and go, Tommy. I’m done.”
“I did love you,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“Then why’d you have to ask?”
“To see if that was enough.”
“Not right now.”
Tommy came to me and put his hands on my shoulders. I closed my eyes and wished — what? That it would stay like this forever? Or that he would magically disappear and I could go on as though this never happened? Or that he would hold me tight all night long and tell me it was all right, that it would all be all right in the end, I’d see?
He kissed me, very gently, and then his hands left my shoulders and I opened my eyes and he was leaving. I didn’t try to stop him. I didn’t want to stop him.
“Take it easy,” he said. “And if you need anything, you know, I’m around. Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Tommy.”
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