Friday, February 20, 2015

DADDIES DON'T BREAK--PART FOUR

A TALE FOR GROWNUPS ONLY


But it wasn't Quentin who came up. It was Lionel, apologizing for coming over without warning and in an air of such unhappy haste that we had no choice but to reassure him, with a glass of sparkling and a quick introduction to and backstory on runaway Bentley and his valise.


"It's a bad time, yes, I see that," said Lionel, settling in on the couch while trying to look as temporary as possible, "but frankly I don't know which way to turn. It's...I'm sure I've mentioned him. Clete Jarvis? I've known him for eons, and...Oh, this is so awful, I'm just going to crash into it." A deep breath, then: "He's dying. It's some blood disease. He's had it a long time. Long time. But now...and he's actually taking it...well, calmly. But, see, he's worried about his dog, who's going to take care of it after he...So he wants to adopt it out, and now, not later."

Those of us who had been standing now sat. Those sitting leaned back. It was listening time.

"Look, Clete knows the dog will be killed if it ends up in  shelter, because there's something wrong with it. Some I don't know thing. One night he simply fell backward and wet himself. Just helplessly...A weakness in his hind legs. And there's this idea in the dog pack that if one of them is vulnerable in some way, the others attack it. Instinct stuff. This dog knows he has Clete's love, but there's always that nature thing, you know. Of course, Clete picked him up and carried him into the bathroom. Washed him. Comforted him. And the next day the vet...and of course it's never good news."

"What sort of dog is he?" asked Cosgrove.

"They kill them at these shelters if they're not adopted. They call it 'euthanizing.' To make it sound like...a birthday party or something. Why don't they just say what it is? They kill them." Now he answered Cosgrove's question: "Little Nemo. It's a white lab. Wary of strangers, but very affectionate within the pack. And he loves to go out and tour the neighborhood. Clete was like that, too, until...You know, like straights run around a lot in their twenties and then they get homebound. But gays run around all their lives, because we don't want to miss anything. Clete never knows when...when his condition will get...so he and the dog are his whole world, and they play together. He has these antique building sets from eBay, in little yellow boxes. Cars and jet planes and...like with bags of screws and bolts. He sits on the floor with the dog and constructs these...objects. The instructions are printed on the back of these little boxes, and they're incredibly hard to read. Compressed. And the dog helps him, taking up a piece in his mouth and offering it to Clete. "Now bolt this one on" sort of thing. Of course, it's never the right piece."

Lionel almost lost it then, but he kept on going.

"There's a whole series of them. Meccano, they're called."

Everyone looked at me.

Clearing my throat, I explained, "I have those sets myself." I got up and went over to the chotchke display in the breakfront--Coca-Cola trucks, a Beatles harmonica, Tin Tin figurines, a penguin beanie baby that Cosgrove won playing Strip Bingo at the LGBTQXMGDWZF Community Center, and a Meccano racing car with juicy decals dotting its surfaces. I showed it to Lionel, and he took it, studying it as if it held the answer to some central question. Everyone else just sat there, except Cosgrove picked Fleabiscuit up and set the dog in his lap. No one else is allowed to handle him.


And then the buzzer sounded.


"My my," said Dennis Savage. "I wonder who that could be."


Bentley hunched up a bit, as if he wanted to disappear, and now it really was Quentin. Carlo let him in, and no one said anything as Quentin surveyed the gathering, processing not only his errant boy friend but the valise as well. Moving into the room, Quentin asked Bentley, "You runnin' off somewhere? Because you're gonna come home and face the music."


Suddenly invigorated, Bentley cried, "Oh no, I'm not!"


"First of it, you have nowhere else to go. And second, yes, you will."


"I won't let you trouble me!"


Quentin accepted a glass of sparkling from me and quietly told Bentley, "You're lucky there's folks around." He never looked more big-shouldered and thrilling, but (laying aside the gay talk) one might instead just say that combat veterans are a breed apart. Thank you for your service.


"I'm always cheered when a dangerous hunk enters the scene," said Lionel, "especially when he's pursuing a twisted relationship with a handsome boy. At any other time, I'd dance a jig. But right now I need to redeem Little Nemo, and I'm sorry but one of you needs to adopt him, Yes, it's pushy. It's unforgivable. And you're already dog owners, I see that."


"Actually," I said, "we're the dog's wait staff."


"You're stubborn," Quentin said, addressing Bentley but looking in Lionel's direction. (Lionel much confused.)


"Where's your stupid toothpicks?" cried Bentley. "That you're always chewing on so rudely?"


Quentin stepped toward him, but Bentley moved away, behind the couch, as Carlo warned Quentin, "No rough stuff, chief."


"Save that for later," Quentin replied.


"Please, please, people," Lionel pleaded, "don't hijack the thread. I'm trying to get a home for a very deserving doggie."


"Is he sweet-natured?" Cosgrove asked, while Quentin stared menacingly at Bentley and Bentley continued to defy him with head-high looks and clenched fists. He looked as the Norse god Thor must have in his second-grade Easter pageant.


"Yes, he's sweet-natured," Lionel told Cosgrove. "Sweet as apple candy."


"Where do you plan to live, if not with me?" Quentin asked Bentley.


"I'll find a way! There are some that like me, whatever you say!"


"What's apple candy?" Cosgrove asked.


"Will someone please help?" Lionel cried, almost feebly. "This is a wonderful animal. His poor master is dying, and instead of hoping for a cure he just wants to find his old friend a home. He is a good dog. A noble dog."


"Why is he noble?" Cosgrove asked.


At first Lionel didn't answer. He sighed and worried.  Then: "He was a combat dog in Iraq. Sniffing out enemy munitions or something. So he...well, he saved lives, didn't he? They tend to burn out because the work is so intense, and the noises of war unnerve them. Somehow or other he was brought back here, and then...some program, I don't know. But listen. When you put a dog in a shelter, it breaks him. Because his whole existence is bound up in the relationship with his owner. When you give him up, he feels rejected to the very bottom of his soul. He doesn't understand that you're unable to go on with him. You see these dogs in those cages, not moving and turned away from everything with their head down, all torn up. They have feelings, you know, just like us."


There was a silence, during which Lionel finally set the Meccano racer down on the coffee table. And then Quentin said, "I'll take the dog."


Lionel looked up at him. "You would...really?"


"The boy can look after it, instead of screwing everything else up. I s'pose he could do that much. Got my truck outside, so we can go pick the dog up tonight. If His Highness climbs down from his throne."


"Such a dog will bite you," said Bentley, still the antagonist, "if you try to strike me."


Quentin just shook his head in resignation.


Lionel sprang up. "Okay, then. Let's...let's do the truck and the dog and Clete will...well, he'll be so relieved, and it's...it's sad. But at least Little Nemo is saved."


"What kind of name is that for a combat dog?" Quentin asked. "I recall they're usually Sarge or Runner and the like."


"It's from an old comic strip," I explained. "Nemo was a little boy who dreamed each night of fanciful adventures in the sky, and in the last panel he would awaken back on earth."


Quentin looked at Bentley, his expression saying, Unlike the boy, who never returns from his fanciful adventures. And Bentley looked back, his face a blank.


"I'm Lionel, by the way" was the start of some introductions, whereupon he called his friend on my land line to have him get Little Nemo ready to travel. That would be a farewell I didn't like to think about, but, meanwhile, everyone got up to mill about and Quentin, staring at Bentley, very, very quietly said, "C'm'ere." Bentley came. Behind me, I heard Lionel saying, "No, I don't know them, but they...the names? I...who knows, Tom Sawyer and Robo-Cop..." But I tuned out to watch Quentin take Bentley's hand in his and mime writing letters in his palm. Then Bentley did the same to Quentin--some sort of private ritual, it appeared. Cosgrove was collecting the glasses and Carlo and Dennis Savage were conferring about something or other, but Quentin and Bentley were lost in secret séance.


To washing-up noises in the kitchen, Lionel got off the phone and, for some reason, picked up Bentley's valise, saying, "Let's roll!" Carlo opened the door and then Bentley impulsively threw his arms around Quentin and held on tight. He said, "Don't...don't..." Just that much. But Quentin didn't hold the boy in return. Again most quietly, he said, "No one else can understand," and Bentley relinquished his hold. Lionel marched out, Bentley followed, and Quentin, also leaving, said, "Now it's good," though he never sounds content when he says it.


It was all over but the recaps, and finally bedtime rolled around. Dennis Savage went up to his place, and Carlo told me, "Got something to say to you, Bud." To Cosgrove he added, "Need privacy for this."


"It's about how Quentin and Bentley are father and son, right?" Cosgrove answered. "He told us so riding in the park, and that's as solemn as a pinky swear."


"Young Bentley's always making things up," Carlo told him. "You know that. Scoot, now."


Cosgrove went into the bedroom, but Fleabiscuit dawdled to play spy, and Carlo told him, "Dog, too." So he joined Cosgrove, though he grumbled all the way.


Watching the dog depart, Carlo told me, "Break out the hard stuff. Got something to say."


Vodka on the rocks with lime.


"What it is, Bud," he began, taking across the coffee table from me, "is small-town life. No independence. Everyone knows what you're doing. Sure, it's farms, mostly. Lots of open space and hiding places. But they find you. They know you."


He took a gulp of liquor, swallowed, and drew breath at his leisure.


"High school's about dating. You get wow on a girl, say. And she's wow on you? Check. Next thing," as he put his feet up on the table, stretching out as he unveiled his tale, "she's pregnant. And all the town's after her for the father's name. The name! The name! We will have this name! And why do they need it so?"


Another swallow.


"To make him pay. He's young and interesting and having his fun. Guys in charge? Can't stand that. They hate young. They hate interesting. But you know what they hate most of all?"


"Liberty," I said.


He nodded. Suddenly, he got up and went to my desk, one drawer of which is his, private, absolute. No one else can go there. He fished something out and came over to show it to me.


Half an amulet.


"That's Bentley's," I said. "He said his father has the matching piece."


Carlo shook his head, holding the thing and moving his hand up and down as if weighing it. How light is love?"


"It's not Bentley's," he said. "It's mine, given to me quite some time ago now."


And then it all fell into place. "Quentin really is Bentley's father," I said. "And his lover. Bentley's just guessing, but you've known it all along."


"We were special-close, Bud. He had feelings for me, so he gave me this as a token. To protect me. Care for me. Because he knew he was going to light out of the place before I did."


"Cosgrove," I called out, "stop eavesdropping and go to sleep!"


There was no response, but I did hear rustling; and Fleabiscuit growled a little.


"And now with the boy Bentley," Carlo went on. "Protect or care? Flash by night? Will they hold each other so tender over the years, or is it just housemates taking advantage of a situation?"


"There's this famous story," I said. "They asked Zhou Enlai if the French Revolution was a good thing."


Carlo walked over to the windows and pulled one open; I felt a breeze of cool summer-night air flow in.


"This would be about, say, 1971. And Zhou replied, 'It is too early to say.'"


At which Carlo hurled the amulet into the night.


"Of course," I continued, "some say he was actually talking about the rebellion of 1968, which takes all the air out of the tale."


"Some things are best left unknown," Carlo observed, coming back to me. "Because there are just too many damnhell feelings inside. Too many hopes. Too many Bentleys waiting to be rescued, running around with their bags all packed and their feelings hurt."


He sat again, took up his drink, and gulped down the rest of it. All gone.


"Just like us."