Jeffrey Elder wore the black suit Uncle Phil had suggested he get just after he moved to Lake Polk. "Every businessman should have a black suit. You never know when you'll need it." This was the first time he'd worn it.
The funeral service was short and dignified, Uncle Phil having specified Rite 1 and no Eucharist. Jeff thought it was a damn sight better than the occasional funerals he'd attended at the Baptist church his family belonged to in Ocala. Mostly because there was no long-winded appeal for people to rededicate themselves to Christ under the guise of reflections on the passing of the recently deceased.
Jeff stood, approached the lectern, and began a brief eulogy, hoping to avoid tears. Uncle Buddy should have been the one to do it. He and Phil had been partners for years. But Buddy had passed away a year earlier, so it was up to Jeff. He still remembered Phil's touching tribute at Buddy's funeral. He hoped he could do as well for his uncle. His voice thickened, and he had to swallow and take deep breaths a couple of times while talking about what a loving man Phil had been, but he managed not to cry.
Of course The Family hadn't made the drive to Cypress Haven. They hadn't been expected, even if they were Jeff and Phil's only relatives.
After the memorial service everyone followed the rector outside where Phil's ashes were interred in the church's memory garden. It was a typical Florida October day, sunny, but in the 80's ten degrees cooler than it would have been even a month earlier.
This , Jeff thought, is better than burying the body in a casket. Cleaner. Neater.
The committal ceremony, too, was brief. Jeff, warm now in his dark suit, looked forward to moving into the air-conditioned parish hall for the refreshments offered by the ladies of the church.
He was surprised by the number of people who had come - perhaps 50. Phil was, after all, a gay man who'd lived openly for years with his lover in this very conservative town. He'd been generous in his financial support of the church, however, and even though Jeff had been living in Lake Polk for only six months, he knew many of them. In what was clearly a separate group of about ten or so men he recognized Sam Dudek, who ran the town's hardware store. Sam, just shy of thirty, six feet tall, with pale gray eyes and "dirty blond" hair which he wore in a pony tail. Something in Jeff's chest tightened. A nice piece of man flesh, he thought.
At first he felt ashamed for having such carnal thoughts at Phil's funeral, but then he could hear his uncle saying, "It's okay, Jeffie. He is a nice piece of man flesh!"
Jeff started toward the group to invite them inside and saw that Sam was approaching him.
"Sam, thanks for coming."
Shaking Jeff's hand, Sam said, "Phil was a fine gentleman. We'll miss him."
"These are Phil's friends from the cruise club, aren't they?"
Sam grinned. "We call ourselves the Lake Polk Classics, but, yes, they are." Sam introduced them individually, though Jeff wasn't sure he'd remember all the names a week later.
"We'd like for you to come with us to the parking lot. It'll only take a minute."
When they went around the church, Jeff saw a line of twelve beautiful old cars, some of them classics, some muscle cars, all perfectly restored.
"You all did this as a tribute to Uncle Phil?"
"Guys, I don't know what to say. Phil would have loved it!"
"As I said, we'll miss him a lot."
Jeff reiterated his invitation for the men to come inside. Except for Sam, they all politely refused, saying they had to get back to their various jobs.
"I've got Dad watching the store," Sam said, "so I can come in for a few minutes. I saw some people I'd like to say hello to. The Old Man'll bitch, but he won't really mind. He likes thinking he's still the big boss, and he knows just about everybody that comes in, so he'll like visiting with 'em."
"I wish I had my camera. I'd love to have a picture of that row of cars!"
"Already done. Give me your email and I'll send you the best of what we took."
Jeff took a business card from his wallet, wrote his home email address on it, and gave it to Sam.
"Jeff, you need to bring the Auburn to our monthly cruise nights. I don't think Phil drove it much after Buddy died. That old beauty needs to be fired up once in a while. Besides, we'd like to have you as part of our group."
Jeff grinned. "Are you sure it isn't just the Auburn you'd like to keep in the group?"
"Man, you know better than that!"
"Well, thanks. I'd like to do that, but I can't make any promises. I don't know what's going to happen with Phil's estate. For all I know, the car will be sold along with the house and its contents. I'm pretty sure Phil left everything to some of his favorite charities."
"Okay. So come to our cruise nights anyway. I'd like to see you there."
Something about his look suggested Sam was telling the truth.
"Thanks. That I can do. Right now, though, I'd better get inside. I need to thank the rest of these folks for coming."
Once in the parish hall, the two men were separated as Sam spotted someone he knew and excused himself to go say hello. Jeff caught a whiff of familiar perfume and then found himself the recipient of a tight hug.
"Macey! I didn't know you'd be here. Thanks for coming, sweetie! You didn't need to take off work."
"Don't be silly, Jeff. I have plenty of personal time coming, and I wanted to be here for you."
Macey was the sister Jeff had never had. He'd met her when he went to work at his company's regional office in Cypress Haven and they'd instantly become friends. She was the only person at the office he'd told he was gay.
He noticed once more how good she smelled. Not like a sexy man, but in her own girly way.
"How are you holding up? Your tribute to your uncle was beautiful."
"He was like a father. Much more so than my biological father. And since he was gay he was always there when I had questions or problems. I'm glad we had these past few months together. I just didn't expect him to be taken away so quickly."
"He wasn't all that old, was he?"
"Fifty-eight, actually. And apparently in great health."
"Do early heart attacks run in your family?"
"I don't know. And I'm sure as hell-whoops, heck- not gonna ask my old man."
Aware that he needed to circulate, he asked, "Hey, you wanna have some lunch? That is, if you don't mind hanging around."
"Not today, babe. I only took a half-day off, so I need to get changed into office garb and get back to my desk."
He hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, and thanked her again for being there. Watching as she walked away, he thought wistfully that it might have been nice to be straight.
The gathering inside was smaller now. Like Sam's friends, others had jobs to get to.
A half-hour later there was no one left but Sam; Phil's lawyer, Stan Mason; and Father Pete, the rector of St. John's. Sam came over, obviously to say goodbye. Jeff put out his hand, but Sam pulled him into a hug. It was one of those guy hugs where you leaned forward, patted the other guy on the back three times and made sure there was no contact below the waist. Still it was as welcome as it was unexpected.
"Remember what I said. We want to see you at our monthly cruises. You've got to keep up Phil's Auburn. And let people see it. Think of it as your responsibility."
"I'm almost afraid to touch it." The 1935 Auburn Phaeton had been Phil's most prized possession and favorite toy. He and Buddy had taken it to shows all over Florida.
"Look, if you ever have any questions or need any help, call me at the store. One way or another, we're going to get you involved in our group."
Again, since he had no idea what provisions Phil had made for the car, Jeff couldn't make any promises. Since Stan Mason was lingering, however, obviously waiting to speak with him, he figured that subject was about to come up.
Sam smiled at him, shook hands with the rector, and left.
At that point the rector came up to Jeff and shook his hand. "Jeff, your tribute to Phil was great! We'll all miss him, you know. He's been a generous supporter of the church since I came, and I loved and respected him as an individual."
"Thanks, Father Pete."
"Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have a pastoral call to make."
"Don't let us hold you up," Stan said, giving the minister a warm smile.
Jeff was struck, as he had been in the past, by how sexy Stan was for a man of nearly sixty. About 5'8," he had broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His gray hair was cut quite short, and he wore a closely-trimmed beard. His most striking feature, however, was his mesmerizing cobalt eyes. Jeff's Grandma Grace used to say people with eyes like that were "full of the devil."
As the two walked toward their cars, Stan asked, "Would you be free tomorrow morning to talk about your uncle's will?"
"Sure. I don't have to be back at work until Wednesday. Anytime tomorrow's good with me."
"Great! Doug sends his sincere condolences. He wanted to be here. But he has a Skype conference call with his agent and his publisher that he wasn't able to reschedule."
"I understand. Phil thought the world of both of you guys, and he was looking forward to the publication of Doug's novel."
"Well, Phil was a good friend and an ally. Doug and I will miss him."
"Of course you will."
By this time the two men had arrived at the parking lot.
"I saw the classic car club's tribute cruise in Phil's honor."
"I was floored. Had no idea they were going to do that."
"Those guys were an important part of Phil and Buddy's lives."
Jeff began to sweat, standing in the Florida sun in his black suit. He took off his jacket. Stan, also in a dark suit, looked cool as a cucumber.
"How are you doing? Holding up okay?"
"It's a big house and it seems really empty with Phil gone."
"That's what he said after Buddy died last year."
"Now I know what he meant. Except of course they were lovers, which must have been a lot worse."
"I can imagine."
Stan gave Jeff a hug-a real one -- and, saying they'd see each other the next morning, they went their separate ways, Stan to his office, presumably, and Jeff to the big house on Lake Shore facing Lake Polk.
* * *
Jeff was relaxing in a rocking chair on the screen porch that had resulted when Phil and Buddy had enclosed the patio. The cream stucco house with the red barrel-tile roof sat above the road that circled the lake. He could hear the semis on the highway atop the ridge as they braked for or started up from the traffic light at the intersection where the CVS store and the Catholic Church were located.
Off to his right the sky was still lavender from the remains of the sunset. The amber street lights had come on, making an oval necklace around and reflected in the water.
The air was heavy with the scent of a gardenia near the corner of the porch. Phil had said he never knew when the large bush was going to bloom, that it had a mind of its own. He was reminded of a poem they'd studied in American lit about lilacs and the death of a great man. Lincoln, maybe? Jeff thought fleetingly that the gardenia was blooming to honor Phil, but he dismissed the idea as irrational.
He took a sip of the sweet tea he'd brought out with him after supper. The ice had melted, but it was still cool.
His mind was occupied with thoughts of finding a place to live. He'd become comfortable here in Phil's house, but he assumed it would be sold as part of the estate. Because of the currently-depressed housing market, finding another place would be easy enough. He could pick up something pretty decent for a bargain price. He just hoped that when he saw Stan the next day he'd learn that he had a little time to do some house hunting.
A year ago, he'd never have thought he'd be back in Florida . . . .
* * *
After getting his MBA at Florida State, Jeff had been hired to work in the HR department of UbiCo, one of the nation's largest insurance companies, at its headquarters in Illinois. When he'd been there five years, his boss called him in and offered him the chance to move back to Central Florida, where he'd grown up. The company had a large regional office in Cypress Haven, only about 70 miles south of his home town of Ocala.
Although his relationship with his family was next to non-existent, he really hated the Midwest winters. Besides, the new job came with a promotion and a nice raise. Given that Florida had no state income tax and the cost of living was lower than most other places and that his uncle lived near Cypress Haven in Lake Polk, he didn't hesitate to accept the offer.
When he called Phil with the news, the older man said, "That's great, Jeff. You know that I'm twenty minutes from that UbiCo office. I want you to stay with me until you get acclimated. You can take your time about finding a place of your own."
"I don't want to put you out, Uncle Phil."
"You won't, Jeff. It's been lonely for me here since Bud died. I'll appreciate the company."
Jeff hadn't thought about it that way. He probably would be doing Phil a favor. And it would be good to get his bearings in a new community before deciding where he wanted to live.
So he had stored what furniture he had collected in five years in Illinois and moved in with Uncle Phil. And he'd really enjoyed living with Phil. Since Phil was retired, he had done most of the cooking, though Jeff always made a point of helping with the grocery shopping - and paying his share of the cost.
After six months, Jeff was beginning to feel at home in Lake Polk and at work. He was glad he'd made the move. The only major problem was that he'd spent most of his free time after work and on weekends with Phil. Not that Phil ever let on that he expected that. He was merely a strong, engaging personality who'd always been a mentor and role model. Jeff felt he owed him that.
When Phil had dropped dead of a heart attack in his bank, Jeff had been stunned. He loved Phil, who was the only relative he cared about. His first reaction to Phil's death was a kind of shocked numbness. When that wore off, he felt vulnerable and alone.
The warmth and good wishes he'd received at Phil's service that morning had somewhat reversed that feeling.
Jeff hoped Phil had set things up so he wouldn't have to move out right away. He'd been so content living with his uncle that he really hadn't done any serious house hunting.
He'd find out tomorrow what the deal was.
* * *
As he dressed, he was glad Phil's lawyer was Stan Mason, someone he knew and was comfortable with. It didn't hurt that he was gay, either.
Phil had told him about the events of a few years back when Stan, at that time the new city manager of Lake Polk, had been forced to resign because he and Doug Curtis, his lover, had been spotted kissing in public on Key West, hundreds of miles away. They also left St. John's after Doug had staged some sort of public demonstration in front of the Diocesan cathedral in Waltersburg. Phil explained that the bishop had forced Doug to give up being a lay Eucharistic reader when news got out that he was gay and had a lover.
"Weren't you able to do anything to help them?" Jeff had asked Phil.
"I don't have that much clout, but I would have done what I could. The problem was that Buddy and I were in Australia at the time and didn't hear about it until it was all over." He sipped his bourbon. "But I was instrumental in getting that bigoted son of a bitch bishop to take his retirement and get out of Dodge."
"So Father Pete must be new, too, since Stan and Doug are attending St. John's again."
Phil grinned. "The new bishop decided it was time for a change at St. John's."
"How have the members treated those guys since they came back?"
"With friendliness and respect. The same way they always treated Buddy and me. The problem was with the bishop not the parishioners. And, of course, Stan's being forced to retire was due to the redneck element in town, some of them on the police force, some on the city commission. But they didn't go to St. John's."
Stan's office was in a storefront in downtown Lake Polk. Phil said that neither Stan nor Doug needed money and that Stan had opened an office where he could serve the African-American and Hispanic communities in town.
When Jeff entered, Doug, who'd been sitting at what was obviously the reception desk, stood to greet him. He was wearing a soft green short-sleeve polo shirt and khakis. He was about Jeff's height, just under six feet, with graying hair that still showed some of its original light brown color, and he had dark brown eyes. His build might best be described as wiry.
"Hi, Jeff," he said as the men shook hands. "I'm so sorry about Phil. He was a remarkable man. We'll all miss him."
"Thanks, Doug. I miss him a lot. And I know he thought of you and Stan as good friends."
"I'm sorry I couldn't get to the service yesterday, but those people I was videoconferencing with are impossible to schedule."
"So you have a book coming out soon?"
"In the spring."
"I'll look forward to it. Is this your first?"
"It's my first fiction. I published some scholarly stuff when I was teaching up in Ohio." He put air quotes around scholarly.
Just then a door opened and a short, dark-skinned, black-haired man came out, followed by Stan.
Given the general friendliness of people in small-town Florida, Jeff expected Stan or Doug to make introductions. Instead, Stan put his arm around the man's shoulder and walked him to the door.
"Don't worry about a thing, Leo. We'll get it taken care of, and Doug or I will call you soon."
"Thanks, Señor Stan." The man gave a tentative smile and left.
Stan turned to Jeff. "Some of my clients are concerned about confidentiality. They don't want people to know they're seeing a lawyer. It's often a matter of pride. A man should be able to take care of his own problems. So I figured Leo wouldn't want to know your name, especially if it meant you'd learn his."
"Now, come on in the office." He turned to his lover. "No calls for now, please, Dougie."
Doug rolled his eyes, to suggest, "As if I didn't know," grinned, and sat down at his desk.
Stan's office wasn't shabby. It was clean and light and attractive. But it wasn't designed to impress, either. There were no dark bookcases full of law books. The carpeting was a serviceable beige Berber. There were some watercolors of Florida scenes on the walls. There were no framed diplomas in evidence. It was pretty obvious to Jeff that Stan didn't want to impress his clients with his power or his success. And Stan, like Doug, was wearing a polo and crisp khakis. Jeff did notice, though, that the attorney was wearing expensive Italian loafers.
After they were seated, Stan clasped his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair, grinned, and said, "Take a deep breath. This isn't going to hurt."
Jeff hadn't actually realized how tense he was. One of the attractions of moving back to Florida was being able to live near or, as it turned out, with Phil, who was, to all intents and purposes, his only family. Now the prospect of life in the Lake Polk/Cypress Haven area seemed considerably more barren. He was really going to miss Phil. Busy settling in to his new job, he'd made no close friends other than Macey.
And now he was also going to have to find a place to live. He should have been house hunting from the time he arrived in town, but Phil had always insisted there was no rush. With the estate being probated, however, Jeff was pretty sure Stan was going to tell him he needed to pack his bags and get out.
"Huh? Oh, I'm sorry, Stan." He did as he was told and took a deep breath. Then he did his best to smile back at the handsome older man on the other side of the desk.
"You ready now?"
Stan handed a document in a blue cover across the desk. "You can read this at your leisure, but let me cut through the legalese and tell you what it says, okay?"
"I drew up a will for Phil several years ago. Then last year when Buddy died, he obviously wanted to make some changes. After you moved here, he changed it again. So this is pretty recent, done about three months ago."
"I can understand that probably everything would have gone to Uncle Buddy. After Buddy died, he'd want to leave everything to somebody else. But why change it again after I got here?"
"Duh!" Stan said, eyes sparkling. Without looking at the will lying on his desk, he continued. "Phil made a substantial bequest to St. John's Church. He made two even larger ones to the Point Foundation and the HRC. Do you know what those organizations are?"
"Yeah. Good for Phil!"
"But!" He held up the index finger of his right hand. "There's still something left."
Yeah , Jeff thought, Agatha (which was what Phil called his classic Auburn) and the house.
"He's left you both cars and the house."
Phil had a late-model BMW which he drove most of the time. The Auburn was just for car shows and cruises.
"And!" Stan held up his finger again. "Here's what he said. He loved you, Jeff. He considered you his only remaining family, and after Buddy was gone, he wanted to be extra certain that you weren't at the mercy of your parents.
"I'm surprised they aren't here contesting the will."
"I made it clear to them that the will was rock solid and that they'd be wasting their money on legal fees."
"So you've been in touch with them?"
Stan rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah! You have my sympathy."
"Sorry you had to deal with them."
He grinned. "Goes with the job." He put a hand on the blue-jacketed will lying on his desk, though he didn't actually read from it. "Phil's point, as you'll see from this letter," (he produced a document from a folder and put it on top of the will) "is that he hoped you would continue to live in the house. And he insists that a part of your accepting the inheritance is that you will keep the Auburn running and take it to at least four car shows or cruises a year. He's supplied the name of a classic car shop in Sebring that takes care of its maintenance and repair."
Jeff swallowed. "But I don't think I make enough to keep up that house and the two cars."
Stan smiled again. He did have amazing eyes. "He realized that. You're free to sell the Beamer as soon as the estate goes through probate. And he's left a trust fund. Not enough for you to retire and live on, but enough to pay the taxes and maintenance on the Auburn and the house on Lake Shore."
"I can't believe he left me the house and Agatha. And enough money to keep them up."
"He loved you, Jeff. He knew what you went through with your parents, and he was proud that you'd gotten your graduate degree and a good job with UbiCo. Besides, he told me the last time I saw him that he was so glad he'd invited you to move in with him. He said you were a good man and he wanted only the best for you."
"Damn!" Jeff couldn't help tearing up. "I wish I could have him back. Forget about the house and cars and trust fund."
"As I said, you won't be able to live off the trust fund, but it will keep the house and car from being a financial burden."
Jeff nodded, unable to speak. Not so much because of the tangible legacy from his uncle, but just to know there had been someone in his life that cared that much about him.
Stan had some papers for Jeff to sign. He explained that it could take months before the probate process was completed.
"Why so long?"
"If you were Phil's spouse, things would go a lot more quickly. As it is, the house and its contents will have to be appraised, and there's the usual legal red tape."
"Phil designated me the executor, so you won't have to worry about any of that stuff. I'll be in touch regularly to keep you posted on what's going on. Meanwhile, as a result of one of those forms you just signed, you can write checks on the trust account for things like lawn care, utilities, and the like. Property taxes will be due soon, but I'll take care of that."
Stan hesitated. Then he grinned. "There is a stipulation in the will you'll have to help me with."
"It concerns something he wanted to leave to your parents."
"Oh?" Jeff was surprised, considering that his father and Phil hadn't spoken in years.
"Uh huh. He wants them to have his dildo collection."
Jeff laughed. "Seriously?"
"Yup. It isn't in the will, but he told me they're in the bottom of the armoire in his bedroom."
"And you want me to send them to my . . . parents?"
"If you'll gather them up and put them in a box of suitable size, Doug will see that they get mailed with our return address, just to keep it all legal and everything."
Chuckling, Jeff said, "Man, how I'll enjoy doing that!"
Stan stood and came around his desk. Jeff stood also, and they went to the outer office.
"Now, Jeff, you're a neighbor, a client, and, I hope, a friend. Doug and I'll be seeing a lot of you. In fact, I think there's something he wants to ask you."
"Yes," Doug said. "Are you free to come to supper Friday evening? Very casual. Stan and I will probably be in shorts."
"Sure. I'd love that. Thanks, guys. What time should I arrive?"
"Oh, sixish. Are you a wine drinker?"
"Sometimes. With food. Can I bring anything?"
"Not necessary. We'll look forward to seeing you then. And don't hesitate to call if you have questions about the estate. If Stan's not here I usually am. If not, try us at home."
As he walked back to his car Jeff wondered how Doug had found time to write a novel if he was working full time as Stan's receptionist/paralegal.
After lunch he decided to find the dildos. When the lawyer had mentioned them, Jeff had envisioned some pink latex phalluses, with probably, depending on how kinky Phil and Buddy had been, some black ones mixed in. What he found, however, were true collectibles. Fifteen items in all, of varying sizes and shapes. But no plastic. One was glass. Three were metal, one chrome, one stainless steel, and one silver plated. Several were of various woods of different grains and textures. The rest were of beautifully polished stone. The prize of the collection, to Jeff, was of green marble. Each of these could conceivably be used as a dildo, but it would have been a desecration to do so. They were works of art. Phil had never mentioned this collection, but Jeff could imagine him and Buddy assembling it over the years.
He was wondering with amusement what his mother and father would think of them when the doorbell rang.
He went downstairs and opened the door. Standing there was a diminutive black woman. He'd never seen her before, but he knew who she was because Phil had spoken of her often. It was just that Jeff was always at work when she came to the house.
"Hi, you're Ms. Chestnutt, aren't you?" Jeff knew to pronounce it cheznitt. "Please come in."
"I'm just Etta, Mr. Jeff."
"And I'm just Jeff, Etta."
"I'm so sorry about your uncle. He was a fine gentleman."
"Yes, he was, thanks. Would you like to sit down? Can I get you some sweet tea?"
"No, thank you. That won't be necessary. I just came by to see if you want me to keep on cleanin'."
"Um, yes, I think so. Whatever you've been doing, I'd like you to continue."
They talked a few minutes about what Etta did and didn't do. She didn't, for example, do windows. They were something that her son Rodney did spring and fall.
"My regular day to clean the house is Thursday, and I'd like to keep that if you don't object, Mr. - Jeff."
"No, that'll be fine." Thinking with some horror about what was spread over Phil's bed, he was relieved that she didn't want to work that day. "You must have a key."
"Yes, to the back door." She nodded her head vigorously. "And I know the code for the security system."
In response to his inquiry, he learned that Phil had always left her money - cash - on the buffet in the dining room. He made a mental note to ask Stan if the housecleaning would come under the heading of maintenance so far as the will was concerned.
After Etta had gone, he went back upstairs and surveyed the things on Phil's bed. He'd need to wrap each item separately, and he'd have to find a suitable box. He was afraid his mother might throw it all in the trash when she opened the package, but he wanted to be sure everything at least arrived there in good shape.
At supper time he didn't feel like cooking. Besides, there wasn't much in the house; he hadn't been to Publix since Phil's death. So he went to a local sports bar, had fish and chips with a draft beer. There were ten flatscreen TVs suspended from the ceiling, offering a choice of sporting events, but Jeff found the other diners/drinkers more interesting. He never tired of people watching.
And then he went back to the big empty house on Lake Shore. If there had been a functional dildo in the bunch that evening he might have used it. He hadn't had sex involving another person since he'd moved to Lake Polk, six months ago. And he'd never experimented with a dildo.
After it got dark, he poured himself a bourbon and sat on the porch. He had to return to work the next morning, where he'd have to accept the condolences of the HR staff, where there'd be a pile of accumulated paperwork on his desk. And where Macey would want an update on everything that had happened in his life since the funeral. He smiled as he thought about how much she'd love the bit about the dildos.
He didn't know it had gotten so late until he realized the sounds of traffic on the highway atop the ridge behind him had diminished markedly.
Tired when he hit the bed, he went to sleep quickly. His last waking thought was not about dildos or mounds of paperwork, but about the gray eyes of Sam Dudek.