God, he thought to himself as he reached the door, this corridor could haunt a guy's mind forever. Pushing the door open, he entered the room that he'd been dreading. A strip of partially-lit fluorescent lights suspended about two feet below the unpainted plaster ceiling encircled the large room, giving it a cold, eerie, green cast - almost ethereal - making the temperature seem colder than it actually was. Even if the place hadn't been unusually chilly, David Stanley would have been shivering. He'd never had reason to be inside the Atlanta City Morgue before. In fact, for that matter, he'd never had an occasion to visit any morgue before; but here he was… like it or not.
He steeled himself mentally as the autopsy tech opened the stainless steel door, behind which his brother Mark laid. As the slab was withdrawn from the refrigerated portion of the room, its sound seemed to echo in David's brain. Then David's eyes had to register the sight lying before him - a sight that imprinted itself on his sensibilities for all time to come.
Mark's body lay naked, not even covered by a sheet. It appeared cold, hard… frozen. David took his first glimpse of his younger brother, who was all of nineteen years of age. Only nineteen and gone already! The corpse was frail, and appeared to be as fragile as a porcelain figurine. The face was gaunt with sallow cheeks and dark splotches below the closed eyes. Mark gasped, and his knees nearly buckled, as he tried his best to recognize the colorless cadaver, which only a couple of years ago had been covered with toned, tanned muscles. How in God's name could this have happened to his brother, the person that David had loved his whole life?
What if the Georgia DMV hadn't found Mark's driver's license, and been able to trace his name and fingerprints back to River Oaks, Virginia?
What would have happened, if no one had researched Mark's now expired auto insurance and found David's name listed as next of kin? Would Mark's body have stayed indefinitely in the morgue? Would his body have been handed over to one of the state's medical schools? Would they have buried it in a potter's field in Fulton County, or worse yet, would they simply have cremated his remains and stored them in a cardboard box beside those of hundreds of other unidentified persons? Would it make any difference to their parents now that Mark was dead? Would they admit caring?
Neil Stanley, Mark and David's father, and Meg, their mother, had disowned Mark the night they found out Mark was gay. His father was so angry; he wouldn't allow Mark to pack any of his clothes or personal effects before he threw Mark out of the house… literally. Mark, only seventeen at the time, had just graduated high school the week before, when his father went into Mark's room unannounced, and found him with his best friend Luke Sparks, naked and engaging in male intercourse. The older man had flown into a rage and ordered Luke to leave, telling Luke that he would notify his parents of his obscene and lewd behavior. Next, the self-styled patriarch demanded that Mark leave the house immediately… and never return.
Mark had been embarrassed, ashamed, angry… hurt; but he felt lucky to have time to hurriedly put on a pair of jeans with no underwear, a pullover shirt, socks, shoes, and a jacket, before he ran down the stairs and out the door to his car, where he sped away with no idea of where he should go.
David had been unaware of the happenings at his dad's house. He no longer lived there, having just graduated college. And he now had his own apartment on the other side of town. Although, the two brothers had always been close, David had often wondered if his brother might be gay, but had never known for certain. David hadn't learned of Mark's departure, or the reason behind it, until Sunday, four days later, when David brought Sandy Gunter, his fiancée, for dinner. Noticing that Mark wasn't home, David asked his dad about Mark's whereabouts, but got no reply. A frozen silence following his question told him not to inquire further. It was an hour later, when his mother finally took David into the kitchen to tell him privately what had transpired Wednesday night between Mark and his dad.
David was shocked at the news at first, but knew instinctively that his mom and dad could never accept Mark's homosexuality - a man lying with another man, as with a woman? There was an established tenet in all Southern Baptist churches - an ironclad rule - that allowed for no exceptions. Mark had committed the unpardonable sin, and was now forever unworthy of redemption.
Almost a month passed after the family crisis, before David heard from his brother. On a long-distance phone call from Atlanta, David listened to Mark's dilemma, and begged his brother to return home, saying that he, David, would try to mediate the family problem and help heal the wounds, if possible. Mark refused, telling David that he would never return home… that he no longer had a home. He told his older brother that he loved him, but if he ever wanted to see him again, it would have to be in Atlanta - River Oaks ceased to exist for Mark. And he insisted that his big brother NOT tell their parents where he was living.
Finally, acceding to his wishes, David asked Mark if he needed some money. He would send whatever Mark needed. Mark agreed, but on the condition that it was a loan, not a gift. Mark wouldn't give David an address where he could be reached, but asked David to wire a thousand dollars to Western Union in the form of a money gram.
And that was the last time the two brothers ever spoke. True to his word, David never mentioned the conversation, or the loan, to either his mom or dad. To the parents, Mark was dead. To them, it was as if Mark had never existed.
Now two years later, Mark was indeed dead. After the phone call telling David of Mark's demise, David took the next flight to Atlanta, where he talked with the medical examiner, only to learn from the ME that Mark had died of hepatitis C. Dismayed at the news, and torn between bitterness and a need for revenge, the older brother reflected on how the announcement would affect his religiously zealous parents. He initially thought to call them with the information, asking if they'd wish to bring their son home for burial, but changed his mind when he saw his brother's emaciated corpse. He realized that it was up to him, the older brother, to lay his younger brother's body to rest.
After making the necessary inquiries, David learned that Mark had been on Social Security disability for over six months, and was eligible for the standard $255 stipend toward his burial. David had nearly ten-thousand dollars in the bank, money that he had saved as his and Sandy's nest egg, before the two of them broke off their relationship. Later Sandy met and married a marine, who was now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, fighting Bush's war. So, he could now use that money to buy a casket; but the question was where would he bury Mark... in Georgia or Virginia? Did Mark have any close friends here - a boyfriend perhaps? David knew absolutely nothing about Mark's life in Atlanta, and although, he didn't mind spending money on Mark's funeral, it would almost be a waste to put out all of his cash for a rite that no one would see or attend... or even care about, he sadly realized.
David told the morgue supervisor that he'd make arrangements to have Mark's body picked up as soon as he could make arrangements and do a little investigation concerning Mark's assets… assuming there were any. David was able to get Mark's listed address off the death certificate. Of course, Mark lived on Peachtree Street... or at least one of them. It was true, nearly half of the goddamned thoroughfares in Atlanta seemed to be named Peachtree... North Peachtree, South Peachtree, Peachtree Street, Lane, Avenue, and on and on. David handed a slip of paper with the address to the taxi driver; let the cabbie locate the right Peachtree, if that was possible. David figured he could spend the night at Mark's place... if not, he'd take another taxi to a hotel.
As the cab driver drove through various Atlanta neighborhoods heading toward Mark's address, David noticed that the quality of the residences was diminishing from affluent, to middle class, to houses that could barely be above the 'to be condemned' level... broken shutters, peeling paint, even an occasional broken window pane. Finally, the taxi stopped.
After double checking the house number, "This is it," the cab driver said, while giving the domicile a once-over. Turning to David, he asked, "Are you sure this is the right address, buddy?"
"If that's the one written on the piece of paper I gave you, it is," David replied.
"I... I... well, would you like me to wait? I hope you don't mind me saying so, but this is rather a rough neighborhood. I can't really vouch for how safe it is."
"If this... this is where my brother was living, I... I don't think my brother was ever attacked or assaulted, so it must be safe enough…" His voice drifted off into silence
"Still, all the same, friend; I don't know if I'd drive through here at night, much less walk around unprotected."
"I... I'll just walk up to the door and see if anyone answers. Perhaps, if you don't mind... would you stick around for a couple of minutes... you know, just in case?"
"I don't mind... and I can't say I blame you."
David noticed the taxi meter read $14.60 as he handed a twenty dollar bill and a five to the driver. "Take this and keep the meter running. I won't be long... maybe; and on the other hand, if no one is home, you'll still be here, and you can take me to a hotel."
Cautiously, David got out of the cab and took a look at the gray two-story house facing him. God, it could have passed as a smaller version of Norman Bates' house behind the motel in "Psycho"!
Jesus ! David thought, How in hell could Mark live...much less die... in such a dump? How long did he live here? Surely to God, he must've had a roommate. He couldn't have stayed here by himself...? Could he?
The steps leading up to the porch were wooden and old. A couple of steps were missing, and a few others were rotting with age… weather... or perhaps termites. The floor of the semi-veranda was in the same dilapidated state. The front door contained a glass panel, covered inside with a yellowed, brocaded curtain. David tried to push the doorbell, but found it to be covered with so many layers of old paint that the button couldn't be pressed. David knocked on the doorframe around the glass, shaking the whole structure. He was afraid to rap louder for fear the glass might fall out.
No one inside responded, so David knocked a second time a little bit louder, and finally, heard the sound of footsteps inside approaching the door. A young man about Mark's age pulled back the door curtain and peered at David before opening the creaking door. He was dressed in old washed-out jeans with a worn spot at the knees, and a faded Emory University sweat shirt. Although he was badly in need of a haircut, as the brown locks spilled over his forehead, David could see he was nice-looking, or at least could be with a slight makeover.
"Yes? Can I help you?" the young man asked cautiously.
"Is this where Mark Stanley lives?" David replied.
"Yes, it is... or rather... it was…" the young man answered, his voice trailing off as he finished his sentence.
"I... I'm David... David Stanley... Mark's brother."
"Oh, hi, I'm Steve... Steve Barrows," the young man said, offering his hand to David. "David... you didn't have to tell me you were Mark's brother. When I saw you, I thought I was hallucinating for a minute. You look so much like Mark... only... well, healthier, I mean..."
There was a moment of silence, as each took time to give the other the once-over, sizing the other up.
"Would you like to come in?"
"Yes... yes, if I may... just let me go get my luggage, and tell the taxi driver he can leave."
David walked to the edge of the porch, down the shaky stairs to the waiting driver, and got his bag, telling the cabbie it was all right for him to leave. The driver took one last long, doubting look, straining his neck to see who had answered the door, before he drove away somewhat apprehensively. He worried about leaving his passenger in a bad neighborhood, but was a bit relieved that he himself was able to return to a safer area of town.
David turned, climbed the stairs again, and followed Steve into the house. The inside looked almost as bad as the exterior. The low lighting seemed to be losing a battle with the darkness that impinged. Wallpaper that was ready to peel covered the walls. The furniture, nice as it might have been at one time, was now old, dusty, torn, and worn. There were two couches and two non-matching chairs in the living room facing an old TV set so old that it predated remote controls, the channels having to be changed manually. David had never seen a rabbit-ear antenna before... except in old movies. As his eyes surveyed the surroundings, he felt as if he'd walked through a time machine, and it was sometime in the 1950s or 60s. The room was redolent with stale air and mildew. It really wasn't that cold, but David shuddered, feeling an unexplained chill anyway. He had no intention of staying the night, but as long as he was there, he might as well learn all he could about Mark's mysterious past two years from Steve.
"I... I would offer you something to drink, but I'm afraid I'm out of everything, except tap water," Steve said. "Won't you have a seat?"
"Thanks... I'm fine. I don't want anything to drink."
"I'll have some soda when the Meal Buggy Buddies come by in a couple of hours..."
"Meal Buggy Buddies? Is that like 'Meals on Wheels?'"
"Similar, but it's funded entirely from the local Catholic diocese... no government funds… and therefore, no supervision needed to say who is, and who isn't qualified to get free meals."
"Pardon my... well, my impertinence, but... do you qualify?" David asked reticently.
"Is that your way of asking whether or not I'm sick?"
"If you want to know if Mark and I had the same illness, the answer is 'no'. Mark had 'hep C'. Me, I got AIDS. And as long as we lived together, we had to be extra careful that I didn't get any of his germs. With my immune system almost at ground zero, I would've died from his disease before he did."
"Then Mark wasn't... HIV positive?"
"As far as I know, no; he was spared that! Still, he died... excuse me... he passed away just the same."
"Can I be nosey and ask if you and Mark were... what? Boyfriends?"
"Boys? Yes. Friends? Yes, through and through. But boyfriends? Lovers? No way. We might have been, under different circumstances. That's not to say that we didn't love each other, because we did."
"How... how did the two of you... y'know... get together?"
"We used to hang out at the same club... well, it's more like a bar - a gay bar - the Very Close Vane. I... I got HIV over two years ago. I had a hell of a hard time getting my Medicaid approved, and by the time I did, my HIV had already gone into full-blown AIDS."
"How... how long was Mark sick? I mean, when did he find out about the hepatitis?"
"About eight or nine months ago... around two months before we moved into this place together."
"Did he have trouble getting Medicaid or Medicare?"
"No, the Catholic group who came by to start my meals helped him out. There's this young priest, who's like an assistant at the church... I call him Father Chris. He did all the leg and paperwork for Mark, and got him approved within a couple of weeks."
"There was no medicine or treatment that could help Mark?"
"You, uh, don't know much about gay diseases, do you?"
"I'm sorry, but I guess I'm as ignorant as most heterosexuals, when it comes to things like that."
"Yeah, Mark said you were straight."
"Did he... did he talk much about me?"
"Enough to know that he loved you more than anyone else in his life. He told me about his dad kicking him out of the house, and that he'd been on his own ever since."
"I... I didn't know about that until a few weeks after it happened. I don't live at home anymore."
"Any rate... back to the diseases. What most people don't know is that 'hep C' is more rampant now than new cases of HIV. It's easier to catch, and the symptoms stay hidden almost until it's too late to do anything about them. HIV is transmitted through body fluids, but 'hep C' can be contracted on a drinking glass, or sometimes, touching something as simple as a doorknob. It doesn't matter if you exchange body fluids of not. Lots of gays get it from giving blowjobs or rimming. Oh, shit! I mean I'm sorry. I shouldn't speak so plainly to a person I've just met."
"That's OK. I guess I have a lot to learn."
"Still, I'm sorry."
"Steve, did Mark suffer a lot?"
"You want the truth?"
"He's gone, what difference should the truth make now?"
"Then... yes, he did. At first, he had a lot of nausea and diarrhea. The meds he got from the clinic stopped his puking and diarrhea, but they constipated him. His mid-section would swell up; and Mark got tired of trying to digest food; so he stopped eating. I... and Father Chris did all we could to make Mark drink broth or bouillon, but even that made him sick. He began to lose weight rapidly... and along with that, he became very weak. As of last month, he couldn't even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I did all I could to keep him and his bed clean, but I knew I was risking getting his disease by tending to him... hands on... if you know what I mean."
"He had lots of pain?"
"Tremendous pain," Steve replied, his eyes welling with tears, as in his memory, he relived the last few weeks with Mark. "David, I wanted to contact you, but Mark didn't want you to see him in his condition. The night he died, the paramedics came, and the cops came with them. I gave the cops Mark's wallet, and asked them if they could somehow contact you."
"They did... through the Georgia DMV, and an insurance card with me listed as Mark's next of kin."
"David, would it be all right if I asked what you plan to do with Mark? I mean... are you gonna have a funeral? Or are you gonna try to ship his body home?"
"I... I don't know yet, Steve. This happened so fast. It's still like some kind of nightmare. I... I know I should call Mom and Dad... but then again... I'm not sure if that's the right thing to do - they might just hang up on me."
"I understand the situation. I don't think my parents would want an AIDS-laden corpse sent to them when I go." Steve paused to inhale a deep breath. "I suppose parents like mine and Mark's think we dug our own graves by being gay and getting sick; and I guess, he and I are meant to lie in them."
"Steve, I don't feel the same way about Mark as my parents. He was my brother, and I love him... loved him.... no, dammit, I love him!"
"IF you want to have some kind of service for him, I'm sure Father Chris would say a mass for him."
"But Mark wasn't Catholic, was he? Or did he convert?"
"No, but that wouldn't matter to Father Chris. He learned to love Mark as much as I did. Mark was just one of those guys that EVERYONE loved from the moment they first met him... handsome and cute; and he had a winning smile and personality that could charm the panties off the Queen of England."
"Then I suppose he had a lot of boyfriends?" David asked hesitatingly.
"You mean 'boy friends' like myself, or 'boyfriends' like sex partners?"
"I guess I was prying about sex partners. Were there many?"
"Nope, not really. Mark was not one who liked quick sex, be it a roll-in-the-hay or a one-night stand. He said he couldn't give his body, or himself to someone he didn't love, or at least care strongly about."
"Was there a certain 'one' in Mark's life, Steve; someone really special?"
"A couple, yeah... one in particular... Randy Carpenter."
"What happened to him? Is he still alive or sick?"
"As far as I know, he's as healthy as Brad Pitt."
"Then Randy didn't give the hepatitis to Mark?"
"No way. As soon as Mark was diagnosed, Randy faded away from Mark's life as quick as an Arizona sunset - the bastard!"
"You didn't like him?"
"Sure… when he and Mark were going together about a year ago, they were like two lovebirds. Everyone who loved Mark, loved Mark's lover, Randy; but months later, when Mark became really sick, Randy wouldn't so much as come by for a visit."
"How do you think he kept from getting sick when Mark did?"
"That's a mystery none of Mark's friends can understand."
"I mean, if the condition is as contagious as you say...?"
"Beats the hell out of me, why Mark got it and Randy didn't!"
"I wish I could talk to Randy," David said.
"Personally, I'd like to knock the shit out of him... if you'll pardon my being blunt."
"That's OK. Your response is how you feel, so don't apologize for it."
"David, pardon my manners, I expect you just came from the airport, would you like to use the john or something. At least, the plumbing here still works."
"Thanks, maybe in a few minutes."
"Listen, I know this place isn't the Omni Towers or the Ritz Carlton, but if you want to spend the night, we do have a guest room. Of course, there's Mark's room... GODDAMMIT! What's wrong with me? I just can't get used to the fact that Mark is gone. SHIT! I'm sorry, David," Steve shouted, as the tears he'd been holding inside suddenly emerged, and he broke down and cried.
David was suddenly aware that Steve's grief over Mark's death was just as deep, or even deeper than his own. Without hesitation, David went to Steve and put his arms around the boy, as Steve turned sobbing on David's shoulder. David had never held a man in his arms before...not even Mark when the two of them were kids or teenagers, but it seemed like the natural thing to do. David had no fear of catching AIDS from an embrace---that much he knew about the disease. He lifted his right hand to the back of Steve's head and stroked Steve's hair slowly and tenderly, as a mother would trying to calm her child.
Steve's open display of sorrow loosened David's emotions, and David found himself crying as well... not as loudly as Steve, but crying just the same.
The only other person David had held this way since Sandy was Jenny, his present fiancée. The thought of her, rushed a thousand feelings into David's psyche. He hadn't bothered to call her about his going to Atlanta, or about Mark's death. If he did call her, would she promise not to tell his parents about Mark? Better yet, maybe she could 'slip' and let Neil and Meg know about Mark, so David could be spared that task.
There were so many decisions David had to make by himself, and there was so little time in which to make them! ' DAMN! What should he do about a funeral… Mark's body… a casket… a burial plot? And where - here in Atlanta or back in Virginia? Would his parents' friends and neighbors find out about Mark? Would Neil and Meg be embarrassed by having a gay son, who died of a nasty disease; or even worse in the parents' eyes---what if everyone in Virginia learned the truth of how Neil had thrown his own son away like a sack of garbage?' A line from A Streetcar Named Desire crept into his mind...'Sometimes there's God...quickly', and the phrase seemed to fit his situation.
Steve remained in David's arms until his sobbing subsided. Then realizing his position, he looked away and wiped his eyes with his fingers. Slowly, he backed away from David, and once again found himself saying, "I'm sorry."
"Steve, for God's sake, stop saying that. You don't have to be sorry about anything... especially, not to me. I should be on my knees thanking you for all you did for my brother... things I should have been here to do. I... I'll always feel guilty, while at the same time, I'll be eternally indebted to you for doing what really should have been my job."
"David, Mark did as much for me as I did for him." Steve whispered. "What I couldn't do for myself, he did for me; or we somehow managed to get it done together."
"I'm sure you were a great comfort and support for each other."
"I guess I was apologizing for... well, I sorta lost myself in your arms. That must have been a strange feeling for you."
"Strange? No… no, I wouldn't say that... a first-time experience, perhaps; but I didn't feel uncomfortable, if that's what you're concerned about."
"I... I... well... no... no one has held me like that since... since... I can't remember when. It sorta opened up an emotional floodgate, as I remembered what it used to feel like to be loved."
"You... you never had a lover?" David asked.
"Oh, sure, lots of 'em. My collection of lovers was like the Martha Stewart towels at Kmart... all sizes… all colors."
"Not just one... one that you stayed with for a long time?"
"Hell, no! The sons-of-bitches kept dying on me. Damn! I was the sickest of the lot - still am, I guess - and fuck, I've outlived every last one of them."
"They all had the same illness as you?"
"Where do you think I met them all? AIDS clinics! AIDS support groups! AIDS parades! Hell, I was the sweetheart of the AIDS benefit ball! Everyone thought like me, that I'd be the next to die. I think everyone who thought that is gone now... seems I've looked down into a thousand caskets the past few years."
Through Stve's last speech, David found himself smiling. . He didn't know how he had done it; but in spite of Steve's traumatic life, he had maintained a sense of humor. Mark must have liked living with Steve, David thought, and once again, David felt grateful to Steve.
"David, you didn't tell me if you wanted to spend the night here... I couldn't blame you if you chose not to. But it's still cheaper than a hotel. I'm sure Father Chris will have enough extra food to feed you."
"Steve, no! I'm not taking food from someone, who needs it and can't afford to buy it."
"Hey, there's always plenty left, because most people to whom it's offered, turn it down. It's pretty bad, but I wouldn't say that to Father Chris; primarily, because I think he's in charge of the kitchen where it's cooked. You know... don't fuck a gift horse in the... oops! There I go again."
David laughed in spite of himself. "If I decide to spend the night... you sure you won't mind?"
"David, the last time I spent a whole evening with a straight man... well, it was a long time ago - back when I could run!"
"Excuse me? Run?"
"Yeah, his wife caught us, and chased me across two counties before I lost her."
"Steve, you ARE funny!"
"You mean... funny 'ha-ha,' or funny 'queer?'"
"I meant... oh, skip it! Yes, I really would like to stay the night."
"That's not only the best offer---it's the first offer I've had in years. And I do have clean sheets and linens for the guest bed."
"Please don't go to any special trouble on my account."
"David, at this point in my life, or early death, there's nothing, and I do mean nothing I wouldn't do to accommodate an all-night guest... no offense intended."
"And none taken," David smiled. "Can I make the bed? I learned to do that at college… my mom would never let Mark or me do it when we lived at home."
The sound of footsteps trudging on the wooden step up to the porch interrupted them.
"Oh! That must be Father Chris and three of his elves, Donder, Comet, and Cupid."
"You don't actually call them by those names, do you?"
"Only when they're not bringing me food."
"Not that it matters, but are they gay, too?"
"Isn't everyone? Present company excluded, of course!" Steve retorted.
"Surely not Father Chris! He's a Catholic priest!"
"Doesn't your CBS station carry '60 Minutes' in Virginia? Don't tell me you didn't believe all those stories about altar boys receiving thousands of blowjobs; then years later, deciding that they were really prostitutes, and wanted to be paid millions for their services!"
"Oh, he's never been accused or caught, but I'm sure he's as gay as pink angel hair on an Easter bunny! Only, for God's sake, don't let on that I mentioned it!" Steve quickly opened the door and exclaimed, "Hello, Father Chris...and hello to Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar... bearers of gifts!
The priest and the three young men accompanying him spoke to Steve as they entered, and each took his turn giving David the once-over before Steve made the introductions.
"David, this is Father Chris and three of his volunteer helpers, Andy, Tommy, and Jeff. Guys, this is David, Mark's older brother from Virginia."
The three boys' hands were filled with Tupperware dishes and boxes, but Father Chris walked over to David and put out his hand.
"David, I'm so sorry about your loss. I... well, rather we all loved Mark."
"Thanks, Father," David replied as he stared deeply into the priest's eyes. He doesn't look gay,' David said to himself, but quickly asked himself, What the hell does that mean? What does 'gay' look like?
Father Chris couldn't have been more than a couple of years older than David. Chris was about the same height and weight; and anyone, gay or straight, could see that he was good-looking with facial features that reminded David of a young Robert Wagner, back when he was married to Natalie Wood, and before Chris Walken. Father Chris' handshake was firm and masculine, which probably stemmed directly from his broad muscular shoulders. David looked at him, wondering why such a handsome man would deny himself a beautiful woman by taking the vow of chastity in the priesthood, let alone being gay. Surely, Steve had been kidding about Father Chris, but there was something about this holy man, which exuded a comforting warmth that David felt immediately, as the two of them shook hands.
Father Chris continued, "I don't know your plans, nor is it any of my business, but if there's anything I can do to help you with Mark's arrangements, please let me know."
"I'm still undecided, Father; but I do appreciate your offer."
"Steve and I talked earlier this morning about the possibility of some kind of service in Mark's memory. He... he had lots of friends."
"Especially, the gang at the 'Vane.'"
"I... I don't know about the funeral, or even if there's going to be one, but a memorial get-together for his friends would be nice. Thank you, Father."
"Then you don't know how long you'll be in Atlanta?"
"Father, at this point, I don't know anything."
"May I make a humble inquiry, by asking if you have a place to stay? I mean, are you staying at one of the downtown hotels?"
"Just before you and your young friends arrived, Steve offered to let me stay here... for this evening anyway."
"Too bad, Father, I saw him first!" Steve blurted out without thinking. His remark caused both David and Father Chris to blush. "Damn! Now why did I say that?"
"Steve, pardon me, but I think it's time for another of your 'I'm sorrys,' David interjected.
"Perhaps you're right... NO, I know you're right! Father, David! I am truly sorry for saying that and speaking out of turn."
"Apology accepted," David said.
"Steve, that's certainly not the worst faux pas you've ever made. Knowing you as long as I have, I should be accustomed to them by now," Father Chris chided gently.
"I suppose I could blame my behavior on the aroma of the delicacies you've brought. My mind becomes intoxicated with the essences of fois gras and truffles, not to mention the magnum of Dom Perignon. What's on the menu tonight, Andy?"
"Father made a big pot of chicken and dumplings, some broccoli, pinto beans, and apple turnovers."
"Oh, broccoli!" Steve replied with false enthusiasm. "Thank God! I was sure one of you had farted! But no! It'll be me doing the farting, after I've eaten broccoli and pinto beans!" he grinned. Then Steve turned to look at his guest for the evening. "David, you might not want to spend the night. Broccoli farts smell bad enough, but when someone with AIDS, farts both broccoli and pinto beans...that might result in another tragedy for your parents."
The occasion of Mark's death should have been somber, but Steve had unintentionally come out of his shell of masked grief, and had everyone in the room laughing almost hysterically.
Then Chris spoke to David, trying to maintain some form of dignified decorum, "David, usually we bring plenty of food in the SUV, but I'm afraid we only had one meal left... I don't know if you have plans for dinner, but I would be honored if you would accompany me for a meal."
"You mean at the church kitchen?"
"Oh, no, there are a few nice restaurants toward the other end of Peachtree."
"Hey, Father Chris!" Steve interjected. "You've never invited me to a restaurant. Do you think you'd be embarrassed to be seen in public with me because of the way I look?"
"Of course not, Steve... you look fine - but the way you act? That's another sermon." The young priest smiled.
David looked at Steve, "You wouldn't mind if I went to dinner with Father Chris? I mean, maybe he could help me with my decisions."
"Only if you don't stay out late, and don't forget to wear your galoshes!" Steve replied, openly showing his joking attitude.
"I'll help you make my bed when I return, Steve... so please, don't try to do it without me."
"If my body is lying in the floor when you return, just step over it the way all you northerners do." he quipped, in his best Scarlet O'Hara voice.
"Steve, Virginia is part of the south, you know. We're below the Mason-Dixon Line, in case you've forgotten your geography!"
"Mason-Dixon line? Is that like the Oscar de la Renta line, or the Calvin Klein line, .or Versace? No! He's dead... Andrew Cunnilingus killed him."
"David, why don't you get a jacket or change clothes, if you like. We'll wait. Steve will entertain us while you're getting ready."
"Yes, don't hurry, David," Steve said. "I'll gulp down the broccoli and pinto beans, and fart the '1812 Overture' for el Padre y los muchachos."
Everyone was laughing as Steve pointed the way to the guest room. David quickly went in, opened his suitcase, and donned a fresh pair of slacks, a pullover shirt, and a jacket. Then he returned to the living room, and everyone hugged Steve goodbye, who still insisted on poking spears of the green vegetable into his mouth as if he were giving it oral sex.
Father Chris stopped the van by the church to let the three boys out, then he and David headed downtown to Longine's House of Fine Foods for dinner.
This had been quite a full day for David, beginning at the morgue and seeing his dead brother, and now ending by going to dinner with a priest... a gay priest at that! Or was he gay? In spite of all that had happened to David, he still couldn't explain his instant liking of Father Chris. As they drove, David couldn't ever remember a time when he'd actually talked to a Catholic priest. The doctrine of Catholicism had been taboo in the Stanley household when he and Mark were growing up. There was only one Roman Catholic Church in River Oaks, and as far as Neil and Meg were concerned, the building was strictly off-limits to both their sons.
Whether it was the fact that David was having his first 'audience' with a priest, or simply the solemnity and sadness of the circumstance, which had brought about this meeting, David wasn't sure, but for some reason, he felt comfortable being around Father Chris. Suddenly, he was aware that he kept tossing quick glances at Father Chris' profile, and asked himself, if he was being attracted to a man? If so, it was for the first time in his life!
David'd had long private sessions by himself at college wondering why Mark was gay and he wasn't? The two brothers had the same upbringing, lived in the same house with the same parents, each attended the same schools, ate the same food, watched the same movies, read the same books, and both were enthusiastic about the same sports, so how could their sexual preferences be so totally opposite? Mark had dated girls in high school. David had met them, and had felt sure that Mark had lost his virginity to one of them about the same age as he had - at fifteen years of age. But having learned later that Mark was gay, David found himself unsure if Mark had ever had sex with a female. David'd had many sexual experiences with many girls before he met Sandy... and after that, he and Sandy had sex at least twice a week.
A few blocks before David and Father Chris reached the restaurant; Father Chris took one hand from the steering wheel, and placed it on David's left shoulder near his neck. David's head snapped around.
"Tense?" Father Chris asked.
"Pardon?" David replied, trying not to show any displeasure or discomfort at Father Chris' touch.
"I was wondering if your neck was tense. You've had a long emotional day, I can imagine."
"Yes, I have."
"Do you drink? I mean, you're not opposed to having a cocktail before dinner?"
"No, of course not."
"Maybe that will help relax you."
"I... I want to thank you for inviting me to dinner. This is very nice of you."
"Maybe it's my vocation, but when I met you earlier, I felt as if you needed someone to talk with. I don't know what your relationship with your parents was, but Mark told me about what happened at your house the night he left."
"I... I guess that makes me a little envious of you. I wish he'd told me. He wouldn't go into any detail when he called me from Atlanta two years ago."
"Do your parents know about Mark's passing?"
"Not yet. I can't decide how, or even if I should tell them."
"Your dad still harbours the same feelings toward Mark?"
"As far as I know, nothing ever changed; he all but blotted Mark out of his life and memory."
"I hope you won't mind my being irreverent about private matters."
"I trust that you don't share your dad's opinion of Mark's lifestyle. I mean, Mark told me that you were heterosexual, and often the views of the father pass on to the son."
"Mark and I never spoke at any length about his sexuality. I'm truly sorry about that now, since most brothers usually have conversations of this nature between them. Unfortunately, we never did, Mark and me."
"If you had, would you have tried to change him?"
"No, I don't think so. After I learned he was gay, I discretely went to the university library and read a few books and articles about homosexuality, and its cause being attributed to heredity or environment."
"Did you form any opinion, or come to a conclusion?"
"Basically, yes... Mark was born with gay traits, and I was born with straight traits. That's the only way I could explain it or convince myself."
"Then you had no problem about his being gay?"
"Not really, primarily because I was never around him after I found out about him."
"Do you have any gay friends at college?"
"Not personally. I know some guys who are, but we don't travel in the same circles. No particular reason... it's just that our paths never seemed to cross."
"Ah, it looks like we've arrived. I hope you're hungry."
"Actually, Father, I am." David surprised himself with the realization.
"Good. We'll have a nice dinner, and maybe take the time afterward to talk, but only if you'd like."
"I would like that, I think."
Father Chris smiled at David and lowered his hand from David's shoulder, letting it slide down his arm until his hand was on David's hand. For some reason that he couldn't explain, David squeezed Father Chris' hand tightly, and kept it there until the car stopped in the parking lot.