This story is a sequel to Brittle as a Bird. Read it first.
Jesus, how did I get into this mess? Another hotel bar in another lonely city.
“Another drink, Buddy?” I look up from the empty gin glass I’d been holding in my hand.
“Sure,” I say bemusedly. “Why not?”
“Yeah,” he says likes he’s probably said it thousands of times to thousands of empty souls, “Why not.” He reaches behind him and pulls down a half empty bottle of Beefeater.
“On the rocks?” he asks.
“Straight up,” I respond. He pours it and pushes the glass to me. I look at the clear liquid, hold up my glass to him and then swallow it. I cough slightly as it stings the back of my throat.
He watches me and then refills my glass. “Bad day?”
“Bad life,” I respond. I again hold up the glass and move it toward my lips. He grabs my hand and pulls it away.
“Slow down,” he warns. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Buddy?”
“Not yet,” I say with melancholy. “I still have memories.” I wince as the gin makes its way to my stomach.
“Forget it, Man. You can’t cross a bridge to yesterday.” He offers his words as a man who has dealt with his share of lonely drunks.
“Nope,” I say as I push the glass towards him for more. He pours another drink, but this time only fills the glass half way. I hold it up and salute his wisdom. “You can’t cross a bridge to yesterday.” Again, the gin stings going down.
I pay the tab and then head back to my hotel room. Several people stop and ask me if I am all right as I stagger back to my room. I look at them blankly before moving on. Their reaction is always the same. They shake their head, click their tongue and whisper under their breath, “Filthy drunk,” as they walk away.
It is always a race to the toilet. Sometimes I win, sometimes the floor wins. After kneeling in front of my porcelain friend for several minutes, I undress and fall into the cold and lonely bed.
“Gene Albright,” I admonish myself. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” I fight a drunken sleep as I try to give myself reasons to wake up and face another day. This time sober. But in the end, before sleep overcomes me, I know I’ll be sitting again tomorrow in another hotel bar in another lonely city.
In the distance I can hear a phone ringing, but I don’t know if it’s the one beside my bed or some adjacent room. Unsure, I pick up the receiver to the black phone next to my bed.
“Hello? Who is it?” My words are thick and slurred.
“Have you been drinking again?” I can hear the disappointment in her voice. A million times I’ve promised I’d stop drinking, and a million times I’ve broken that promise.
“Who me?” I laugh nervously. I know I’m hurting her, but I can’t help myself. My hurt is more overwhelming, and drinking lessens it- at least temporarily.
“You promised me, Gene.” As her voice cracks on the other end of the phone, and tears begin to fall down my face.
“I’m sorry, Honey,” I weep into the phone. I place the phone back on the receiver before I slip into another drunken slumber.
However, sleep is only temporary. Damn nightmares. I lurch forward gasping for air. I look at the clock. It is 4:21.
It’s always the same dream. I’m running and I can’t stop. I start off quickly, but then end like I’m in a slow motion picture. I’m running and running. Darkness surrounds me. I have no idea where I’m going or where I’ve been. I’m running into the darkness, or away from it. I’ve never been able to decide.
With my body wet with sweat, I crawl out of bed and head to the bathroom. I turn on the shower, remove my underwear and stand under the cold water. It soothes me and awakens me from my drunkenness.
The chilling water flows over my body as I lean my head back and wipe it across my face. I take the soap and lather my muscled torso. At thirty eight, I’m proud of my physique. I’ll never understand how it hasn’t been destroyed by years of alcoholism. Since high school, I’ve worked out regularly. But as I get older, those visits to the hotel gyms are becoming less frequent. However, right now I’m able to maintain a nice build.
Once out of the shower, I look at the chiseled face in the mirror. My hair is still blond, and my eyes are a bright blue; that is when they are not bloodshot from the gin. I stand and stare into the mirror. I smile weakly, but even I can see the sadness behind it. It’s always there. Not the smile, the sadness. It’s been a long time since I’ve smiled.
Don’t misunderstand me. I smile a lot. But the smiles are for others to see. They are outward smiles that I share easily. The smile I give to Tina when I return home from a week’s journey on the road. A smile to the coworker who praises me for another big sale. A smile to a client who appreciates my ability to close a sale. And the smile to the friendly bartender who fills my glass with gin.
But where is my smile? The one I reserve for myself. That smile disappeared years ago. It’s buried somewhere in my yesterday, never to be resurrected again. I blew my one chance for happiness years ago, and I’ve resigned myself to a life of sadness and disappointment.
One word. That’s all it would have taken. If I had only walked up to him and spoke, it would have made all the difference in my life. But I was afraid. My father had made sure of that. I saw what he did to my brother. If I had spoken to him, then I would have had to admit something to myself. But now it’s hidden, and like Pandora’s Box it can never be opened. I opened it once, and it almost ruined my life. It’s seal tightly and kept in a secret place. The only problem is- that secret place is my heart. And it’s killing me to keep it hidden there. No amount of gin can keep it from emerging from its concealed compartment.
“Hi, Honey.” Tina walked from the kitchen to greet me in the foyer when she saw my gray Mercedes pull into the driveway.
“Hi, Dear.” I gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. She forced a slight smile, turned and walked back into the kitchen. I placed my luggage on the marble floor and walked over to the bar in the den. I reached for the gin and began to pour a drink.
“Isn’t it a little early to start drinking?” Tina stood in the doorway looking disappointed, as usual. I looked at the clock on the wall. It is 10:47.
“Are you going to start again?” I shouted. Her bottom lip began to quiver. She turned and headed back toward the kitchen.
“You promised,” she mumbled. I emptied the liquor into the bar sink and headed into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “It’s been a long week.”
“That’s always your excuse.” She turned and looked at me with tearful eyes.
Tina is a beautiful woman. She has long auburn hair that she keeps cut short and feathered back very stylishly. Her green eyes, now moist with tears, accentuated her flawless complexion.
We met my sophomore year in college. I was a running back on the football team, and she was a cheerleader. She told me that she fell in love with me the moment she laid eyes on me. She unashamedly pursued me. It became a joke in the locker room of the amorous attention she doted on me.
At first I tried to dissuade her advances, but then other team members began to become suspicious at my attempts to avoid her. After several months of being pursued, I became the captured insect within the Venus flytrap. It is there I have resided for the past eighteen years.
I’ve tried several times over the years to walk away, but I can never find a reason to justify such an escape. Tina is the perfect wife. She’s beautiful, smart and loyal. I have no doubt of her love for me. I just wish I didn’t doubt my love for her.
Actually, there is no doubt. I don’t love her. I don’t think I ever really have. I care about her deeply. That’s why I’ve stayed around for eighteen years. But love her? Unfortunately, not.
We stopped being intimate two years ago. I developed severe bronchitis and coughed constantly. Instead of keeping her awake at night, it was decided that I should move into the guest bedroom for a few weeks until I recovered. Weeks turned into months, and now into years. Tina has begged me to return to the master bedroom, but I always find excuses. At first she used to creep into my room and curl up in bed beside me. On several occasions, she would fondle me in an attempt to arouse me. However, I’d always turn over and lay on my stomach. Finally, she gave up. She no longer enters my room.
I really don’t know why she stays with me. If she had treated me the way I’ve treated her, I’d have been gone a long time ago. However, she loves me. I know that. And it makes me feel all the more like a piece of shit. But how do I tell her that I find making love to her repulsive. For the last year we did have sex, I’d always imagine it was him I was making love to. When I’d close my eyes and kiss Tina, it was his lips I would remember. The soft, gentle lips I kissed twenty years ago on that farmhouse porch. Then I’d open my eyes and realize that it was all wrong. So we don’t make love anymore.
“How was your trip?” Tina walked into the den and sat down beside me. She reached over and gently stroked my arm. I smiled, turned my head and rested it on the back of the sofa.
“Like the last trip, and the one before that,” I sighed.
What was there to share? I’d been working for the same pharmaceutical company since I graduated from college. I was a district manager, and I traveled extensively. I was in charge of distribution to most of the major hospitals west of the Mississippi River. Drug research was a very profitable and ever-changing business. New drugs were becoming available almost weekly, and it was my job to secure lucrative contracts with major institutions. I was compensated handsomely, and we lived a very luxurious lifestyle.
We lived in an estate development in Southern California amid multimillion dollar homes, although ours is small by comparison. We purchased it ten years ago for half a million dollars. It is now valued at four times that. It contains four bedrooms, a pool and half an acre of landscaped grounds. Because of my travels, we have caretakers overseeing most of the work.
Tina is a very successful attorney with a partnership in a law firm. Unlike me, she works a nine to five job. She spends a lot of time at home- alone. She has been after me since we married to have a family. She desperately wants children before she is too old to bear them.
Having children is one of the things that terrifies me. I feel it isn’t right to bring children into a loveless marriage. I know if we do have a family, I would have to assume more responsibility. It would become impossible for me to deal with. I know that some day there is a possibility that Pandora’s Box might be opened, and I don’t want innocent children to have to bear the burden of what I myself can’t bear.
“What’s wrong?” Tina looked over worriedly as she raised her hand and ran it over my closely cut blond hair. I walked over to the bar and reached for a bottle of bourbon.
“Do you have to drink right now?” Tina asked. “Can’t we talk?”
“Talk about what?” I shouted. “Are you going to bring up the subject of children again?” The expression on her face turned from concern to hurt. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes.
“Damn it!” I shouted. I turned and headed for the front door. Tina called out my name as I slammed the door shut and rushed to my car.
“Your ten o’clock appointment is here, Dr. Carpenter.” My secretary was standing in the doorway with a small woman standing behind her.
“Thank you, Delores,” I said appreciatively. “Show Mrs. Dawson and Crystal in.” The woman walked into my office and timidly took a seat. A rather large girl angrily entered and plopped into a seat in the corner. She crossed her arms defensively and gave me a penetrating stare.
“Thank you, Mrs. Dawson for coming in,” I said. “Do you understand what I told you yesterday on the phone?”
“I didn’t call Mrs. Ross a bitch!” Crystal shouted out. “And if I did, it’s only because she is one!”
“Crystal!” Mrs. Dawson rose and approached her daughter. “You will not talk like that!”
The girl crumbled into the seat and began to cry. “No one listens to me,” she sobbed.
I let out a sigh. Another day at work; or in this case, at school. As principal of Southwestern High School, my old alma mater, it was just another challenge I had to face. Another misunderstood teenager screaming for attention. Now in my second year as principal, I had dealt with numerous cases like this.
“Mrs. Dawson, may I speak to Crystal alone for a minute?” I took the woman’s arm and led her from my office. I then pulled up a chair and sat before the emotional girl.
“Everyone hates me, Dr. Carpenter,” the girl wailed. I held out my arms and she collapsed into them. For the next few minutes, she cried as I comforted her. She then sat up and wiped the tears from her face. We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about her feelings.
“I guess you’re going to suspend me?” Crystal asked as she hung her head dejectedly.
“Can you think of an alternative?” I asked. She thought for a minute before responding.
“I guess I should first apologize to Mrs. Ross,” she offered.
“And?” I asked. She thought another minute.
“Apologize to my mother?” A puzzled look came over her face. She could tell by my expression that I was waiting for a proper answer.
“And?” A blank look filled her face. Suddenly, her face lit up when she realized the answer.
“Bingo,” I smiled. Students knew that service to others was important to me. I generally preferred it over suspensions or detentions. “How would you like to do it?”
“Can I volunteer to help Mrs. Ross after school for a week?”
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” I agreed. “I’m going to leave and ask your mother to step in. I think you owe her an apology.” Mrs. Dawson entered my office and closed the door. Several minutes later they emerged, arm in arm, with tears in their eyes. They waved to me as they left the office.
“I don’t know how you always manage to do it, Dr. Carpenter,” responded Delores admiringly. “You’re a miracle worker.”
“Not a miracle worker,” I replied. “Just someone who believes in the good nature of people.” I headed out of the office and walked through the quiet corridors in search of students who had decided to cut classes.
I love my job. It had been a difficult decision for me to leave the classroom five years ago and pursue my doctorate degree in education. Ticker and Star had been instrumental in making that decision. They kept insisting that I could do more good as a principal than I could as a teacher. They convinced me that I would have the opportunity to touch more lives. Until I assumed my current position last year, I never believed that it could have been true.
The bell rang and students emerged from the classrooms. Suddenly, I was surrounded by hundreds of students pushing their way to their next class.
“Hey, Doc!” Douglas Campbell, senior class president, raised his hand to give me a high five. I slapped his hand, and he walked off laughing. Two freshmen came tearing down the hall chasing each other and trying to knock the other to the ground.
“Powers and Grisholm!” I shouted loudly. “Get your butts over here and give me twenty five.” Students started laughing as the two young men timidly approached me and began doing push-ups. When they finished, they started walking quickly to class so as not to be late. “And don’t run in the halls again. Next time it will be fifty.”
“Yes, Sir!” They turned and shouted in unison. I laughed when I saw them begin running to class as soon as they turned the corner and thought they were out of my view.
I went back to my office, sat in my chair and closed my eyes. I was in need of a little ‘me’ time. I try to get it whenever I can, but it is not often. I had been resting only a few minutes when I heard a tap on the door. I looked up and Delores was looking sheepishly at me.
“Sorry to disturb you, Dr. Carpenter,” she apologized, “but Nicky is on line two.”
“Thank you, Delores,” I sighed. I reached over and picked up the phone.
“Dad!” shouted Nicky into the phone. “Can I go over to Xavier’s after school? Please?” A smile crept on my face.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” I admonished him.
“I asked Mr. Holland if I could go to the restroom,” he explained as only a thirteen year old boy could rationalize the urgency of the situation.
“You got permission to go to the restroom just so you could call me and ask if you could go to Xavier’s after school?”
“Yeah,” he said excitedly. “Can I, Dad?” Again, I smiled.
“Do you have any homework?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“How do I know,” he replied. “It’s only second period.”
“And you should be in class.”
“Can I, Dad? Please?” he begged. “He’s got a new video game, and he’s challenging me to play him. I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.”
“You have to do dishes for a week, and ...”
“Thanks, Dad!” He hung up before I could finish. I shook my head as I hung up the phone.
That was Nicholas James Kennedy, Nicky, as he likes to be called. Two years ago I came into possession of this bundle of energy quite by accident. Nicky is thirteen- going on thirty. He’s a typical teenager going through puberty. His voice cracks at the most inopportune times, like when he’s trying to talk to a friend on the phone. He stands in front of the mirror in search of the first hairs over his lip to appear.
He’s a handsome, young man, standing about 5’6” and weighing 130 pounds. He has shaggy, long brown hair. We are constantly arguing about the length. He has dark brown eyes which twinkle when he’s excited. And he gets excited often.
Nicky came into my life when I was working on my doctorate degree. I had taken a sabbatical from teaching. To make ends meet, I was working on weekends at a health center on the west side of town.
Around midnight one night, a frail young woman entered right before closing with a small boy in tow. I immediately recognized her as a crack addict and prostitute who turned tricks in the neighborhood. The boy was crying, and upon a closer look, his body was filled with cuts and bruises. As we attended to his injuries, his mother disappeared through a back door.
We summoned an ambulance and the boy, who I later came to know as Nicky, was taken to the hospital. He clutched desperately to me and refused to go with the medics unless I was permitted to go with him. At the hospital, it was determined that he had been battered and physically abused. The police were summoned, and he was able to make a statement. A boyfriend of his mother had been hitting him for the past three month when his mother was out on the streets late at night. On this particular night, he had tried to fight off the man and was severely beaten. His mother came home in time to prevent serious injury. She then brought him to the center.
Four days later, while he was still recovering in the hospital, his mother was found dead in an alley from a drug overdose. Unable to find any next of kin, it was determined that Nicky would be placed in the custody of the state and then put into foster care. It broke my heart when they told him the news. He grabbed me and cried uncontrollably. The next day I contacted an attorney. Two days later, I became Nicky’s foster father. I cried that first night he came to stay with me and asked if he could call me ‘Dad.’
Four months ago he asked me if I would adopt him. He said he wanted his name to be Nicholas Carpenter. I contacted my attorney, and we immediately began the process. I was afraid that being gay might prevent me from adopting Nicky, but my attorney assures me that there is nothing to worry about. I’ve gone through extensive interviews, as has Nicky. If all goes well, he’ll be Nicholas Carpenter in a few weeks.
We had a long talk the night he asked me to adopt him. He had seen pictures of Allen in my bedroom, but we had never sat down and talked about him. I took him into my room and opened a large scrapbook I had put together over the years. That night I told him I was gay, and I told him about the loving relationship I had shared with Allen. Before it was over, we were both holding each other tightly and crying.
I wanted him to know about my past so nothing would be disclosed during the adoption hearings that would be uncomfortable for him to hear. When I asked him if he still wanted to be my son, he grabbed me tightly and told me I would always be his dad.
“Hey, Dad!” Nicky came bounding into the kitchen with his usual teenage exuberance. “What’s for dinner? I’m famished!” He walked over and lifted the lid to the pot on the stove.
“Mmmm.” He gave his approval to the spaghetti boiling on the stove. He then walked over and hugged me. He stepped back and frowned when I ruffled his hair.
“Aw, Man!” he moaned. “Now I have to brush my hair again.”
“Well, if you’d …”
“I’m not getting a haircut!” he shouted. I started laughing. Truthfully, I like his hair long. I find it amusing to walk past his bathroom and watch him carefully brushing it and pushing it away from his eyes. However, I’d never tell him that.
“Who won the video game?” By the frown on his face, I knew the answer before he told me.
“Xavier’s a cheater,” he replied angrily. “He told me he’d never played it before, but his sister told me later he’d been practicing all week. He kicked my ass.” His eyes widened, and he grabbed his mouth. He knew I didn’t approve of foul language in the house.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he gasped. “That slipped out.”
“Why?” He slowly turned, keeping a careful eye on me. He squealed when I lifted my foot and kicked him in his butt.
“I kicked your ass for cussing in the house.” He started laughing and ran out of the kitchen. A few minutes later. I heard the shower running upstairs.
“Dinner’s ready!” I shouted about twenty minutes later. Within seconds later he came bounding down the stairs, two at a time.
Dinner is our time together. School takes up a lot of my time, and I often have to return in the evenings for meetings and sporting events. However, I always made sure I am home so that we can eat together.
Most of our conversations are spent on his activities in school. I question him on his teachers, what he is learning, and homework he has brought home. Many times he’ll bring his books to the table and begin his homework as soon as we finish eating. We sit together, and I will help him if he needs my assistance.
Nicky is extremely intelligent. He was identified with learning disabilities in the third grade. Most of it had to do with his home life. Because of his mother’s nocturnal activities, he was unable to sleep more than a few hours each night. As a result, he often was too tired to pay attention in class.
Once he was out of that environment, he began to blossom into a bright, intelligent boy. Each day he reminds me more and more of myself when I was in school. My proudest moment is when he was inducted into the Junior National Honor Society earlier in the year.
I was putting the dishes in the sink when he announced, “I’m going to my room and play my guitar for awhile.” As smart as he is, however, he isn’t musically inclined. Many nights I am happy to return to school, rather than listen to him strumming off-key as he practices. After a year, his musical skills haven’t improved.
“Wait a minute, Mister.” He stopped dead on his heels and turned.
“What?” I handed him the dish towel.
“Remember,” I said gruffly. “Dishes for a week. That was the deal.”
“You gonna hold me to that?” he asked with amazement. “I thought you were just kidding.”
I gave him a stern look. “Does this look like I am kidding?” I couldn’t contain a smile when he made a stupid face.
“Yep,” he laughed as he threw the towel back at me and ran from the room.
“Kids,” I huffed as I turned and started drying the dishes in the sink.