The German Boy
Every morning since Paul Newland bought his first house, in 1951, he raised the flag at sunrise, and every evening, for just as long, he lowered and folded it in a regulation triangle at sunset.
Some might have questioned the sincerity of this gesture. Cynics might have suggested he did it because he was a gay man in a tiny village where people couldn’t help noticing the stream of handsome, well-dressed young men parading into and out of his life. Couldn’t help noticing and couldn’t help talking about. If he pretended to be so patriotic, this line of reasoning went, then public criticism of “how he lived,” in the local parlance, might be blunted.
Some of that might in fact have been true. Consider the times—the 50s and 60s. What sympathetic mind could have blamed him if this had been his entire reason? But his simple ritual, along with his unfailing politeness to neighbors and to the family at the general store and to the staff at the Sun Fish Inn and Restaurant, went a long way indeed with reasonable people in Henry’s Ferry.
As strange as it may have seemed to people for whom he was strange, though, he loved America. He understood America to be a set of ideas nudging and nagging at its inhabitants to do better, to be better, to kindly welcome the stranger needing a fresh start. If he had said that out loud, he might have been accused of mouthing nice sounding, patriotic words, so often used to hide a vacuum of genuine feeling or thought. But Paul had landed at Anzio and had fought on the Road to Rome and beyond. Raising and lowering the flag was an act of faith. He knew the price of things.
If he ever caught wind of gossip or whispered nastiness, he knew better than to let on. He obeyed the early alarm, shaved, showered, brushed his teeth, dressed for work in a dark suit, and raised the colors. He never stepped out the door in pajamas or bathrobe. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and a single piece of toast before driving into Boyleston to open the bank. In 1967, he retired, but kept to the ritual.
“I’m still a young man,” he told the twentysomething who currently shared his bed.
This was the handsome German traveler he’d met one weekend in New York. Klause. Blond, curly-headed Klause. A wayward boy who had arrived in America with a little money and a knapsack.
“I’m free now since I cashed out,” he told Klause. “I’ll take you to the Grand Canyon, to San Francisco. You’ll love San Francisco! I’ll show you the country.”
Then he launched into the story of how he and a boyfriend, before the War, hitch-hiked to California together. How they made a house out of cardboard boxes behind a billboard and how it all dissolved in a rain storm
Klause wasn’t that interested. He preferred lovers more his own age. He’d had a nice enough time in Henry’s Ferry, but he liked traveling alone. He wanted to discover his own America. He told Paul all this frankly, as if surprised Paul didn’t already realize as much.
“Of course! Yes,” Paul agreed, allowing himself only a tiny sting. “Yes, of course. The door is always open, though. You do understand that?”
Klause had indeed hoped it would be and said so. “Tank you,” he said, such a thoughtful boy.
Paul immediately brightened. “Well! This calls for a celebration. You are going off to discover your own America. My going-away present will be dinner at the Sun Fish. The chef is a dear friend of mine. He’ll make you whatever you like. Come back any time you want.”
Open hearted, open handed, like the America he believed in. But Klause didn’t need Ezra the chef to make anything special. He left the next morning.
In the week after the German boy left, Paul allowed himself further thought about the trip he had briefly fantasized. He’d seen the Grand Canyon and didn’t need to see it again. San Francisco would always be there for him. Maybe he’d make that trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, he promised himself ages ago. Nobody he knew would be as interested as he was, so maybe it was a good one to do by himself anyway.
In truth, with the boy gone and someone else opening the bank doors and doing his old job now, he had come to loose ends. Another young man would eventually show up. He knew that. No fear of that. Since coming back from Italy in ’46, they magically appeared. Like all those replacements the brass threw into the line. The Germans did the same. Cannon fodder. He tried to take care of them as long as they lasted. But he put those thoughts back into their compartment where they wouldn’t cause too much trouble. Staying busy worked best. He remembered seeing a couple of photos of a Williamsburg table in an old copy of Colonial Woodworker magazine. He went out his front door and across the flagstone patio to the shop. His collection of woodworking literature was in a bookcase he’d thrown together when he first started playing around with antique hand tools. He found the issue right away and leafed through the pages looking for the photos as he walked back into the house.
He turned on the FM station to a Met broadcast and took out a pad of drawing paper. What was that opera? His father, dead since 1932, would have known it right away. Play a fragment and he could name it in a blink. Would sing it for you. Paul began sketching the design, figuring out proportions. This he understood. Opera he loved in a vague, sentimental way that led to no reflection beyond enjoying that his father, born Antonino Cantadino, Anglicized somehow to Andy Newland, lived for his operas. The bunch of maple Paul rescued from his friends’ barn might work for this. It had been leaning against the wall in his shop for over a year now. His mind started listing all the people to whom he might give the table. Sketching, he began to see how it all might fit together. Probably mortise and tenon there at the legs and the apron. Draw bored pegs with the mortise and tenon joints holding the whole shebang together. The surface as smooth as a baby’s. . . and all that before sandpaper, which Paul had stopped using in favor of a set of planes bought at auction.
The phone rang just within reach on the desk. “Paul,” the caller said, “I need your help.”
“Are you okay? You sound. . .”
“No. I am in trouble.”
“Where are you? What’s going on? Are you hurt?”
“I am in hospital.”
“Good Lord! What?”
“In this town. Indiana.”
“Where in Indiana?”
“The hospital. I told you. We were in a car accident.”
“What town is what I mean.”
“It’s called Indiana.”
A stranger in a strange land, Paul thought, could mix up states with towns, but then Klause added testily, “It is in Pennsylvania. I’m telling you. You don’t listen.”
Paul had never been there, but he remembered seeing it on a map. Indiana, P A. Like California, P A, or Wyoming, P A. “What happened?” he asked, annoyed now that they would give a name to a town that would confuse a foreigner.
“They say they are going to release me. But. . .” he choked up.
Paul understood immediately. “Yes. I see. That must mean you are out of danger.”
“Yes, but I. . .” He began to break down.
“I will come and get you, Klause.” His voice was soothing, tender, a father comforting a child. He had used that voice plenty in Italy and, in using it, he had usually managed to comfort himself, too. Paul’s anxiety lowered. “It is going to be all right.” He looked at the clock. “Tell them I’ll be there first thing in the morning to bring you home.”
Klause began to settle down. He blew his nose.
“Is there someone there I can talk to? A supervisor or somebody in administration?”
Klause managed to put the charge nurse on the line, and Paul explained the situation. She was absolutely clear they needed the bed as soon as possible. He promised to come and collect the patient the following morning. “Just sit tight and stay calm until I get there,” he told Klause. “It’s going to be okay.”
Once off the phone he put the magazine and sketches in the bottom drawer of his desk and mixed a large thermos of martinis, then packed an overnight bag with clean underwear and socks and his toiletries. These he walked across the patio and down the stone steps to the road. The garage was under the shop, road-level below the hill his place was terraced onto. He stowed the overnight bag and the martinis in the trunk, but left it open as he made his second trip up the stairs to the front door. He almost forgot, detoured to lower and fold the flag, then set it atop the desk, right over the drawer where he kept his Bronze Star. In the bedroom, he selected two pairs of slacks and shirts from the outfits on hangers and then, locking the front door behind him, went back down to the car and laid the clothing neatly across the overnight bag and closed the trunk.
Backing out of the garage, he remembered and ran back inside for a map. That taken care of, he headed south, figuring the Pennsylvania Turnpike would be the fastest. Going out, he needed to hurry. Coming back, maybe not so much. He’d have to see what shape Klause was in. In the excitement of reassuring Klause, Paul had forgotten to find out how badly hurt he was. If he wasn’t in terrible shape, they could take the scenic route back. Klause would see parts of the state no tourists ever visited. If only this had happened two weeks later, the mountains might have been in full color. Instead, early September, summer hung on with scalding tenacity.
Paul reached into the glove compartment and put on his sunglasses. “My Hollywood shades,” he said aloud and hit the button to put the top on the Mustang down. The air tousled his hair. Stopping for gas in Lower Bucks, he couldn’t help noticing a woman his age admire the yellow convertible. “She probably likes my tan, too.” The irony that he of all people would be driving a chick magnet almost made him giddy. Little did she know.
The Turnpike went fast as he thought about all the side trips one could make. Brandywine Battlefield. The Amish country. Hershey. Gettysburg. But they’d come back through State College. Last time he drove through there, he rescued those maple boards from the trash fire at Tom and Manny’s. They’d appreciate a table made of boards rescued from when they first moved in and were getting rid of all the junk in the barn. They both had commented on what a sharp eye he had for quality wood. He could make them the perfect gift and now swelled with the idea. He spent the rest of the trip thinking about that table.
In Indiana, he checked into the Holiday Inn, specifically asking for a poolside room. He set his toiletries out neatly on the bathroom sink counter and put the extra socks and underwear in the bureau drawer and hung up his two sets of shirts and pants. Then he called the hospital.
“They gave me a bill,” Klause told him incredulously. “I could not be-leaf it. Dis is surreal!”
Paul wanted to know his condition. At least one broken rib and a concussion. It hurt to take a deep breath. His head didn’t hurt so much, but he had to take it easy.
“You said ‘We’ had an accident,” Paul asked, “How is your friend?” He might have asked Who is your friend?
“Friend?” Klause scoffed. “I don’t know what became of him. And who cares?”
Paul had nothing to add to that.
“All I need, all I want,” Klause said, “is a place to rest and recover.”
“Yes, of course.” He heard the reluctance, and fear, in the boy’s voice, the marker it denoted. “You can stay in my guest room. Just rest. I have plenty to do.” He was thinking of the table. “You will be undisturbed.”
Klause’s voice became formal. “I am grateful,” he said.
They chatted a bit longer. Paul didn’t mention his plans for the return trip. After he hung up, he changed into Bermudas and a polo shirt and took his cigarettes and the thermos of martinis to one of the tables by the pool. He’d brought his own martini glass from home.
Paul knew from Klause’s grudging, minimal answers the next morning that he shouldn’t ask about the time since he had left Henry’s Ferry. He wheeled Klause to the curb in front of the hospital and, with the help of a nurse, eased him out of the chair and into the Mustang. They drove east. He knew the route only from the map and worried when the rough surface jolted his patient.
“It hurts when you smash into the bumps like that,” Klause complained.
Paul swerved when he could, but the two-lane road curved and dipped and rose unexpectedly. It seemed also to be a truck route. Klause moaned, holding his side where he had broken a rib. Others might have been broken also. At the very least, the accident bruised them. He began showing signs of headache. A rusty red pickup passed them and nearly ran head-on into oncoming traffic. He gasped, and that hurt.
Paul wanted to talk. He wanted to tell Klause about the industrialization of this part of the country, about the nationalities that found their way here to work the mines and factories. The names rolled by. Irish. A sign for Armagh. Then Munster township. The Ukrainians came, too. And Poles. How they came with their churches and their celebrations. Italians. He wanted to tell about his own grandfather, Luca Cantadino, who Anglicized the family name and made money as an architect/builder in Philadelphia. At Cresson, he wanted to talk about the Allegheny Front, the escarpment that Charles Dickens crossed and wrote about in American Notes. And he wanted to ask Klause, born—it must have been—in 1947, what it had been like growing up in post-war West Germany. What had the war done to his family? Paul wanted a companion.
Alas, speaking hurt Klause. His head definitely hurt now, so he took two aspirin. Listening hurt, too, apparently. He tried to sleep, but the rough road kept him awake. Paul concentrated on driving. He put the top up and turned on the air conditioner.
“Where are you taking me?” Klause asked irritably after a long spell of silence. He sat straighter and looked around at the passing countryside for the first time. “I thought we were going back to your house.”
Paul cleared his throat and drummed the steering wheel. “We are going home,” he said. “We’re just doing it in two hops. We are going to spend the night in State College, then go on home the next day.” He felt a need to explain why they were going to do this, but now didn’t feel comfortable explaining that he thought seeing this part of the country would be a treat. “I thought this way would be easier on you. The Turnpike is in terrible shape,” he lied. “We can build the biggest battleships and fight a nasty little war halfway around the world, but we can’t fix the damned roads in this country.”
By the time he finished this explanation, he believed it.
“Any-who,” he drummed the steering wheel again, “we are going to get you a comfortable room to yourself and then go on again tomorrow.”
Klause stared at him, obviously suspecting a trick. Paul stayed cool and turned off onto Route 45, which followed Penn’s Valley to State College. When he had been a student at Penn State after the war, he had often gone driving on this road, admiring the farms and the views of Tussey Mountain, which defined its side of the valley. He wanted to say it was one of the most unspectacularly beautiful places he knew, but he kept silent and allowed Klause to pretend to sleep.
In State College, he paid for two rooms. “Would you like to have something in the dining room?” he asked as he put Klause’s belongings away.
Klause would not. He simply wanted to be alone. His body ached. Paul left the bottle of aspirin on the dresser and went to his own room. He decided not to eat at the hotel, and he decided not to call Tom and Manny. With Klause, it might be too complicated. Instead, he drove to College Avenue and parked across the street from the Diner. He sat down at the counter and, almost as a nostalgic joke, ordered coffee and a plate of turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes. Unlike so many of his friends, he was no gourmet cook. Red meat, a green vegetable, potatoes mashed or baked, and a glass of red wine was dinner at his house. A nice cocktail beforehand and a drink afterward as he cleaned up, too, but the fare was kept simple.
The Diner amused him. He watched a cute boy doing the cook’s scut work. Probably a high school kid on a first job. The girl working the tables and the counter teased him with a motherly warmth, helping him to know his role. Already a veteran, she might have been all of twenty. The cook was a wiry, middle-aged roughneck in a white t-shirt and paper cap covering all but his long dark sideburns. He kept up a storm of sarcastic remarks aimed at the boy. Navy, rough trade, Paul almost said aloud, noting the anchor tattoo on the man’s forearm when he reached up to slap plates of orders on the shelf between the kitchen and the counter area. Paul had friends who went in for that type. Ish.
The girl threw the cook a reproving face. “Leave him alone,” she said and turned to carry a plate of eggs to a back table. She ignored the cook’s snarl. When she returned to pick up the coffee pot, she made quick eye contact with the boy. “Don’t let him push you around,” she said. “You don’t have to do his job, no matter what he tries to tell you.” She poured coffee into Paul’s cup and turned to face the cook. “Isn’t that right, Donny?”
“Mind your business,” Donny shot back.
“He is my business,” she smiled at the boy. “I think I might be kind of sweet on him.” Paul watched all of this openly. “Will there be anything else?” she asked.
“Just the check.” Then, as an afterthought, with a nod toward the cook, “I have never liked bullies.”
But this met a blank stare. Right, none of his business. Should have known that. She brought the check and he doubled his tip.
Maybe he’d go back to the hotel and have a drink there. A place down the street called the My ‘O My advertised “Girls!” He wandered across the street and started up the Mall. No, this was no Harvard or Yale. Nothing terribly fancy, but it had been a good place to come to after the war. Football weekends he did his best to be somewhere else. Otherwise, it was quiet enough for him to have considered an academic career. But as he finished his degree in history, they offered him the job at the bank. He could find a quiet corner in the country north of Philadelphia, and, if he wanted to go to Manhattan for a weekend, all he had to do was drive over to the train station in Princeton. He never regretted the choice, but missed this campus whenever he saw it again, especially strolling up the easy incline under those huge elms on the Mall. Then, flanked by Burroughs and Sparks, Pattee Library at the top of the hill.
As a matter of fact, now he stood looking at it and considered going inside. He could ride the clanky, old elevator with the folding brass gate up into the stacks. That had always amused him. But a martini at the hotel bar called louder. He turned and retraced his steps.
At breakfast in the Holiday Inn restaurant, Klause mostly pushed his eggs and home fries back and forth across his plate with his fork. He complained his ribs hurt, but hadn’t taken any of the aspirin Paul left for him. “That stuff eats a hole in your gut,” he sneered. “Don’t you have anything better?” He didn’t manage to say much more than that. Now that Paul had rescued him, he plainly wanted to be free again. Paul couldn’t miss this, and abruptly wiped his lips with the restaurant’s linen napkin and pushed himself away from the table without finishing. “Well, we’d better be hitting the road,” he announced. “Are you packed?”
Klause gave him a look.
“Right,” Paul said. “I’ll take care of that for you. By the way,” he added, “you need a haircut. You’re turning sort of girly on me.”
He packed Klause in reasonably good humor, but without saying much, and they headed east. Paul did what he could to not jolt his passenger, but he didn’t put them in danger by swerving this time. He drove fast. The best thing he could do for Klause—and for himself—was to reach home as soon as possible. The Turnpike would have been faster, but they were far from that now. They’d have to pick it up near Harrisburg.
“Go to sleep,” he ordered, “and I’ll get you there in a jiffy.”
“If I could,” Klause grumbled.
“I think you might just surprise yourself. Give it the old college try,” Paul said.
He ignored the boy’s groans and drove on, enjoying the countryside until a vague dread crept into his mood. He’d read of men coming back from Italy, other Fifth Army veterans, who couldn’t look at a landscape without sizing up where this kid’s uncles would be along a road like this. Where could you find cover? They couldn’t look at the landscape without thinking like that. At first, the Germans had been tough and well-trained, but in the end they gave up in the thousands. Paul had taken in dozens of them, scared, scraggly-haired old men and boys with their hands in the air and their eyes wild. The tough guys, the real murderers, had mostly been killed off by then, he supposed. Or skedaddled, knowing the game was up. They knew surrendering was prime time to buy it. All it took was some pissed off cowboy who didn’t feel like babysitting a bunch of frightened, ragamuffin Krauts. He’d seen it more than once, had actually done it once. Trying to magically undo that still kept him up at night sometimes. But his thoughts were getting out of their compartments,
“Paul?” Klause stirred.
“Vhy are you doing this?”
Paul didn’t answer.
“I mean, you know.” He shot a warning look. “I am not going to have sex with you again, so vhy are you doing this?”
Paul kept his eyes on the road as he answered. “I told you the guest room is yours. That should have told you I don’t expect anything from you.” Even he could hear the slightly false note in his voice. “I thought we were clear?”
Klause shook his head. He couldn’t believe some part of this, but didn’t know which part. “So vhy den?” He laid it down like a challenge.
“Would you rather I had told you to go fly a kite when you called?”
“It’s an idiom. An Americanism. ‘Go fly a kite.’ It means get lost.”
“Like ‘Fuck off,’ you mean?”
“Yes, like ‘Fuck off.’ Would you rather I had told you to fuck off when you called?”
“No,” Klause allowed. “I needed help.”
“And you had nobody else to call. You were a friend in need.”
Klause worked his forehead to let this sink in. He winced and placed the palm of his hand on his bruised ribs. “What does this mean, ‘a friend in need’? Another of your Americanisms. I don’t understand sometimes.”
Paul didn’t suppose Americans had any monopoly on helping friends in need. Very likely other cultures used the same or a similar expression. “It means,” he said, “that someone who is still a friend when you need help is a good friend, is a friend indeed. The ‘indeed’ is kind of a pun, I suppose.”
“It means I am your friend, my dear. I don’t expect anything from helping you.”
They had reached the Turnpike toll booth outside Harrisburg. Paul took the ticket and put it in the glove compartment, careful not to touch Klause’s knee as he did so. Under normal circumstances he would offer a seductive squeeze. “We’ll be home in a couple of hours,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
Klause nodded. “Actually,” he mumbled. “Yes.”
Paul detected shame and let him go ahead and feel it. “How about some Pennsylvania Dutch food down the road a piece?” he smiled. “I bet it’s not that different from what you get at home.”
They stopped at the Blue Ball Hotel and ate like farmers. “That was nothing like my home!” Klause sniffed as Paul held the car door for him afterward. “And no beer!”
“You’re welcome,” said Paul, but then added, “They can cook, and that’s what I call comfort food!”
“But no beer! It was idiotic.”
“That’s because they are very religious! No dancing, no drinking, no sex! At least that’s what they tell you.”
Klause shook his head. “They call that living? Fat, stupid Americans.”
Paul helped his patient up the stone stairs when they reached home. “It might be good to maybe walk back and forth on the patio for a while,” he suggested. “You know, after sitting so long.”
Klause ambled around the flagstone as Paul retrieved their belongings from the car. “I’ve set your things out in the bathroom and put your clothes in the guest room dresser,” Paul said from the doorway, already sucking on a martini. “Just put your dirty clothes in the basket when you come in. You remember where it is.”
Klause stiffly lowered himself into a patio chair. “Could I get a drink?” he mumbled. “And a smoke?”
Paul darted back inside and reappeared with cigarettes, silver lighter, ashtray, and two full martinis on a tray. He set the tray on the patio’s white wrought iron table and tapped two cigarettes out of the pack, scissoring them between his fingers and then deftly flipping them into his lips. The lighter clicked neatly and he inhaled. He leaned over toward Klause, who understood and took one for himself. Paul sat opposite the patient and crossed his legs, enjoying the smoke. They both wore madras Bermuda shorts and sandals. Their feet were close. Paul could have reached his foot to caress Klause’s leg. He would have liked to. He slipped his sandals off and admired the fine blond hair on Klause’s graceful calf. It was probably too soon, though. No hurry and they were both tired from the trip. Fagged, actually, which gave him a dry laugh.
“You were in the war.” It was not a question.
Paul nodded. “A terrible waste,” he said.
Klause made a sound like a reverse sniff, blowing air out his nostrils. “You Americans.” He shook his head.
“On both sides,” said Paul. They sat for a long time like that. Paul made them both another martini. They smoked another Marlboro.
“Are we going to yust sit around like dis?” Klause suddenly asked. His lip twisted nastily. The manner, the spoiled arrogance, curled uncomfortably through Paul’s stomach. He realized it had been there unacknowledged for at least the last day.
“I’ve been driving and looking out for you for the last three days, my friend. I think I’ve earned my little rest.” He paused to suck a deep drag from the cigarette and consider his guest through the smoke. If he misbehaved, he could be put back on the street as easily as he’d been plucked off of it. Paul had done that before. Plenty. “You shouldn’t need to be reminded of that.”
Klause affected not to hear. “Isn’t dis so cozy?” He surveyed the woods rising from behind the house and shop. He spread his arms in benediction. “Velcome to America.”
Paul calmly snuffed his cigarette out in the ashtray and finished his martini in a single, long swallow. Then, standing somewhat unsteadily, with exaggerated dignity, he went inside and turned the lock on the door behind him. It only took a couple of minutes to repack Klause’s belongings—he was getting good at it—dig $200. cash from the hiding place in the bedroom closet, and scoop up his car keys. He slung the knapsack over his shoulder and went back outside. The cigarettes and the silver lighter on the table inspired him.
“Here,” he said, picking both up and handing them to Klause, “a going away present. And this.” Klause took the lighter and cigarettes as Paul shoved the cash into his shirt pocket. “Now stand up,” he ordered.
Suddenly seeming to understand, Klause began to stand. The pain showed on his face. “Do you have any aspirin, Paul?”
“They sell it at the bus station. You can use some of this money to buy your own private bottle.” He began leading the way to the stairs. “I’ll carry your pack as far as the car. When we get to the station, you are on your own.”
Klause had no easy time of it easing himself down the stairs to the road, but Paul, already regretting the sudden cruelty of what he was doing, didn’t offer to help. He opened the passenger side door and then got himself behind the wheel. He drove fast and, he realized, drunkenly to the Greyhound station in Boyleston.
“Go wherever you want,” he told Klause. “Come back and see me some day.” He lifted the pack out of the back seat and handed it to the boy. Then, looking him straight in the eye, he shook his hand.
“Paul,” Klause began, “I am sorry. I just hurt so much.”
“Yes, and so do I. I think you have no idea.”
He drove more carefully going home. Once there, as a protest or a celebration or just to prove to himself his own righteousness, he took another pack of Marlboros and a martini to the patio. His hand shook as he lifted it to his lips. Everything had gotten out of its compartment. The two martini glasses and the dirty ashtray from before sat there on the tray, accusing him. So unlike himself to have not cleaned up. All of it so unlike himself. You Americans, the boy had said. He drank and smoked anyway and considered dinner. He could do a pork chop and mash some potatoes. There were green beans in the freezer. A glass of red wine of course. Or he might just toss a salad. Afterward? Maybe he’d go down to the bar at the Sun Fish. See who’s around. Maybe a new face.
Before making dinner, he noticed the unraised flag, neatly folded atop the star. He patted it once and set to work in the kitchen. Later, after dinner, he took a good nap. The alarm went off at nine p.m. and he rose dutifully. He showered and brushed his teeth. Once dressed, he stood in front of the mirror in the hallway and heaved a deep sigh. If he smiled—if that was indeed a smile—it appeared on one side of his face only. If it was a smile. Which he doubted. He took some cash and his car keys and stepped outside. Something felt unusual as he locked the door.
He could have walked to the Sun Fish. It was only the other end of the village, but it wouldn’t do to have some insomniac neighbor catch him traipsing up River Road in the wee hours after a few drinks. He drove. There were no new faces at the Sun Fish, but Paul stayed past when the kitchen closed and joined Ezra the chef on the balcony for a last drink. Ezra was a big, slow-moving man with a deep Texas drawl. He’d been a cook on a destroyer in the Pacific and then followed a lover to little Henry’s Ferry. The lover long gone, Ezra remained. He stayed in a tiny room in the hotel basement. Paul often sat with him for a drink late at night.
“Ya’ll say he insulted us, so ya’ll tossed ’em?” Ezra shook his head and chuckled. “Taking in strays. . .”
“You’ve got that right,” said Paul. “I guess I’ve been taking in strays forever.”
Ezra laced his fingers over his belly and seemed ready to say something else. His belly jiggled, as if the words were coming now, but then he stayed silent a couple of beats longer. “This boy,” he finally began again, “do ya’ll know his story?” Ezra always said he needed to know people’s story. “Was he trustworthy, do you think?”
Paul squirmed. “Strays” had robbed him more than once. The most recent one stole an antique rocker and a Persian rug, fenced them both, and then understandably vanished with the money. Paul and Ezra talked over every step of that incident afterwards. But Klause didn’t strike Paul as a thief. “No,” he said. “I think he’s okay.” He shook his head. “I had nothing to worry about on that score, I think.” He pictured in that moment poor bedraggled Klause standing alone at the bus station with no place to go.
“Ya’ll take care now, Pauly,” Ezra warned, eyeing him suspiciously. “Whatever you do, make sure you watch your back every minute with these young boys.”
Paul nodded but stayed mum. Ezra had had his heart broken by a boy who washed dishes at the Sun Fish the summer after the lover deserted him. He swore off lovers after that. Couldn’t believe in them any more. He claimed to believe others, like Paul, might find someone, a “twenty-year lover, like old Walt Whitman found,” he liked to say. It was just himself, he’d tell you, who couldn’t have that lucky charm. But Paul knew the truth. Ezra no longer believed in romantic, sexual love for anyone. Whenever he could, he warned his friends to be careful, to stay uncommitted. Paul knew not to disturb the precarious balance this way of seeing the world gave his friend.
“There is no one more vehemently self-righteous and stubborn than a person who knows he’s doing wrong,” Paul said as if reciting a long-practiced line.
“Sounds like a confession,” Ezra chuckled.
“I guess we’ll see,” said Paul.
The moon cast a long silver runner over the river. A dog barked somewhere and a woman yelled at it to stop. The family that lived over the store probably. A car door slammed in the gravel parking lot across the street. Glassware tingled and pinged as the bartender cleaned up. Paul didn’t want to leave his friend alone with himself. The man had lived in a single basement room with a toilet on a different floor for almost twenty years. How might his life be different if someone had only taken him in and tried to help him?
Paul jangled his car keys and snuffed his cigarette out. Ezra smiled knowingly. “Time to go, huh?” he said.
Paul leaned forward and began lifting himself. “It’s getting to be my bedtime.”
“Take care then.”
“How about you, Ez? Staying up?”
Ezra nodded. “I’m gonna let myself have one more.”
Paul balanced on the balls of his feet and stretched. He always thought Ezra a nice guy. Nothing to look at. Homely as a mud fence, really, but a nice guy.
He drove home and put his car away in the garage. A couple of steps always seemed to have been added to the staircase after a few drinks. He let himself in. When he snapped on the floor lamp by the couch, his eye caught the open window. He stood still, listening. Then, tiptoeing across the living room, he armed himself with a fireplace poker and started for the kitchen. A creaking like someone getting down from a bed stopped him.
“Paul,” a plaintive voice called from his bedroom. “Paul, I didn’t know where to go. I’m sorry.”
Sorry for what had gone on? Or sorry he didn’t know where to go? Paul didn’t move.
“Paul, I acted. . .”
“. . . like a damned, ungrateful fool,” Paul finished his sentence. “Now go to sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Paul, please? Aren’t you coming to bed?”
He jabbed the fireplace poker toward the darkness. “Not another word. Get some sleep.” He stood whole minutes listening before taking a clean pair of pajamas from the hall closet into the guest room. Maybe in the morning he would see if he could make those drawings of the table come alive with the rescued maple in the shop. Tom and Manny would be so surprised.
We make what we can of what comes our way.
It’s true that some things can’t be undone. But no matter what they try to tell you, we are the land of second chances.
• • •
Stephen Peters is co-founder/editor of BoomerLitMag. His work has won both national and regional awards and has appeared in many publications. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.