David Grogan lives and writes (when he’s not procrastinating) in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2015, he returned to his home state after a decade in Washington, DC where he worked on Capitol Hill. This is his first published story.
A Short Story
By David Grogan
Connor lay in the darkness, waiting. When the door opened, he cringed and sat up. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Late.” His father stood in the doorway, a silhouette blocking out the living room light. “Come on. Get dressed. Let’s go.”
“Get dressed. Now.”
Connor dressed in a haze and followed his father out of the apartment. He asked no questions as they walked to the car, and his father offered no conversation. They drove through the empty night streets and into the basement garage of a large building downtown. Connor felt the weight of the building above him.
He had grown up in his father’s city–the city of stone and steel and glass that his father and the men like him brought up from the earth. His father had taken him, when he could barely stand, into the half-completed shells of new constructions–the skeletal bones of the buildings yet to be. Connor would listen, over the flapping of the waterproof sheeting draped around the building, to his father talk of design, load bearing, structure, and planning. These excursions were an extension of the boy’s education, or rather, as his father thought of it, the core. Connor, he knew, would follow his father into building the city.
On this night, however, he led Connor with a strong hand on the shoulder into a bright white corridor lit by rows of uncompromising fluorescents, their light amplified by the polished white tile covering the walls.
“Sit here for a minute.” His father brought him to a bench and then went through a set of stainless steel double doors and disappeared.
Connor heard voices behind the heavy doors, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. He leaned forward, but didn’t dare move from the bench. After a few minutes, Connor’s father pushed open one of the doors and motioned for him to come inside
The room behind the doors was large with grey concrete floors and grated drains sunk every few feet. Lab equipment and machines lined the walls, but the main feature of the room was the half dozen stainless steel tables spaced evenly throughout. Most were empty and clean, but on a few white sheets stretched across familiar shapes.
A man in green scrubs stood on the far wall next to an office door. When Connor looked at him, he turned his eyes away.
“Come on,” Connor’s father said, walking over to the nearest table. “Do you know what’s
Connor nodded his head, his eyes fixed on the covered body, his brain trying to pull him away.
“You do, huh? Let’s have a look.” Connor’s father nodded towards the body.
Connor looked up at his dad. He still had sleep gluing together the corner of his eyes–his brown hair tousled and tangled. He looked younger than 14.
“Pull back the sheet, son,” his father said.
Connor didn’t move.
“Pull back the damned sheet.” His voice remained level and even. Connor’s father believed you never had to yell when the meaning of your words carried all the force you needed. Yelling was theatrics, he thought.
Connor knew the only thing left to do was to obey. He took a step forward, feeling a cold tightness in his chest. He grabbed the corner of the sheet in his sweaty hands. Slowly he pulled the sheet down past the man’s balding scalp and stiff grey hair, past the forehead and closed eyes–Connor was relieved to see the eyes were closed–past the cheek where he saw a deep purple canyon and the stiff brown residue of crusted blood. He stopped and let the sheet drop from his hand and looked up again at his father.
He found no relief there–no room for give or negotiation. “All the way off,” his father said.
Connor grabbed the sheet again, closed his eyes, and pulled. He felt the sheet grow slack and fall to the floor.
“Look, god damnit,” his father said.
Connor opened his eyes.
What used to be a middle aged man lay naked on the table, his arms at his side. Connor’s first thought was of the wax figures he’d seen once. The man’s skin was a pale yellow and covered everywhere with bruises–deep purple-red welts, and brown and pink constellations that bloomed across the body. Deep ravines, dark and empty, bigger versions of the ones on the man’s cheek crisscrossed his torso. One breast had been sliced nearly off, but the meat had been piled back on top. It laid there loosely, threatening to slide. Deep holes and gashes in the man’s stomach let out an odor that was noticeable in waves over the strong antiseptic that permeated the room.
Connor didn’t blink or dare look away.
“Do you know why he’s here?”
“No,” Connor said in a whisper.
“Who is he?” Connor asked.
“I don’t know his name. He worked down at the port unloading and loading the big cargo ships. Those gigantic ones, big as buildings, that come and go overseas. Important work. Those ships keep the city going. Without the boats, we’d be a little spit of land, farming and getting by, barely–little more than a village.
“Well, there are big cranes down there and they grab those crates and spin them off and drop them on trucks or trains that take them off to wherever they’re supposed to go. They weigh tons, those crates, some of them many, many tons, and they have to be secured just right. Every latch and chain fastened in just the right place. And that was this guy’s job. He did it for lots of years. He did it right. Today he missed a latch. Just one latch on one crate of the thousands or hundreds of thousands he’s done in his life. And the crane operator pulled, and the chain yanked, and the latch that he didn’t close right fell open and everything went to shit. Three men, including himself, crushed and torn open by falling steel. Thousands of dollars in product damaged. A day’s work delayed. Three families that have no father.”
Connor looked between his father and the body and stood silent.
“My point, Connor, is that details matter. Your grades aren’t going to cut it. A ‘C’ in physics? That’s why I need you to see this man. More than any speech I could give, I needed you to know that one grade is one latch. That every action has a thousand consequences that you can never see. A ‘C’ becomes acceptable and it breeds more of them. And you get into a college but not a good one, or maybe not one at all. You don’t get into the engineering program. You turn to menial work with dim prospects and a life of poverty and pain. You fail. And because of this one ‘C.’ No. I’m your father and it’s my job, whether you like it or not, whether you hate me your whole life or not, to make sure, by any means, that when you become a man and I’m dead and lying on one of these tables that you are as prepared as you can be for life. Throughout your life, Connor, remember the latch. Do you understand me?”
Connor nodded, but he didn’t say a word.
“Come on, let’s go.” His father put his hand on his shoulder once again and turned him away from the body.
When they got home again it was almost dawn.
“School in a couple of hours,” his father said. “Get a few minutes of sleep.”
But Connor didn’t sleep. He lay on top of his covers, still in his clothes, and watched the sun rise up between the buildings, over his father’s city.
After school the next day Connor’s mother was outside idling in the family’s green station wagon. He usually walked home in the afternoons. The sight of his mother with her hair newly done, wearing Sunday clothes on a Wednesday worried Connor.
He got in and looked at the floorboard.
“What, no hello?”
“Hi,” Connor mumbled.
“Boy, you’re not going to get anywhere in this world if you don’t start looking people in the eye.”
“Just tired is all.” He didn’t look up.
“You sick? You getting enough sleep? Your father took the day off of work. Lord help us if something’s going around. I don’t have time to be sick.”
Connor didn’t respond.
“I told you not to stay up listening to the radio. You need your sleep or you’re useless.”
Connor looked up at his mother trying to find something in her face that showed whether or not she knew what his night had been like, if she’d asked her husband where he was going at 2am, if she’d even noticed he didn’t come to bed last night until dawn. But his mother was as opaque as always. She looked at the road ahead, blowing the smoke from the cigarette out of the side of her mouth and through the window, and he saw nothing in her eyes that told him one way or another.
“Where are we going?” he asked when he noticed they were no longer in their part of town.
They’d turned onto the long Western avenue that ran all the way to the Bay through the old city. The streets were wider here, with grass medians and tall, ancient trees, weeping with Spanish moss, whose large limbs reached out and canopied the road. Unlike the streets in his neighborhood that never varied from the grid, here the roads seemed to follow whatever path they chose–curving and jutting in every direction. The sidewalks were brick and stretched unbroken first past townhouses, and then past detached houses. Finally, large grand mansions set back off of the avenue surrounded them. Wrought iron gates closed the homes off from the rest of the world, but Connor saw manicured gardens with bright blooming flowers and fountains. This was not his father’s city.
“You’re getting a tutor,” his mother said. “Your father mentioned you were having trouble in science.”
“One class,” he said. Again he looked for any sign in her, any recognition, any acknowledgement. Again, he came up empty.
“One’s more than too much, I suppose.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Connor said. “It’s just a stupid class.”
His mother parked next to the curb and met him on the sidewalk as he was getting out of the car. She stamped out her cigarette and put her hands on his shoulders. “You don’t know how good you have it. How much the opportunities you have are worth.”
Connor rolled his eyes.
His mother slapped him hard across the face. “Don’t you dare disrespect me, boy. You don’t know what your father and I would have given to have had your opportunities.”
Connor’s parents had stepped into the city at the right time. Its appetite for immigrants had grown, if begrudgingly, along with everything else during the boom years. And so Connor’s father, being a skilled laborer, had little problem finding work in construction. Their family would not be rich, but they would not starve. There was money enough for the basics and a little extra.
Connor’s mother viewed the timing of their arrival during this era of plenty as a sign that
God had finally delivered on the bounty that was always promised but rarely delivered. “Only to the truly righteous,” she would say. Connor’s father looked only to his hands and their thick callouses for an explanation of their relative success. Connor’s parents knew that regardless of their accomplishments, no matter how much they dreamed or how hard they worked, that real wealth, and the security and safety and happiness that came with it, would never be theirs to hold.
But then there was Connor.
For in Connor, the smallest sliver of a chance opened up. Without the lingering effects of a life across the sea, of the darkness from which his parents had fled–natural born, fully American, Connor could claim a share of the true treasure. If he worked for it. Nothing was promised, they knew. Nothing was certain, they knew. But if he worked half as hard as they had, without the restraints on him that held them back, Connor could make it.
Connor stepped back and rubbed his cheek. He looked her directly in the eye. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She nodded at him, and then started down the sidewalk.
Connor followed. “You and dad never talk about where you’re from,” he said carefully, his cheek still tingling.
“There are some things you talk about,” she said, not looking back. “And there are some things you don’t.”
He’d heard things growing up. Snippets of conversation from his bedroom long after he was supposed to have been asleep. Once, he’d sat in the shadows beyond his cracked door and looked out into the kitchen where his father sat with the man he called his uncle but who looked nothing like him. Encircled in smoke and with an emptying bottle of whiskey between them, the two men talked about many things that young Connor did not understand, and a few things that he did. They spoke of beatings, of burned homes and lost families, of killings, of the missing and the dead. Connor saw his father cry for the first and only time in Connor’s life. Connor watched his father sob, his forehead on the kitchen table, snot dripping from his nose. After that day he stopped listening at the door when his uncle would come over.
“Here it is,” his mother said as she rang a small buzzer sticking out from one of the iron gates. “I know Mrs. Fairfield from The Kitchen. Very good family.” The Kitchen was the charitable organization of their church where Connor’s mother spent her weekends working. “She mentioned a few weeks ago that her boy Thomas had started tutoring. She said he usually teaches younger kids. He’s actually in the same grade as you, but I asked if they might make an exception here. Besides, it’ll be more like having a friend help you than having another teacher.”
When Connor rolled his eyes this time, he remembered to look away. “Sure,” he said.
A maid let them in and Mrs. Fairfield greeted them and brought them into the library.
“Thomas will be down in a minute,” she said. The two ladies left Connor alone as Mrs. Fairfield showed his mother around the house.
Connor was surrounded by books in dark-wood, built-in bookshelves. He looked around at the handcrafted furniture, the original art on the walls, the plaques and trophies, the items with enough history to transition from family souvenirs to heirlooms. The room was almost the size of Connor’s apartment.
The door opened again and a boy walked in. He was a bit taller than Connor, but skinnier. He smiled when he saw Connor.
“Hi, I’m Thomas,” he said extending his hand.
“Hi,” Connor said. He kept his hands at his side. Connor felt a rush of anger as he looked at this boy. Everything that he was powerless to feel and express towards his parents, the anger and resentment and pain, he focused on Thomas.
The two stared at each other. Thomas grinning, Connor boiling.
Connor noticed the other boy’s blue eyes–bright and shining.
“So,” Thomas tried. “You’re Connor, right?”
Connor grunted and looked away.
Thomas laughed. “Ok.” he said. “So, this can go a couple of ways. This can be excruciatingly painful where you sit sullenly grunting as I teach you science like the fifth graders I have to deal with and we both hate each and every minute of it.”
Connor looked again at Thomas. At his blond hair–shaggy and untrimmed so that it curled up at the ends.
“Or you do better in your science class and maybe we figure out a way to just hang out and have fun for a couple of months, or, at the very least ignore each other.”
Connor noticed the small, dimpled crease that formed at the corner of the other boy’s mouth when he smiled. And his lips. And the freckles on his neck just above the shirt collar.
“My mom told me that you had all ‘A’s in everything but your science class. So, I’m guessing that your one bad grade is less a problem of understanding and more a problem of just not giving a shit.”
Connor couldn’t help but laugh a little bit. All his feelings of a moment ago, which had been so clear and solid, had tilted and muddled.
“That I get. But here you are. So, it’s up to you, I guess. Do better in the class, get an ‘A’, get your parents off your back and we can just bullshit around. Or you can go through all of this kicking and screaming. Maybe get a ‘C’ in two classes next year. Perhaps an ‘F’ even. That’ll show ‘em. We’ll sit here and I’ll show you flash cards about Newton’s Third Law and we can hate each other. Like I said, up to you. But I’m hoping you pick the first. I fucking hate flash cards.”
Connor chose the first option.
There was an immediate and positive turn that everyone seemed to be happy with. After a few weeks, Connor’s father was pleased to call the school and hear that his son was making good grades again. Connor’s parents were routinely invited over to the Fairfield’s house. And the boys didn’t study a moment of science.
Instead, they explored the city. Mrs. Fairfield turned a blind eye and a half-smile at the boys’ excuses of field research. They rode the bus down to the Bay and walked along the shore and sat on the piers looking out into the water. They went to movies and libraries. They walked through every city park.
Connor ate dinner over at their house often. They all sat in the living room as they ate around the television even though they had a dining room table that sat fifteen people. They often talked over the shows. Thomas’s dad was a partner in a law firm downtown. His mother worked in an art gallery. Art, Thomas’s dad told him, was their real passion.
“You work to get the money, sure,” Thomas’s dad said once. “But you use the money to really live.”
One night Connor snuck out after his parents had gone to sleep and met Thomas downstairs. They took the elevator to the top floor and snuck out onto the roof. It was the first time Thomas had been to Connor’s apartment building. Connor showed Thomas the view. In every direction the lights of the city stretched away to the horizon, twinkling like stars on the earth. Thomas pointed out the darker part of the city, hidden beneath the trees, far down towards the Bay that was his neighborhood. Together, the boys stood in the dark looking out over their city. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they moved closer together until they were touching, arm-to-arm. Each turned towards the other without speaking, and they kissed for the first time.
On the Friday before Memorial Day, school was canceled for both of the boys. They walked around the city on an unusually hot day, ate ice cream, drank soda, and stared out at the Bay bored.
“We could go to your roof,” Thomas suggested.
“It’s broad daylight.”
“No one ever goes up there.”
Thomas smiled in the way that got Connor to agree to anything.
They were looking at each other and talking. They couldn’t hear Connor’s mom calling to them from the sidewalk outside. As they boarded the elevator, Thomas reached out and grabbed Connor’s hand.
Connor’s mother went up to the apartment. “Hello?” she called to the empty space. She sat at the kitchen table, the groceries still unpacked, biting her bottom lip. Then she left and took the elevator to the top floor.
Connor and Thomas did not hear the door on the other side of the roof open. They had found a small space behind a temporary fence that blocked off the air conditioning units from the rest of the roof. While they were out of sight, they were not as quiet as they imagined. Connor’s mother stood on her tiptoes and looked over the fence. Connor was leaned over into Thomas’s lap.
She screamed something that was not quite a word–some protolanguage sentiment of shock and anger and disgust.
The boys jumped up, grabbing clothing, and covering themselves as best as they could.
When she spoke, it was quiet, but solid and full of danger. “Get your clothes and come downstairs.” Then she walked away.
The two looked at each other as they dressed, Connor pale and shaking.
“It’ll be ok,” Thomas said again and again. “Whatever happens, it’ll be ok.”
Connor didn’t say anything. After they’d dressed, he stood for a long moment on the lip of the building, looking down at the grey sea of concrete seventy stories below.
“I love you, Connor,” Thomas said behind him. It was the first time either of the boys had broached that topic.
Connor didn’t say anything, and then turned and went down to his parent’s apartment with Thomas following behind.
When they opened the door, Connor’s mother was in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette with shaking hands.
She looked at Connor first for a very long moment before turning to Thomas. “You,” she said, “get the fuck out of my house and never come back.” Her voice had lost some of its power, the anger cracking through and causing it to wobble.
“Mom,” Connor tried.
“No. He has to get the fuck out of my house.” She was screaming again, and knocked the groceries to the floor. She picked up a can and hurled it across the room towards Thomas. She started grabbing anything solid from the spilled groceries and throwing them one after the other. Thomas managed to dodge most.
Connor jumped in front of him. “Stop,” he screamed. “Don’t hurt him. I’m in love with him.”
Connor’s mother stopped briefly and staggered. She recovered, gritted her teeth, and threw again. She hit Connor above the left eye with a can of peas. His eyebrow split in two and blood ran quickly down past his eye.
Thomas pulled Connor into the hall. “We should go,” he said.
“You. You need to go,” Connor said.
“I’m not leaving you.”
“Go. I’ll be ok. I don’t want her to kill you.”
Thomas put his hand on Connor’s cheek. He gently touched his eyebrow.
“I don’t understand,” Thomas said.
“Please, for fuck’s sake, just leave. Don’t come back. I’ll come to you later.” Connor pushed him away and went back inside.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Connor said to his mother.
“No,” she said, and she repeated it again and again as if a mantra–“no, no, no.” Her eyes glazed with tears and she seemed to go to some other place in her mind. She sank to the floor. Her blue dress pooled around her in great rippling waves, the cigarette lost in one of the folds, slowly burning a hole.
“Mom, it’s ok,” Connor said.
She didn’t seem to hear him.
He was crying now too. “You told me when I was little that one day I’d grow up and find someone to love and we’d make a life together and have a family.”
“A girl, Connor. A girl.” She came back to this world. “You’ll find a girl is what I said. A pretty girl. An American girl from a good family.”
“It just didn’t happen that way.” His vision was starting to blur. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? You’re destroying our family, our lives, everything we’ve worked for, and you’re sorry?”
“Mamma,” he said. He hadn’t called her that since he was small. He knelt down next to her on the floor, his face still freely bleeding. “Nothing has to change, mamma. Everything is going to be alright. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m making good grades. I’ll go to a good college. Everything’ll be ok.”
She lunged at him and knocked him on his back. She grabbed him by the throat, and squeezed her hand until he couldn’t breathe. But his neck was wet with blood. Her grip slipped and he gasped in a breath.
“You are not my son if you keep this up.”
She bent down and put her mouth close to his ear and spoke only the barest degree above a whisper.
“Faggots die, Connor. Of disease, of violence, by their own hands. In alleyways, beaten, discarded and dumped, in prisons or in dirty, empty houses that match their dirty, empty lives. Always alone, Connor, with sin in their hearts and far from the love of God. Faggots die. It’s just what faggots do. I’d rather kill you myself right now than watch you become that. Because I love you, Connor. I’m your mother and I love you.”
She then released her grip and stood up. Connor remained motionless on the floor. She washed her hands at the kitchen sink, stepped over him, went into her room and closed the door.
He crawled to his feet and stepped unevenly to his room and lay down on his bed.
Connor looked up at the ceiling, feeling above him the apartments of his neighbors and the roof above them and then nothing but sky all the way to the stars. And around him he felt the city breathe and groan and keep on going. At some point, Connor slept. He woke in darkness when the handle of his bedroom door turned. His father entered the room.
Connor sat up on the edge of his bed, his feet on the floor.
“Son,” his father said, his voice even, but barely. “Are you a faggot?”
Connor looked up at his father, but it was hard to see him through the darkness. “I–”
The back of his father’s right hand landed solidly on his face. A ring dug into his cheek.
“Come with me,” his father said.
Connor’s cheek was numb and burning. He felt the wetness of new blood. His father was already at the front door by the time Connor was able to stand and follow him. Like cattle in the final chute, Connor had no choice but to go forward.
They rode in silence through the empty town. Connor held a towel to his face until the bleeding stopped. He scraped clean the dried blood. They turned down streets where Connor had never been–uneven streets with gaping, unfilled potholes. The street corners were piled with uncollected garbage. But here, unlike the rest of the city, were people. They milled about in small groups, calling to each other. They sat in the stoops looking down at the pavement. They were slumped in doorways. They were singing and stumbling and calling to the women who stood alone on the corners waving to the cars that passed.
Connor’s father pulled into a parking lot. A two story strip of motel rooms stood at the back. Half the doors were open and people leaned on the rusting railings, watching. Connor followed his father across the parking lot. His father grabbed his collar and dragged him, nearly lifting him off of the ground.
They climbed one of the stairways at the end of the building and knocked on the first door. After a moment, a woman answered. She wore shorts, torn, but tight and clinging to her thighs. She was naked from the waist up. She was tall, so that Connor was face-to-face with her sagging breasts. Her nipples were large and brown and swayed as she moved.
“Ah. This the boy?” She asked. The woman looked down at him. She wore a permanent and unconvincing smile. Her eyes were bloodshot and half closed.
“Thirty for the hour.”
After he’d handed the money over, Connor’s father turned and left without saying anything else. Connor was tired in a way he had never felt before. It was as if he had always been tired and there would never be sleep.
Connor took a step backwards towards the door, pushing his back up against it, but he did not open it and he did not try to run. He considered it for a moment, but he didn’t know where he was in the city, he didn’t know his way back home, and the thought of wondering the streets that he had seen on the way terrified him. The only way out was through. To do what his father wanted. And he would, he thought. He would do whatever his father wanted if he could just get through it and be left alone.
The woman was sitting on the edge of the bed rubbing a lotion onto her legs, not looking at Connor. “You can stand there all night sweetie, but your daddy paid. It doesn’t have to be long. Probably won’t be. No reason to be nervous. Just when you’re ready you come over here to me, honey.”
Connor crossed the room, focusing on the process of the steps, of creating one after the other until he stood before the woman.
She grabbed him quickly by the waist of his jeans, pulling him closer. She unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. He stared at the wall behind her. He could make out the original paisley pattern through the light-brown sheen that covered everything. The woman curled her fingers into Connor’s pants and underwear and pulled them down together. They fell tight around his ankles like rope. He felt the callouses on her hands as she gripped his soft penis. She pulled impatiently.
Connor felt naked and thought how odd that was. He had been with Thomas many times–on the roof, in beds, on the couches in their abandoned family rooms, in Thomas’s sprawling and secluded backyard. They had held each other in a bath for hours when Thomas’s parents had been out of town. But in that motel room Connor felt for the first time the shame that the preachers spoke of in church when they talked of Adam and Eve covering themselves. Connor remembered that the forbidden apple was from the Tree of Knowledge, and he felt perhaps that he knew what terrible understanding those two had found.
Connor’s soul tried to refuse again and again, but the body, dumb to all context, responded under the forced attention. The woman released him. He was sore, throbbing, and chafed. She stood up and put her hands on his shoulders and guided him onto the bed. She pushed his shirt out of the way and straddled him, unzipping her shorts and throwing them across the room. She lowered herself down on top of him and began to move–her rhythm workman-like. Connor noticed that she was chewing gum and humming slightly. He gritted his teeth and hoped for it to be over soon. Mercifully, it was.
She left him on the bed after and went into the bathroom. He didn’t move for a long time. After a bit, he pulled his pants up and began to sob.
The woman came out of the bathroom and went about the room humming to herself as he lay on the bed crying. After a while she walked over to him and watched him. She looked at the swollen brow, the open cuts just on the dry edge of bleeding.
“Oh, you’re a queer, aren’t you?” She sat down on the bed next to him.
“Honey, you better stop that before your old man gets back here. Trust me.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “Come on, now. Sit up. Sit up, damnit.” He sat up on the edge of the bed. She rubbed her palm across his cheeks, wiping away the tears. Her hands smelled of layers of lavender, sweat, and tobacco.
He stopped crying and looked at her.
“Listen to me right now. Ok? I know men like your father. You have to trust me on this: You don’t have to like it, kid. But you have to pretend to. Ok?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Let me explain something to you. You ain’t got to be what the world wants you to be, alright? But you gotta pretend to be. You have to look like what people expect, act like they expect, have the right opinions, and love what everyone else loves, hate what everyone else hates. You can’t be different in this world or it will destroy you, ok? I know–look around.
“People don’t like what’s different. They’re afraid of it. Even though everyone has secrets. Half the people you pass on the streets are thieves, or murderers, or rapists, but they all get dressed up and go to family picnics and shake their heads and say ‘what a world we live in.’ You understand?”
He didn’t. Not really, but he nodded and stood up.
His father knocked on the door a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said to Connor before she let his father in.
His father didn’t say anything to him on the ride back to their apartment. They went upstairs. It was almost dawn, but not quite yet, and still very dark. Connor’s father walked him into his room. He stopped him and turned the boy to face him.
“Son,” he said, “are you a faggot?”
He didn’t wait for an answer this time. Hitting Connor again on the same cheek as before, forcing the wound to bleed.
“Connor,” his father said. “The answer is no. You are not a faggot. I don’t know what that boy did to you, how he turned you into this, but it’s over now. Do you understand?”
Connor nodded quickly. “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
“Now, are you a–“
“No, sir,” Connor said.
“Good boy. Get some sleep. You have school in a few hours.”
His father left and Connor lay on the bed looking out of the window, watching the night turn to a white-grey morning. The wounds that would become bruises were warm and throbbed in time with Connor’s heart–fast at first, and then slow as he slipped into sleep.
Connor slept and stayed asleep. I wish that he woke to a day filled with the possibilities of a changing world, that he was comforted by the promises of the always rising sun. But, Connor slept, and stayed asleep. And while he slept he graduated as the valedictorian of his high school, and he went to college and he became an engineer, and he met a girl and made her his wife. They had a son. And for these decades, Connor slept.
I grew up in my father’s city. And what was it like? Empty–after the ships left and the ports closed–empty and cold and sterile. And though so many people left to chase the promise
of money and success elsewhere, Connor stayed. He stayed because this is where his father had lived and died. This was where he was raised and where he would raise his family. And so he raised me. In his own image–in the image of his father he raised me. And he taught me that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, that men are strong like the steel of the buildings, that we do not cry, that we fight and hide our weakness and push it far, far down inside. He taught me that our actions have unintended consequences, and he taught me to remember the latch.
My father’s city and that of his father has died and passed away. I walk through the city today, past the buildings that once looked over my father, but today stand silent and mostly empty. Only the very bottom floors of the tall and once full towers are now occupied. Many have been condemned and torn down after their foundations began to shift and sink and the buildings themselves started to crack and break apart. Poorly made steel looks strong, but is brittle and does not last, it turns out. The skipped inspections and loose permitting of frenetic and uncontrolled growth eventually bore the expected fruit.
The soul may hold secrets for a very long time it’s true. Some are sharp like splinters and work their way in deep. Both, it is also true, will eventually come back out again.
When my father arrived at my door on the 13th of April, he looked very unlike the man I had known growing up. He was sunken and emptied out. We had not spoken for a few years and I was surprised to see him, but let him in. He tried to hug me, but out of habit I stepped away. This was the man who from the time I was ten would shake my hand when we’d see each other. He sat on my couch quietly for a long time.
He showed me an obituary in the newspaper. I read it quietly. When I was done, I looked up and found him watching me. “I don’t get it,” I said. “Who is he?”
“I need to talk to you about some things, son.” Then he told me about the blond boy he had met one fall when he was a young man. “I’m sorry,” he said when he was finished.
I went with him to the basement of the hospital downtown, to the room with the stainless steel tables and bright lights and smell of decay and disinfectant.
I stood underneath the weight of the whole city with a man who helped build it and who had watched it all fall apart. I couldn’t help myself–I held his hand as he approached one of the tables and pulled back the sheet and for the first time in a long time looked upon the face he had loved.
I grew up in my father’s city, and in his father’s–in the city of all our fathers back to Adam. As promised, that original sin followed from father to son, each of us carrying that nameless dark that transmits trauma so efficiently and so thoroughly through the generations.
Warmth is not a word I would ever use to describe my father, but I did feel supported growing up, and he never hit me, and so it occurs to me that even when slow, progress is progress. Our world is a mollusk’s shell–abandoned and reoccupied again and again by the dead and the living who will become the dead. Do what we will, change what we can, our efforts are only incremental.
If I should have a wife and sons and daughters I will love them and be as warm as I can be. I will try to turn as much as I can towards what I hope is right, and let my children’s children hope that that what I assume is right truly is. Perhaps some distant generation from now a child will be born who can look upon the promised land.
It is complicated for me to wish that my father and Thomas had been able to be together. If they had the freedom to pursue the love they felt, I wouldn’t exist. But I wish that they had been able to connect again. If I could talk to Thomas, I would thank him for the love, however brief, that he gave my father and I’d introduce myself and let him know that when I was born, my mother held me in her arms and asked her husband, “What should we name him?”
And my father answered quickly and surely. “Thomas.”