A Heart Back Home by Andrew Grey

ChapteOne

 

 

Have you ever had one of those days when nothing seems to go right?

I arrived at work to find my boss at the door telling everyone to go home. The printer I worked for had put out their last piece of mailbox-clogging junk mail. Not that I relished the job or anything, but it paid enough for me to make the monthly rent, pay for my car, and buy groceries.

“Will I get my last pay?” I asked, staring into the harrowed eyes of my once-confident manager. He was in his midfifties, but in a day, he seemed to have aged a decade.

“Yes. You will be paid, but that’s about it. I wish I had more answers for you, but I don’t at this moment.” As the others came in, he told them all the same thing.

Not knowing what else to do, I turned around and got into my four-year-old Camry, glad it was almost paid off, and tried to figure how I was going to apply for unemployment and then find another job. I was too stunned to think very much about anything else on the drive back to my tiny apartment in Schaumburg, Illinois.

When my phone rang, I answered through the car’s Bluetooth connection.

“Hey, Clay, how’s it going?” my best friend, Alan, asked. He always called first thing in the morning before I started work, while I was getting coffee, mostly so he could talk about his conquest from the night before.

“Crappy,” I answered as levelly as I could. “My company went under, and I’m driving back home. It looks like I’m going to need to polish up my résumé and try to find a new job.” In this economy, that seemed like a daunting task, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Hard work didn’t scare me, but I wanted more out of life. Though I’d been raised on a farm in Wisconsin, I had escaped the rural life for the wider world as soon as I was able to find a job as far away from that life as I could get.

“You’ll find something. I know you will. You’re one of those people who’ll land on his feet no matter what.” Alan barely stopped for a breath before he was on to another subject. “Man, you should have seen the guy I met last night….”

I drove away from the city, making the reverse commute that had been part of my life for the past five years and now was a thing of the past. I was still trying to figure out what I thought of that. The changes would sink in—I knew they would. It was just going to take some time to figure out and process. In the meantime, I listened to Alan, hoping for a sense of normalcy.

“Yeah, he was something else. I swear he must have started lifting when he was twelve or something. Huge arms, great legs, and a chest to die for.”

I rolled my eyes and pulled to a stop as a sea of red lights appeared ahead. “Yeah, but could he put two sentences together?”

Alan laughed. “That’s the really cool part. He’s a high school football coach, and he actually has opinions about shit.” I could almost see him sticking his tongue out at me through the phone. “And he was amazing once I got him back to my place. Like a yummy, delicious pile driver. And the best part? He left his phone number and took mine. He wants to see me on Saturday.” Alan sounded as happy as a pig in shit.

“Wonderful,” I told him, trying to sound like I meant it. Things had completely turned upside down for me, and it was difficult to get excited about anything right now. Thankfully, Alan didn’t notice and continued on with his tale of debauchery. “You know you’re talking to a guy who hasn’t had sex, let alone a date, in months.”

I knew Alan’s response by heart. We’d had this conversation multiple times. I mouthed the words as he said them: “Then why don’t you come out with me? You’re plenty cute, and you know the guys would like you.”

“Because those aren’t the kinds of guys I’m interested in.” I had gone out to the bars and clubs plenty of times, and I always came away disappointed and feeling like I was in a meat market. That wasn’t what I was looking for, but it was hard to explain that to Alan. He saw the world his own way, and I had long ago given up on making him try to understand. He was a good friend who existed in his own happy, gay, sex-for-dinner-and-breakfast kind of world. Who was I to try to burst his bubble? “I’ll be fine. You go on to work and have a good day. I’m heading home to sit in front of the television, eat my weight in chocolate, and try to figure out what my next steps are.” It was best to get him off the phone so I could be miserable on my own. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Sure,” Alan agreed.

Another call was coming in, and I said goodbye to Alan and answered it.

“Son, it’s Dad.”

I slammed on the brakes as the freeway come to another halt, grateful I didn’t rear-end the car in front of me. My father never called me… ever. He and I had barely spoken since I left home. It wasn’t just the gay thing, though that had started it.

“What’s going on?” I asked slowly, instantly on guard. I had been on the receiving end of enough of my father’s tirades and lectures to be wary.

He hesitated. “I need you, son.”

I swallowed hard, wondering just how much crow he’d had to swallow to say those words.

“I can’t do this anymore. If I don’t…. Shit!” he swore. At least with that curse I knew it was really him. “You’re going to make me fucking say it, aren’t you?”

“Dad.” I started the car moving forward. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? I’m not a mind reader, and I don’t have spies there that keep me updated on all the gossip.” All my life, he had expected me to pick up what he wanted or meant through goddamn osmosis. Getting Harvey Kartwell to actually speak plainly was like pulling teeth.

“I need your help here on the farm. I’m in trouble and I don’t know where to turn. I have the crop in, and it’s growing well. Acres of corn and fields of hay that will turn a good profit, I’m sure. But I can’t do it any longer.” For the first time in my life, I heard weakness in my father’s voice. “I’m going to lose the farm if I….” He stopped, the line went silent, and then… a sound I never expected to hear as long as I lived: a sniff, and then a cough. “Your mother and I built this place from nothing, and I can’t lose it.”

Holy hell, my father was crying, and he’d actually talked about my mother. That was totally new. Since the day she died, Dad never said a word. He’d grieved in silence at first, and then with such anger that I left, and we hadn’t spoken on anything other than holidays since.

“Give me a second. I’m in the car.” I made my way onto the off-ramp and took the exit for I-90, then pulled into a parking lot. “Sorry, Dad. I’m stopped now. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” I was trying to be as levelheaded as I could be.

“It’s my foot. I broke it a few weeks back, and it’s not healing. The doctor is mad at me, it hurts all the time, and I can’t put any weight on it. I worked all last year to try to keep this place up and I barely managed. Now I…. Shit… this was a mistake.”

“What?” I snapped. “That you asked for help? That you called your gay son, who you haven’t talked to in months and don’t return phone calls from, to ask him for help? Maybe the mistake was you being a complete ass since Mom died. Is that what you’re angry about?” It all came spilling out in a whoosh. “Because if it’s about calling your son, then maybe that the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”

“Huh….” He huffed. “Can’t you just say what you mean?”

I rolled my eyes, wanting to throw my damned phone out the window. “I was. You don’t listen.” Then I paused and did my best to let go of my anger. “I miss Mom too,” I said quietly. Maybe instead of talking around each other, if we found some common ground, he and I could start there. “And I don’t want you to lose the farm either.” As much as I hated to admit it, there was a lot of my own sweat and blood in that place. “What is it you need? I don’t have any money to lend you….”

“I don’t want money. What I need is your help.” He sighed. “I know I have no right to ask for it. Not after the last few years and all… but I’m out of options, and….” I could hear the stubbornness starting to take root inside him. I could almost feel it growing. “You know I never ask for anything, not from anyone.”

“I know.” That was one of the constants in my life. My father would never ask for help from anyone, though he would demand that his son complete his chores no matter what. “What is it you need?” I asked, somewhat against my better judgment.

Dad was silent once more. “Can you come home for a while? I know you have a job there, but I was hoping you could take vacation and maybe….”

I didn’t sigh or explain. “Yes, Dad, I’ll come.” He was my father, and it didn’t matter that I thought him a hard-hearted bastard some of the time, and a pretty much a dick the rest. There had been times when things had been different. Like when my dad had taken me camping. He and I used to fish in the stream that ran through one end of the property. We had fun, just the two of us. “Let me get home, and I’ll pack some things and drive up.” I ended the call before he could ask a bunch of questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, then pulled out into traffic.

 

 

It was nearly noon before I turned off the familiar road and into the driveway of the home where I grew up, past maple trees painted in their fall reds and yellows. It had been five years since I’d been back, and the place looked the same, yet different. The buildings seemed older and in need of paint. At least the house seemed the same as it always had.

I pulled to a stop near the house and got out of the car. “Rex?” I asked as a dog ambled up to me. I knelt down, and sure enough, Rex came right over, looking for scratches. He was part yellow lab and part mix, and all loving friend. I petted him and buried my face in his fur, holding him as I tried not to let the memories take too much of a hold. I was here to help my dad and that was it. Rex’s shaggy tail wagged in the dirt, and I pulled back, noticing the gray in his muzzle, and when I stood, he walked back toward the shade to lie down.

Dad stepped into the open back door, and for a second, I didn’t recognize him. He had lost weight, his pants hanging on his hips. His beard was snow white and a bit ragged. But his eyes were the same piercing blue. He had a boot on his foot and propped himself up with crutches. I stared at him, not sure what to say, and he seemed the same.

“Can you drive into town and pick up a couple of prescriptions at Bechtel’s? The doctor says I need to take the damned things….” He tapered off, and I knew what he was going to say anyway. He always hated doctors, and pills were something he avoided at all costs.

“Sure. Why not?” I sighed. It wasn’t as though I was expecting some sort of warm welcome, or even a hug, for Christ’s sake.

“I’ll call them and let them know you’re picking up for me.” He went inside and closed the door.

I shook my head, went back to the car, and held the door to let Rex inside. He always loved to ride. Rex stepped over the driver’s seat and onto the passenger side, his tongue hanging out in doggie happiness. At least someone was pleased to see me.

The drive into town took about ten minutes. I pulled into the pharmacy parking lot, lowered the windows so the fall breeze could flow through the car for Rex, then hurried toward the door and immediately bumped into a brick wall. I shook my head and stepped back.

“Clay?” a familiar voice from my past asked.

I cringed for a second before wiping my face clear and smiling as best I could. “Dell?” I asked with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. In truth, I had planned to avoid Dell while I was in town. I should have known it was too much for me to hope for. I wanted to ask something, but instead ended up staring at him like a fool, my lips going like a demented fish and not saying a word. Dell Warrington had always had that effect on me.

“What are you doing here? I thought you were in Chicago. When I saw him a few months ago, your dad told me that you had a good job there and were doing well.” Those eyes had the same sparkle they had in high school, back when I would gladly follow him around like a puppy. I didn’t tell him that the job and the life that my father was so proud of were gone like a fart in the wind.

“Dad called, and I came back to try to help him.” I wanted to get inside and get the prescriptions before the temperature in my clothes rose any higher and I sweated through everything I was wearing. Damn, I thought I would have gotten past all this. Five years away and never hearing his name, and with one look, I was back to the geekish kid who first left. “I just got into town, and he needed something.” Thank God I found my voice.

“Daddy?” a little boy asked as he stepped from behind Dell’s legs.

“Hey, buddy. This is Grampy Harvey’s son, Clay. He’s an old friend of mine. We went to school together.” He lifted the boy into his arms. “Clay, this is my son, Archie.”

Well, at least that explained a great deal about how things had really been before I had left. I spent the last two years of high school mooning over Dell because… look at him. They guy was carved out of granite, with eyes that burned like lightning.

“It’s good to meet you.” I smiled at the young boy and got a grin in return.

“We need to get back to Grandma’s before she wonders if we’ve gotten lost.” Dell stepped out of the way, and I should have gone inside. He turned, heading down the sidewalk, and I followed him with my gaze. Then, with a sigh, I was just about to turn away when Dell looked back over his shoulder, his gaze meeting mine. I smiled, and he did the same before continuing down the sidewalk.

I went inside, berating myself for the way my heart beat a little faster just because he’d looked back at me. I told myself I wasn’t going to fall back into the old habits that had left my heart ripped in two and me unable to look myself in the mirror. If I were honest, I probably would have stayed here regardless of how things had been with my dad if Dell had felt the way about me that I did for him. But there was no use going over all that mess for the millionth time.

I approached the pharmacy counter, explained what I needed, and stepped back while he got Dad’s prescriptions. They added the cost to Dad’s account, and I headed for my car, anxious to return to the farm and figure out exactly what kind of mess I was walking into.

“Clay,” Dell called, and I looked around as he and Archie approached.

“We’re gonna get ice cream. Daddy promised,” Archie said with a wild-eyed grin as though he were checking that Dell remembered.

“Would you like to join us?” Dell asked.

I turned to where Rex had his nose out the window. The offer was danged tempting. “I really need to get back to—”

“A puppy!” Archie yelled, jumping up and down. “Is he nice?”

“Yes, he is.” I grinned as Rex began whining to get out.

“We’re going to the Whippy Dip down by the park. If you want to come, you can bring him along. Archie will love it.” Dell’s smile was infectious, and Rex was going nuts. I found myself nodding and agreeing to meet them there.

I got into the car, drove to the edge of town, and pulled into the parking lot of the ice cream stand. Archie was already hurrying over before I had the door open. Rex jumped down as soon as I got out, his tail wagging, and scooted over to Archie, then sat still so he could be lavished with attention.

“Daddy, can we get a doggie like this?” Archie asked as he petted Rex.

Dell chuckled. “We’ll see,” he answered before turning to me. “He’s been asking that same question about every dog he’s seen since he was able to talk.”

“How old is he?” I asked. Archie was adorable, and from the black hair and intense eyes, he was definitely Dell’s son. No doubt about that.

“Four and a half,” Dell answered. “He’s totally amazing.”

Instantly a lot of things fell into place for me. By the time I left, Dell had already gotten Archie’s mother pregnant. Which meant that whatever I thought there might have been between the two of us had all been in my head. The furtive looks and the way he seemed to seek me out sometimes…. I’d wrapped it all up into my own wants and wishes until my mind had conjured up this whole special relationship, and now I was staring at the definitive proof that it had all been in my mind.

“Who’s his mother?”

Dell had Archie go sit down at a table, with Rex following right behind. Once he was seated, we got in line, with Dell watching as Archie petted Rex. “Angie Carter. You remember her?” Dell sighed.

“Are you still with her?” I asked tentatively.

Dell shook his head. “The situation was complicated and involved a lot of soul-searching. We were both young, and she was going to have a baby she didn’t want. When Angie told me she was going to have an abortion, I about threw up right there. The thought was too much for me. I talked to my mom and dad and then Angie, and we all agreed that she would have the baby and I would raise the child.”

That was the Dell that I had fallen in love with so long ago. But he wasn’t for me, and I had to push all that away. Besides, that was then—five years removed. We had both gone on with our lives. Maybe I should be keeping my distance now.

“I did think of asking her to marry me, but I realized that would be compounding one mistake on another. When Archie was born, I was there in the delivery room, and after Angie signed away her rights, I took Archie home with me. Best thing I ever did.”

Our turn came at the counter, and Dell ordered two bowls of ice cream. I got a mint chip for myself and joined them at the table.

“He’s a nice dog,” Archie pronounced as he ate his pink ice cream. “Daddy, I really want a dog.”

“I know, buddy. But Pappy is allergic, so we can’t have one while we stay with them. Maybe when we can get a place of our own. Then you can have a dog. I promise.” He ruffled Archie’s hair, and the little guy returned to eating.

“In the meantime, you can visit Rex if you want. I’m sure he would love the company.”

Why I was offering, I had no idea, other than the fact that I was completely stupid and a glutton for punishment. I centered my attention on the ice cream and tried not to sneak looks at Dell. I knew I shouldn’t, but he was sitting right next to me, and because of the warm day, I couldn’t help smelling his aftershave and, of course, the deep muskiness that was him under it all. That was instantly recallable, and I refused to close my eyes and let it carry me away. Okay, I actually had no willpower and couldn’t help inhaling as much of him as I possibly could.

“Eat your ice cream before it melts,” Dell told Archie, and I took his advice as well, finishing off my small scoop before throwing away the paper container. I sat back down, waiting until the other two were done.

“I really should get back to my dad’s. He’s going to need his pills and stuff.” I said goodbye to both guys before going back to the car and calling Rex, who carefully climbed in. I waved before getting inside, closing the car door, and starting the engine. The air-conditioning kicked on, and I turned it to high—really high. I needed to cool down and get my muddled head clear. Dell was untouchable, unattainable, and on top of it all, he was a father. I had no intention of getting between a father and his son. Besides, it was pretty obvious from all the outward evidence that Dell was straight, and I wasn’t going to go down that road again. Once was enough.

I pulled out of the parking lot heading back to the farm, reminding myself that I had plenty to get done and that I was here to help my father, not to get my heart broken all over again. I had to keep my head focused on what I was here to do. Then, when Dad was back on his feet, I could return home to Schaumburg to find another job and get on with my life. That was where my energies needed to be focused.

“Isn’t that right, Rex?”

He looked at me like I was completely crazy, and maybe I was. Maybe returning to the farm was the biggest mistake of my life. So I’d rectify that the same way I had the other problems I encountered here: I’d do what I needed to and then get the hell out.

With my mind made up, I petted Rex’s head and made the turn out of town and toward the farm.