Illustrated by Eve le Dez
“I didn’t know,” was the only response Richard could fashion. He felt like he’d been struck a glancing blow to the side of the head. Old Bech – that giant redwood of a man? He used to joke that if you sawed Bech in half you’d probably find rings.
Richard had not been in contact with Forrest going on fifteen years. They’d been friends for some two decades before that, not close friends, but good friends. Their wives, Alice and Gloria, were extremely tight, speaking nearly every day. The telephone was a godsend for farm wives living great distances from one other. They looked forward to that interval in the day when they could prop up their feet, sip a good strong cup of coffee and have a nice chat – perhaps complain about their husbands, their children, or mention their latest accomplishments, but casually so it didn’t sound like bragging. Or commiserate. Or just plain gossip, maybe about the parson’s wife, Agnes, who gave herself airs just because she’d been raised in Chicago.
Richard ended the friendship. One day, he announced to Alice that he no longer thought the Bechners were suitable company. He gave no reason. But then he never did. The Bechners were no longer invited to Sunday supper at the house or to play cards. Alice made enough excuses when Gloria asked them over that she soon stopped offering and, eventually, telephoning.
“Sorry Trudy, what’d you say?” Richard asked.
“I said twenty-six dollars and thirty-eight cents. Said it twice,” Trudy snapped.
He counted out the cash and lifted the grocery bags. Halfway to the door, he turned. “You wouldn’t happen to know what hospital Forrest is in?”
“East River, I believe.”
After a tuna melt and a cup of coffee at the diner across the street, Richard started home but turned the truck around and took the short cut to East River over the toll bridge. He was listening to a news report on the radio claiming that the USSR was in the process of dissolution. It didn’t seem possible, Richard thought, that a force so immutable could cease to exist.
Gloria was walking across the parking lot to her car as Richard drove up. He pulled alongside her and saw on her face the bedraggled look of helplessness that comes from watching someone you love slip from your grasp. Richard remembered it well from the months of tending to Alice as her heart gradually stopped beating.
It took Gloria a moment to recognize him and when she did, she was understandably surprised.
“Heard about Forrest. So sorry. Is he taking visitors?”
Gloria nodded and her mouth tightened. “I’m not sure he’d be all that happy to see you and I don’t want him agitated.” Her tone was not acrimonious, merely an expression of concern for her husband of forty years.
“I’d very much like to say goodbye to him. I’ll only take a few minutes.”
Gloria’s shoulders collapsed. “Well, I suppose… Please try not to upset him. He’s having a good day and he’s had so few lately.”
He hadn’t come to upset Forrest, Richard thought. He’d come to thank him.
* * * * *
The hospital room reeked of antiseptic mingled with the aroma of fresh-cut roses sitting in a vase on the windowsill, vibrant yellow roses as big as sunflowers. The harsh afternoon light bleached the room and there was a great deal of clatter up and down the hallway. Richard recalled his hospital stay a couple of years back when he’d had his gall bladder removed. After the anesthesia wore off all he craved was rest and solitude. He got neither – always an announcement on the P.A. or a cleaning person or a nurse or a meal delivery. Day and night. Never stopped. He returned home exhausted, unable to get out of bed more than once every couple of days to ingest some food. By the time he recovered, he’d lost thirty pounds but at least he was well rested.
Forrest appeared thinner and paler but still well knit. From the full mop of black and gray curls framing his head, Richard guessed he hadn’t been submitted to the indignities of chemotherapy. Probably by the time they diagnosed the cancer it was well along and knowing Forrest he would have refused drastic intervention merely to add a few harsh months to his life. A morphine patch was stuck to his upper arm and his gaze was dreamily fixed on a small TV screen tilted precariously on the opposite wall, an afternoon talk show.
Standing over the bed, in the softest voice he could muster, he said, “Bech. It’s me, Richard. Richard Lawrence.”
Forrest’s head turned and his bottom lip dropped as if he’d just been told an important secret. Richard’s chest heaved and he would have run from the room if Forrest hadn’t clamped his hand with a ferocity he wouldn’t have imagined possible for a man his age, much less one who was mortally ill.
Richard winced and Forrest relaxed his grip, but only slightly. He cocked his chin in the direction of a nearby chair. Richard had to reach for it with his left hand because Forrest wasn’t about to let go of the other.
“Well, well, Bech,” he began in an upbeat voice. “Isn’t it just like you to be lying there looking better than most men your age, present company included.”
A choking laugh tried to escape from Forrest’s throat and his eyes were stung by the bright sunlight.
“You want me to pull the shades?”
Forrest nodded and Richard tried to pry loose his hand. “I’m not going anywhere until you or Gloria shoo me out. Promise.”
Forrest reluctantly let go and Richard drew the curtains until the light was as soft as in a confessional. He shut the door almost all the way to muffle some of the din. As he sat down again, Forrest greedily reached for his hand.
“I came to thank you,” Richard said, his voice cracking. He kissed the top of Forrest’s hand several times, a gesture so out of character that all Forrest could do was stare.
Richard wiped away some stray tears with a corner of the bed sheet. “I bet that’s the one thing you’ve never seen me do: cry. Rage and fume and kick and scream, but never any weeping.”
Forrest smiled and gave his hand a little squeeze.
“I recently learned that it’s an age thing. Since I retired and sold the farm, all I do is watch the TV. Never had the time or the inclination before. Too busy with my chores or nursing a hangover. I still get up at five every day. Force of habit. So I watch the morning shows. They did this one story about how as men get older their testosterone drops and they become more like women, bawling their eyes out over every little thing.”
He emitted a rueful chuckle and the two men sat there silently studying one another for what could have been five minutes or five hours. Richard’s eyes finally drifted over to the picture frames on the bed stand. Forrest’s two boys, older but still recognizable, grinned back at him. Smaller photos were scattered about, the grandchildren no doubt.
“Tell me,” Forrest mouthed, though no sound came out. Richard figured the cancer was in his throat or lungs. Like most men their age they’d both been smokers. It was what men did. Smoking and drinking.
“I got grandkids too, six at last count,” Richard began. “Only seen them in pictures. Not on speaking terms with my children. They used to include photos in their letters to Alice but that stopped when she died. I’m happy Alice at least got to meet them. The kids mailed us bus tickets, plane tickets. Only for one. She was reluctant, said she didn’t want to leave me alone. I told her, ‘I’ll still be here when you get back. Where else do I have to go?’”
He noticed that some color had risen in Forrest’s cheeks and his head was shaking from side to side. “Alice never attended any of their weddings, though. Said it wouldn’t be right. After all, it was she who bore the brunt of me all those years. If she’d withstood it, they could put up with me for one day. I’d set aside some money for Martha’s wedding but she refused to take a penny, swore she’d tear the check up and send back the pieces. Just as well Alice didn’t go. It would have upset her to see another man give Martha away.
“Saw Martha – and Dickie and Peter – at Alice’s funeral. They were kind enough to give me a hug. Felt good to hold them in my arms after so many years, though I knew they only did it because they didn’t want to stoop to my level and appear deliberately cruel, at least not in front of the neighbors. Haven’t heard a peep from them since. Don’t expect to in this lifetime. Ah well, that bed can’t be unmade.” He shrugged.
Forrest’s lips formed the words “I’m sorry.” Then he ran his tongue over his parched lips. Richard reached over with his free hand and scooped some ice chips from a cup on the bed stand. He ran them along the edges of Forrest’s mouth before depositing them on his tongue. “A shame they only knew me at my very worst,” Richard continued. “I pretty much stopped drinking not long after the last time you and me saw each other up at the lake. And I guess I owe you for that too.”
Forrest seemed genuinely intrigued by this last remark. He signaled for Richard to help him sit up. Richard cranked up the bed and grabbed another pillow from the closet, which he placed behind Forrest’s head. Richard’s palm came to rest on the back of his neck and Forrest pushed back against the warmth, slowly moving his head from side to side like a cat. His head fell forward limply and Richard ran his open fingers through the thick, curly hair, gently massaging his friend’s scalp.
“Did you always know?” Richard asked. Somehow he found it easier to ask this question when he wasn’t looking directly at Forrest.
Forrest’s head bobbed up and down.
“Not me. Not a clue. Not until it had taken a stranglehold of me, not until I thought I was going mad. But how would I know such a thing, born and raised so far away from the world? Not like it was ever discussed on the radio or the TV or in the Dispatch. So how could it exist?”
He laid Forrest’s head back against the pillow and took his seat. “Quite a shock to the system,” Richard said. “Didn’t at all fit in with the life I’d imagined.”
He reminded Forrest how he’d met Alice in Bible class and assumed she was his chosen path. If he had any qualms about marrying her, he ascribed them to immaturity, a young man’s predictable resistance to being tied down.
At first, he reveled in sharing himself with another person. He didn’t believe such joy was possible. Soon he was engulfed by the heady smell of new life, which on a farm was the natural order.
But youthful ardor got him only so far, and as it cooled, Alice was left to wonder why. She didn’t say so. It wouldn’t have been her place. Instead, she tried to coax him the way women do, subtly making herself available. Richard pretended not to notice and she was careful not to push too hard. Putting pressure on a man is never a good way to win him over. For a time, he soldiered on. Having a wife and three children and a farm to run left little time for reflection, and he came to the conclusion that what had happened was merely the orderly progression of married life.
“Then I woke up one morning to find a thief in my house and I was horrified to discover that it was me,” Richard said.
Forrest stared up at the ceiling and groaned as if it was a lame joke he’d heard before.
A part of himself Richard had never known existed declared itself and he was beset with feelings alien and frightening, and yet it seemed as if he’d always had them. “It was like being in a coma for many years and when you finally come out of it, you realize you were never really unconscious. If that makes any sense.”
The sudden realization had flooded him with shame. He tried prayer but it was of no help. How could he ask for deliverance, when he couldn’t give a name to his affliction? His only solace was the anesthesia of drink and the dullness of hangovers, which carried him from one day to the next but only encouraged the demons. The only way to silence them was to scream louder, to annihilate them.
The more he had tried to seize control of his thoughts, the more convoluted they became. His mind began to entertain ideas so frighteningly bizarre that he quit coaching Little League and couldn’t bear to be in the company of his own sons.
“I know now that it was just a false alarm. At the time, though, I couldn’t be sure and because there might be even a remote chance of harming them, I went to the opposite extreme, buried any affection I had for the boys, choosing the lesser of two evils. If children only knew the reasons parents do some of the crazy things they do… Well, I suppose they find out soon enough when they try on our shoes.”
A tear sat in the corner of Forrest’s right eye waiting for release.
“The worst of it was that I felt like such a coward,” Richard continued. For a time, he had weighed abandoning the family, he said, to spare them the misery of his misbegotten life. But Alice could not have run the farm and he didn’t know how they’d survive. He decided to stay on only to ensure they were never materially deprived, but the price they paid was his wrath. In retrospect, it was the wrong choice. With him gone, they might have endured hard times, but at least they would have been spiritually whole, not the splintered family they became. Alice might even have found a man give her the affection and kindness she so truly merited.
Richard looked away and mumbled quietly as if trying to formulate the right words to continue. “I need to ask you something Bech. This is a hard one. And you’re not obliged to answer if you don’t want to: Did you always feel that way about me?”
The question caught Forrest up short but eventually an aspirated “Yes” passed his lips. Then he repeated it. “Yes.”
Richard expected the answer but was still bemused by it. “Isn’t that just like you? Always sure, always clear headed. Some people are able to see for miles down the road, while others can’t see a hand in front of their face. Guess I was too busy railing against myself and lashing out at everyone and everything. A wounded heart feels nothing but ache. If I’d known, I might have been better prepared, maybe even come around to thinking that way too. I don’t know what we would have done, what further damage we might have caused. But I did consider it. You should know that I didn’t cut you off because I was scared, though I knew you’d be terribly hurt.”
“There was nothing wrong with what you felt and I’m sorry I killed it.”
“You didn’t,” Forrest corrected him, but the exertion of saying it aloud caused him to gag.
Richard gave his back a few sharp slaps until his normal breathing resumed. “All those years? It’s hard to believe that both you and Alice could find goodness in a sonofabitch like me.” Richard bowed his head. “I am twice blessed.”
Forrest’s hand reached out and caressed the top of Richard’s sparsely haired pate.
“For pity’s sake,” Gloria’s voice rang out from the doorway. “You still here?”
Richard jumped to his feet. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to uh…” As he rose, Forrest grasped for his hand. “I should be going. I don’t want to tire you out,” he said.
There was look of urgency in Forrest’s eyes. “Stay,” he mouthed.
“Forrest, dear,” Gloria said. “I need you to conserve your strength. The boys are dropping by later and they’re bringing one or two of the older kids. You don’t want to disappoint them.”
“Please?” Forrest implored. Gloria noticed him clinging to Richard’s hand and didn’t know what to make of it. “Please,” he repeated.
Richard turned his head so that only Gloria saw him wink. “How about if I just sit over there in the back so I’m in his line of sight,” he said, trying to give the impression he was merely humoring Forrest, when he wanted desperately to remain. “I won’t be the slightest bother.”
For the remainder of the week, except when he and Forrest were alone, Richard made himself inconspicuous, curling up in the corner by the window. Forrest drifted in and out of consciousness, a pattern of small rebounds and relapses. But even when he seemed to be barely awake, he’d become agitated if he didn’t see Richard.
“Just going to get a bite, Bech. Be back in jiff,” Richard would have to reassure him, or: “The nurses are letting me use the shower. They don’t want me stinking up the place. Now close your eyes. When you open them again, I’ll be right here beside you.”
At night, after Gloria and her sons went home (“Why is he here?” they had asked), Richard would sit at Forrest’s bedside and hold his hand or, if he was already asleep, lay his head on Forrest’s right leg and shut his eyes. Forrest would sometimes awaken to find him and, with a sigh of relief, gently pat his head until he, too, fell back to sleep.
* * * * *
It was Richard who phoned Gloria on the last night. “Doctor says you and the boys should come down now.”
As Forrest was passing, his family around him, Richard retreated to the back of the room and stood there head bowed, hands folded in front of him.
Afterwards, Gloria didn’t know exactly what to say to Richard except “Thank you.”
“It was a privilege,” Richard said. After patting Forrest’s hand one last time, he left the room. He walked out of the hospital shortly before dawn and as he crossed the toll bridge a torrential rain began to fall. The truck’s wipers, worn and in serious need of replacement, scratched against the windshield to little effect.
Richard thought about one of his last conversations with Forrest. Less a conversation than a monologue since he couldn’t be certain his words registered. Forrest appeared to be in transit, no longer in this world, not yet in the next. It didn’t matter because he was certain Forrest had replayed the same scene in his head many times over the past decade and a half.
Richard and Alice, and Forrest and Gloria planned a vacation together that summer. “A real adult vacation,” Forrest joked since they were finally empty-nesters. Their kids were either in college or on their own. One of Gloria’s cousins had a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota he sometimes rented out, rustic, almost primitive, but right on the lake. The third week of August they piled into Forrest’s paneled station wagon and drove the better part of the day stopping only for lunch. The weather in the early part of the week was pleasant. The men fished. The women picked berries. The two couples hiked through the woods. They even saw a bear, fortunately from a comfortable distance.
Then it turned hot and oppressive, sapping their strength. Alice was particularly sensitive to the heat and could barely lift her head off the pillow. Since there was only so much time Gloria felt comfortable being alone with the two men, in the evenings she retreated to her room and read a book.
After dinner, Forrest and Richard plopped down in Adirondack chairs in their shorts and slowly drained a bottle of Canadian whiskey and gazed out over the lake. Neither felt much need for conversation other than to reiterate how good it felt to have no responsibility and how they wished they didn’t have to go back home so soon. Normally, they both held their liquor pretty well, but the dense hot air made them woozy even before they started drinking. At one point, Richard remarked that he felt so sticky he wanted to tear his skin off. Forrest laughed and bolted out of his seat and dove headfirst into the lake.
“How is it?” Richard called out.
“Farreeezing,” Forrest cackled bidding his friend to join him. “Don’t walk in. Jump. Or you’ll lose your nerve.”
Richard could still remember the shock of the icy water on his face. As he rose to the surface, he began flapping his arms as if trying to capture the warm air and wrap it around his body like a blanket. The two men bobbed up and down until the cold became bearable, almost comfortable. Richard let out a long satisfied aaaah, his senses suddenly sharp.
He turned when he felt the poke of an index finger. Forrest reached out and bear-hugged him and smashed his lips against Richard’s mouth until he stopped resisting.
At that moment Richard’s world cracked open. He felt as if he’d been split in two, part of him immersed in sensation, the other observing the expression of inchoate desire. Later, as he and Forrest, still panting, lay in the shadows on the pine-needled ground under a three-quarter moon, he finally knew who he was and all his fear lifted.
They were together all night and didn’t return to the cabin until after sun-up. When Gloria asked where they’d been, Forrest said they’d swum far out into the lake and were too exhausted to swim back. When they tried to find their way to the cabin through the woods, they got so turned around they finally gave up and decided to wait for the light.
Richard didn’t speak a word on the ride home. Giving a name and shape to his feelings had freed him and he suddenly saw myriad paths for his life. Now he just had to sort them out.
“You must have thought I was angry at you or that I blamed you,” he told Forrest, who had just opened his eyes though Richard couldn’t be sure he’d heard. “That wasn’t it at all. I felt nothing but gratitude. Years of shame vanished because of you. I was no longer some solitary miscreant. Another man might have chosen to strike out and live the life for which he was clearly meant. The temptation was certainly there. But having been a stranger to myself for so long, when I was restored, a generosity surged through me. My children were already lost to me, but I could at least make amends to Alice. I’m not saying we became a proper husband and wife again, but in every other way I could, I tried to be the man she fell in love with in Bible class. Some might call it atonement. I prefer to see it as a simple act of human kindness.”
Richard hoped that what he’d confided to Forrest had made sense, though he suspected his friend had long ago divined the truth and come to terms with it. He was always the stronger of the two, the more astute.
His visibility still obscured by the downpour, Richard failed to notice a tree trunk lying across the road. When the truck ran over it and veered off the shoulder and down the embankment, he let go of the steering wheel, rested his head against back of the seat and closed his eyes.