This is a mobile proxy. It is intended to visit the IOMfAtS Story Shelf on devices that would otherwise not correctly display the site. Please direct all your feedback to the friendly guy over at IOMfAtS!

Second Time Around

Chapter 21

By Arli J

Edited by Radio Rancher
Based on Characters from Pinochle, by E Walk

The phone was ringing, and I eased my way out of bed, so I wouldn't disturb Gregg. It was 6:30 in the morning. Who could be calling at this hour?

It was my daughter-in-law. "Dad, I'm sorry. Mom died at 5:20 this morning. She fell in the bathroom in the middle of the night, hit her head on the tub, and got wedged between the tub and the toilet. She couldn't get out, and she was wedged in a position so tight that she couldn't breathe normally. She called on her Lifeline, and the ambulance came. They took her to the emergency room, and she had a hairline fracture in her skull and the sixth vertebra in her neck. But the worst problem was her breathing. She stopped breathing on the way to the hospital, and they ventilated her and got her breathing again. But she had been without oxygen for some time and the CO2 built up in her system. Her heart stopped, but they got it going again. She just kept breathing slower and slower. We were with her, holding her hands when she stopped breathing altogether. I called a nurse and she checked for pulse and heartbeat. There was none."

I guess we talked a few minutes longer, and then I told her to go get some sleep. They had had a rough night. I just sat there, holding the phone. I felt numb all over, and the tears were running down my cheeks. We've been separated for thirty years, but I still love her. I always did. It wasn't her fault that she married a closeted gay man. I thought, when we were married, that I could put all that behind me, and I really tried to be a good husband. We had two sons, and I love them completely and absolutely. Our marriage was rocky; we fought a lot, over anything and everything. The one thing that was never mentioned was our love life. It was on and off, and finally it stopped altogether. It hurt me so much to wake in the night and hear her crying, but there was nothing I could do to help her.

Finally, after almost eighteen years, we called it quits. She wanted a divorce, and I didn't fight it. It was over. She was really bitter, and she tried to turn the boys against me. I didn't find out about that for quite a few years. I was angry, but I could understand why she felt that way. If there had been another woman, she would have known how to fight for her man. But against a man, she was helpless; she couldn't compete. So she tried to "get even." When that didn't work, we developed a sort of armed truce. We were civil to each other, when we met, but I think that both of us tried to avoid meeting, whenever possible. I haven't seen her to talk to her since our younger son's marriage in Florida, nine years ago. And now she's gone.

I was still sitting there with the phone in my hand, when Gregg came wandering out of the bedroom. He took one look at me and hurried to my side. He sat down on the couch, pulled the phone from my hand and replaced it in the cradle on the table. Then he wrapped his arms around me and held me close. "Harley, what is it? Are you all right?"

At the sound of his voice, I lost control. I began to sob, and he pulled me closer to him, rocking me and crooning in my ear, as I cried. When I finally stopped crying, he looked at me. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Just be, here, please. Don't leave me. I'm so scared, and I don't know why!" I tried to tell him what had happened, but I broke down again, and I gasped out the story between sobs. He held me, stroking my hair, rubbing my neck, until I settled down again. Then he drew back just far enough to look in my eyes.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"Yes, please."

"I'll go put it on." He released me and went to the kitchen. He was back in seconds with a box of tissues. "Here, I think you need these." Then he disappeared into the kitchen. I heard the water running and the cupboard door open and close, as he put a pot of coffee on. I wiped my face and blew my nose and tried to settle down.

He came back into the living room and sat down beside me. He put his arms around me and just sat there. I could feel the warmth and caring in his embrace, as we just sat. By the time the coffee was ready, I was almost back to normal. He stood up, offered me his hand, and helped me up from the couch. "A cup of coffee will help a lot." We went out to the kitchen, hand in hand.

He almost pushed me into my chair at the table; then he went to the cupboard and got cups. He poured us each a cup of coffee and brought them to the table. Then he sat down across from me and just looked into my eyes. "I know, Baby, I know. It's been twenty years, and it still hurts. But you learn to live with it." His smile was gentle and full of understanding. Yes, he did know.

We sat and sipped our coffee in silence, but I could feel his warmth and tenderness reaching out to me. It was as if he had wrapped me in a warm, fuzzy blanket. Gradually, I began to relax. When we finished our first cup, he got up and refilled my cup; then he went over to the fridge and began pulling things out to make breakfast. Soon the smell of ham steaks frying reminded me that I was hungry. I started to get up to help him, but he turned and said, "Sit. I can handle this. Do you need more coffee?"

"No, I'm fine at the moment." He went back to his work. In a couple of minutes, he set a plate in front of me with a slice of ham, a couple of eggs and buttered toast.

"Now, eat. It will help, really." He brought his plate to the table and got silver from the drawer. Then he sat down, and we ate in a warm, comfortable silence. When we finished, he got up, cleared away the plates and silver and refilled our cups. He sat down and looked at me with a tender smile. "So, now what? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"You already have. I don't know what I would have done without you. Oh, Gregg, we've barely spoken in the last thirty years, and I still love her as much as I did when we were first married!"

"Well, hang on to that love, Babe. That's the eternal part. The rest of it doesn't matter. It will take some time, but you'll get used to the idea."

"Why are you so good to me?"

"I thought you knew; I love you."

I started to cry again. He reached across the table and took my hand. With the other hand he stroked it until I got control again.

"I'm sorry, Gregg. I don't mean to be such a baby."

"Harley, if you weren't affected by this, I'd begin to wonder about you. Death is always a shock, and sudden death is a bigger one. It takes a while to get used to the idea. Of course, you never really do. There's a big hole in the middle of your life, and you keep falling into it. That's what hurts so much. But gradually you learn to walk around it. But it's always there, Harley, it's always there. I'm here, whenever, however you need me. Lean on me, if you need to. I'm not a strong person, but I can help you, if you'll let me. I've been there, and I know what to expect."

He got up and refilled our coffee cups. As he sat down again, the phone rang. "I'll get it; just sit still." He hurried to the living room. I watched him in amazement. This is the man who can't think or talk for at least half an hour after he gets up. This is the man who is afraid to venture out by himself. This is the man who just told me he loves me. What did I ever do to deserve this man?

He came back into the kitchen shaking his head. "That was Beau. He was just confirming that they'll be here tomorrow afternoon. I told him what happened, and I tried to convince him to let things go for a week, but he said he thought the best thing for you right now would be to get to work, and take your mind off things. So, anyway, they'll be here at four tomorrow."

"He's probably right. If I just sit around and brood, it won't help anything; it'll only make things worse."

"Oh, by the way, you said you were scared and didn't know why. I think I've figured that out. We have the idea that we're going to live forever. It's human nature. Then all of a sudden we bump into death, close up and personal. It's a reminder that we're all mortal. We all die. And that scares the hell out of us." He smiled at me. "You'll see. You'll get over that fear, and you'll realize that it's a good thing that we don't live forever. I don't know about you, but with all the aches and pains, I'm sort of looking forward - sometime in the future! - to getting rid of them." His smile was warm and comforting. I could feel myself relaxing. He was right. And Judy had been suffering from a number of different things in the last few years. It must be a relief to her to be free of that. Looking at the situation from that point of view, I felt a lot better. She's not hurting any more. I could even look forward, as Gregg did to that time in the future when I could join her. But not now! 'Now' is standing across the table from me, smiling at me. I managed some semblance of a smile for him and got up from the table.

"Well, if Beau and Becca are coming tomorrow, we'd better be sure the house is in shape. Why don't you get in the bathroom first, and I'll make the bed."

He grinned. "That sounds more like the Harley I've come to know and love."

I picked up the coffee cups and put them on the counter by the sink. Gregg went into the bathroom, and I went to work, making the bed and picking up the dirty clothes we had scattered when we went to bed last night.

He came back from the bathroom and went to the dresser to look for clean clothes. He dropped his towel on the floor beside him. Oh, man! Sixty years old, and the butt of a twenty-five year old! I just can't get over this guy! I hurried into the bathroom to get showered and shaved, and, hopefully to get that picture out of my mind!

By the time I came out of the bathroom, he was dressed and running the vacuum cleaner in the living room. I dressed quickly and joined him. It didn't take long to get the house back in order. We're both reasonably neat, and, anyway, we hadn't been here a lot in the past week. I went back to the bedroom and grabbed up the dirty clothes to take to the kitchen to wash. Gregg followed me.

"When you get the wash started, let's take a coffee break. We've been killing ourselves for the last half hour or so, and I think we need a rest!" He was grinning at me, and I couldn't help returning the grin.

"How would you feel about a return trip to Taughannock Falls? Judy loved this area, with the lake, the hills and the gorges, but Taughannock was her favorite spot in the whole area."

"I think that's a great idea! Let's pack a picnic lunch and sit at one of the tables there for lunch."

"I've got a better idea than that! If we pack a lunch, we're going to mess up the kitchen again, and we just got it cleaned up. Why don't we stop and get a burger or a pizza or something and take it with us?"

"Ya know, that is a better idea! I'm ready, when you are!"

We closed up the house and got into the car. I looked at Gregg. "Any idea what you're going to want for lunch?"

"I've been thinking. Burgers and fries are no good after they get cold, and I'm not really in a pizza mood, so what if we stopped at the State diner and get some cold sandwiches and drinks to take out? It's on our way, isn't it?"

Hey, you're really getting to know this town a little, aren't you?"

"I can find the State Diner with the accuracy of a homing pigeon! And, by the way, I'm beginning to go into withdrawal for their meat loaf!"

He looked so pitiful when he said that, that I had to laugh. "OK, OK, we'll go there for dinner tonight. Beau and Becca may want to go there tomorrow, when they get here, so you might wind up having meat loaf twice in a row!"

"Oh, threaten me with a good time!" We both laughed. He's so good for me; he's pulling me gently out of my sad mood. I still have to face the facts, but with Gregg beside me, I'm sure I'll get through this whole ordeal.

The day was already quite warm and muggy; we were in the middle of "dog days." We decided on the way to the diner that we'd pick up a six pack of sodas somewhere on the way. We went into the State and ordered our sandwiches. We decided on cold roast beef and cheese, since it wasn't as likely to spoil in the heat outside before we were ready for lunch. Gregg was looking at the pie cooler. "Oh, what's that? It looks good." I asked a passing waitress. It was strawberry-rhubarb.

"What's that like? I never heard of it!"

"You don't have strawberries and rhubarb in Nebraska?"

"I suppose so, but I never heard of combining them in a pie. What's it like?"

"Well, Son, for your information, strawberry-rhubarb pie is wayup on the list of favorite pies around here, right behind apple and lemon meringue. It would be number one, but there are a few misguided souls who don't care for the tang of the rhubarb in their pie."

"Well, you've got my curiosity aroused. What do you think of having a piece of pie with our sandwiches?"

"You can serve me pie, anytime, and I'll be as happy as a pig in..." A waitress walked by, and Gregg chuckled.

"That was close!" He was laughing now, and I gave him a little punch in the arm.

"Just never mind!"

Our sandwiches were ready, and I asked the waitress for two pieces of pie. She cut them and put them into a separate box.

"Could you put a couple of forks in there, too, please. We're having a sort of picnic, and pie really isn't a finger food." She laughed.

"No, I guess not." She slipped a couple of plastic forks and some napkins into the bag with the boxes of food. I paid her, gave her a dollar tip, and we left.

As we drove out of town and headed up the hill overlooking the lake, Gregg commented on the change in temperature.

"Yeah, that's one thing about Ithaca; it's in a sort of bowl, and the lake keeps the temperature five to ten degrees warmer, year round, than up on the hills. If you go to Stewart Park, at the end of the lake, in the summer time, there's always a cool breeze blowing off the lake, even on hot days. The lake doesn't really warm up enough for comfortable swimming until September, and then it stays warm enough to swim into early November. It's so deep that it takes a long time for it to warm up and a long time to cool off."

"But what about the people we saw swimming in the lake when we went to the Falls before?"

"They're either natives or masochists. The natives are numb, and the masochists enjoy the pain of swimming in ice water."

"You're kidding, aren't you?"

"Tell ya what we'll do. We'll stop at the park long enough for you to go and wade in the edge of the lake, where it's warmest. Then you can decide for yourself if I'm kidding."

When we came down the hill to the park, I pulled into the parking lot across the road from the park. I paid the toll, and we each grabbed a can of soda to take with us. We checked traffic and crossed the road. We were watching the kids and their parents playing in the shallow water at the edge of the lake. A little farther out, older kids and adults were swimming.

"They don't look as if they're suffering too much!"

"Natives or masochists! Just wait!"

We crossed the shale beach to the edge of the water. Gregg pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled his pants up almost to his knees.

"You might want to pull those up a little higher. There are small holes and drop-offs here and there, caused by the waves."

"I'm not going in that far."

"OK." I sat down on a bench and waited for the show to begin.

He swiped his bare foot in the edge of the water. "Hey, this isn't bad! It's cool, but not really cold. It's actually rather refreshing!" He took a few tentative steps out into the water. "Oh, this is nice!" He took a couple more steps.

"Oh, my God!" Nearby swimmers turned to look. He was standing hip deep in the water. Now he understood about the drop-offs. I tried not to laugh, but I couldn't help it. He was struggling up the slippery shale of the drop-off, trying to get out. When he finally succeeded, his teeth were chattering. I got up from the bench and reached out to give him a hand getting out of the water. I was still laughing, and he slapped my hand away.

"I'll do it myself, thank you!" He looked down at his soaked pants, and the cold water running down his bare legs. "You could have warned me!"

I was laughing too hard to answer him, as he slipped his bare, wet feet into his shoes, stuffed his socks into his wet pants pockets and stomped off toward the road. I picked up the soda can he had thrown in the air, as he went off the drop-off and brought it, along with mine, to put into the recycling container nearby.

By the time we reached the road, his shoes were squishing. I couldn't help chuckling, and he gave me a dirty look. "The least you could have done was warnme!"

"I thought I had warned you pretty clearly. But some things you only learn from experience."

He snorted and checked traffic. Since there was nothing coming in either direction, he gave me another dirty look and squished across to the parking lot. When we got to the car, he looked down at his dripping pants and squishy shoes. "I didn't bring any other clothes with me. I wasn't planning on taking a swim in ice water!" Then he looked at the fabric seat covers. "Oh, no! Check in the trunk and see if we have a blanket, a plastic bag, anything I can sit on! I really don't want to ruin the upholstery." His expression had changed from indignant to pleading. I stifled the urge to laugh again. This would not be the best time to laugh.

I fished in my pocket for the keys and opened the trunk. By some stroke of luck, there was a plastic raincoat rolled up and tossed in the corner. I got it out and opened it. I opened the passenger door and spread the coat on the seat. I held it as Gregg slid into the seat. He was mumbling to himself, but I decided I didn't want to know what he was saying.

We drove a few miles in silence. I glanced over at him occasionally, but the expression on his face suggested that he was in no mood for conversation. All at once, he spoke up. "These pants are still so cold that if feels as if everything had moved inside for the winter." I managed to stifle a chuckle.

"Well, we've got a fifteen or twenty minute drive yet before we get back to town. You could slip them off here in the car."

He looked at me for a minute. "Well, I guess there's nothing there you haven't seen already." He unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned and unzipped his pants and raised his hips to slide them off. They dropped with a squish to the floor. I couldn't help it; I started to laugh again. He punched me in the shoulder.

"It's not funny, dammit!"

"It will be, later, for you. I'm enjoying it right now!" He punched me again.

"Hey, don't beat up on the driver! We don't want to have an accident right now! Can't you just see the cops' faces when they look in the car?" I was laughing again. He just sat there, glaring at me.

I glanced down. "Where'd they go?" I was still laughing.

"Give it a rest, will you?" He tried to keep the indignant look, but all at once he burst out laughing, too. "Well, I've had my experience, swimming in Cayuga Lake. I think I got all I could get out of thatexperience!" He was still laughing.

"We need to try it in late September or early October. It's really warm and pleasant then."

We have lakes in Fremont, but they're not cold like this, except in the winter."

"They're man-made lakes and not very deep. There are places in this lake where they haven't been able to find the bottom. And a guy from the Conservation Department told me that the temperature toward the bottom stays just above freezing year round."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Hey, you were in it! What do youthink?"

"I think I want to get home and get some dry clothes on!"

We drove the rest of the way in silence. When we got to the city, I suggested that he pull the coat he was sitting on around his waist to cover up, so that we wouldn't be stopped by a cop for indecent exposure. He gave me another dirty look, but took my advice.

When we got to the house, I pulled into the driveway, as close to the house as I could get. I got out and opened the front door. Gregg wrapped the raincoat around himself and made a dash for the door. I started laughing again, and he slammed it in my face.

I went to the car and pulled his wet clothes out of it. I laid them on the lawn by the car to dry in the sun. Then I reached into the back seat and brought out the bags with our lunch. The soda cans hadn't warmed up too much, so I took everything around the back of the house to the back yard. I had a small picnic table under the trees, where I came out for lunch or dinner on really hot days. There was always a pleasant breeze, blowing from the lake.

Gregg came around the house in dry clothes, carrying the wet ones. "I didn't think we needed to leave these in the front yard for all the neighbors to see." He fished through the pockets of the wet pants, pulling everything out. Anything that was dry (not very much!), he stuffed into the pockets of the pants he was wearing. Then he spread the wet ones on the ground in the sun and put the wet items from his pockets on top of them. The dry socks he had stuffed in his pockets at the park were now soggy. He shook his head and dropped them with the other things to dry.

We took our picnic lunch over to the table and sat down. Gregg looked around. "This is nice. I didn't know you even had a back yard."

"It's nice in weather like this. I like to sit out here in the evenings sometimes when the house is warm. I hate to use the A/C, if I don't have to. I've got a couple of citronella candles to keep the bugs away."

"Well, this is one thing we won't have at the condo."

"No, but you'll have the "roof garden." That will be just as pleasant, if a little noisier. When the students start partying on the Commons, it can get pretty loud."

We opened our sandwiches and enjoyed the cool breeze while we ate. Gregg seemed to have gotten over his unhappiness about me laughing at him, and I suddenly realized that his little impromptu show had taken me away from the pain I had been feeling in the morning. I hadn't forgotten, but it was a lot more bearable now. I'm so glad I had this wonderful man with me right now. I don't know how I would have made it by myself.

I looked across the table at him. "Gregg, you said something to me this morning that you've never said before, and I want you to know that I love you, too."

His smile was almost angelic. We finished our sandwiches and got out the pie. He was amazed; he had never tasted anything like it, but he just loved it. Another convert, and strawberry-rhubarb pie moves another notch up the list. I relaxed and just enjoyed watching him. I felt like Scarlett O'Hara: "I'll deal with that tomorrow."

Editor's Notes: I admit here and now that there is so seldom any need to change anything in Arli's stories that I feel a little guilty saying I'm the editor, but it gives me the chance to make my comments on the wonderful stories.

I will start my comments by pointing out that I have never been married to a woman. I felt very sorry for Harley. I know he loved his wife even if they couldn't be happy together. When you love someone, it still hurts to know they are gone. I am very glad that he had Gregg with him to help him get through the loss. I had a great deal of pain when I lost my mom a few years ago. I thought I could make it through the funeral without breaking down, but as I looked into the coffin, my eyes became waterfalls. We never did get along very well after I 'grew up'. Of course, as far as my mom was concerned, I never did grow up. That was our biggest problem. I could never convince her that I wasn't still a child, needing her to tell me how I should live my life. All through my school years, she always told me that I could do better if I would only apply myself to studying instead of reading 'all that nonsense'. If by some chance I got an A in a course, she would say, "See, I told you if you studied you could do it. Now why didn't you get an A in that subject?" what ever it was. I honestly don't remember her ever simply giving me a straight forward compliment, with the exception of the things I made for her in wood shop. She actually bragged to other people about how nice a job I did making that coffee table for her. One time I asked her why she always had to slip in a zinger when she said I did something right. She told me that she didn't want me to get a swell head. My brain told me that she was trying to improve my character, but my heart always somehow wondered what I could have done to please her and mke her love me. I found out from other family members that she was always telling everyone but me how proud she was that I was being successful, but somehow she never could bring herself to say it to me.When she talked to me there was always the zinger at the end of the compliment. She did tell me that she loved me, and I believe she really did, but I always felt that no matter what I did, it would never be good enough. When I came out to her, it was during an arguement. She was certain that I had been fooling around with some floozy, and she wanted me to be sure to wear protection and not get some poor girl pregnant. I told her that I had not gotten anyone pregnant, and that I never would. She then added insult to injury by telling me that blind people had no business trying to raise children. I was totally upset, because I had several blind friends that had done a very good job of raising their children, and so I blurted out that I had no intention of getting anyone pregnant, but that if I weren't gay, I might just do it to piss her off; that I could be as good a parent as any sighted person. She was not overly pleased. I don't know how long it took before I realized that I had outed myself to her, but she was ranting for a few minutes before she asked me what I had said. And I knew I couldn't deny it, so I told her again. My boyfriend and I had been living together for a couple of years by then, and she put two and two together then and made some very interesting assumptions. Some of which were slightly close to the truth. It took a couple of years before we were back to normal. She was convinced that I had been corrupted. She never did really accept my situation, but somehow I still loved her very much.

Well, I guess I can get off my soap box now. How long have I been holding that one inside?

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead