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Enough Rope

by Joe Casey

Chapter 14

I left Paul there, in his hotel room, his body - his man's body, the body of a man of a certain age, with a lifetime of experiences written into its flesh, like a palimpsest - sprawled naked out upon the rumpled sheets. He watched me while I dressed in the clothes I had worn last night, feeling awkward in the thin, gray light of dawn.

"You're beautiful," he said to me. I answered with a dismissive chuckle. "You are, " he insisted. "You always have been."

As beautiful as Tom? I wanted to ask but did not. I turned to him as I buttoned my shirt. "I never thought I would …" I started.

He smiled. "I know. It must all seem so … strange to you."

"Not strange," I answered. "I mean … yes, the … physical part of it is. But, the rest of it …"

We had done little more with each other than lie together on his bed, both of us naked, side by side in a raking moonlight. We had allowed our hands to speak when our mouths could not, when words eluded us and let touch speak the truth of this. We were two parallel lines of desire woven together into complex and wonderful geometry.

Ellen and I had lain together this way, forgoing sex, just delighting in the similarities and differences of our bodies. I remembered the soft femininity of her, the arcane structure of her hips, her thighs, her belly, her breasts, her bottom, and the special declivity there between her legs, the secret recesses of her womanhood. In time, of course, she changed, as her illness hollowed her out from within and took away the things that made her who she was. But touch remained, and in that last treasure we found comfort.

Paul seemed to understand what I wanted - and, more importantly, what I did not want - this first time. Later (if there was to be a later), there might come the rest of it, the yielding of one man to another, quickening flesh seeking another kind of secrecy, finding other places to hide itself. I imagined myself a bewildered traveler, standing at the gate leading into another country, one that I had only read about, known to me only through rumor and misdirection, but one whose customs and language I was eager to learn. And with a willing guide to lead me.

When I was done dressing, I went over to the bed, sat on the edge. I reached out, let a finger trail along the contours of Paul's face, over brow and nose and cheek and mouth, feeling the coarseness of his beard against the age-roughened flesh. I traced over the velvet softness of his closed eyelids.

I bent forward and kissed him, letting a hand slip down to his bare chest and the thatch of hair there.

"Paul," I whispered.


"Nothing. I - I wanted to say your name."

He grasped my hand, squeezed it. "I want you to say it. As much as you want."

I pulled away from him. "This scares me."

"Of course it does. It scared me back then, as well. Some days it still has the power to frighten me."

"Would you have traded any of it?" I asked. "To be …?"

He smiled. "What? Normal? "

"No, not that," I responded. "That would make this … well, un-normal , I guess, and I don't think that it is. But … something you never had to think about."

"At first, perhaps. But - after a while - it just becomes who and what you are, and you learn to live with, however you can. There was a kind of … anonymity, I guess, in Atlanta. Even there, you could lose yourself in that community, find a kind of protection."

"What is it like there? Atlanta, I mean."

Paul's glanced flickered to me, understanding - even if I did not - the unspoken part of that question. "It's beautiful. It's grown so much since I moved there, but it's still a beautiful city."

"You like it there."

"I do." He paused, took a breath. "I think you might like it, too, Tim." There it was: the first salvo.

So much of my life had been invested in Chicago; I had been educated there, had found a wife there, had raised a family there, had had a long and enviable career there. It seemed almost an afterthought to realize that I had been born in St. Louis and had spent seventeen years of my life there. Chicago had shaped me in ways that I still probably had not understood; the same was true, I supposed, of life in any large city, and Atlanta, I knew, had doubled and doubled again in population since Paul had moved there fifty years ago. It would demand as much from me as Chicago had.

Could I make it my home?

Even as I knew that Chicago would never completely leave me, I understood that it was becoming less and less the center of my gravity. My wife was gone, my career was winding down, and my children - whom I loved dearly - were on the threshold of understanding that I was going to be someone they had to deal with on a regular basis. I dreaded overhearing the whispered what are we going to do with Dad? conversations I knew were just around the corner; I had always hated hearing myself being talked about like that, something that had started in childhood every time Tom and I had gotten into it, and my parents were at it themselves in the den with whispered frustrations peppering the air between them as they decided what to do with us.

Part of my hesitation was that, by doing this - by accepting Paul's implicit offer - I would be commending myself to him. I would become his responsibility, as he would become mine. Ever since Ellen's death, I had been caught up in a long and perhaps unconscious process of divorcing myself from responsibility, from necessity. Tending to her had been a burden that I had been all too willing to give up when it was done.

Could I accept that mantle once again?

Paul, on the bed, shifted, turning onto his side, bent arm propping up his head. His sex, dislodged, dangled there, a not-ungenerous dollop of flesh, full and pendant, pointing to the center of the world many thousands of miles beneath our feet, and I knew that I could lose myself in that, in him, in us.

And that I wanted to.

Of course, there was also the absurdity of all, of Paul's nakedness, and I nearly burst out laughing … until I realized that - silly as it might seem - this, him, was only a symbol of something greater, an entirely different kind of life. One bound up in that , of course, and its own symbolic power … but something else, a tantalizing alternative reality.

"Paul …" I started.

"Tim …" he answered.

"I …" wish that you were wearing something, anything, but I went on. "… am scared at how much I want this."

"I know. Don't be frightened of it."

"It's going to take me some time."

He gestured, waving a hand languidly in the space between us. "Well, I'll just get dressed, pop down, get us both a coffee and a doughnut, and then -"

I chuckled. "More time than that."

He sighed. "Look, I understand. You have to go back to Chicago and have very interesting and challenging conversations with people I don't yet know, and they're going to say very interesting and challenging things that you may or may not like. We've all done it. We've all had that conversation."

"Why didn't we do this fifty years ago?" I asked.

"Because you weren't ready for it, and I barely was. Tom got there before the both of us, even if it wasn't where he particularly wanted to be."

"I almost thought that I was. If that makes any sense."

"It makes as much sense as anything. And it was a different time." He chuckled. "Gods … nowadays, anyone feels free to say and do pretty much anything, things that people like you and me could only imagine. There aren't too many secrets, any more … and maybe that's a good thing, even if it takes away some of the magic and the mystery of it. But I'd rather that than a lifetime of … well, shoving it to the farthest recesses of your mind. Or throwing a life away only because the alternative was far, far worse."

Meaning Tom, of course. "He did what he could."

"As did I," Paul answered, sighing. "And it wasn't enough."

"It wasn't your -"

But Paul held up a hand, stopping me. "I know, I know … but there will always be that to deal with, for both of us."

I opened my mouth to speak, but Paul stopped me again. "Tim. Look at me." I looked at him. "Go. Go back to Chicago." He smiled. "Whatever happens, happens. You know what I want. I should have asked you fifty years ago, but I didn't. I'm asking you now. I'm telling you now. You are what I want, for as long as we have." He reached over to the nightstand (and, again, his sex arranged and re-arranged itself in distracting arabesques of motion), grabbed his wallet, rifled through it, came away with a card, which he handed to me. "Old-fashioned, I know … if I knew how, I'd simply put my information into your phone, but there's something proprietary about that, something a little forward and presumptuous."

I took the card from him, looked at it - the address meant nothing - pocketed it.

I left.

St. Louis, this early on a Sunday morning, was still half-asleep. Parts of it were in church, of course, but as I skirted the edge of the park, I noticed solitary runners plying the trails with their own kind of religion. In the distance, I could see the museum surmounting its hill, thought of last night but thought also of what Tom had said to me in confidence, once, about plying his own kind of trade there.

So much living in shadows, on the verge, along the edges of things.

What was lost to him could now be mine, if I wanted it. There was something heady in realizing that, knowing that I had the power to make that choice even now, in the twilight of my life, but there was something of the inescapable in it, as well, the sense that I was rushing headlong down a hill, running faster and faster against the ineluctable pull of gravity but trying, trying, trying to brake myself, to give myself a chance to stop and consider.

You're almost seventy years old, I told myself. What do you have to lose?

On impulse, at the intersection, I turned right onto Kingshighway, slipped past the eastern edge of the park, slipped past the towering behemoth of the hospital on my left, heading towards my old neighborhood.

The house was the house, the same but different; I wondered how many owners, how many families had called it home after we left. I hoped they had been happier than we were, although we had been happy enough for long enough, until we weren't, until we came apart under the stress of things we never quite understood.

The school, too, was the school, the same but different. It had grown, of course, since I'd left it. It was strange to think that everyone who had worked here when I was here was long gone: the priests, the teachers, the coaches. New minds, yes … but how much had really changed? I knew that young men and women like Tom - like me - walked those same halls, thinking the same dark thoughts, dreaming the same disquieting dreams. Was life for them any easier than it had been for Tom? The thing that most needed to change would, I knew, never change; our God was an exacting one, demanding much, excusing little. I had tried to cleave to those demands as much as I thought I must, as I thought my parents wanted me to; only when I left home was I able to free myself from those untruths.

At my hotel, I parked the car on the street, went inside and to my room and showered; when I was done and standing before the mirror, I took stock of myself, trying to see what Paul saw in me. I had always been naturally lean and that had luckily followed me into maturity … but I was still a man nearing seventy and there was no disguising the slackening muscles, the pocks and scars and moles that spangled my body like strange constellations, the greying thatches of hair here and there and there, the inescapable pull of time that conspired to drag me - all of us, of course - back into the earth whence we came.

I sighed, stepped into the bedroom, dressed. As I did, I looked out of my window, could see the Arch looming there, glinting dully in the morning sun. It still looked like an alien thing to me. I had never liked it; I remembered going up it with my parents shortly after its completion, remembered looking out of the tiny, slit-like windows and down to the dreary banality of the city sprawled at its feet.

No matter; this was not my home. I would probably never come back here again, after I left.

I thought about Paul's words as I started for home, threading through light morning traffic in the city, making my way to the interstate and to my home. I had long understood that in a very real sense I had failed my brother by failing to understand him and what drove him: fear, mostly, of what he was becoming, what he couldn't escape, no matter how hard he tried. That fear is what led him to see me as some kind of antagonist, some kind of enemy. I represented what he was not and wanted desperately to be: normal, everyone's idea of what a boy should be, of what kind of man he would grow up to be.

I don't know what would have happened if, on that night when he'd slipped into my room and unburdened himself - confessor to priest - and laid bare the dark desires that sparked inside him, I had not exacted that promise from him. Tom had shown me the merest glimpse of what, for him, had been a kind of private hell … and I had taken that from him and, essentially, used it to blackmail him, for my own safety.

I don't know what kind of man he would have grown up to be if I had tried to understand it, and him, had helped him to make sense of it, to accept it, to learn to live with it if nothing else, as Paul had done. I could only imagine the torment locked inside him, one that had been so terrible that he had exchanged it for another kind of torment, the torment of combat, of war, of terror, of death.

Who was the stronger? Paul, or Tom? And me? How strong had I been, damping down my own true nature?

The city slipped over the horizon as prairie asserted itself on the landscape around me. I was headed north and east, towards home, towards my family, towards a slowly-unraveling career, towards a life that - I feared - was being taken away from me in death-by-a-thousand-cuts increments.

I wondered what Paul was doing right now. Was he up and dressed, already on his way to Lambert, to a plane waiting to take him back to his home? I knew Atlanta only through oblique references: the city that Sherman nearly obliterated, Scarlett and Rhett engaged in their own kind of battle … the city at the center of a burgeoning civil rights awakening and the New South even as it clung desperately to the romanticized horrors of slavery and reconstruction … the city that had managed to snag an Olympics and used it to springboard itself into a dynamic and unstoppable force.

I tried to imagine the conversation I would have with my son and daughter, the things I would have to say to them, the things I had been afraid to say even to myself for far too long. The man they thought they knew, the man they had neatly categorized and labeled, was not quite who they thought he was, after all.

Part of me knew that I would enjoy that, would enjoy seeing the stunned incomprehension on their faces … but the rest of me understood that it would then become a long, drawn-out, tear-filled ordeal, one that I could easily decide to avoid, but that would be a decision that I knew deep down I would regret for the rest of my life, however long that might be.

But, but, but …

I pulled off the highway into a rest stop, parked the car, got out, went over to a copse of trees beyond which was more prairie, green and fecund under the summer sun. I could hear the slap and whine of traffic in the near distance. Crickets and grasshoppers chittered unseen in the grass at my feet; bees bumbled through the air, nosing through rudbeckia and echinacea. This part of the country was mapped and gridded into a sensible predictability, everything its place, nothing untoward or unknowable.

What, of this, reflected my own life? I had been, ostensibly, the good son, the one who always did as he was told, the one who wanted to be the son his parents hoped he would be, making their hopes and dreams and desires my own … and it was easy, back then, to do that, to be the thing they wanted me to be.

Tom, though, and the dark twin who moved just under his skin …

It had moved, like foxfire, just under my own skin, too, and I had (I thought) banished it, sent it packing, had found a life worth living, even if it had not been the life I would have wanted.

Tom, though, and the fear that had moved him like a marionette, dancing to the will of an implacable master …

Which of us had been the stronger?

Summer wind moved through the green-gold grasses, bringing forth a gentle and insistent soughing, the hurrying sound of a multitude, all of them asking the same question:

If not now, when?


This story is part of the 2021 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up!". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 26 March to 15 April 2021 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2021 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - The Only Way is Up!
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0

Enough Rope

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