"Round the stone table under the dark pine
Friendly to studious or to festive hours…"
-- William Wordsworth, Book IV of The Prelude
  STR: an online journal of new works by emerging and established writers…

Volume 1, Issue 1, 2006


Would You Mind Holding Down My Body?
Henry Alley

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Seth was from the Midwest, near Moorhead, Minnesota, where the winters were particularly hard to endure. He always considered himself a survivor of snow and ice, a child of farm parents, who were very old by the time he was born. He sometimes wondered if the fervent prayer which dominated the house after dinner, as everyone gathered in the lit circle, books in hand, was what gave his mother and father the energy to endure one more son—"the surprise" and baby of the family.

He grew up hard and strong, perfectly attuned to the land, which went from snow and ice to sunflowers in the summer, waving lazily beyond the meandering river. There were certain still moments during high school days, when he would stand on the hill with his shirt off, look down at the valley and feel that passionate love of man and God—steepled church in the distance, the sun forming arcs on the water, whose stones he could see even from here—which told him he had the right design for living.

Chandler was lanky and wiry. He grew up in Seattle, fatherless, with his mother. He loved helping her with things, loved working part-time in high school to lessen the expenses. There was a busline that went right by their small cottage where the two of them lived like a couple in a nursery rhyme. It made him feel important to leave study hall at 3:15 p.m., walk to the printer's shop where he swept up and did odd jobs, and then ride home with the rest of the city at six o'clock. Usually perfect pink clouds, the color of cotton candy, would bloom in the sky just above the mountains, and the bus window, for him, would become like a painting hung in a museum crossed by twilight. The print shop inspired him to try a little poetry in his bedroom. He started reading Keats, and sometimes, at night, he and his mother would read aloud before bed. These were wonderful, spellbound moments, with the autumn garden sending its pale breath through the cracks around the door—the house was cozy but very drafty—and he often felt that nothing could ever drive him from this special life that seemed absolutely right.

Came a time, though, when ambition went through Seth's nerves like an electric current. He had a high school sweetheart by that time, and he told her all sorts of things were happening out West. Plenty of good people out there, too, and if they played their cards right, they could build a wonderful God-fearing life out in a new land—for themselves and the children they would bring into the world. They knew that the earth was destined to burn eventually, but until then, God had a blueprint for the two of them. They would get educated, and they would settle into their version of everything they had known here in the Midwest. Seth had a vision of planting sunflowers on the acreage they would buy just outside that Western town. They would have their own farmhouse, too, with evenings reading in a circle. And there would be time for everything else, because God wanted us to be more than just vessels of Scripture. It said so in Scripture itself. New technology was on the horizon, and he would learn how to use it. He would craft his God-given talents in college; he would come to terms with them, and through fervent prayer discover what was the best path toward Prosperity, not just for himself but his wife as well.

Somehow he knew this would all come to pass. It would be a part, almost, of Manifest Destiny. He would hold on to that moment on the Sunflower Hill. He would put forth muscle and energy and work hard, and become the kind of example God intended him to be. He felt so strong—capable—his very body clamored to be strong. He was even given, as they planned their journey westward, to taking up with exercise, the exertion of his body. It all seemed part of the plan. The incredible breadth of his shoulders seemed to long for a challenge; it invigorated him to exhaust himself daily. He loved the feel barbells, for example. The bar would come down close to his massive chest, almost like a caress or kiss, and he would heave away feeling the blood pump through him as though it were a transfusion of energy. With this sort of ritual, practiced every day, and with the wonderful lovemaking he imagined with his-soon-to-be-wife every night, he could only find that the plan of moving, of going to school, of finding the job of his dreams, was unfolding with inevitable beneficence.

Chandler's mother, despite herself, encouraged him to leave the nest. They were at their favorite restaurant—Round the Clock, the one with the blue water glasses and the green dinner plates—when the subject came up. She said, "You're going to go nowhere, Dear, unless you apply to college."

"But I'm O.K. just the way things are."

"Maybe now. But not forever. Later you'll regret not getting on the train later—when there's no train to catch."

He thought about it now on the bus. (He had graduated from high school and worked full time at the print shop.) It was true that things had become routine, but he absolutely loved this city! Just to walk down Fifth Avenue on Saturday night, with the world all neon and streetlights, the shop windows glowing like bubbles newly out of the pipe, was enough to make it all worth it. But, still, there was something to what his mother said. It was consonant with what had been going on in his poetry, which had flowered nicely, had gone into landscapes he had never dreamed possible, into the shapes of idealized men, hammering their strength into the earth, on the clean anvil of his metered lines—men muscular and supple and clean-limbed—who were tender with a glow, as if born on stars. He had forsaken, lately, Keats for Whitman. And as his small life in the print shop had pattered itself out, and avenues for reformulating and publishing his poetry had made themselves known, he had noticed a blossoming inside himself, very minute, very subtle, but a sign, a warning light maybe, that he had ignored some major point of darkness within him, growing. Not a talent, really, not a skill, but something to do with this whole world he had seen in high school but had felt alien from. Dating. Courting. Matching. Seeing girls. Punching the shoulders of his male friends and talking about Sally. Always Sally. Or some name like that. In the past, he really had hated it. Had withdrawn. Had thought his mother the only woman worth knowing. Had stayed away, then, from the whole arena. Had kept to himself, and yet he knew now, perhaps because of the poetry, that there was passion inside and it had to do with men. At first he had always felt that it had been a grief-stricken and constant longing for his father, who had deserted him when he was two. But it was more that. Different from that. He wanted so desperately—and he only admitted it now and on the bus!—to unite with another man, skin against skin, in a naked union of one flesh. He flushed all over thinking of it, and he knew if he stayed in the city with just his mother, he would never experience any of it. He had to make a clean breast of his life—try the world outside this bungalow city—if he was ever to meet up with this lifelong dream in whatever form it was intended to happen.

So he agreed with what his mother said. They prayed about it. For while they could in no ways be called Godfearing in the old-fashioned sense, they believed. They were dedicated, devout in their own way. They attended their special church faithfully every week. And their minister—a friend to them during all these years—gave them his blessing. Chandler certainly needed to try his wings. A man should leave his mother and cleave unto his wife ("Whoever that should turn up to be," the minister smiled.) And Chandler had felt confused, yet certain this was an inevitable breaking away.

There was some merriment at Seth's wedding, even though they had stated their vows solemnly, with Ames (Brother Ames) officiating—merriment nonetheless, with June looking shy and flushed, and Seth feeling his heart would nearly bust with pride when he saw her at the end of aisle. She allowed herself blue satin, and her skin shone against it. That night he would take her. Take her. And he thought of himself as handsome and strong now, ready to break out of the tight ribbing of his black suit, his mind hurrying ahead to the moment she would see him naked for the first time. And so their hands were joined and the rings exchanged, and that night, they did make love, but it was not as he had imagined—she did not desire his body with full desire, she was awkward, removed, and could only say "God meant me for you," over and over. And he just lay there passive, unacted upon, spent, a mere vessel that had broken upon itself, and he wanted to say, "St. Paul said that you my wife own my body now. Please treat me that way." But all he could do was to soothe her, reassure her how wonderful it had been for him, their first time together.

In the next weeks, they made ready for their new home West, for the promise of everything they had built and planned for. Their furniture was sent; the presents packed up. They were given a circle of blessing by the congregation—one more time. The morning they were to leave, the family lined up in the living room of the farmhouse. Standing there, Seth felt the terrible void that had formed the night of the wedding—only now he felt it in the pit of his stomach while his father strong-armed him with a handshake. Saw the sunflowers in the windows, while his mother kissed him, then June, goodbye. He knew, somehow, standing there, that Prosperity was in the offing; it would be inevitable. Sure as Jesus looked at him from the above the fireplace, he knew he was one of the Elect. He knew they would succeed in college and graduate school, but he knew that the success would not take care of the terrible void.

Chandler found things going stunningly well at college in the idyllic valley in Oregon. The literary magazine appreciated his work; he had made himself vulnerable with it, and he had even developed something of an audience. That came in the spring when the soil seemed rich with every sort of potential. The cut of tulips, so vibrantly green, seemed to come up through the soil like knives, and he felt them in his heart. He was moving toward some sort of self-understanding which, comfortably, kept him awake all night. He glowed hot for contact again. It felt so strange to be joining the human race, not looking in from the outside anymore. His mother had been right. When he was not studying, he would take walks off campus (for he had no car, could not afford one, and had to work in a cafe, bussing tables), walks which eventually led down rural roads where the fields breathed with spring potential, too, as if the corn might rise as though in time lapse photography at any moment. He stopped at a roadside stand where a farmer sold early spring flowers in galvanized buckets. His name was George, a man of the earth. He was old and wizened and wiry and to Chandler very magnetic. The man had property that seemed to stretch endlessly and was covered with every sort of flowering vine imaginable, and later the clematis seemed to bloom all over and through the house. With this man Chandler was able to reach an understanding. Not only about the flowers but making love. Making love with George was like rolling naked through rich soil. He felt the imprint and the grain and the vitality on his body long after. When they were together, Chandler would just rest there and see how beautiful George's skin was, how beautiful his own—old and young, tan and pale. For George was raw and rougher and more callous, with the sun having darkened him for years, and the hair growing from the muscles on his chest. Perhaps this was what Chandler, feeling so young then, liked the most—the feel of the roughness of age upon his young skin.

Seth graduated from the college out west, which had now become a university, and he was hired on in an investment firm, for the Lord had been good to him and June. June had gotten her degree in nursing, but they had it planned that as soon as he was settled, they would bring children into the world. And so it came to pass, but the terrible hole inside him was still there.

By then they lived out of town. They had their own farmhouse, their own horses, their own chickens, a huge vegetable garden. He managed to keep it all together. House, job, family. He even had a group of men he worked out with.

Actually, he even had to pray about it, rather ludicrously, he thought, but it seemed indicated. The place he had chosen as his gymnasium seemed so wonderful it sometimes seemed like the work of the Devil. It was draped around with neon, it lit up at night, it flashed with energy, and with the bright clothes the fashionable people chose for themselves. His heart thrilled the moment he stepped inside on those days at noon. All the people there moved gracefully, and he couldn't help but feel how particularly beautiful the other bodybuilders were as they stood before the mirrors. He could hardly articulate what it was, but he knew such an energy might completely subsume him, turn dangerous, and so he made an appointment with Gideon, his new minister, and they prayed together. Gideon was severe upon Seth's severity, warned him of the dangers of becoming rigid, of becoming too arrogant for this world. "We are not," Gideon told him, "to hide our light under a bushel. And it just so happens your body is one of your lights."

Seth had not known how to reply. He seemed unworthy of it. The Body! Knew he was unworthy of it. For lately, things for him and June had been a disaster in bed and he had noticed now they could scarcely speak to each other when, a few hours after dinner, with the children all tucked in, their own intimacy loomed over them.

So June threw herself into the family, into the household, and he found himself—now that Gideon had provided this clearance—throwing himself into his investments, which prospered, and into this treasure house of a health club, where he made friends rapidly and was coaxed into becoming a runner, even, a few days a week.

It was after college and soon after Chandler took the reporter's job in the university town that he developed a passion for running. At first, after being somewhat at loose ends with an unmarketable degree, he took up smoking pot, and avoided all strenuous physical activity. But the taste in his lungs soon sickened him, and with the stress of the new job—of tracking down stories and chasing, he liked to think, after ambulances—he felt himself needing to channel his energy in one direction.

At first his new life with gay men was enough in and of itself, but there was something always lacking. He loved the shape of their shoulders, the smell of their hair, loved the excitement he felt when they would pick him up in their new cars, and open the doors for him, smelling of cologne as they brushed his shoulder. But the fact was, he could never recapture with them those wonderful moments with George, who had died very suddenly of a heart attack. That's what they said. Chandler had had to stand by and watch everything on the farm auctioned and carried off by distant relatives, who hadn't a word for how George had thought or lived, and now the beautiful vines were all chopped and turned under the soil, to make way for some kind of hideous new house which would soon cover the spot. And after that, Chandler had only been aware of this enormous hole inside him—a disaster, a curse—which had been unfillable until he had finally taken out a pen and started writing poetry once more.

And with the writing had come the job and then, strangely, the running. They were interlinked. In some mysterious way. He would write and write—the poems, and then the stories for the job, and although he loved it, he would feel all bottled up inside and in need of that wonderful landscape which George had shown him—for they had taken walks together before he had died, walks which, in their own way, had made the lovemaking so wonderful before and afterwards. George had shown him the river, the fallen logs, pointed out the parts of trees, which he had climbed in the Forest Service when he had worked for them as a young man. "There's a double crest there. A widowmaker there." Chandler had become more observant because of their friendship, and the long running routes out there called to him to remain so. It was as if every run was a commemoration of his precious, private George, his first love.

And now, too, he was coming out of himself; he was getting ready to tell more people who he was. And the running somehow helped. Every time he would put on his running shoes, he would feel the energy bound through him—I am who I am!—as if he were a winged Mercury, putting on his shoes FTD, with heart-shaped messages to give to everyone saying, I am who I am, I am gay, Love, Chandler.

Seth had been a member of the health club several years when he saw the strange new man arrive. The man seemed like a clown almost, because he was dressed in such motley colors. Seth liked colors himself, when he wasn't dressed for work—a good maroon knit shirt showed off his body just right on a non-work day—but this man was a walking rainbow, especially when he outfitted himself for running and went out all alone, always alone. Nevertheless, he was one hell of a runner. He'd seen him out on the path one day—and they had given each other "hellos"—and he was tearing up the course, racing by in the opposite direction. Seth himself was in a pack of runners (his friends, the lawyer, the professor, the doctor, the psychologist), when he had taken him in; they were a veritable society on the run, often getting together afterwards, and their wives would meet and run on the side. But here was a man completely unto himself. Vibrant, tanned, wiry, mysterious. Word was out that he was a poet but put food on the table by working for the Tribune. That made sense. This man's whole face conveyed that. "Considered beauty," although Seth would never have put it that way to others. But somewhere, deep down, that's what his body told him. This man was utterly foreign, yet somehow near. Seth was sure he probably knew nothing of religion, nothing, even, of what it would be like to be a Christian, to have a true faith and live the steadfast life. He sensed the man was single and independent-minded. And yet, in seeing him, and in realizing that man—his name was Chandler—was in many ways a better athlete than he was—Seth felt he must seek him out, plummet his depths. Introduce himself. He wanted to speak a word to him, ask him to join them. What possible harm could there be? It wouldn't be out of line—it would be a significant kindness. But then something happened which caused Seth to shut down altogether.

He was out on a road trip up north—just for the day—and with a little time left over, he decided to take a back route. It was mid-summer, so he had taken off his tie and opened his shirt, blissfully letting the sweat roll after a long hour in a lunch meeting. His body clamored for the exercise he had missed during his usual noon time, and so he pulled over by a roadside stand and got out. The attendant was obviously a farm worker, just about his own age, and beautifully put together. He was wearing a sweaty tank top and a marvelous smile, which went ear to ear the moment he saw Seth draw up. Seth smiled back, picked out some plums he might eat in the car, and asked if the man had a faucet where he could wash them off. The man grinned knowingly for some reason, signaled around to the back and Seth followed. Handing a nozzle across, the man looked him all over and made a comment which Seth completely missed. "Come again," Seth said.

"I said," the man repeated, "I've got more than a hose I could hand you."

Seth, flabbergasted and catching on at last, dropped the water and ran to the car, not so much afraid of the man as the extraordinary danger inside him. God forgive him but he wanted to kill the man. He had never felt such feelings like that since the days of the Midwest winters when he used to fight at school. A hideous clanging went through his flesh as he roared away, only aware now that he had brought the plums with him. The shimmer of the summer landscape whisked by, with mountains and beautiful hills, still greened over, but all Seth could do was start grabbing the plums and devouring them, still in a rage but altogether aware of what he was doing to his soul. He knew perfectly well that Wrath led straight to Gluttony, but as long as I'm this far into sin, he said to himself, let's go for it.

When he got home, he could scarcely hide what had gone on, and so he called his family together, and made a lesson of it for all, not about murderous thoughts, but the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. His children were only eight and ten, but obviously God wanted them to learn of such things, and what such vile desires led to—accosting an innocent traveler out all alone on the road. Seth could not help but think he was doing his family a good turn as he talked, that he had taken evil and turned it to good. But later he had to seek counsel with Gideon, because he could see that his serenity and contact with God were not coming back. Even his desire to be hospitable and kind with whoever crossed his path was far from him. The mainstay of his spiritual life. Gideon warned him again about his severity—towards himself and others. He advised him to pray for the man with the same love and charity he might wish for his own family, and even, especially, himself. Seth resisted that exhortation; he knew this man was right, but it was the one thing he could not do; it was asking too much. He knew that he himself was a man of God but not much of one. He was devoted and Godfearing, but he simply was not among the Highest Chosen, the way Gideon was. That would have to come later, if at all.

Chandler had noticed Seth from the start. He couldn't stop looking at him as a matter of fact. The man was massive and beautiful, but it was far more than that. He reminded him of George, except that this man was so much younger. There was an honesty, an ingenuousness to the man that caused Chandler to go head over heels. The man always smiled hello whenever they happened to pass each other in the locker room, and Chandler would lie awake nights thinking how he might strike up a conversation. He sensed the man was conservative and religious and righteous and probably terribly homophobic, but was there any reason on God's green earth why he had to come out to everybody who crossed his path? He had more of a life than just the bedroom. He got so sick sometimes of introducing his latest boyfriend to someone and feeling their eyes perceiving him naked, or wrapped in a bed sheet, his hand on his friend's ass. Sex—sex. It drove him up the wall sometimes! He was goddamned sick of it. He confessed that to Marianne, his minister and spiritual counselor. "It may be," she said. "But remember that we are all physical beings on this planet and some self-acceptance is required. You've always had a inclination to be too hard on yourself." Then she suggested he get some body work done, and pray very hard to have God develop his whole person. To have his psychic energy lifted from his lower shakras.

Chandler had listened intently and then had gone out, following her orders. But the massage therapist had been so hunky and beautiful, it had been crazy-making to have his hands on him, and Chandler knew he'd try to seduce him right there in the clinic if he ever came back. This was a rare case where Marianne was wrong. Right now it seemed the answer was not in coming out to every being in sight, or in bodywork, but in trying to get a grip on how the other half lived. Men like Seth, whose name he had just learned. He was sure this Seth had a wife, children, a full-time job, a dog and a cat, and an existence free of the compulsions of sex. The man was genuine, complete, hooked up, connected to the world, not some gay bar whose revolving door jettisoned men in and out like sausages on a string. Well, bad metaphor (mixed metaphor), but Chandler knew in his own mind what he meant. (He made a mental note to stop going to the bar so much.) Seth was a walking opportunity from God to have a friendship with a man without sex, to develop a spiritual connection, such as he had never had before. He didn't even know if he was capable of it, but he'd like to try. A test. A stretch of the spirit. Such as he might have had with his father, had he not deserted him. He went back to Marianne and made a clean breast of the whole thing. "Yes, it sounds like a wonderful idea." Then she smiled. "But don't you think you ought to meet him first?"

"Yes, yes, of course," Chandler said quickly. "But I know it will work out. I know he wants to be a friend, a brother, too."

Provided, he wanted to add, leaving her office, provided, of course, I can keep quiet about the whole gay thing.

"We'd be glad to have you run with us," Seth heard himself say, passing Chandler in the locker room. "I've seen you out along the river, by yourself. If you ever want company, join us for sure."

"That would be great," the man said, glowing. "Yes, my name is Chandler, and you, I understand, are Seth."

No one else showed up that day, and so they went out, just the two of them. It was Indian Summer, and they were without their shirts. They started out with five miles, but the weather being what it was, and their spirits being so unfettered, they settled on ten. Seth could not remember when he had felt himself freer. The leaves, tan and red, were reflected in the river, matching their bodies, which heated up, incandescent in the sun. Chandler spoke of the landscape in a poetic way which Seth always expected from him, and immediately he was pitched back on that hill looking down into the sunflowers. Seth described his own place, his farm, his life in the investment company, and then slowly, toward the end of the run, some of his hopes. This proved to be the first of many runs just like it through the following months, always hot, always glowing, and always intimate. Seth found himself drawn in, attracted, by this subtle spirit who gave himself to writing and yet to his own higher world, too, which surprised him. It was the wrong faith, of course, he was clearly not one of the Elect, but he also felt that Chandler had tapped in on something that he wanted for himself but was clearly still out of reach. The hole inside his heart came back to him, larger than ever, but this time with the promise of being filled. How he might be filled was not yet clear, but it seemed that Chandler had the answers buried somewhere. Seth felt this extraordinary curious freedom to reveal himself, be almost naked in front of him when they were alone on their runs, even from the first day, and felt an extraordinary candor which allowed him to speak of things he would never mention to the lawyer, the doctor, the psychologist, the professor, not even June. Things about, in fact, June, his children, himself. He knew that if he was not careful he might end up loving Chandler, and while he wanted this for himself, he was fearful. Every other man he had loved had always turned dominant, strong-arming. His brothers, his father had been that way. Yet he believed Chandler would never be that. Chandler never took advantage, never gave advice. Just listened, and then spoke about his own life experience. Which was very remarkable, too.

Chandler felt he was in the grips of something he wanted more than anything in his whole life. More than a husband or a life-mate. He wanted a friend, a buddy, someone to hang out with. He never tired of talking with the man, of revealing his past, and even of bringing out a few poems, which now captured the brick-colored trees along the river, the dash of the water over the pebbles (which Seth said reminded him of home), or the blue butterflies which, in the hikes they now shared together, would descend upon the flowery cliffs like a single shadow passing over the sun. Aquamarine, dazzling.

But then something happened. Something terrible. Summer waned, and then came autumn and the return of their fellow runners, who had been away for various reasons. The talk turned political and sharp—the lawyer, Wayne, keeping them abreast of the issues—and it was suddenly there upon them, a state initiative to keep gays and lesbians from marrying. To Chandler's horror and yet expectation, Seth turned vociferous and violent on the subject, "Those gay men make me sick. Just to think about what they do turns my stomach." And launched off on a furious story about some farmhand selling fruit. Gave him more fruit than he asked for, Chandler thought, hearing Seth rant on and on. If I had been the farmhand I would have done exactly the same thing. Nevertheless, running there in the group, Chandler felt himself flushing all over with shame, especially when Seth came to the part about handing out a moral lesson to his wife and children. Just yesterday, Chandler had been fixing on getting himself invited over to meet his family. Of visiting them on their farm. Good luck.

And as the men had talked—the rest of them liberal, shouting down Seth—Chandler had reflected what a coward he was for not speaking up. What in the world was the matter with him? He had spoken up dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before, under various other circumstances. He had been one of the most out men on campus. Carrying signs, shouting slogans. Handing out his poetry like handbills. But not now, thanks. And Chandler knew why. It was Seth's sweaty body beside him. Seth going on and on as if Chandler were simply one of them, even if he apparently didn't agree. He never again wanted to be outside looking in. Face pressed up against the bakery glass. His childhood had been too much like that. Not with his mother but his friends. And lately, now, he and Seth had been given to crosstraining, with Chandler joining him in the weight room on alternate days. Their idyll had become the best yet. The extraordinary strength and energy he had gathered from their times together—their intimacy—even when they didn't even share the same lifting stations—was beyond belief. They were in accord. In contact. "Would you mind holding down my body?" kept coming up again and again from Seth, once they got to the lat-pull. Seth put so much weight on the stacker, he had to be held to pull it down. Chandler would rather go on lying through his teeth for 2000 consecutive years than give up that. He could feel Seth's whole being with his arms around him. Warm, alive. It was better than slow dancing.

But now Chandler felt himself slam down tight. He went home and fled into a corner. He knew that if he didn't do something positive he'd go destructive on himself again. He thought a long time about it, and as he cried about what Seth had said, the image of his mother came back. They were riding a city bus to go see a movie, and seeing himself as a child, he felt once more all the excitement of watching the streets bloom in front of them. They were going to just a little movie house in an odd district, a theater built, actually, in the previous century, which now showed second-run shows. "The Bay Theater." But it was the gift of it—the blue in the neon around the small marquee. And the film itself had been about magic and magicians and a floating carpet which hovered above Egypt, with the Sphinx baking in the heat, as set against the pyramids.

Lying there, he longed to go back to that refuge, but as he retreated further, he remembered he had not told his mother about himself either and that somehow the block between him and Seth had to do with the block between himself and his past. He must call her, arrange that he visit for the weekend, and have a heart-to-heart talk. That would be the beginning of an answer.

So with the hunger still driving him, he found himself on his way to the city with his sights on the Round-the-Clock, where he was to meet her the moment she got time off for dinner. ("What is it?" she wanted to know over the phone. "Why so urgent? Can't we talk now?" "No," he had answered, "it needs to be in person.") And now as he sat waiting for her, the neon around the clock kept lighting up the way it always did, starting with a dot and then forming a full rim, round and round. And watching it from their table, he told her the truth the second she came in, and she was fine with it, said she had known all along, but was afraid for him, and hoped he would not get hurt. And he had told her he had been afraid for himself, too, but that everything had turned out differently than he had expected. He had never been gaybashed as he thought he might, almost never was afraid of AIDS because of safe sex, but that he had discovered something far worse which was this ridiculous, persistent vulnerability.

"Vulnerability?" his mother asked.

Yes, he had gone on, a constant susceptibility to men who haven't the slightest idea of what your own attraction to them is. And with that, life becomes a putdown, constantly.

"But there are other gay men."

And, yes, that's wonderful, he told her. And told her about George. But most gay men were not like him. Could she understand that? Good old normal George was a dying breed—literally that had been true. Gay men did not live, most of them, in isolation out in the country, but amongst one another in the cities—amongst their own proneness, if you will—and that made them crazy, because they tried to protect themselves by practicing distantness on one another.

"I don't think vulnerability is such a bad idea," his mother said. "It's how I married your father."

"And you have no regrets about that?" Chandler asked, trying to be as tactful as he could while feeling all the wildness which came up with "father."

"No," his mother answered. "I could have lived all that time just by myself. Had a perfect life here in the city. By myself. Being a secretary. Working nights at the library. Reading and reading and reading. How much you used to remind me of myself at that time! But then came a time to be open to something new. It did not turn out the way I had hoped. God knows it didn't. But I wasn't perfect either. And then you came into the world. How could I ever regret that? How could I regret any of my life?"

Chandler sat there and smiled, taken aback, somewhat stunned. Took her hand. With the city still imminent, he thought, it's like I grew up in a goldfish bowl, but different from what the saying usually means. I mean everything was luminous and nurturing, and filled with bright and orange specks, grandeur and poetry everywhere even though I was such a slow and mediocre boy. But everything in that bowl was luminous; there was the sunken castle with the deep-sea diver and the mermaid with golden tresses such as you'd find in Woolworth's. When Mom and I used to go out to the movies, everything would seem to be at the bottom of a deep ocean, and we would look out at the world as though in a bathysphere, noting lit-up creatures which floated by and caused us to smile at each other. But then too great a dragon came along, the Loch Ness, and it was no longer possible to let the rest of the world just roll by. It was just too big, and now I have Seth standing in front of me, and he seems a cliff too huge to scale.

Seth had seen a photo essay in the Sunday section telling about The Disciples, an emerging Christian men's group, which was slowly sweeping the country. Evangelical. Pledging to be honest with and protective of all women and children. Witnessing was being done in every state of the union, gathering force as it went. These particular photos were from the Carolinas, and Seth got a special jolt when he saw two men, naked to the waist, embracing in sweaty ecstasy in the aftermath of the hot July gathering. Eyes closed, smiles euphoric. Hands cupping each other's head. Seth could hardly believe what he saw. Christian. Evangelical. A part of the Light. But also naked chest-to-chest. He did a little asking around. Looked into it. The movement was as sound as a church. The idea was to redeem men's tarnished image in the eyes of this nation. Make good on all their broken promises to their families. Stop all this perpetual abuse and abandonment. Learn to apologize where fitting and turn to their Maker and Redeemer for forgiveness. Oh, he could rally his spirit to that. He knew he had numerous amends to make to June, who lately had turned sweeter and warmer towards him, even though they weren't making love. So he looked into the movement once more and saw that it was actually coming to the bigger city just to the north, to the football stadium for three glorious days. He wrote for all the literature, read deeply into it, when there was time at the investment firm. Saw that The Disciples were about the very thing which worried him the most—the breakdown of the family unit in this country. The disparagement of man's God-given position as breadwinner and head of the household. And despite the skin photo, the movement was also about putting to route all the sins against Nature as defined in the Bible, including the one of Sodom and Gomorrah.

At the health club, he shared his enthusiasm—what he could of it—with Chandler. While they were weight training. But Chandler was distant. Of course the man was not of the same faith, but with his being so spiritual, Seth thought he could at least sympathize with what this meant to him. Actually Seth felt a little hurt.

Nevertheless, when the moment came to do one of the exercises, Seth had to ask Chandler again, "Would you mind holding down my body?" And this time Chandler only smiled distantly and complied without a word.

For a moment while Chandler was holding on, something strange happened. Seth, grunting and growling, was suddenly aware not only of Chandler's arms but—he was sure he wasn't mistaken—of the man's face pressed against his back. Turning afterwards, he checked to see if there wasn't something different or odd in his face, but there was nothing. Just a mystery somewhere.

After coming out to his mother, Chandler found there was no turning back. He fought hard against the anti-marriage bill, and even though it carried, he was determined to get out of the closet again. All the more so. He heard the Gay Games were in the offing for next summer, and so he did an advance registration, signing up for the marathon. What greater way to express himself?

He started socializing with the other men at the club, let them know he was gay, and none of them was surprised. In fact, they started inviting him over to dinner with his various dates, and sometimes they even went out to the movies, as a foursome. They started popping up at each other's parties. Everyone was in the know, except Seth. And Chandler was going to take care of that. He definitely was going to take care of that.

But always you had to start slowly. So he simply began wearing a pink triangle on his chest whenever they went out running. Then on his cap. Later he changed to "Training Gay Games" as spring neared and advance t-shirts become available. But frankly, Seth seemed not to notice, primarily because he was so busy talking about The Disciples.

The summer boiled in on them. The month of June stood like a hot pivot. The running group had decided to do a run that would take them through town, all the way to the base of a gigantic hill. Chandler felt all lit up in white and neon pink—triangles everywhere, with the oblivious Seth beside him. Chandler thought, if I see the sweat break out on those beautiful shoulders one more time, I'll scream. If I admire his body one more time without him knowing what's going on, I'll run away and never come back. I can't stand this any more! I love this man even though he hates me. Or soon will.

But just then, Seth came out of his dream and said, "You know I forgot to ask what you're training for."

And just as readily Chandler replied, "The Gay Games, New York."

Without another word, Seth was gone—up and over the hill. Disappearing into the stratosphere. Chandler, frightened and crestfallen, could hardly follow, but only plodded after the rest of them up the slow, beautiful hill of rockeries, with the azaleas—appropriately pink, as company. He was drenched with sweat and felt his body glow with the sun, but he was also crying. He could hardly stand the shame of it—but it all just came out as though a dam had broken. Arriving at the crest of the hill, he looked down and saw the men at the foot of it, tearing up the street and trying to catch up with Seth, who was way in the lead. They seemed a part of some remote planet, strong and able and blessed with some peculiar rhythm. But in this case straight. In predetermined unison. They were a part of some grassy land, Edenic, with the sun coming up over the peaks and keeping them perennially warm, but he was shut out. Standing there, catching his breath, he felt himself go cold very suddenly. And later, when he finally got back to the health club, he wasn't surprised when his friend the psychologist said, "Seth says he's going to keep as far away from you as he can."

Seth went home that night and felt like smashing something. He couldn't get beyond that. He wanted to punch out a wall with his bare fists. "Would you mind holding down my body?" turned in his head over and over—he had actually asked him to hug him like he was his own mother. And now he knew why he had felt something pressed to his back—Chandler had probably kissed him! His whole chest shrunk in revulsion. Why had Chandler lied to him? Even if he was a faggot, he must have had some shred of conscience, some semblance of honor. To have strung him along. And then there had been the humiliation of the conversation with Alex, the psychologist, when they had gotten back from that disastrous run. "Everybody knows Chandler is gay," Alex had said. "Where have you been? Valerie and I have been socializing with him and his boyfriends for a long time."

"And so you kept it from me, too," Seth said. "And I've known you for over a decade."

"It wasn't my place to tell you," Alex answered. "Besides, Chandler's been nearly black and blue with pink triangles and gay insignias for over a year—every time he shows up to run. Haven't you noticed?"

"Of course not," Seth said. "I don't even know what they mean."

And so the humiliation began to gather force. He imagined that all of them had been talking and laughing about him all along, having fun, making fun—Seth the big musclehead. The one who had made all the money but who had never gotten touched by his education or the twentieth century.

But meanwhile the hole inside came back. Very suddenly. It came back so violently that he realized, with anguish, that for a long time it had been filled. By Chandler. And it was horrible, anguishing to realize, that he could never speak with the man again. Never have contact. Never share. He would have to sever all bonds if he was to protect himself. And with that, a hate like hardening mud set in. In dreams, his brain got busy scheming revenge on all of them, but especially Chandler. He started thrashing at three a.m.—so much so he kept waking June up, and he had to tell her.

"Imagine the man—a homo in our midst. I can't live with it."

She took his hand under the covers. But sounded strange. "What can't you live with?"

"The hate."

"Whose hate?"

"The hate between us."

"He's told you that?"

"Told me what?"

"That he hates you?"

"No. He hasn't said anything."

"Maybe he doesn't hate you."

"What kind of talk is that? You taking his side?" Suddenly Seth felt his whole body flare beneath the covers. Never before had he so felt her indifference as much as he did now.

"No, I'm not taking his side. I'm just asking you if you've got the facts."

Finally he yelled—"It doesn't matter what he thinks. I've got enough hate for the two of us!"

She shrank, let go his hand. "I'd advise you to go see Gideon. Immediately. Tomorrow. Or at least bear witness in the Circle. Ask God to take this from you."

"What do you want me to do? Tell everybody I've been cavorting with a homo for all these years? Have everybody at the Community reject you, me, and the kids. That would be a fine mess."

"Not everybody feels the way you do," she told him. "Not even in the Circle. That's true not only on this, but a lot of things."

"Such as?"

"We'll talk about it later," she said. "Not in the middle of the night."

Chandler was fully aware the entire club was buzzing with the rift—that in some ways the whole state had been getting ready for it, quietly and cunningly lining up the sides in the wake of the Election. Hate crimes were breaking out all over—and especially in Seth's rural neck of the woods. It was getting awkward and even fearsome to show up at noon, not just for himself but for everybody. If he and Seth would come in at the same time, they did a kind of pas de deux, which flung one of them back outside, until the other had suited up. Sometimes Chandler would get in late, and Seth, all ready to run with the rest of them, would take off for parts unknown.

Chandler would have liked to have said, Screw it, who cares, and besides with the political climate being what it is, what else could you expect? But the fact was, every time beautiful Seth would show up in his shorts and take one look at him and head off, it hurt like nothing else. It reminded him of the time his mother had finally told him about his father, how he was different from other boys, because not only was Dad gone; he wasn't coming back. It felt like that but worse, and Chandler tried to snap himself out of it—what were these few years of mere friendship after all—but it counted, counted, counted. And it had to do with Seth being different from everyone else, every friend he had known. It was because he was conservative-married-homophobic-sexist-patriarchal-evangelical that the fucker mattered so much. Try explaining that one. The magnetism was beyond belief, and Chandler couldn't keep from going back to the health club just to see if Seth was going to show up that day, take him in, turn tail, and hurt him once more. Stop being such a fool! he wanted to yell. You've got other choices. But right now he couldn't help himself.

The tension came to a boil, and one day Seth, walking in, said, "Him or me" with Chandler standing there in the middle of the men, about to run.

"I'm not sure what you mean," Wayne the lawyer said. "You can't be putting us to some kind of choice, can you?"

"That's exactly what I mean."

Alex, always the psychologizer, said, "Why don't you and I just talk this one out on the side. We're here to have a little fun, not make scenes."

"Scenes or not," Seth said. "Make up your mind."

"We don't rat out on our friends," the professor said. And for a terrifying moment, Chandler thought they meant Seth.

"I'm sorry, Seth," Wayne said. "And I think I speak for everybody. You're being just a little bit ridiculous."

"You want to run with us," the doctor said. "You run with everybody. Chandler's not dropping the same either/or number on us. Why don't you go home, cool down, and call me in the morning."

But Seth only steamed pink to his forehead and stormed out.

"Well fuck him," the doctor said. And the rest patted Chandler on the shoulder.

"Don't let it bother you," they all said.

And though the aftermath was briefly sweet, and Chandler was on the brink of tears with gratitude, he still felt devastated—the more so, because he had apparently won. He still felt like going back for more. That this thing between him and Seth was not over.

He broke his pledge and went to the bar and started hatching schemes in the ill-lit den. The smoke seemed to form all kinds of demon-shaped clouds around him.

Something would inspire him there, he was sure.

Then he spoke with Marianne.

"I have the feeling that the only way to get this settled is to confront him," Chandler said. "Ask him if he wants to talk. Tell him even"—he blushed—"that I love him as a brother."

"I wouldn't discourage that," she answered. "Just pray for the right moment."

But Chandler did not end up praying exactly. He went back to the bar, picked someone up, and then afterwards, in the aftermath of easy sex, felt inspired again. Enthused. He would drive over uninvited to Seth's farm one of these hot nights, take him unawares and demand they talk.

It did not matter that Seth's friends had rejected him. He could see it coming ever since the Election. True, his side had won, but only because of other parts of the state. In the outlying areas. But the actual university town was a nest of liberals, including his so-called running friends, and the bill had failed miserably here. He would just have to seek out new company, that's all, and lo and behold if it wasn't time for The Disciples after all. It was July. He'd just settle into all the comforts there, and let that devil's playground of the health club sink into hell.

So he made ready to travel to the city just to the north as though it were a pilgrimage. June wished him well, but said there was something they still needed to talk about. That was fine, eventually. He'd had enough of confrontations for a while. He just wanted to be replenished with the Word. And as he drove off, he felt as though he were nearing his old church back in the Midwest, but on a huge scale. For slowly, there the grand and beautiful dome of the huge rally was—emerging, just waiting for him in the huge arena The Disciples had rented. He felt the shadow of Jesus, and he felt inside that mating of his soul with the Spirit which had eluded him during these trying and sometimes horrifying months. The episode with the man at the roadside stand vanished in a breath, and as he entered the spectacular stadium, and saw the gestures of blessing everywhere, he felt whole once more free of Chandler. Rock music was actually being played from huge speakers—that surprised him—but as he listened he realized that the word was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, my Maker, Maker, Maker, Maker Blest. So it was O.K. His broad shoulders, which had seemed to be in a vice for months, relaxed at last. He took in the air in deep, powerful breaths, and everywhere, men, plain honest men like himself—in jeans, bib overalls, feedcaps, with great bodies—smiled back at him. Music, for days it seemed, volleyed him back and forth in a sweet rhythm. So did the incantations from the pulpit, as thousands upon thousands, flocks upon flocks, were addressed. How many are ready to stand and witness for Jesus? How many are ready to stand and witness for their families? How many are ready to stand and witness especially for their wives? And in a whirl of dance such as God might have known on the last day of Creation, Seth stood and shouted, laughed and cried. He was ready to embrace the evangelist speaker, hug the man next to him, and let go of this impossible, unbearable pain—all smashed together and having to do with Chandler, June, and the men at the club—and be made whole again.

In fact he felt at the crisis on the last and third day. The sky had opened up into a beautiful heavenly blue. The stands heated up hotter than a firecracker, and the brother at the podium opened his hands wide to what few thousands of them remained for the closing benediction. "Men, I would like you to embrace the brother next to you. With a hug or handshake. Let him know that you are full of the same Holy Spirit. Let him know that you will stand by all the promises you have made to God, man, woman, and child during these enduring days we have spent together."

And Seth, turning to the beautiful farmer next to him, felt wild with release and realized God was about to give him the naked, chest-to-chest hug he so desperately wanted. But the man, naked to the waist also, but seeing him coming at him, glowered suddenly, and nearly shoved a handshake into his gut as if to ward him off.

Seth, repulsed and instantly frightened, felt himself shrunk suddenly to nothing. The shame was beyond belief. And he slunk instantly away, not even willing to speak the closing collective blessing the minister was now insisting on.

Grabbing his shirt, he ran out, drove at top speed all the way home. Could not answer when June met him at the door. "How was the rally? Did you find what you needed?"

Seth could only hustle his way back to the bedroom with his luggage.

He knew she had something else to say. Something entirely in accord with the handshake thrust into his stomach. Knew now suddenly that the reason she had been so sweet to him for the past months was because she was leading up to something.

"Seth," she said, "I would like to get a job."

He couldn't answer.

"What do you think—" she started to say again. But before she could finish, someone was at the door. And in accord with the fist in his stomach, in accord with June now speaking what he feared, Chandler stood standing there, asking to come in.

"What do you want?" Seth asked.

"I want to talk," Chandler said. "Please. I value our friendship. I can't take this silence any longer."

"Get out of here," Seth said. "You're a pollution to my wife and children."

Chandler couldn't speak. Backed away and turned off.

June came up to him. "I can't believe you said that." She was flushed with fury seeing the man retreat.

"I told you he was a homo," he said.

"I don't care who he is," she answered. "He was your friend. And if you don't take this to the Circle and to Gideon, I'll leave you. By God, I will."

Chandler, running from the farmhouse, had time to think back on all the other houses he'd seen just like it. He thought, Distant Windows. That was the name of one of his poems. How often, it said, out on a walk, have I looked through the top of a door just like this one—three small rectangles of glass, spaced like steps one above the other, as though people of different heights could stare in? Have seen families happy and families sad. Seen Christmas lights and silverware. Cats asleep. Children at play. Beautiful people, even, in states of undress when I shouldn't have been looking. And now I've tried to gatecrash at last, and been turned away. That farmhouse should have been my family tonight. Tonight Seth will fuck his wife in bed, and she will enjoy his body when I could have been the one. She will be glad to belong and to have cast the faggot out. She will feel protected, provided for, looked after. Consummated. I know, I saw her.

And so now what? I'll tell you. I'm going to go down to the bar for a little further self-pitying colloquializing with myself, and then I'm going to head off on a little midnight run. I need to do a good eighteen miles anyway. So we'll just start a little earlier than planned. Run my fucking brains out. Get myself back home before sunup. And I can do the whole highway by then. Pound out my anger, just pound and pound on until my feet can't carry me any further. Maybe do twenty miles, twenty-six, thirty. Who the fuck cares?

And so after the bar, he was off, all costumed and triangled, past all those night houses again—one after the other along the highway. The hurt in his soul felt like thorns, turning in. He loved that man more than life, and now he had made a fool of himself, trying to get him to talk. And now the curse came back—"Pollution"—and as he thought of it, a certain horror followed. Perhaps maybe Seth was right. Maybe he did carry something vile. Vulnerable, isolated, running along the highway, he felt he could actually crawl inside Seth's mind and see himself for who he was. And when that happened, a thought sprung on him that maybe George had not died of a heart attack but of AIDS, and that maybe they had not been as safe as he had remembered and maybe now he carried it within him, and was slowly spreading the disease all over town, the world. Maybe the scientists were wrong. Maybe there was some unknown way gays infected themselves and others with a mutant germ, and people like Seth sensed it and fled. Perhaps that was the vulnerability that he had named to his mother.

For a moment, he thought he might pass out from these thoughts—for the isolation and cold of the midnight road had at last caught up with him, and then very suddenly he realized he had run out toward Seth's farm once more, that there was a car heading toward him, which looked like Seth's, and as it began to bear down, Chandler felt himself drawn to it the way a moth is drawn to the light. However, just as it overtook him and struck him sideways, he saw that the driver, enraged and insane, was not Seth. Not at all.

He wished him dead. Lying there trying to sleep with June as far from him as possible, Seth had to admit it. O.K., O.K. It was just a little match flame that puffed and died. Wished him dead. A-little-match flame-puff-and-die. But it was hardly the end of the world. Certainly it was understandable. Thinking back, he saw that his life had been fine, had never gone off track, until Chandler had come into the picture. So it was just a-little-match-flame-puff-and-die.

The next day, he knew June had him at spiritual gunpoint to go see Gideon, so he visited him first thing before work. But as he spoke, he found there was no way to minimize it at all. The little-match-flame-puff-and-die was a roaring fire.

"I have a terrible feeling that it's going to cause something awful to happen to Chandler." (Where did this come from? Where was his self-righteous anger? All he could feel was concern, remorse, horror at what he had said in his own living room.)

"We don't wish anyone dead," Gideon answered. They were in his back office in the meeting house. "For to do so would be to play God. I'd advise you to take this to the Circle. Confess openly, and have all the brothers and sisters pray for you. But you must not be too severe upon yourself, either. No one can create evil for others just through their wishes."

"But what about Matthew 5:28—he who has committed adultery with a woman in his heart—"

"You are not committing adultery in your heart. You are trying to learn to hate the sin and not the sinner."

But as Seth confessed openly in the morning circle, he felt as though his long-time friends and neighbors were shrinking from him—a potential killer—and that what Gideon had said at last was not enough or, even worse, it was dead wrong. And then at noon, when he walked into the club, he heard very strange goings-on.

"Chandler was out running last night," Wayne said, "and got hit by a car."

"It was in the middle of the night," Alex said. "Clear case of hit-and-run."

"How is he?" Seth asked, feeling himself blanche from head to foot.

"Critical at first," the doctor said. "But the report's just been changed. He's stable now, I think."

"Strange case of hit and run," the professor said. "Right, right, strange. It was clearly a hate crime."

"What do you mean?" Seth asked, still paralyzed.

"He was wearing his Training Gay Games t-shirt," Wayne said. "They think some car spotted him and ran him down deliberately."

"Maybe," the doctor said. "But the report said there was alcohol in his—Chandler's—bloodstream."

"Crazy queen," Alex said. "What was he doing out on the road at midnight in the first place? And looped to boot."

A long slow poison went through Seth's whole body. Match-flame-puff-and-die. And suddenly he felt an urgent desire to confess to something he didn't do.

"Strange thing is," the professor said, "he was right out by your place, Seth."

Seth burst into fury. "It wasn't me! I was nowhere near that highway. I was in bed. I was with June. She was sleeping beside me. She'll tell you."

Everyone was looking at him, aghast. "You don't think we were accusing you?"

But Seth, realizing in the next moment they weren't, felt so debased, so ashamed, he grabbed his clothes and ran out.

Where was he to go? There was no one left. Slowly, one by one, he had destroyed his own options. June, his family, The Disciples, the men at the club, the Circle, even Gideon. He tried to get clear in his mind what exactly had gone wrong, but the skein was too tight to get unraveled. Strangely enough, though, he didn't feel cut off from God now. Rather, something had snapped just a moment ago, something had broken through. So there was the skein and there was the clear space, and now he saw the match flame was gone. It was simply gone—out.

He worked through the rest of the day, speaking with as few people possible. But there was something else to be finished, to be resolved. Death seemed like a clear alternative. Seemed entirely sensible. But in the offing as well was something else. It was either death or that. He slept on it that night, with June now closer to him. (She knew about the Circle, the talk with Gideon.) He got clear in his mind that while he had wished Chandler dead, he did not feel that way now. He had toughed out the dark night of the soul last night and had passed through that horrifying match flame. And because he had done that, he had not been the one in the car.

Breaking out in a relief of sweat, he threw off the covers, and getting up without waking June, showered, letting the water flood his whole body, over and over.

Dressing in a suit (why a suit?), he wrote a note to June, "I must do what I must do," and got into the car and drove out to the highway, seeing the house he had worked so hard to create in the rearview mirror.

He was intending, dramatically, to head for a cliff, but somehow the power of the car would not take him there. He was driving, inevitably, into town, into a midnight parking lot. Pacing back and forth with hours passing, he realized he was waiting out the morning, working up the nerve, and that he was in the shadow of the town hospital. Strange but he knew which window to look at. What was it he had to say? He was not going to kill himself, and in light of that, the only thing he could do was to go up to Chandler and say, "Chandler, I was wrong." If he was to stay at all alive, he was to say it, or at least something like it, not because he was magnanimous or high-minded or even godly but only because he preferred to stay alive.

And so when morning came, he went inside the hospital and got a pass and took the elevator up to the third floor. Finding Chandler's room, he could hear female voices inside, and at first Seth thought that maybe Chandler had died in the night, and that the nurses were clearing things out, and then he would not have to say he was wrong, and he would be lost without this man. But soon two older women emerged, dressed in plain clothes, women who smiled at him. "Chandler," one of them called, "you've got another visitor."

"Please come in," Seth heard the voice say, and Seth, because he really, definitely, preferred to stay alive, went in and approached the man who was lying on the bed.


Volume 1, Issue 1, 2006

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