The bills were too thick to conceal in my pocket, so I reached inside my briefs and hid them there.
When my uncles sold their house and its acreage to a developer, they sent me a box from their garage filled with lousy “mementos” that were meaningless to me and the life I had made in New York. A pair of souvenir spoons from Oregon landmarks, a baseball with a smeared signature. Junk. I thought the rest was just newsprint, stuffed into an abstract shape. I would have thrown it all out—what good was nostalgia, anyway—but as I extracted the paper, I found in the meticulously wadded packing a golden band that I recognized immediately. I lifted the hat out of the wrapping and the pale gilt straw caught the light and, in a moment, I saw Tom again in the gentle glint of its crown. This was the one he wore the last time that I saw him: I could see it riding high on the back of his head, and, combined with the white down of his hair and the pervasive fragrance of the flowers that still clung to the woven brim, he blossomed in my memory fully formed, like an emanation of spring.
Tom always wore a hat, indoors or sitting on the padded bench of his walker. The hats were well made, felt or fiber with bands still somehow bold and crisp, untouched by the oxidation of sweat, time, or travel. The morning of my final visit, he was perched in the bower at the end of the garden, surrounded by lilacs. In spite of his age, his face was smooth as a polished nut and his teeth protruded in a squirrelly smile from between his pink lips. That day, he wore a linen shirt dotted with fine blue lines, like the drafting marks of a pattern tracer’s serrated edge. Over it, a wooly blond vest covered in yak curls filled out his thin form and protected him from the chill that crept over the yard, even in the middle of May. His gnarled hands gripped his customary carved-horn cigarette holder, and he waved at me as I came down from the terrace, beckoning with the hauteur of a squire summoning a page.
He was still unpacking, he said, or he would have put on a brooch he wanted to show me—pearls, diamonds, set in the beak of a swirling, effeminate peacock.
“The males, you know, are the beautiful ones in that species,” he said. His lips closed around the stem of the tube.
I looked down at my polyester sweater and scuffed loafers. After my shower, I’d chosen what I thought were the finest things in my closet, but here, in the sifted light of my uncles’ garden, I could see how shabby they were. A loose thread unraveled at the hem of my khakis. The seat was too tight. I usually wore workout clothes, sneakers, and fabrics that stretched with me. There was nothing wrong with Tom’s eyes, though, and as I sat next to him, their charm began to enchant me again. The ratty edges of my sweater appeared in the edges of my vision like fluttering eyelashes, popping out from the bulky, discolored fabric. My body swelled inside my clothes, and their pressure, as they struggled to contain me, reminded me of the ways I’d grown since I first bought them—at a thrift store, no less, and I’d hung them up and didn’t even wash them before I wore them, so the first frail whiff of industrial soap and the weird perfume of thousands of donations and strangers’ hands, pawing, pawing at the racks, reached my nose as it must have reached Tom’s, and as I dug the toe of my shoe into the quartz gravel, I was aware of his cigarette smoke not as an irritation but a screen that spared Tom the brunt of this scent, the distinctive smell of poverty. I shifted as he looked me over, his eyes lingering on the decals, labels, and logos. His own clothes were bare of those markings, and their simplicity suggested the tailor’s hand. In Tom’s presence, after all, I had learned what class was: It did not announce itself. It simply was. Like a whiff of orange blossom on a spring breeze, it was unmistakable, tantalizing, and unforgettable. And, like Tom, a relic from another time.
In Tom’s presence, after all, I had learned what class was: It did not announce itself. It simply was.
Tom came west to die. That was the arrangement; Tom was in his eighties and ready to be taken care of. He was twenty years older than my uncle’s husband; they’d met in New York when Nathan was studying ballet and Tom ran the editorial arm of Vogue. For a few years, they were lovers, and then, when Nathan met my uncle, they stayed friends; after Tom outlived all his natural family, he was invited to their plush, suburban ranch house to deteriorate in comfort. In exchange for a few years of easy living, Tom would leave his sizable fortune to my uncles. He only cared about beauty now; very little held him to life. On this particular spring day, he seemed to float beside me like a wisp of cloud, enjoying our proximity.
He never feigned interest in what I was doing at school. Boys like me, he said, were wasted on books. He came from an era when most men were either rich or temporarily elevated by the GI Bill to grasp some little education, a crackerbox house, the start of a family. After his discharge—honorable, he specified with a little nod, which is how he got the pension—he took up residence in New York City, in a rent-controlled apartment in the Village. The one-bedroom was a walk-up with good light, and on clear nights he drifted through the blossoming night-lily gardens to the cafés and bars. To mingle, he said. He did plenty of mingling in the years after the war.
The arts were different then; it was before the first epidemic killed off anyone with any talent, wiping out the first tier of the audience. Back then, people knew what they were looking at. Now, Tom suggested, we were as brainless as Pac-Man, idiotically gobbling up anything placed in front of us and calling it culture. He raised a sardonic eyebrow. “When was the last time you went to a gallery, Hank?”
I couldn’t remember. In the embarrassing pause, while I groped through my memory, he dabbed the tip of his cigarette into the bushes.
“Thought not,” he said. Yet, there it was. At the moment he extinguished his Gauloise, the museum sprang fully formed into my head, the heat of July in the city that pressed insistently against my skin and the slumped-cake silhouette of the Guggenheim among the sharp leaves of the maples on Fifth Avenue. It had been my first time in New York. I had saved for two years for this trip, taking the kinds of jobs that were available to boys as pretty as me, doing the types of things I knew how to do. I would have worked twice as hard to stay, but here, I was unremarkable. Men hardly looked at me, and if they did, I found myself tongue-tied, unsure of what to say.
Getting to the museum from Brooklyn was easy enough. I took the subway across the river and into Manhattan and got off one stop early, because I wanted to get there slowly and it was summer, the kind of summer that drew people into each other’s arms at night and separated them by morning. My shirt was saturated in moments, and I felt my face getting red; Oregon lacked the bugs and humidity and noise that assaulted me everywhere in New York.
When the guard unlocked the doors, I filed in with a handful of others and bought a ticket. The powerful vents over the doors and positioned around the roller-rink-shaped foyer instantly chilled my skin. There was a fellowship exhibit on the top floor, the concierge said; not knowing what that meant, I took the pamphlet she offered and bent my head over it, frantically scanning the fine print. It was the same feeling I would have later, when Tom looked at me through his translucent eyelashes: the sense of being a bumpkin, incapable of comprehending or interpreting the fast-moving language of the city. I was aware, once again, of the sodden patches under my arms and staining the crotch of my too-tight jeans—clothes that had seemed fashionable and metropolitan when I packed them back home but in New York seemed terribly out of date. In an attempt to seem at ease, I picked my way to the ramp that ascended the inside of the museum, circling its interior like the lip of a spiraling shell.
I paused in front of each landscape and abstract sculpture arranged in the niches and side passages that broke up the smooth spiral. I tried to read the names on the placards and remember them, knowing that I would likely never return to New York and the galleries here, but as soon as I glimpsed them they slid out of my head with the incomprehensible slipperiness of a chemistry equation. I worked my way up the ramp, a painting at a time, and by the time I made it to the third floor, the museum was flooded with people, as though a sluice gate in the lobby had opened and released a torrent of bodies—sweaty, scented, avid, rabid as a river. They pushed past me into the smaller rooms and darted from picture to picture, snatching an impression from each one and then rushing to the next. Shooting the rapids on the Rogue, I’d felt the same current under my raft and resisted it, knowing that when a river ran it was reckless; letting the waves spirit you along was a death wish, as you’d end up on the rocks. I leaned against this surge of people, too, moving closer to the walls and deliberately slowing my pace even more, so I crept between the frames, examining each work with the intensity of an authenticator. I felt warm breath on my neck and the pulsing movements of strangers behind me, but nobody lingered. I slid along a series of ink flowers into a cooler room and exhaled; the flurry passed me by, shoving through the corridor I’d just escaped.
How could I explain to Tom, with my limited vocabulary, how I felt in the presence of Robert Mapplethorpe? The great photographer died the year I was born, and the only reason I knew his name was because one of my professors spoke scornfully of him in a lecture, his Orientalism, his sensational material. But I gazed at the first self portrait and took in its seemingly endless gradation of blacks and whites, shadow and light, and saw a boy freshly emboldened with his freedom; the teddy-boy quiff and shining leather jacket seemed, to me, to be as clean as a recruit’s whites, the polished uniform of the new soldier. In this one, he was thirty-four. The chest pockets on his jacket were both unzipped and hung open like mouths; his shirt was pulled modestly closed, but when I leaned in I saw it was unbuttoned, or perhaps the button was missing, torn off, popped, lost. He fixed me like an animal with his glossy eyes, and although I was over a decade younger, I saw myself in his carefully arranged curls and immaculate-greaser coat. Both collars popped and the thumbprint smoothed out of them. With the right costume, you can go anywhere, I thought, straightening my own cotton shirt with the front of my hand.
I saw the lovers and friends he photographed, layering them in veils and paint, their skin smooth and pliable under the studio lights. Andy Warhol with his electric halo, Lauper in a folded-fan collar that made her look like a B-movie space queen. I looked up in delight from a photo of a lily and realized that the chamber was almost empty. The only other visitors were men—men of all kinds, dressed in expensive-looking clothes, usually in pairs. One couple, both in immaculate white sports gear that had never seen a playing field, leaned against each other, whispering. Another man in a slim charcoal suit eyed me; a silver hoop winked in his left ear. Outside, the crowd of tourists murmured, burbled, but in here, I heard the contemplative silence of the long, tiled men’s room where I went when I was lonely, a silence that listened respectfully to the sighs, sprays, and flushes of other bodies, our privacy nominal as we satisfied ourselves between the metal partitions. All that I was was born inside this room. Before then, who had seen me? Robert’s portrait was the first who truly looked me in the eye.
“I’ve seen a few,” I told Tom, who merely nodded and extracted the burnt nub of his cigarette with his yellowed index finger. Here, far away from the city, he was susceptible to the influence of the wilderness. In New York, he had a manicure once a week and a barbering once a month. Someone stroked lotion into his crackling skin and collected his clothes for the Chinese laundry, delivering the bags of folded clothes a few hours later. In Oregon, he may as well have been camping. Although my uncles spent months renovating the cottage for Tom, making it accessible and packing it with new appliances, he was isolated and left to fend for himself. He was accustomed to a maid of some kind; now, he said, his messes were not attended to. He couldn’t use the washer. The two dishes he used over and over again were chipped, and the others gathered dust. The microwave emitted a sulfurous odor that terrified him. He was an urban animal, lacking the skills to adapt to the comforts of the suburbs. His hand, a pale claw, tapped the soft pack of imported cigarettes in his vest’s breast pocket.
“I have more of those,” I said.
“Good boy,” he sighed, and the hand that had hovered over his heart drifted toward me, rested lightly on my shoulder, and then retreated like a sparrow into his lap. That was my signal to offer to walk him back to his quarters, along the uneven paving-stone path to the far end of the property. The stones were whimsically set; my uncles loved design but were not willing to compromise their vision for functionality. (They were raised on tacky mid-century furniture, Tom said, and as he said it I imagined my uncle as a giant, uncoordinated baby, banging his head on a Formica coffee table and toppling, squalling, to the avocado-hued rug.) Tom was tired of the day, though it was barely after eleven and the garden was still cool. Tom extended a brittle hand again.
Each time we did this walk, he seemed a little lighter. I knew it wasn’t my hours in the gym but his years: Time hollowed him out, made straws of his bones. I could have lifted him with one hand and put him on my shoulders, but instead I inched along beside him, carefully nudging the front wheels of the walker whenever they struck a stone or wedged against a clump of turf. We made our way around the opulent koi pond and past the double rows of dahlias that grew in a chest-high hedge. The mangled wisteria against the back fence was a failed landscaping experiment: Oregon was the wrong temperature for delicate plants but nurtured anything hardy, turgid, or dank. Assisting Tom over the cement apron at the foot of his cottage’s porch, I saw again how pale he was. He wore the skin and hide of a city dweller who is used to offices, shade, and the dark valleys between skyscrapers. He must have been overheated, but this place could not be stimulating, not compared to New York, which was dense with people, sounds, and ideas, packed tighter than a rosebud. When I felt the pressure of his fingers on my palm, I thought of the boys I’d led to my private groves, the library stacks, the back seats, the cemeteries and locker rooms, and knew in Tom’s touch that he, too, had made the same journey many times, the brief connection between bodies that passed one another in space. It occured to me that he didn’t inquire about the boys I knew, not because he was uncurious but because he knew how difficult it was to describe them. They were as easily encapsulated as New York itself: When I thought of them, I saw them in snapshots: reddish curls and the daisy crown one boy wore the first afternoon we lolled on the college lawn; another one’s long, carved torso and the impact of his body against mine. These were Polaroids, like a certain boy’s last hug before I left New York that summer and how his shirt was dry and cool as a miracle. I still felt the pressure of his hand on my shoulder while he spoke the last words he’d say to my face, which were: “I can’t afford to fly you out, and I think we should just leave it at this.” I saw the toes of his shoes in my memory because they were the only part of him I could stand to look at, and I wish I had gulped him down one more time instead of settling for the black suede nap on his sneakers. Lifting Tom over the threshold, I had a sudden flash of that final moment and was ashamed that I hadn’t taken more. I accepted these boys’ decisions without question, and instead of being among them in New York I was stranded here with Tom, in a place I didn’t belong and didn’t want to be, on the opposite side of where life really happened. Oregon was where people came to die, I thought, while New York was for living.
Inside Tom’s cottage, I was struck once again by the quality of the light; it bounced off the objects, art, and books he’d brought with him, relics of his glory years. He rolled his walker past the coat rack of scarves, so decorated with hats and silks that it resembled a scarecrow. The bed was unmade, its rich velvet coverlet pushed back, revealing a filthy cotton sheet underneath. Crumbs coated the floor and my shoes stuck to the faux hardwood my uncles had installed in squares, reasoning that it was cheerful and easy to clean. They wouldn’t allow Tom to put down his Turkish rugs, he said, because they were afraid of him tripping on a runner or catching his walker wheel on the carpet; the trouble, Tom said, was that there was no way to cover up the hideous blond linoleum, which shone like a stained mirror. The cottage itself was small, cluttered with the effluvia of old age—pill bottles, an inhaler, slips of paper—and Tom’s belongings. How to fit an entire life into a studio barely larger than a garden shed? A cairn of mold-crusted dishes teetered in the sink, and there were swipes of yogurt and mustard on the handles of the refrigerator and microwave. A sprinkle of coffee grounds trickled down the side of the French press that Tom was too weak or unsteady to plunge.
With the elegance of a deposed duchess, he settled on the single armchair—to my knowledge, I was his only guest—and crossed his legs, interlacing his fingers over his knee. His hat migrated to the back of his head, making him look like a very boyish skull. The light caught a stray curl over his ear, turning it into a luminous horn.
“Do you see what I have by the bed?” he asked.
“Cash in a rubber band,” I said.
“How much is a plane ticket to New York these days?”
I was ashamed to admit that I knew the answer: Mornings, waking up alone, I called the airline and asked the agent to read me the list of impossibly high prices. I checked more often than not. I knew the number by heart, and I felt the dirty furtiveness of a pervert when I dialed it, breathing heavily as I listened to the weekly rates. I was convinced that the city and I missed one another. I was still young with plenty of time to form other attachments, a whole future, but as Tom liked to tell me, the hunger of young people was more powerful than love, and more meaningful, and more likely to change my life. It would not take no for an answer. I felt about New York the way I felt about Mapplethorpe: When we were together, the part of me that howled all night was temporarily still. A white orchid trembled. I did not share this with Tom, but he seemed to be able to smell it, as I could smell the dishes and linens and something souring in the fridge.
He pursed his lips. “There might be enough in that roll for a round trip,” he said.
“Two one-ways,” I said. We’d played this game before, but never for such a significant sum. He knew he had things I wanted: his beautiful art collection, bits of pottery glazed in pale blue, exotic fabrics, and the money that appeared in wads, like bait, which it was. I slid my hands into my pockets, careful not to look too agreeable.
“You could do a lot of things with it,” he told me, nodding. “Why don’t you clean up while we discuss what you’ll spend it on?”
I felt about New York the way I felt about Mapplethorpe: When we were together, the part of me that howled all night was temporarily still.
The first thing was to slide down my ill-fitting khakis while he watched me; I stepped out of my shoes, then struggled out of my pants. I stooped to retrieve and drape them over a nearby chaise, as though it mattered whether they got more wrinkled or not. My pullover came off more easily and joined my other clothes on the chair. He preferred that I not use an apron, so I turned toward the sink in nothing but my tube socks and waited for the water to run hot. I knew he could see the contours of my muscles under my skin; I sensed his eyes, as present as a breath against my cheek. I plunged my hands into the scalding, soapy water and scraped a crust of egg yolk off a china plate. It was probably the most I would ever earn in an hour, and I reminded myself of this as I lifted the dishes out and held them to the light to inspect each one. If the cottage was in especially bad shape, I rinsed them three times: once in hot water, once in white vinegar, and once more in hot water, to make them sparkle. He never urged me to hurry but only lit another cigarette and reclined as I worked my way through the list of tasks: disposing of the rotting yogurt in the fridge, disinfecting the hard surfaces, and running the carpet sweeper silently across the trail of crumbs that ringed the rug. I knew the money was mine whether I did a thorough job or not, but my conscience would not be satisfied if I’d taken the payment and left him in squalor. He did not invite me to his cottage for conversation; he never asked me to come at other times. He did not touch me or ask me to touch myself, though I did, because I knew it helped him, the same way a shelf of brightly polished glassware helped him, by giving him pleasure and reminding him that he still had the capacity to enjoy beauty, to bring it close, and catch its sparkle in the sun.
“Put me to bed now,” he said, when I was through. The cottage smelled of chemicals, so I eased one of the windows open a crack. Outside, I could hear my uncles laughing. Their voices drifted across my ears like a song. I slid my arms around Tom and lifted him to my chest, holding him like a bride. He weighed less every time, but all the same, I cradled him, his cheek against my skin and his rich old-dog scent wrapping around us both. I set him on his bed and knelt to remove his sandals, then helped him position himself on top of the neatened quilt with his head propped on the pillows. He removed his hat and put it beside him with a deep sigh, as though removing a heavy crown. He did not smile at me before he closed his eyes. That was the sign that I was excused: We were finished. I dressed and shoved my feet back into my loafers, then delicately retrieved the roll of money from his bedside.
It was more than enough, more money than I’d ever had in my hand in my life. It was a plane ticket and a small start on a life far from Oregon, a life close to the center of things, where art came from, and interesting people, and boys like me. It was a grant—and for the first time, I understood what that word meant, grant. It was more than a gift. It was an endowment.
The bills were too thick to conceal in my pocket, so I reached inside my briefs and hid them there. I did not mind being seen coming and going, but the nature of our arrangement was private: I preferred to avoid questions about what Tom and I discussed, with the curtains pulled, on a beautiful May afternoon. I smoothed the front of my pants and adjusted my waistband. As I straightened myself up, a gleam caught my attention: Tom was watching me, his eyes glittering in the light that warmed his bed. He reached out, tenderly, and placed his hand over my fly. I felt the money in its hiding place shift against my body and tried not to flinch. He pressed my zipper gently and then withdrew his hand.
“Tell New York I say hello,” he simply said, and rolled away, turning his face to the wall.
I would like to say that I wrote him often, or called, but those first few years were tumultuous; I remained nobody for a long time, and in my efforts to break in, I was working so much, with jobs laid end to end, work that meant I was rarely naked or even glanced at by people who knew how to look, and by the time I came up for air, it had been nearly a decade and I was suddenly established, a name, with my own list of notable friends and personalities and favorite places to mingle. Then, I was happy, because I believed I was safe. Tom had passed away by then; I keep his porkpie on my hat stand, where it glows like a golden halo, reminding me always of the presence of angels who wear gilt and wool and wait for hours in the garden while the mists lift, smoking cigarettes and dreaming of their own gritty corner of heaven.
C. R. Foster is a queer, nonbinary trans writer from Portland, Oregon. Their critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever is available from Interlude Press.