Nick has always loved his son. He’s just never really known him.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 56: Not the son he bargained for
by Steven C. Day
Horace, speaking of his only son, Lester, who was killed in Vietnam, once said this about a father’s love for a child:
“Before your child is born, you think you know about love and you think your heart is full, but then . . . well, when that child comes you realize that before that day you’d never really understood anything. You discover a type of love . . . a type of unconditional no-holds-barred love that is so far beyond anything you ever even imagined that it turns you into a whole new person. Before Lester was born, I was just Horace. After he was born, I became dad. And to lose that . . . my God, the hole it leaves.”
Some holes are blown open by shrapnel. Others we tear open ourselves
* * *
Nick was staring apathetically at his half empty bottle of Bud. It was perched at an alarmingly unsteady 90 degree angle between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. For the moment, the thumb was dominant — in a missionary position sort of way — resting on the top of the neck of the bottle, with the forefinger stuck submissively below. But every few seconds they switched positions, as Nick swung the bottle from one side to the other like a gurgling metronome.
Although pulling off this maneuver without massive spillage — only a tiny puddle of drops had fallen onto the bar — must have required considerable dexterity, Nick’s face offered no hint he even knew he was doing it.
His mind, as they say, was clearly somewhere else — and by the look of him, not somewhere he liked.
Tall and thin, Nick has a ruggedly handsome face, with a high forehead, strong chin, piercing brown eyes and darkish-white skin. His principal cosmetic challenge is his thinning oil-black hair, a situation made immeasurably worse by an ill-advised sweep-over hairstyle.
Still, the total package is Marlboro mannish enough that most people are at least a little surprised when they hear his vocation is real estate. You can see him out most Saturday mornings, with his Kmart dress shirt and a clip-on tie that hangs only halfway down to his belt, putting up open house signs.
Nick has made four profound commitments in his life: He’s committed to his wife, Shirley, to the Roman Catholic Church, to his country and to conservative Republican politics.
He used to have a fifth, his son John. But things change.
* * *
John was born on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 25, 1981, at the precise moment Oakland’s Jim Plunkett completed the first of his three touchdown passes in leading the Raiders to the first ever Super Bowl win by a wild-card team. Nick saw destiny’s hand in this: John, he was sure, would become the great athlete he had always wanted for a son.
Of course, John was supposed to be only one of many sons and daughters. The son of an Irish Catholic lawyer, Nick grew up with nine siblings and wanted a large family of his own. But a few hours following John’s birth, Shirley started hemorrhaging. The doctors tried so hard to stop the bleeding without surgery they almost lost her. The emergency hysterectomy that saved her life — something Nick was always grateful for — ended their plans for a large family.
And so all of Nick’s fatherly dreams for the immortality of a successful son were loaded onto John, who proved more than a match for them — state wrestling champion two years straight, all-conference defensive end and state record holder in the 100-meter hurdles. He earned a wrestling scholarship at a Big 12 school, but a back injury in his junior year ended his sports career. Undeterred, John finished college and then followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by going to law school.
He landed a job at the biggest law firm in town, in their business law department. Maybe his parents could have been prouder, but neither Nick nor Shirley could have told you how.
* * *
As I’ve mentioned before, we have quite a few Republican regulars at The Last Chance Democracy Café. Many, like Nick, live nearby and treat us as their neighborhood bar, forgiving us our politics. Some of them I like a lot. Some of them, let’s just say, I like somewhat less than a lot. And then, of course, there’s Bob.
But I’m always glad to see Nick walk in: True, his political views are horrendous, but he’s the kind of person who so obviously doesn’t hold your politics against you that you can’t help but not hold his against him.
Religion is central to Nick’s universe. In a nation of line-crossing Catholics, he’s a strictly inside the lines parishioner. If the pope says birth control is wrong, it’s wrong. If he says stem cell research is murder, it’s murder. And if he says homosexuality is an abomination, it’s an abomination.
Nick’s saving grace is his sense of humor. He’s one of those rare birds who the more he drinks the funnier he gets. And since he tends to drink a lot, by the end of the evening he’s pretty damn funny — funny enough to draw a crowd to the table. I almost always have to drive him home when he comes in, usually about once every two weeks. He’s even hilarious during the five-minute drive.
He hadn’t said anything funny tonight, though. Actually, other than ordering his beer, he hadn’t said anything at all.
Horace, who isn’t a man to leave a friend in pain unmolested, slowly pushed his chair back from the large round table, telling Tom, Winston, Zach and me that he was going to the bar to say hello to Nick. I think he decided to join Nick, instead of inviting him to the table, to give him a little privacy. It was a futile gesture, though; from where we were sitting, we could hear every word. We shouldn’t have listened, I know, but for the most part we did — or at least I did.
It’s the chronicler’s first deadly sin: Invading people’s privacy in search of a good story.
“How’s everything going in Republican world,” grinned Horace as he slapped Nick on the back.
Jostled loose from his thoughts, Nick made a halfhearted effort to play to character, saying, “You’re just jealous because our Rudy looks better in a dress than your Hilary.”
This wasn’t one of Nick’s better efforts, but it gives you a sense of why I like the guy. He laughs at the foibles on his side as much as ours. To be honest, a lot of us here have a big problem with how he treated John, but in the end, Horace was right when he said, “A man’s entitled to some space where his family’s concerned. It isn’t for us to judge.”
Horace laughed good-naturedly, before asking, “So, how come you’re not at the Freepers’ Bar and Grill tonight?”
The actual name of the tavern in question is the Freedom Bar and Grill — it’s located a couple miles from the café in an upscale part of town. We’ve “enhanced” the name a bit in honor of the fact it’s become a hangout for conservative Republicans, or at least for those not opposed to drinking.
Nick huffed dismissively, “I don’t go to that place anymore.”
A surprised Horace asked him why, but Nick deflected the question.
“What, isn’t my money good here?” he said.
Horace didn’t press. “You know you’re always welcome,” he said instead.
Then out of nowhere, Nick did something he hadn’t done here for over a year-and-a-half. He mentioned his son’s name: “So,” he said, clearly struggling to sound nonchalant, “does John still come in sometimes?”
* * *
It occurs to me that I’ve been a little unfair to Nick. Contrary to what you might have taken from the discussion so far, Nick never treated John as a mere vessel for carrying forward his own dreams. In fact, the two were practically inseparable during John’s childhood — at least until the teenage rebelliousness set in. And even then, they spent more time together than most fathers and sons. Fishing, camping, throwing the ball around, bowling — they did it all together. Sometimes Shirley felt a little left out, but mostly she loved the fact they were so close.
When John went away to college, they talked at least weekly on the phone and Nick took in every wrestling match he could, sometimes driving through the night to get to a tournament.
And although Nick’s real estate business never produced more than a modest living, with Shirley doing no better working at the public library, they somehow found a way to help John financially during law school.
If there were any signs that John was, well — you know — “different,” Nick missed them. True, John didn’t talk about girls much, but then Nick was never much for locker room banter over sexual exploits anyway. To Nick it was just a given that at some point John would settle down with a Catholic girl and together they would do their duty to the pope — not to mention the would-be grandparents.
So, when, about three weeks after he passed his bar exam, John told his parents he was coming by to tell them something, Nick didn’t have a clue what was coming.
Some sons are the spitting image of their fathers; others look so different not even a DNA match can make you believe they’re related. John and Nick are in the former camp. Their faces are particularly striking in their likeness, although John’s full beard hides this somewhat. Both men are muscular: John, who had more formal athletic training, has a muscle builder’s physique, while Nick’s is the body of a longshoreman, brute strength without the sculpting.
“Mom, dad, this is hard to say . . .” John’s voice trailed off.
“Just tell us what you have to say, honey” said Shirley nervously.
“Okay . . . the thing is . . . I don’t feel right keeping something like this secret from you guys, so here’s the thing: I’m gay.”
The room was dead silent for at least 10 seconds.
Then Nick busted out laughing. “Yeah, right,” he chortled.
“It’s true, dad. I’m gay. And I’ve been in a committed relationship with a man . . . Ben, for almost a year. We’ve decided to move in together.”
Although she would never have admitted it to Nick, Shirley’s reaction was one of relief. Based on the way John started out, she had been afraid he was going to tell them he had terminal cancer. This was something she could live with.
Nick couldn’t. When it finally sunk in that John was serious, Nick responded almost instinctually. “Let’s go see Father Dugan,” he insisted. “I’m sure he can help . . . he can talk to you, or . . .”
“No, dad,” John broke in firmly. “I don’t need to see a priest. I’m at peace with who I am.”
And John, who was his father’s son in his temper as well as in sports, exploded back.
“It’s a mortal sin!” shouted Nick. “You’ll go to hell!”
“I should have known you wouldn’t understand!” shouted John in return, his face turning red.
“Understand?! Understand that my son is a fucking faggot?! I’m supposed to understand that?!”
“Fuck you, you bigoted asshole!”
“Get out! Get out of my house!”
John stormed out, slamming the door so hard that the antique teapot sitting on the mantel over the fireplace fell crashing onto the decorative bricks below, breaking into a million pieces. In the year-and-a-half plus that followed, John called his mother frequently, when he knew Nick would be out of the house, but father and son never spoke — not once.
* * *
“John still plays in the Tuesday evening darts league,” replied Horace matter-of-factly. “He’s a fine young man.”
Horace hesitated before asking, “Have you seen him . . . ?”
Horace gestured to Samuel, the bartender, to bring a fresh beer. He had a half dead one on the table, but I suppose this didn’t seem like a good time to leave to get it.
“Everyone was wrong, you know,” said Nick in a low, almost whispering voice.
Samuel set down the beer, then walked to the other end of the bar.
“Wrong about what?” asked Horace.
“Wrong about why I reacted . . . you know, blew up at John the way I did. Everyone thinks it’s because of my religion.”
“I never thought that,” said Horace.
“Really?” Nick sounded surprised.
“The Catholic Church is wrongheaded on gay and lesbian issues . . . the way I see things, anyway. But it’s hard for me to imagine a priest ever telling a parent to break off contact with a gay child.”
“You’re right. Father Dugan told me I should reconcile with John.” Nick was clearly fighting to hold back any display of emotion; but it was looking to be a losing battle. “He told me I should let God worry about sin and see to my family.”
“Sounds like good advice.”
“But like I said, it wasn’t about religion.”
“So what was it about?”
Nick rubbed his hand across his head, making sure each of the swept over hairs was in the proper place. “This may not make much sense, but it’s how I felt. It was like there was this stranger . . . this gay man who was standing in my house telling me that he had murdered my son. Does that make any sense?”
Horace started to speak, paused, then smiled and patted Nick on the shoulder. “Where did you ever get the crazy idea that families are supposed to make sense?”
Nick smiled weakly. “I guess you’ve got a point. The thing is, as a parent . . . maybe you shouldn’t, but you paint a picture in your mind of who you think your child is . . .”
“Of course you do.”
“Right. And this gay man standing there looking like my son didn’t fit the picture. And I didn’t want him. I wanted my old son back. The one I watched grow up. The one I played ball with. But, of course, I couldn’t get that son back . . . the one I’d created in my head, because he never really existed. And the more I realized that the angrier I got, until finally I said . . . well, I said some awful things.”
Horace spoke softly, recognizing, I’m sure, he was walking across a minefield. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, Nick,” he said, “but you can’t change what you said a year-and-a-half ago. But maybe you can change the way things are now.”
Nick shook both his head and his right hand violently. “No, I can’t. And, please . . . I don’t want to talk about that now.”
Horace took a long sip of beer. I don’t know whether he sensed something or if he was just looking for a way to change the subject for awhile and blundered into it, but he asked this: “So, what’s the deal with you not going to the Freedom Bar and Grill anymore?”
“I was there earlier this evening,” he finally said. He looked down at his beer and shook his head disgustedly. “Bastards. It’s that whole thing about Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a faggot. The regulars there were really yukking it up, telling queer jokes . . . You know, homo this and faggot that. And I just took it. I just sat there and took it for probably an hour . . . Then I’d had enough.”
He took a sip of his beer, the same one he’d been swinging back and forth in his hand. He immediately made a face as he realized how warm it had become. Horace started to order him another, but Samuel beat him to the punch dropping off a fresh one before anyone said a word. As I’ve said before, my staff (and co-owners) really make me look good.
Nick continued, “Anyway, I stood up and started screaming at them. I told them that my son . . . they know he’s gay, the bastards . . . I told them that he’s a better man than any of them and that if they had any doubt about it the two of us would be happy to meet them anytime, anywhere to settle the issue. Then I walked out. And I’m never going back.”
I almost started to applaud, remembering in the nick of time that I was listening in on the conversation surreptitiously. It seems fair to assume that a standing ovation would have blown my cover.
Horace pressed ahead gently. “You should tell John. I think it would mean a lot to him.”
“No, I can’t do that.”
“You’d be amazed at the things you can do.”
Nick’s voice became firm, almost strident. “No. It’s too late. Too much has been said and too much water has gone under the bridge. If I called him now he’d probably just hang up on me.”
“Really, Nick, I think you’re wrong about . . .”
“No. That’s final.”
It was then that I saw, or at least sensed, the twinkle in Horace’s eye — the one that often appears when he’s about to point out the possibilities in the face of a seemingly impossible situation.
He took another slow sip of beer and then in a voice so matter-of-fact he could have been reciting his grocery list, he asked, “Do you mind if I mention it to John?”
Nick took a long slow sip of his own, then shrugged. “Last time I checked this was a free country. I guess you can say anything you want.”
And that was that.
Later, after Nick left and Horace returned to the large round table, Winston asked him, “So, are you going to tell John what Nick said the next time he comes in?”
Horace grinned. “Old man,” he told Winston, “you really ought to try to keep up with the times. You may not know it, but they’ve got a fancy new gadget these days called the telephone.” He took a quick sip. “I’ll call him at his office first thing in the morning.”
* * *
It’s easy to become depressed about the status of gay rights in America. With state after state voting in favor of anti-gay marriage initiatives (with the notable exception of Arizona), usually by large margins, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and declare the fight hopeless: But that’s a fool’s judgment.
As a 51-year-old heterosexual, the changes I’ve seen take place over the course of my life have been nothing short of breathtaking. I grew up in an age when homosexuality was largely hidden away, when police still trolled gay bars arresting people for expressing their sexual preference and when being “outed” meant almost certain professional and social ruin.
I remember a tragic case from back when I first got out of law school: A widely respected lawyer, a man many thought was destined for the state Supreme Court, was arrested for propositioning a male undercover police officer. Back in those days, it was simply a given that his career was ruined; and a few days later he killed himself.
Yet, today, in that very same “red state,” openly gay lawyers have become partners in major firms, been elected to leadership positions in the bar association and even been appointed to important judicial offices.
Public opinion polls consistently show that notwithstanding widespread opposition to gay marriage, public support, in general, for equality of treatment for gays and lesbians has been growing for decades. Especially encouraging is the attitude of the young, who tend to support gay rights, including gay marriage, in much greater numbers than their grandparents.
The future belongs to advocates of full citizenship for gay and lesbian Americans.
The same poll results, incidentally, show that one of the most important factors determining how heterosexuals respond to these questions is whether they personally know a gay person, with those who do being much more likely to favor of gay rights.
It’s one thing to belittle homosexuals in general, but quite another when you’re talking about a friend, a colleague or, yes, even a son.
* * *
At the end of the movie The Chosen, the lead character tells a parable:
There is a story in the Talmud about a king who had a son who had gone astray from his father. The son was told, “Return to your father.” The son said, “I cannot.”
Then his father sent a messenger to say, “Return as far as you can and I will come to you the rest of the way.”
In our case, it was the father who had left the relationship. And when Nick came to the café to tell his story, realizing, I’m sure, that it would inevitably be passed along to his son, I guess he had returned as far as he thought he could. Then, John, after getting Horace’s call the next day, traveled the rest of the way when two days later he picked up the phone and called his father.
As you’d expect, the reunion they set up in our lounge started off a little stiffly, but over time their mutual love of humor overwhelmed the obstacles and they were laughing together like nothing had ever happened. There will be challenges ahead, of course, as the two feel their way back into each other’s lives. They haven’t even begun, for example, to work out how John’s partner, Ben, will fit into their relationship. Still, at least for this one evening, for the first time in a long time, they were indisputably father and son.
And so in this one tiny little dot on our troubled blue and white planet, if just for a moment, everything was the way it was supposed to be. And I have to tell you it felt good. It felt damn good.
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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