As Christmas neared, I found myself in a funk of the worst kind. I hated the holidays, always had, and hoped to get through them without something terrible happening. Elmer had even taken notice of my despondency and one night while I sat in his small apartment he called me on it.
"Conner, you've been a little quiet lately. Anything you want to talk about?"
"Huh? Oh, everything's fine," I lied and he promptly let me know he wasn't buying it.
"Bullshit. I think I know you better than that. Even Jackrabbit knows enough to stay away from you these days."
"That bad, huh?" I looked down at the cat in question who replied by hissing "Oh Elmer, I hate- piss-fucked pile of bat shit- this time of year. I just want it to be over with."
"Bad times with yer family, eh?" he asked, his eyes full of concern.
"Or lack thereof," I mumbled and he came and sat on the small couch with me. Before he could press the issue any further I changed the subject. "What about your holidays, Elmer? Will you tell me about them?"
"I had some good times," he smiled. "My Mabel, now that woman could put on a feast. I swear I gained twenty pounds by the time the holidays were over."
"Did you have a lot of family around?" I asked, curious now.
"Oh yeah. At first it was just the kids, both our parents had died young. Then they grew up and it was us and their families. The house would be filled with people! I always enjoyed that," he murmured and looked down at his wrinkled and scarred hands. Elmer reached down and distractedly began to pet Jackrabbit. His whole demeanor changed and I could see he was thinking about something painful.
"Well, as life goes, Mabel passed on. That was quite a few years ago. Since then, things just ain't been the same. The kids and I don't get together much anymore since they moved away. Some of the grand kids pop in or call once in a while, especially Mary, my granddaughter, but mostlyÉ Well, mostly it's just me and ol' Jackrabbit here."
He shrugged and looked away but not before I noticed the tears in his eyes.
"I'm sorry Elmer. I guess I should get over the blues. My woes are nothing compared to yours."
"Oh hush up now," he chided me as he wiped the tears from his eyes. "We all got problems. Just 'cause they ain't the same ones don't make 'em any less. 'Sides, you was a kid. You were supposed to be happy and it sounds to me like that wasn't how it went." He patted me on the back and got up. "Now, this old man's worn out. You go on home and get some rest before work."
"Alright. I'll see ya later then."
I got up and went to the door but not before Jackrabbit had her way with my leg. It seemed that stupid cat always knew just how to make me feel better. Fighting the urge to kick the living shit out of the little terrorist I waved goodbye to Elmer and returned to my own apartment.
The next day after cleaning too many rain gutters to count, I took my pay and went to a grocery store parking lot where Boy Scouts were selling trees. I had thought about what Elmer had said to me the whole day and had concluded that I would do my best to make his Christmas a good one. Finding a small tree, I paid the boys and asked them to watch the tree while I went inside and bought a set of lights, decorations to adorn it, and a stand. I made it through the checkout line without causing any heart attacks, though the young cashier's face turned an excruciating shade of red after what I said about the Virgin Mary.
With that done I put the tree over a shoulder, grabbed the bag of decorations in my free hand, and began the long walk home. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I felt good about myself. The old man had accepted me for who I was and what was wrong with me and I felt as close to being a normal human as I figured I would ever get. Doing something for someone else was strangely invigorating and I hoped that maybe this Christmas would be different from the rest.
On my way up the stairs and into the hallway outside my apartment, the stupid shit-licking tree got hung up on the metal banister and I had to fight with it to get it out. I was afraid Elmer would hear the ruckus I was causing and come out to investigate so I had clamped a hand over my mouth. After spilling the contents of the shopping bag and almost screaming in frustration, I finally got my door open and everything inside.
I propped the tree up in a corner and piled the contents of the now ruined paper bag on the couch then headed for the shower. I was wet and cold and figured Elmer might like me better if I didn't smell like rotten leaves and mold.
After drying off with a threadbare towel, I dressed in an old pair of sweatpants and my favorite Dwight Yoakam T-shirt. I looked at my reflection in the steamy mirror, noticing for the first time the lines forming around my eyes. I tucked a strand of dark hair behind my ear and traced the lines with my finger. Grimacing, I turned away from my reflection. In my thirty-one years of walking the Earth I'd had some stressful times and it looked like they were catching up with me. No thanks to this stupid disease I was afflicted with.
I thought about when I had been diagnosed. It had been a relief for me to finally know that I was not crazy but to my family it was a bane; it had been one thing to have a daughter with a foul mouth and for it to be a permanent deal was another matter altogether. They had swept the discovery under the carpet and refused to discuss it any further. And so, at sweet sixteen, my real troubles had begun.
After all, it wasn't proper for an affluent family to have any flaws or imperfections. What would the neighbors say, or the women at the bridge club? To them, I might as well have told the world I was a fag. That was a quiet 'perversion'. At least that's what dear old Mom and Dad had told me at the time.
So, when I finally did tell them I'm gay when I was eighteen, that had been the final straw. No daughter of theirs would continue living in their home that couldn't talk decently or 'live straight'. Those were their exact words. They couldn't even bring themselves to utter what I was. So I left.
I had to admit that I wasn't really surprised by their reaction. It hurt, but I wasn't surprised. I had always been the cross they had to bear. I could never get out from under the shadow my 'perfect' brother Robert cast.
He'd always been the good one, their pride and joy. But I didn't hold it against him. Robert had always been good to me when he was around. Being five years older than me, Mom and Dad had made sure he attended the best boarding schools and, finally, West Point military academy. That's where he was when I left and I never had the chance to say goodbye.
I threw my towel over the open door and shook my head. I hated thinking about those things, especially since I knew I couldn't change the past. It was over now and I was doing what I could to survive. As far as I could tell, things could have been worse. Well, maybe but not much.
Returning to the living area of my apartment, I was gathering my things to head over to Elmer's when I heard a loud thump coming from his direction. I paused and listened. After hearing nothing I shrugged, hoping that maybe he had kicked some sense into that heathen football with claws. Juggling the Christmas tree and bag I made my way to his front door and knocked.
"Elmer, come on! My hands are full and I can't get the door." I banged again for emphasis. He'd picked a lousy time to have to use the john. Unable to stand the cold any longer in only a T-shirt I dropped my load and opened the door.
"Elmer? You in there?"
"Jeez old man, you really know how to show a girl a good time," I muttered as I grabbed the things I had brought over and closed the door behind me. I thought it strange that the fuzz ball hadn't attacked me or at least hissed yet and as I turned around, to my horror, I found out why.
Elmer lay in a heap on the floor in front of the sink. There was a pool of blood around his head, his eyes were closed, and he wasn't moving. Jackrabbit was sitting by his head; her eyes round, pawing at his head in what looked like an attempt to wake him up.
"Elmer!" I cried out, dropping everything as I rushed over to him.
The amount of blood on the floor scared me. I could see a large cut just over his left eyebrow that was still bleeding and a bruise forming over that eye. I knew that head wounds were prone to bleeding but that was an awfully large pool around his head.
I shook his arm. With no response forthcoming, I looked around for the portable telephone I knew he kept laying around. Spying it on the counter, I picked it up and dialed 911.
After thoroughly pissing off the dispatcher, who thought I was a prank caller with all the cussing, the urgency in my voice finally convinced her that maybe there was an emergency and soon I heard sirens in the distance.
"Hang in there old man," I whispered as I heard the EMT's hurrying outside in the hallway.
I paced the emergency room lobby like a caged animal, worried sick about Elmer. There were horrible thoughts running through my head and I couldn't get the image of him lying there in that pool of blood to go away. He was my best friend, my only friend, and if something were to happen to him, I didn't know what I would do.
After what seemed like hours, a nurse came out to the lobby and called his name. I hurried over to hear what she had to say about his condition holding my breath and crossing my fingers.
"Are you friend or family?" she asked distractedly.
"Family," I lied, knowing I was the closest thing to it.
"Okay. Mr. Godfrey has a bad laceration to his head. We've cleaned it and stitched it up and that part's okay. He has a concussion and that is what worries us, especially since he had such a long loss of consciousness. We're going to keep him at least over night to make sure that there is no swelling in his brain."
"Is he going to be alright?" I asked and put my hand over my mouth, hoping to stop the nurse from hearing the stress-induced obscenity threatening to pour out of my mouth.
She looked at me strangely and continued. "We'll know more after he's had a CT scan. That will show us what is happening inside his head. Now, if you'll take a seat, someone will let you know when he's out."
I sighed in frustration as she turned to go, then plunked down in a chair that was a sickening shade of green. "Head-spinning exorcist puke!" I commented to no one in particular.
An hour later, a different nurse came to get me, frowning as she spoke. "Mr. Godfrey is finished with the scan and in a room now. You can see him if you like, but only for a few minutes. He's had a long night and he needs his rest."
Without even waiting for my reply, she spun on her heel and walked towards the swinging Emergency Room doors. A part of me was ashamed that I couldn't keep my eyes off the nice skirt she was wearing.
After unceremoniously leaving me outside Elmer's room, I went inside and stood at his bedside. There were wires of all sorts hanging off him and it was frightening to see him lying there so fragile looking. In fact, it was almost too much to bear.
"Sonofabitchin' bastard," I whispered and took his hand in mine. The movement woke him and he turned his head toward me. His left eye was dark purple and there was a bandage over the cut on his forehead.
"How are you feeling?"
"Like Mike Tyson got a hold of me. I still got my ears don't I?"
I couldn't help but laugh, and when I was done I felt a lot better. "You could have at least told me you didn't want to do anything tonight, you didn't have to go to all this trouble," I kidded him with a smile.
He grinned back then his face grew serious. "I'm glad you found me. I don't know how long I would have layed there if ya didn't."
"It's okay Elmer. I owed you one after you saved me from choking to death."
"I guess we're even. Say, there is one thing you could do fer me since I'm stuck here."
"Anything, Elmer. You know that."
"My granddaughter, the one that told me about the Heinkick maneuver or whatever it is that I did on you, she's supposed to call me tonight and she'll worry if I'm not there to answer. Would you mind hanging around the house until she does?"
"UhÉ" My mind reeled. I could imagine answering the phone and having an attack of profanity. The poor girl would probably think I'd done something to her granddad and call the cops. "Why don't you just call her from here?"
"Cause I'm half senile and I can't remember the number."
"How about I just go get your address book and bring it to you?"
"Look kid, it's cold out and you'll catch yer death. Please, just answer the phone for me?"
"All right Elmer," I agreed. I could feel a sheen of cold sweat breaking out across my forehead. "I'll tell her what happened and give her the number here." His smile of relief was worth whatever fate had in store for me and I resigned myself to it. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Good girl. Now go get some rest. I'll see you then."