Summary of Part 4: Best Friends: Justin butts heads with a demanding professor at the IFA while Brian gets loaded and confides Joan’s confession to Michael. When Justin accidentally overhears Brian on the phone, a misunderstanding sends him into panic mode, until Brian unbends enough to share the news about Jack Kinney. Brian’s initially reluctant when Justin encourages him to learn the identity of his father.
Part 5: The Tomato Man
Underneath my concern for Brian, who – no matter what he says – is upset about his mother’s revelation, I feel a wave of selfish relief. Selfish because I need to pay a hundred percent attention to Brian right now, there’s no room for this feeling of exultation since I’ve discovered there’s no mystery man stealing Brian away from me.
Well, there is a mystery man all right, but his identity is not exactly a secret. Or it won’t be, if I can convince Brian to find out who the man is.
“If I were you,” I tell him now, “I’d want to know who my real father is.”
“You’re not me.” Brian moves off the stool and begins to pace around the kitchen island. We’re still waiting for delivery of our order from the Silver Dragon. “And why should I want to know the cock that spewed out spunk that turned into me?”
“He’s not just a cock, he’s a person,” I answer reasonably. “And maybe he’d like to know about you?”
“Hunh,” Brian snorts. While he’s pacing his fingers are twisting around each other, a sure sign of his agitation. “If he didn’t give a shit for thirty years, he’s not likely to give a shit now.”
“Did he know about you? That you were born, I mean?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Brian stops in front of me; up close I can see the muscles of his jaw working, he’s grinding his teeth.
“What did she say, exactly? Your mother.”
“Nothing.” Brian shrugs and adds, “I didn’t ask her anything. I just turned around and got the fuck out of there. I didn’t care about him. I don’t care about him.”
“Bullshit.” I decide to be blunt. “You’d want to know about Gus. Right?”
He doesn’t answer right away, but I’ve got his attention. Then he looks into my eyes and answers tersely, “No.”
“I don’t know,” Brian corrects himself. “Maybe I’d want to know. But – Gus is a little boy. Who’d want to know about a grown-up son? Especially - ” Brian stops abruptly.
“Especially,” I add for him, “A gay son?”
He shrugs again. The wall has gone up, but I’ve always been able to see through it. Almost always.
“Brian,” I suggest mildly, “We both know what it feels like, to have our dads reject us because we’re gay. But I’m sure that I’d still want to find out about my father.”
“Again, you’re not me.” Brian lowers his head and stares at the floor, then he huffs a big sigh. “But maybe you’re right – about the genetics angle, I mean.” His head comes up and he looks into my eyes. “You’re a smart little fucker sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” I reach out to pinch him but Brian backs away, a small grin turning up one corner of his mouth. He’s saved from answering by the buzzing at the door; our dinner has arrived. Tacitly we postpone discussing the subject more until after we eat.
After paying the delivery boy, I open the waxy white cartons of steaming hot food while Justin pulls plates from the cupboard. We perch on stools and eat in silence for a few minutes, both of us hungry and busy shoveling shrimp chow mein and kung pao chicken into our mouths.
I think about what Justin said, that he’d want to know who was his father, and I realize that I’m starting to feel the same way. Finding out who he is doesn’t mean that I’d have to approach him, I wouldn’t necessarily have to meet him – assuming he’s still alive. Pop – I mean Jack – was sixty-eight when he died. This other guy would have to be in his sixties too, I suppose. Or like Jack, he might also be dead.
Justin’s hunger must be slightly assuaged, his elbow action with the chop sticks slows down. Swallowing a big bite, he turns sideways on the stool to face me and says, “On the phone, you told Michael you were going back to the hospital tomorrow. Will you ask her then, do you think?” When I just shake my head, neither yes nor no, he asks, “Why were you going back, then? If you weren’t going to ask about your father?”
“She asked me to. She said she still needed to talk to me.”
“About this? Or something else?” Justin jumps off the stool and retrieves two beers from the fridge.
I wait to take a swig from my bottle before answering tersely, “She thinks she’s going to hell, for adultery. I guess she wants to relieve her conscience by dumping this on me now. And I guess – that I was going to let her.”
Justin’s eyes soften and he reaches across the counter to lay a hand on my arm and squeeze. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he murmurs, “But you really are a good man, Brian. You have a good heart.”
“I fucking do not!” I exclaim, pulling away from his hand. I’m really pissed. “I don’t know why I’m doing it,” I growl at him, “But it doesn’t make me a fucking ‘good man,’ for Christ’s sake.”
Justin slaps a hand over his mouth to contain a giggle. “Only you would be insulted by a compliment,” he smirks at me.
It’s not a compliment; it’s a lie. I’m not a good man, never have been and never will be.
Still laughing up at my frowning face, Justin quickly reassures me, “Don’t worry, Brian, I haven’t put you on a pedestal. I know you have feet of clay, and I’m glad you do.”
“You’re going to feel my feet of clay shoved sideways up your ass, if you don’t stop talking bullshit.” It’s not an empty threat either. I loathe sentimental crap. Now I’ve lost my appetite (okay, maybe I’m full) – I throw down the chopsticks and carry my beer bottle into the living room, pull back the drapes and stare out into the dark night.
Justin busies himself putting away the leftovers and rinsing the dishes. A good man would go help him, but luckily I don’t have to. Soon he joins me, slipping his arms around my waist from behind and pressing his body against my back. It feels good, he’s warm. Better than a heating pad, his warmth soothes my taut muscles and I feel myself relaxing back against him.
“Let’s go to bed now,” Justin suggests. “You can shove your foot – or something else – up my ass.”
“Best offer I’ve had all day.” I drain my beer and set the bottle on the floor, turn around and pull Justin into my arms. We move toward the bedroom and up the steps, hanging on tight to each other.
Much later, when Justin’s rhythmic breathing assures me that he’s deeply asleep, I untangle myself from the sheets and slip out of bed – an inch at a time, he’s got a knack for waking when I get up – and move silently into the living room. Opening the drapes a few inches, I sit on the sofa and light a cigarette, gazing at the streetlights shrouded by wisps of fog.
I realize that Justin has talked me into confronting Mom about my father. I tell myself that it’s because of Gus, and it is – but not entirely.
Ever since I learned that Jack was not my pop, and after Justin suggested that I find out who the guy is, curiosity about his identity has awakened in my brain. I’ve never been ashamed of my blue collar roots, most of my friends have the same background, but I’d always intended to rise higher on the economic scale than my parents. And I was obscurely glad that, if they were proud of me for anything, it was for that reason – that I’d finished school and made something of myself. None of our Kinney kin has done as well as I have.
Yet now I wonder if maybe my biological heritage influenced my career success after all. Maybe my real father is also a businessman. Maybe he’s president of some corporation by now; maybe he’s achieved enormous success and acclaim. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I’d be pleased to know my father was someone of importance and high esteem.
Justin’s radar has informed him that I’m out of bed. Oh well, solitary thinking is highly overrated. Crushing out my cigarette, I close the drapes again and move up the steps to the bedroom.
“Brian, I’m cold.”
“I can fix that,” I promise, slipping beneath the sheet and sliding across the bed to pull him into my arms.
Of course he could have called first before coming back to the hospital, but Brian doesn’t have a considerate bone in his body.
The nurse has just taken away my breakfast tray and I'm still sitting upright in the bed when Brian is suddenly framed in the doorway. For the briefest moment I see his father in him – the broad shoulders, unruly thick brown hair curling over his forehead. Then he moves toward me and I see bits of myself mirrored in my only son: the straight back, the proud stillness.
Pride goeth before a fall, the Bible says. I fell, and my proud son has fallen too. I've always blamed him for choosing his sinful path, but honesty forces me to admit that I too chose my own path. Even though it was Jack's fault that I was miserable enough in our marriage to seek comfort elsewhere, I know that God gives us free will - so I must take responsibility for my actions.
And now God has given me this illness, in punishment for my mistake. Just as God punished Brian by giving him cancer. But Brian survived, so I know that his cancer was only God's warning. It is my duty as his mother to convince my son to turn away from his sinful path, or his punishment will continue and he will die.
"Hello, Mom," he says now as he moves toward the bed. He seems tall as a tree, towering over me.
"Please sit down," I tell him and he pulls up a wooden chair and sprawls onto it. "Thank you for the flowers," I say politely, eyeing the bouquet he has clenched in his fist. I'm sure they're from the hospital gift shop, a generic selection of roses and daisies; probably a last-minute gesture. You'd think he'd remember that I don't like daisies.
Brian merely nods and tosses the bouquet onto the night stand beside my bed. "You wanted to see me," he says. "I wanted to see you, too."
"I know you don't mean that. But I'm glad you came anyway."
"I did mean it," he contradicts. "But you go first. You said you have more to tell me."
"I do." I shift my shoulders, wincing slightly, and Brian stands up, moves closer. He puts his hands on my arms, his touch is surprisingly gentle yet strong as he helps me sit up straighter, he even grabs a pillow off the room's empty bed and fits it in behind me. "Thanks," I'm forced to tell him, and I wait as he returns to his seat.
Clearing my throat, folding my hands on the starchy white coverlet, I'm ready to deliver the speech I've prepared but before I can begin, Brian interrupts me. Fixing me with a harsh stare, he declares curtly, "Mom, you can say whatever you want. But you have to know that I won't sit here and listen to a lot of preaching, so make it short, okay?" His mouth snaps shut and he raises his eyebrows. "Got that?"
Taking a deep breath and keeping hold of my temper, I stare right back at him and insist, "It is my duty, as your mother and as a Christian, to tell you - "
"Yeah, yeah," Brian slouches back in the chair. "It's your duty to tell me that I'm a sinner and blah-blah-blah." He shakes his head and adds, "Mom, I've heard it all before. Whether you believe it or not, I didn't choose to be a homosexual, I was just lucky to be born this way."
No doubt reading the censure on my face, Brian snorts and adds, "But even if I did choose it, that's between me and God. If, of course, there is a God, and if he gives a damn, then I’ll answer to him - not to you or to any of your hypocritical priests."
I'm so angry that I'm choking on my words. "I - you - I - " Pain sears into my side and I close my eyes, gasping for air.
Immediately Brian's on his feet, he's leaning over me as I struggle to breathe. "Mom," he exclaims, "Mom, are you all right? Should I get a nurse?"
I manage to open my eyes and see his face close to mine; he looks worried, maybe he's scared that he's killed me. "You're a bad boy," I gasp breathlessly, "You're a very bad boy, you always have been."
"I know," he admits. "But, do you need a nurse?"
Shaking my head, I pull myself upright again. "No. I'm all right now. No thanks to your cruelty."
"It's not cruelty, it's honesty," Brian contradicts. Without asking, he pours a glass of water and holds it for me. I take a sip, another, and then I sigh and lean back against the pillows.
"It's my duty - " I try again, but again he forestalls me.
"Mom, you've done your duty - you've told me all that shit before. Now." Setting down the glass, Brian resumes his seat on the chair by the bed. "Now," he repeats, "Do you have anything to say to me that does not involve God or the wages of sin or some herald angels singing?"
All I can do for a moment is stare at his cold handsome face. "Sometimes I hate you," I admit, losing my last hope of saving Brian's soul. "You're evil, and you're damned."
"I know," he agrees, nodding. "Anything else? Of a non-parochial nature?"
Giving up at last, I just shake my head. "You can leave now," I tell him. "I won't bother you again."
"But I'm going to bother you," Brian informs me, sitting forward in his chair and fixing that harsh stare on my face once again. "Tell me the name of my real father."
"Who was he?" Brian lowers his head and I feel his eyes burning into me.
Hissing an indrawn breath, I shake my head. "Oh no," I deny him, "No, I won't tell you. That is none of your business."
"None of my business?" Brian rises from the chair to tower over me. "It is my business to know who my father is. You started this - and you're going to finish it. Tell me his name."
I can only stare back at him, wordless. I did not anticipate this. Brian has never cared for any of the family, not for me, not for Jack, not for Clare, not for any aunts or uncles or cousins. So naturally it never occurred to me that Brian would want to know about his real father. Finally I have to ask, "Why? Why do you want to know?"
"Why do you think?"
"Oh God," I moan, "Oh no Brian, you're not going to - to try and find him. Are you? You can't. You can't do that!"
"Why not?" His face is closer to mine, he's almost scaring me. "Why not – is he a priest or something?"
"Of course not - don't be disgusting! He was just a man I used to know. He moved away, you'd never find him anyway."
"Then why not tell me his name? What was his name, Mom?"
"I'll tell you his first name," I compromise. "It was Gerald. He worked in the grocery store, in the produce section. He always saved the best tomatoes for me.”
“A produce man?” Brian’s incredulous. “My real father sold vegetables?”
“He was just a nice young man, he was easy to talk to. I was planning to leave your father at the time, he was very sympathetic. But I didn't, I decided not to leave Jack, and the man - Gerald – he moved away.” I wait, and when Brian just keeps staring back at me, I ask, “Isn't that enough? Just let it go now, Brian."
Brian shakes his head. “Just one more question, then I’ll leave you alone.” He waits a moment, then he drops his voice. Almost whispering, he asks, “Did he know about me, Mom? Did he know that you were pregnant?”
“No,” I shake my head. It’s the truth. “It didn’t matter anyway, but by the time I found out, he was gone.”
We just stare at each other for a moment, then taking a deep breath, I whisper, "Please, Brian, let it go now."
"Okay," he says at last, clearing his throat. "Okay, Mom, I won't ask anything else." He turns and walks over to the window, stands looking out at the view for a few minutes.
I'm exhausted and almost asleep when Brian returns to stand beside the bed. "Mom," he says quietly, "I'm going now. Do you need anything?"
"No." I watch Brian turn away then and head for the door. "Wait," I call after him and he turns in the doorway. "Would you do me a favor - just one?"
"Brian, would you please at least talk to the Lord? Talk to Jesus. Just talk to Him, as one man to another. Would you do that for me?"
He stares at me and I expect a denial, or a disdainful throwaway answer, but Brian surprises me. "Okay," he agrees. "I'll talk to Him for you. And I'll send Him your best regards."
Then he’s gone, he’s disappeared from the doorway. I don't know if he was joking or not, but I choose to believe that Brian will keep his word and talk to Jesus. I’ve done my duty; only the Lord can help him now.
My real father was a green-grocer. A vegetable man. He sold tomatoes. He gave his best tomatoes to my mother. Among other things.
I’m almost in a daze as I make my way out of the hospital and through the parking lot to the ‘vette. I can’t find my keys, I’m patting my pockets and trying to remember where the fuck I left the keys when a sharp rap on the ‘vette’s window brings my head up, and I’m staring into Justin’s face. I forgot he was waiting for me in the car.
Pulling open the door, I get in and automatically reach for the seat belt, but Justin knocks my hands off the belt and demands, “Well, Brian? What did you find out?”
I look at him then, and suddenly I drop my head into my hands and these great loud staccato hiccupping sounds are bursting out of my mouth like machine gun fire.
“Brian!” Justin grabs onto my hands and pulls them away from my head, I’ve scared him. “Brian, what is it – what’s wrong?”
I let him see my face then, see the tears streaming down my cheeks, as my shoulders shake with uncontrollable laughter. I laugh and laugh and laugh till I can’t catch my breath, till Justin has to pound me on the back.
It doesn’t last long, this fit of hysterics, and as soon as I can breathe normally, I reassure him. “I’m okay, everything okay. I just found out that. . . that my daddy was Mister Green Jeans.”
Of course Justin’s too young to know about Mister Green Jeans. “He was a character on a tv show, Captain Kangaroo – before your time,” I explain, holding a hand to the stitch in my side. Laughter like that can fucking hurt.
Justin’s confused. “I don’t understand.”
Suddenly I’m no longer amused. “My father was just a guy working in a grocery store.” My voice has taken on an edge. “Just an ordinary guy who flirted with my mom, he fucked her and forgot her. Satisfied?” I realize that I’m angry, and apparently I’m going to take it out on Justin.
“What was his name?”
“What difference does it make?” I growl. “I don’t want to find him. I don’t even want to think about this any more.”
“Tell me, Brian.”
I look away from him then, stare out the car window at the open field next to the hospital parking lot. Dispassionately I tell Justin the story of my mom’s sad, sordid little extramarital fling with Gerald, The Tomato Man, and when I finish, he’s silent.
“So you see,” I conclude, “This was all a big waste of time. Let’s go home now – unless you want to stop at the PW Market and commune with the spirits of dead vegetables.”
“That’s the old-fashioned grocery on Third Street where Debbie shops sometimes?”
“Does she?” I ask absently, turning the key and gunning the engine. “Maybe Gerald fucked Debbie too. Mikey would like that – we’d be brothers.”
“Michael told me his father is a drag queen.”
“A joke. I was kidding. Let’s go home.”
Justin doesn’t put up an argument so I throw the car into gear and peel out of the parking lot.
“Get it?” I ask myself. “Tomatoes. Peel out.” But I have no desire to laugh at my own joke.
I’ve been hanging around so long in the narrow aisles of the old-fashioned grocery store, I’m liable to get arrested for loitering.
“Psst,” Kathy hisses at me, and I turn to see that she’s surreptitiously pointing at an old guy who’s just come in through the door. Kathy is the checkout girl – there’s four checkout stands but only one is open this early in the morning. I chatted her up yesterday and discovered that the owner of the store comes by early each morning to pick up cash to deposit in the bank. His name is Freedman.
Following on the guy’s heels, I approach him before he disappears into the store’s backroom. “Mr. Freedman?”
Turning around and looking me over, Mr. Freedman nods, asking, “Yes, what is it? Do I know you?”
“No,” I admit, “But I was hoping I could talk to you for a few minutes.”
I hear Justin running up the last of the stairs, he’s thumping his feet and loudly humming as he pulls back the loft door with a screech. Sitting at my computer with my back to the door, I say “Hey,” over my shoulder before adding quickly, “Leave me alone for about half an hour, I’m just finishing something up.”
“Okey-dokey,” Justin agrees cheerfully, turning for the kitchen and sliding his sneakers across the floor, squeaky-squeak-squeak. In spite of this break in my concentration, I have to smile to myself – he’s in a happy mood. If I play my cards right, I can probably talk him into a quickie before dinner. Then I return my focus to the monitor and review the design team’s draft for tomorrow’s Mighty Mints meeting.
Finished finally, I log off the computer and stretch my arms high over my head, unkinking the knots in my neck. “Unnnhhhhh,” I groan loudly, and as I hoped, Justin hears me and leaves his own computer to hurry over to my side. Sliding his hands around my neck, he smoothes the tight muscles of my shoulders, quickly relaxing me. Justin not only does laundry and sometimes cooks dinner, he’s not only the best fuck and giver-of-head in Pittsburgh (not that I’ll ever tell him so), but he’s also one fantastic master of massage.
“How was your day, dear?” I inquire sweetly, holding up my face for his kiss.
“Great!” he’s smiling broadly. “And I have a surprise for you!”
“Mmm, I see it,” I nod appreciatively at the hard-on beginning to tent the front of his jeans. “Take it out and show me.”
“Not that!” Justin smacks a quick loud kiss on my lips. “Something even better.”
“There is nothing better.”
Oops, that’s perilously close to some kind of admission. Fortunately he misses the import of my words and merely laughs.
“Brian,” he exclaims excitedly, “Today I found out the identity of The Tomato Man!”
“What?” I’m stunned almost to silence. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The Tomato Man!” he repeats.
My heart lurches as my stomach drops quickly to my feet like a skyscraper elevator with a broken cable. Moving my wheeled chair backwards, I push Justin’s hands off my neck. “What have you done?” I ask, feeling suddenly panicky.
“It’s okay,” he quickly reassures me. “I went to that old grocery store, PW Market? I talked to Mr. Freedman, a man who’s been there since the Ice Ages, he remembers Gerald.”
“Justin – what did you tell him?”
“Nothing. Brian, I didn’t tell him about you, honestly! I told him my grandma has Alzheimers but that, when I visited her in the home yesterday, she started talking about the old days when she lived on Third Street, and all her old friends, and that she especially mentioned Gerald, the produce guy at PW Market. So I said, I was just checking out what she’d told me. To see if she was remembering real stuff or only, you know, imagining things.”
“Jesus.” I’m staring at him open-mouthed. “Where did that come from?”
“I’m an artist,” Justin shrugs. “I have a fertile imagination.”
No shit. “But,” I hold up a hand, “I distinctly told you, I don’t give a fuck about The Tomato Man. I don’t need to know more about him.”
“You do, though, that’s the thing,” Justin assures me excitedly. “Because he wasn’t just some random produce guy, he was a student at the university. He only worked at the market part-time.”
“Hold on, wait a minute,” I stop him now, rolling my chair forward again, grabbing his arm. “That can’t be right. My mom was thirty-three or thirty-four when she had me. If this Gerald was a college student, mom would have been way too old for him.”
Justin dares to laugh in my face. “Go figure,” he says crudely, “You and your mom both like to fuck young guys.”
I’m speechless, staring up at him. “I don’t believe it.”
“Well,” Justin shrugs, “The only Gerald who ever worked at PW was this Carnegie Mellon student. He finished up his term and transferred to some grad school in Boston. Mr. Freedman only saw him once after that, a few years later. Gerald came by to say hello.”
We’re both silent then, thinking. Finally I shrug and say, “Well, I did say you were a smart little fucker, didn’t I? Very clever. Now, can we forget about The Tomato Man and instead think about ordering some dinner? Feel like Italian tonight?”
“But Brian,” Justin grabs my arm and shakes it, “Now you really can look for your father. There’ll be records at Carnegie Mellon, maybe we can find out where he went to grad school. And if he’s practicing in Boston, he shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
“Practicing?” I’m confused. “Practicing what? And how can we find him, we don’t even know his last name?”
“Of course we do,” Justin insists. “Mr. Freedman told me. His name’s Gerald Shaughnessy. And,” he adds eagerly, “He’s practicing medicine. Brian, your father is a doctor.”
2/15/05 ; revised 3/8/05