A police sergeant was at the door. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “Sorry to bother you so early in the morning. An old man died next door, and I need someone to come with me and identify the body.”
Edgar was sprawled on his back on the living room floor. I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked older and even more fragile than when I’d last seen him just a few days before—hollow cheeks, skin translucent like rice paper, sparse and disheveled white hair, his face frozen in an expression of pain and disbelief.
“Was it suicide?” I asked the sergeant. I had reason to ask.
“I don’t think so. There’s no weapon, no blood.”
“Maybe sleeping pills?” I suggested.
“People don’t stand in the middle of the living room after they take pills,” the sergeant said in a detached tone of voice, like someone whose longtime experience in such matters had deadened his sensitivity. “Usually they lie down on a couch or bed. My guess is it was a heart attack or a stroke. Anyway, we’ll know more when the coroner gets here.”
I remembered that Edgar had told me several months before about a sharp, stabbing pain in his chest while he was raising his heavy garage door. He said he collapsed like an unstrung puppet and couldn’t get up for several minutes. His doctor ran tests but couldn’t find the cause.
“Do you know if he had any family?” the sergeant interrupted my thoughts.
“He’s mentioned an older sister up-county somewhere, but I don’t know her name.”
The sergeant finished filling out his report. “Okay,” he said, “that should do it. Thanks for your help.”
It seems so long ago that Pauline and I moved into our little suburban ranch house with our two kids. Edgar was the first in the neighborhood to welcome us. He was soft-spoken and shy, with a friendly but undistinguished demeanor. He brought a Whitman’s Sampler in a brown paper bag, and he stayed just long enough to introduce himself.
At the time, we guessed he was close to sixty, but we never asked. He lived alone and worked at a local bank as an assistant manager, a position he said he’d held most of his working years. He drove an old, faded-blue Plymouth Valiant every weekday to the bank, every Saturday afternoon to the supermarket, and hardly ever anywhere else.
Edgar’s tract house, the mirror image of ours, was always immaculate. Blue floral-print drapes decorated the large living room window, and he’d had bright blue shutters installed to contrast with the gray aluminum siding. Soon after we moved in, he put up a fence between our houses, but we couldn’t fault him for that. Our kids had been stretching their play area ever deeper into his backyard and littering it with toys.
The large, polished brass knocker on his front door couldn’t have seen much use. In all the time we knew Edgar, we never saw anyone visit him. Even the neighbors kept a polite distance. When he was outside mowing his lawn or trimming the forsythia alongside his house, they would give him a reserved wave from across the street and keep walking. Pauline and I were the only ones who stopped to chat.
Once in a while Edgar would stop by on a Friday or Saturday evening. He’d ring our bell and stand silently at the door, his slight frame sagging as if under a crushing weight, until Pauline or I let him in. Before long, his visits became a weekly routine.
We didn’t encourage him, at least not at first. We figured that he had to be at least twenty-five years our senior, and we assumed that he would be mired in the stodgy conventions of his generation. But he seemed desperately lonely. Although we didn’t expect to find much common ground for conversation, we didn’t have the heart to turn him away or pretend we weren’t home.
A problem arose immediately: Edgar had an immense capacity for scotch, which he drank neat. Pauline and I don’t drink, but we keep a supply of liquor for visitors. At first I served him Black Label, but he would guzzle half a bottle or more in an evening. I soon began switching him to a discount brand after his third drink. I assumed by then he wouldn’t know the difference. Pauline and I felt guilty about contributing to his drinking problem, but we didn’t have the heart to cut him off completely. At least we tried to extend the intervals between his drinks.
Another problem was that Edgar tended to lose track of time. By midnight, either Pauline or I might start to doze off occasionally, but he would keep talking to whoever was still awake. Sometimes she and I both dozed at the same time, and Edgar would wait patiently for one of us to waken. We finally learned to suggest politely that it was past our bedtime, and then he would leave right away, without any hint of taking offense.
I found out early on that Edgar had grown up in the same nearby city as I did, and that became an occasional topic of conversation. He reminisced about his old haunts, though he would seem to have little reason for such nostalgia. My father was a successful doctor, and I grew up in a stately colonial in the upscale north end of town. Edgar spent his early years in the forlorn row houses built for the workers at the local carpet mill where his father worked. Eventually the factory closed and the looms were shipped south, where there was no union.
Mostly, though, our conversations centered around politics and world affairs. Edgar hadn’t gone beyond high school, but he read avidly and kept abreast of the world news. And although the scotch affected him physically, it didn’t seem to fog his mind. He disagreed with Pauline and me on almost every political issue, but he always argued logically and articulately, and his gentle manner discouraged us from pressing our points as heatedly as we might with anyone else.
Edgar gradually infused himself into our family. Before long, our kids were calling him by his first name, and we began to look forward to his weekly visits. Then one day he disrupted that comfortable routine.
He arrived one evening with a small manila envelope, which he handed directly to me. “Here’s something you must read,” he said, and he fled before I could open the envelope or pour him a scotch. The book in the envelope was “Confessions of a Male Madam.”
It hadn’t occurred to Pauline or me that Edgar might be gay. We’d never had any gay friends before—at least not as far as we knew. But then, we may have been a bit naive. As I think back now, I can remember a few of Edgar’s hints that we missed. In any case, Pauline and I quickly hid the book so the kids wouldn’t find it.
“Do you think I’m sending out some kind of signals that he’s misinterpreting?” I asked Pauline. “He very pointedly handed that book to me.” I must admit that initially I found his tacit admission unsettling.
“I think it was just his way of coming out to us,” she said. “Maybe he didn’t know how to put it into words, and he wanted to see if we’d still accept him. I feel sad for him, living alone in this stodgy, conservative little suburb. I wonder whether he’s ever had someone close….”
Still, I couldn’t help but fret over how I would act, what I would say, the next time I saw him. As it turned out, I had lots of time to think about it. We saw no sign of Edgar for the next several weeks. When he finally reappeared, Pauline stayed discreetly out of sight at first.
I made sure he was settled comfortably on the couch before I gave the book back to him. “Edgar,” I told him, “this isn’t for me.”
My answer may have disappointed him, but at least he seemed reassured by my casual tone. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said.
“And you don’t know what you’re missing,” I replied, and that was the end of it. I switched our conversation to the latest presidential popularity poll, launching a debate that was as spirited as any we’d had. Pauline soon eased into the conversation, and our friendship was back on track as if it had never been breached.
But another major disturbance was yet to come. One evening, after Pauline had slipped away to bed early and Edgar was on his fourth drink, we happened to start talking about our fathers. Or actually, now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t entirely happenstance. Edgar may have steered the discussion deftly in that direction. In any case, I found myself blurting out all my unresolved anger that I’d kept in for the past couple of decades.
“My relationship with my father has been… difficult,” I said. “He’s rigid and controlling. I’m an only child, and he’s always been determined to run every aspect of my life. He expected me to become a doctor and join his practice. I’ve never had the slightest interest in medicine, but I was afraid to break it to him. It wasn’t until my first year of college, when I was home for the Christmas holidays, that I finally told him. He flew into a rage and didn’t speak to me for months after that. Not a word.”
“Well, what about now?” Edgar asked. “Are you speaking again?”
“I suppose so,” I said. “Our conversations are still a bit stiff, but he may have softened a bit. Maybe since his first grandchild was born….”
“Then isn’t it time you forgave him?” Edgar’s question caught me off guard. I couldn’t come up with an immediate answer.
“Well, anyway, you’re not the only one who disappointed his father,” Edgar went on. “One day, back when I was still in high school, I told him about myself. Everything.”
I tried to imagine how hard it must have been for Edgar—especially half a century ago, before the gay pride parades and rainbow flags, before the school support groups, before the gay celebrities started coming out.
“We had a violent argument in my room. My dad swept his arm across the top of my dresser and threw everything—my books, the radio, a model airplane I’d built—onto the floor. Then he started ranting about having our pastor send me to conversion therapy. That’s when I lost my temper and called both my dad and the pastor cruel, ignorant bastards.”
Edgar’s voice suddenly seemed eerily calm. “I started toward the front door, and he lunged in front of me and tried to block me. I shoved him aside and stormed out. When I came back a couple of hours later, he was dead.”
Most of the neighbors on the block made their obligatory appearance at Edgar’s wake, as did his coworkers from the bank. They huddled in clusters toward the back of the visitation room and talked a little too loudly and laughed a little too hard. I was relieved when they left.
Edgar’s sister, Martha, was there too, and she immediately attached herself to Pauline. “Can you believe it? It’s been a good forty years or more since I heard from my brother,” she said. “He never once called or wrote.”
Pauline tried to edge away, but Martha followed her doggedly. “I don’t understand how he could go astray like he did. We grew up in a respectable, God-fearing home, but he suddenly stopped going to church when he was still in high school, and he fell into that sinful lifestyle.
“He actually wanted me to promise I wouldn’t ask a pastor—any pastor—to give a eulogy for him if he died before me. I paid him no mind, of course. Lord knows I’ve tried to give him a decent Christian burial. I had to call three churches before I found a pastor who’d come.”
Pauline finally interrupted her. “You didn’t know your brother very well, did you?” she said, an uncharacteristic edge to her voice. “He prayed to his own God in his own way. He told my husband and me about his estranged sister, and he said more than once that he loved you and missed you and always kept you in his prayers.”
Martha retreated in search of a more receptive ear. Then the pastor arrived, gave a brief eulogy for “Elmer,” and left.
Just before visiting hours ended, an elegantly dressed man about Edgar’s age arrived, trailed by a woman and two adolescent girls who looked as if they’d much rather be somewhere else. Neither Pauline nor I remembered ever seeing them before. He didn’t speak to anyone as he approached the open coffin. He knelt for a full four or five minutes on the prayer bench, and then he reached down and rested his hand briefly on Edgar’s.
The house next door has been vacant for months now. The blue floral-print curtains still hang in the living room window, but they’re always drawn, and the house is dark day and night. The fence is leaning slightly, and a couple of slats are broken. The grass is high and scraggly, and the forsythia has spread in wild abandon. Edgar would have taken care of everything.
Alex Markovich lives in a suburb of New York City with his wife of 62 years and a once-feral cat named Anastasia (Nasty, for short). He was an editor at several national magazines, and his stories and essays have appeared in previous issues of Halfway Down the Stairs, as well as in Fiction Southeast, Wigleaf, Blue Lake Review, and other electronic and print literary mags.
© 2019, Alex Markovich