This evening toward dusk my neighbor, Arthur Pope, strides across the driveways that separate our houses, a casserole dish held between his hands. I see him through the kitchen window as I stand at the sink opening a can of Natural Balance duck and potato for my basset hound, Stump. I reach to switch off the light, but, too late, Arthur has spotted me—I can tell by the way he lifts the casserole dish higher, extends it with his oven-mitt covered hands—and I have no choice but to wave at him and then go out into my side yard and open the gate.
“Ahoy, neighbor.” A former Navy man, this is the way he talks. Unlike me, he’s kept fit over the years. He still does calisthenics, even keeps a barbell set in his basement—a manly man with chest and shoulders and arms that aren’t what they were thirty years ago, but still they’re impressive. A thick head of wavy gray hair. A bounce to his step. “Time for mess.” He bows his head over the casserole dish and sniffs. “Andouille jambalaya,” he says. “Permission requested to come aboard, sir.”
It’s October, and the leaves have started to fall. Here in Mt. Gilead, our small town in southern Illinois, we can burn them on Saturdays, air quality and the ozone layer be damned. We rake our leaves to the sides of our streets or onto our back yard gardens, and set them to burn. The air smells of the must and the smoke the way it has this time of year as long as I can recall since I was a kid in Rat Town—that’s what we’ve always called the neighborhood in the lowlands on the south edge of Mt. Gilead, a mess of tumble down houses. Each spring there, when the Wabash River rises, the floodwaters still come up to the doorsteps. I’m glad to be safe and dry here in Orchard Farms, this modest gathering of ranch homes on streets with names like Apple Blossom and Cherry Blossom and Peach Tree.
Arthur thinks he knows my life—me, Sam Brady, a bachelor all my sixty-five years—and I wish I could believe that he does. He thinks he knows it because his dear wife, Bess, is now six months gone, and he imagines that we share the misery of men living alone. “You and me,” he said once not long after she died. He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Jesus, Sammy. We’re a pair.”
But my life is not his. I’d tell him this if I had the heart. I’d tell him I have no idea what it is to love someone all that time—nearly forty years he and Bess were married—and to lose them one day without warning. An aneurysm in her brain. “Arthur, my head hurts,” she said, and then the next instant, she fell to the kitchen floor, already gone. All my adult life I’ve lived alone, except for the dogs, the latest being Stump, who stands now at the screen door waiting for his duck and potato.
“He gets contentious,” I tell Arthur, nodding toward Stump. Nothing could be further from the truth; like all basset hounds, Stump is long on patience, steadfast with his devotion, mild-tempered, and affectionate—a perfect companion. His nose is up against the storm door glass. His velvety ears hang in loose folds, their ends curling slightly inward. He stares at me with his sad-ass eyes. “Stump,” I say to Arthur. “He puts the hurt in me if he doesn’t get his grub.”
“Don’t we all.” Arthur lifts the casserole dish toward my nose. “Sailor, don’t we all.”
What can I do but let him into my house and tell him to set the casserole dish on the range? He tells me exactly how he made it, and I know what’s coming next. “I could give you the recipe.” He snaps his fingers. “Or you could come on down to the Senior Center—that’s the ticket—and, Sammy, you could learn to do for yourself.”
It’s not the first time he’s asked. He’s learned to cook by joining a widowers’ group—the Seasoned Chefs—and every Wednesday evening he goes downtown to the Senior Center and works up a new dish. But me? “Sorry, Arthur,” I tell him. “No can do.”
For a moment, I’m tempted—I’ll admit that—but then I think of myself trying to make conversation with all those men, widowers who have a genuine right to their loneliness, and I can’t imagine it. You see, I’m a man who chooses to be alone, a man who has a secret. I’m a closet auntie, a fag, a queer—you know all the words. Here in Mt. Gilead, even this day and age when the world is supposed to be more tolerant, more accepting, it’s clear that many folks think this is a wrong thing to be. I see the graffiti spray-painted on the sides of garbage dumpsters along alleys, on the bathroom walls at the city park, on the Salvation Army collection bins in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Those words. I hear them on the lips of school boys and cocksure young men swaggering around the Town and Country Lanes, where I sometimes bowl a few lines, even from people like Arthur, older men who still believe that naming something they fear puts it in a place where it can’t hurt them. I’ve heard them all my life, these words. I’ve let them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man, on guard, well aware that danger always waits just around the corner.