Harlan’s older brother Rick had tried to set him up with girls, until he saw his laptop open to a gay chat room when Harlan was sixteen, then encouraged him to date boys. “Get your pecker wet any which way,” Rick said. “Just don’t act like a pansy.”
Their father, Paine, a widower, had not been so understanding when Harlan got a phone call from Bobby, an effeminate-sounding boy. “Why’s that faggot calling you?” he asked when he picked up the phone before passing it on to Harlan, oblivious to or precisely because the caller could hear what he was saying.
“It’s about the book club, Dad,” he said after he had hung up.
Paine roared. “Go out and play baseball.” He stormed Harlan, who was sitting with a book at the kitchen table, pushed him onto the floor, and kicked him in the buttocks. He took the volume of Leaves of Grass and flung it out the window.
Rick watched all this standing by the stove, then lifted Harlan off the floor by his armpits after their father left the kitchen. “You gotta listen to what I said. Do what you have to do, just keep it under wraps. No sissy stuff. This ain’t New York.”
Harlan told Bobby, the only gay boy he knew at the rural school in the Catskills, not to call him anymore, without any explanation, and turned away. At lunchtime, he ignored Bobby’s wave from the table where he sat and ate by himself, shunned by the other boys. “Just leave me alone,” Harlan said when Bobby went to try to join him. On the school bus, he walked past the boy, ignoring the empty seat next to him, and sat near the back. He pretended not to notice the young man’s pout and hangdog eyes. During the bouncy ride on the groaning bus, he fantasized about the freedom he would have if his father’s menacing presence were to disappear.
When Paine died of a heart attack at work that winter, Harlan felt a numbing shock when the school principal pulled him out of class to tell him the news. He couldn’t speak, and didn’t cry. Rick picked him at school that day to go see their father’s body in the hospital. Harlan said nothing in the car, but he was terrified that he had conjured his father’s death. “He had what’s called a widow-maker,” the doctor in the emergency room of the small, rural hospital said to them. “A main artery of the heart was mostly blocked, and it just closed up.” Harlan thought the doctor had made up the cause of their father’s death, because it was a mystery to the medical professionals there.
During the burial in the graveyard he watched the casket being lowered, horrified that he had gotten his wish. Rick wept softly, standing right next to him, but his own eyes remained dry.
He still did not seek out Bobby or other men. He looked to Rick for encouragement to go on dates, a sort of permission, but his older brother was busy with work and his own friends. Two years later he finished high school and got a job at a hardware store in the closest town, six miles away. His social life remained limited to strangers on the internet.
When his brother’s girlfriend Carla moved in with plans to get married, Rick was even less available to him. She sneered at him and shook her head when she asked didn’t he have a girlfriend and he said no, and he started feeling like a pariah in his own house. After a few months he left to share an apartment with two other guys, both straight and unaware of his sexuality.
When his father’s sister Isabel died suddenly, he was surprised to learn she had left him an inheritance. He was grateful to his aunt for including him in her will. Aunt Isabel hadn’t completely disinherited her only son, but she was at odds with him because he had moved two hours south to New York to be a dancer. “That ain’t real work for a man,” Harlan had heard her say. The sum allowed him to buy a small house at a county auction for taxes owed, and still left him enough to buy a used Toyota.
When he moved into the two-room bungalow, surrounded by woods and five miles across the creek from Rick, the place was a wreck. The splintering siding hadn’t seen paint in years, and squirrels had chewed a hole through the roof and were nesting in the attic. Harlan heard them scurrying around overhead that first day in July when he moved in, but it wasn’t until it rained two days later and water dripped into the bedroom that he found their entry point. He got the roof fixed with money left from the inheritance and killed the critters with peanut butter laced with rat poison he put in the attic. When the stench from the rotting carcasses was too much, he crawled up through cobwebs and squirrel nests and got rid of them.
But he was proud to own a house at age twenty-one, and he loved his little shack, where he could finally be himself without judgment.
He missed Rick, and would have gone to visit, but he couldn’t put up with Carla.