And Now the News
By Thomas Kearnes
Graham Elwood desperately desired company, but not desperately enough to seek it out. If no calls came, such as on that Saturday night, he preferred to stay home. An outfit lay on his bed in case someone invited him to the club or a restaurant. He even squirreled away a condom or two in the khaki pants next to the button-down shirt. But these items would return to the closet once ten o’clock came, the condoms returned to the bedside drawer. When alone, he made popcorn and settled in his recliner to watch the local news. Graham occasionally slept with a man whose boyfriend managed the local CBS affiliate; he felt a perverse connection to each newscast. He assured himself he wasn’t a recluse. Having turned thirty last year, he no longer believed every weekend should be filled with carnal adventure.
A pot of spaghetti boiled on the stove while he sipped a beer in the living room and watched that terrible show where buff models and wannabe actors performed grotesque or dangerous stunts to win a meager cash prize. Graham marveled at how captivating he found the program. Right now, a woman in full body armor—she looked like a voodoo doll minus the pins—screamed, crawling along a stone wall while an attack dog chomped at her. As the poor girl wedged herself through a slender doorway, his cell phone rang. The caller ID announced his mother, Lorraine. He groaned and flipped open the phone. He desired company but certainly not this.
“Are you going to be there the rest of the night?” she asked.
“Should be.” He avoided making definite promises to his mother.
“We had to take Dad to the emergency room,” she said. “I’m not sure if they’re going to admit him or not, but we’ll let you know. I wanted to make sure you’d be there.” Graham’s skin pricked with worry, but the news didn’t surprise him. Two or three times a year for the last half-decade, his father checked into the hospital with various heart complications. After a few days, he always emerged fine.
Lorraine hustled through the particulars: hot, humid afternoon; his father sprawled under the ceiling fan; her taking his pulse, feeling his carotid artery flutter like an airport windsock. “If the ambulance had taken any longer,” she said, “I could’ve hauled him there in a wheelbarrow.”
“What do you expect? Paramedics get paid the same salary whether they take ten minutes or twenty.” He didn’t really believe this, but he found it easier to play into Lorraine’s cynicism than resist it. “Have you talked to any of the doctors?”
“They vanished after they got your daddy stabilized. Probably sewing up some dopehead with a knife in his chest.”
“Drug dealers prefer guns, Mom.”
“What?” Lorraine sounded like an actor fed a bad cue. “Graham, I don’t have time for this. Are you going to be there tonight or not?”
“I already told you.”
“Don’t go anywhere without letting us know, okay?”
He hung up without saying goodbye. Graham’s occasional dinners with his father amounted to little more than a series of curious stares and stilted questions. Still, he hoped the man would survive his latest medical crisis. The idea of calling Lorraine his only family terrified him.
Graham went into the kitchen to check on his noodles. They had thickened since his last check. In the pot, stray bubbles emerged from the bottom, popping at the water’s surface. While he stirred the noodles, his cell phone rang again. He thought of the clothes laid out on his bed, and sweet enthusiasm surged through him. He forgot all about Lorraine’s wishes.
His caller ID didn’t recognize the number, so he answered hesitantly. He heard a torrent of giggles. There were two distinct voices: one high and staccato, the other FM-dial smooth and deep. He recognized the latter and asked what brought them here.
“Let us in!” Trevor shouted. He told Graham they were stopped at the front gate outside the complex, waiting for Graham to allow them inside.
“Phillip and me.”
Graham hit the pound key on his phone, activating the gate. Friends, Graham thought, returning his clothes to the closet, the condoms to their drawer. While he and Phillip downed a few beers and snorted the sporadic line of crystal meth every now and again, Graham never considered the man especially dear. It was hard to construct a trusting relationship upon an illicit substance. Trevor, on the other hand, often occupied his thoughts. He was not quite a bona fide friend, but definitely more than a fuck buddy. Graham knew he must keep their times together a secret from Reggie, Trevor’s sweetly devoted boyfriend. The news began in ten minutes.
As the last contestant performed his stunt on the game show, Trevor and Phillip followed Graham into the living room. Phillip latched onto the bronzed strip-mall Adonis on the screen. The contestant drove a stunt car through enormous burning hoops.
“Christ on a cracker, he’s hot!” Phillip cried. He had a small, round body that pleasantly matched his high, distinctive voice. Graham found him reliably comic, his occasional complaints about disreputable boyfriends and strict probation officers easy to toss aside.
Phillip continued gaping at the amateur daredevil as the show’s host announced with undisguised glee that his time was not fast enough to win the prize. The contestant grunted and pounded his fist against a pole.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Phillip called to the television. “Daddy will make it all better,” He chuckled and slurped the last of his Big Gulp through a straw. After a series of wet, gurgling sounds, he frowned at Trevor. “Dude, my booze is gone.”
“Can Phillip get our vodka from the car?” Trevor asked Graham.
Graham seized the opportunity to get his lover alone. “Sure, just knock on the door when you get back.”
Phillip crossed the small hallway to the front door, tripping and nearly falling on a maroon throw rug. Graham grimaced as the drunken man slammed the door.
“You drove, I hope,” he said to Trevor.
“I supervised,” Trevor said. Graham glared at him, but he busied himself, taking a slurp from his Big Gulp. He was a tall, slender man with a broad nose and pale grey eyes. More importantly, he moved his body in such a way that one might credit him with a grace Graham knew he didn’t possess.
“You’re letting him drive?” Graham asked.
“You know I can’t handle stick shift.”
“Let me have a sip of that.” Trevor relinquished his cup, and Graham took a long sip. “I appreciate the alcohol,” he said, handing the cup back to Trevor. “But next time try to find a more reputable companion.”
“He came with the Happy Meal.”
“Please tell me you’re not letting him drive back.”
“If he does, I sure as hell won’t be in the car. I had to remind him why red turns green.”
“So your evening’s still open?” Graham asked shyly, not with the bravado he knew Trevor admired.
“Can we ditch the saucehead before he passes out on the couch?”
“What about Reggie? I thought he was back from that affiliates’ conference.”
“Have you behaved yourself?” Graham asked, his tone more overtly flirtatious. He edged closer to Trevor.
“What do you think?” Trevor said, taking out his pack of cigarettes and shaking one loose. “It’s my first time here since Reggie left town.”
“That answers nothing,” Graham said, snatching a smoke from him.
“You’re not being a very good host,” Trevor said, smiling. He produced a lighter from his pocket. Graham leaned over to reach the flame. Trevor cupped his hand around it. For a brief moment, their hands touched, and Graham thrilled to the sensation.
“I’m not the one letting my buddy drive home plastered so I can score a quick fuck,” Graham said, exhaling a plume of smoke.
Trevor grinned, his eyes narrowing. He and Graham had known one another long enough so that the harshest judgments, the most brutal jabs, were simply more barbs in an elaborate and intimidating fence. They had erected it to corral the other men, like Phillip, who did not share their childhood memories.
In the kitchen, Graham poured the boiling water from the pot into the sink with a luxuriant hiss. The moist lump of noodles followed, landing silently. From the living room, a bass-heavy synthesizer riff signaled the start of the newscast. Graham hadn’t started the hamburger meat before the boys arrived, and saving the pasta was not worth the exertion. He would eat later, perhaps fix Trevor breakfast if luck had graced him. Graham wanted a few more moments with him free from distraction before Phillip stumbled back inside.
After they shared the mortifying red-topped knee socks of Boy Scouts and the sexual ambiguity of an adolescence spent in theatre courses, Graham’s friendship with Trevor quickly succumbed to lost proximity. Returning to East Texas last year, Graham soon settled into an existence of less sex and more pornography. Disappointed but comfortable, the reclusive lives of his parents made an intrinsic sense. Living on his own, no one had his number without his consent, and he assured himself the often-silent phone reflected his standards, not his popularity.
Months after his return, Lorraine relayed Trevor’s round of messages to Graham with an enthusiasm he couldn’t bear.
“That’s the third time he called,” she told him last winter. “Aren’t you going to call him back?”
“Yes, I just—I haven’t had time.” He knew Lorraine would not refute this. The assumptions slowing her to meddle in his personal life was the fallacy that he actually had one.
“What am I supposed to tell him?”
“What you told him before.” Graham knew she would never agree to deceive Trevor deliberately, but he also knew she lacked the fortitude to refuse his current duck-and-dodge strategy. Of course, he could never reveal his true reason for not contacting Trevor: he was Graham’s only childhood friend to make an effort to contact him. Graham held onto that card, fearful only less promising ones waited in the deck.
“I thought you two used to be friends?” Lorraine asked.
“We were.” He leafed through an empty appointment book. Out of habit, he had bought it half-price after New Year’s Day. “We are.”
Finally, he caved and returned Trevor’s calls. He was thrown when a strange man answered the phone, a man he later learned was Reggie. Trevor quelled his anxiety with charm and affability. They arranged to meet in his apartment. That first meeting, Graham opened the door and Trevor’s maturation into a man of nearly thirty struck him. His cheeks had thinned, his limbs appeared fuller and sinewy. They made their way to the sofa, tried to watch television but soon began kissing and caressing. Graham’s adolescent curiosity about how sex would be with Trevor loomed moments away from satisfaction. Since that unexpectedly marvelous encounter, the two men had met in secret, eluding Reggie. It was the longest and most successful relationship Graham had ever experienced.
Back in the kitchen, Graham scrubbed the countertop then tossed the washcloth into the sink. He berated himself for settling into an arrangement with a man that promised nothing besides stolen hours and interrupted conversations. Phillip knocked on the front door.
From the living room, Trevor called, “I’ll get it.”
Despite being alone, Graham smiled. “Maybe he’ll get confused and go away.”
Trevor laughed as walking toward the front door. “Asshole,” he called out to Graham. “He’ll hear you.”
Backing through the swinging door, Graham caught Trevor’s gaze before his guest disappeared into the hallway. He said, “If not, we’ll have to try another hint.”
Trevor smiled, wide and understanding. “Indeed, we will.” He opened the door.
Once Phillip had staggered into the living room, the three men watched the lead news stories. Phillip took straight slugs from the vodka bottle. Graham and Trevor shared Trevor’s spiked Big Gulp.
Reggie, according to Trevor, was eager to move away from the human-interest stories he produced. The “Adopt-a-Dog” segment ran every Wednesday and “East Texas Thanks…” featured a schoolteacher, minister, or retarded child and celebrated the subject’s contribution to the betterment of East Texas.
Watching the teaser for the story scheduled after commercials, Trevor sniffed, “Reggie’s going to shoot himself for missing this.” According to Trevor, ambitious Reggie craved the stories that won awards. The teaser revealed that an eight-year-old boy from rural Cherokee County accidentally shot himself with a BB gun earlier that day. The boy’s name was Bucky Soot.
“How do you kill yourself with a BB gun?” asked Phillip, waving the vodka bottle for effect. A splash of the liquor plopped on the carpet.
Graham pointed at him. “Don’t make me get a Thermos for that.”
“Anything can kill you if it’s aimed at your head,” Trevor said.
“Was it?” Phillip asked.
Graham aimed his remote at the screen. The anchorwoman’s shrill twang suddenly boomed over the boys.
“Tonight,” she said, “the tiny town of Abernathy, about five miles west of Jacksonville, mourns the death of one of its youngest citizens.” On the screen, a man in a John Deere cap faced the camera. The man’s lank, rust-colored hair poked out from underneath his hat. At least half his teeth were either missing or twisted. Behind him, a Coca-Cola calendar shared the wall with hanging handiwork featuring Jesus Christ and Johnny Cash.
Clichés are always true, Graham thought. He was relieved he hadn’t vocalized it.
“I just tell myself he’s in Heaven now and keeping the Lord company,” the man said. According to the bottom of the screen, his name was Harlan Soot. “I know he can see us, but I just want him to know that me and his mama miss him. We miss him real bad.” Silence filled the living room for an unendurable eternity. Finally, the screen switched to a school portrait of Bucky Soot. The correspondent continued the story.
“That sucks,” Trevor said.
“I hate to say this,” Phillip said after taking a drink. “But if that kid grew up, he probably would’ve become some redneck bigot who went around beating up gay guys. Think about it—isn’t the world better off?”
Graham gaped at his guest, eyes wide. Fearing Phillip might notice his stunned expression, he turned to Trevor, but that man was too focused on the screen to notice.
The story concluded, and the correspondent said gravely, “But this is a tragedy the Soot family and the people of Abernathy will not soon forget.” She signed off and wished the anchors good night. The redheaded female anchor began a flirtatious exchange with the stout, jolly weatherman about the chance for rain on Sunday.
“Wow,” Trevor said. Graham’s cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID: Lorraine.
“You’re popular tonight,” Phillip teased, his slur more pronounced.
“Tonight and every night,” Graham replied with a tight smile. He rushed to the kitchen for privacy—and to escape Phillip. His guest’s prediction about the likely fate of Bucky Soot had he not died spooked Graham like the Ouija board he and Trevor cradled atop their laps when they were boys.
“They’re admitting your daddy to the hospital,” Lorraine said. “I’m going to stay here a while longer then head home.”
“You need me to come?” he asked. Trevor and Phillip’s conversation filtered through the swinging door, but Graham ignored it.
“I don’t see what good that would do. I’m already here.”
“What about tomorrow? When do visiting hours start?”
“Are you going somewhere tonight?”
“I told you I wasn’t.”
“Who’s that in the background? I hear voices.”
“Trevor and Phillip.”
Lorraine let a long and labored sigh. “Well, you better not be drinking, that’s all I can say.”
Graham regretted sharing with her personal information about his friends. He assured her he wasn’t drinking, trashing the beer he’d almost finished before Trevor’s arrival. He whipped open a cupboard and pulled down a glass.
“I don’t see how those two stay out of jail, “ she continued. “Especially Phillip.”
“Call me tomorrow. About Dad.”
“Should I leave a message if you’re not there?”
Graham rolled his eyes and turned to find Trevor in the doorway, holding Phillip’s vodka bottle. Trevor saw the glass on the countertop and made a tentative pouring motion. Graham nodded. “Sure, Mom, leave a message if I’m out.” He hung up without waiting for a response.
As Trevor poured, Graham told him about his father. He asked Trevor to stay the night. The words simply fled his mouth, like doomed office workers leaping from a high-rise during a fire. His shoulders tensed, anticipating Trevor’s decision.
“What about…?” Trevor motioned toward the living room.
Phillip called out, “Guys, get in here. It’s the high school baseball playoffs. It’s a babe bonanza!”
Graham took a small sip from the vodka in his glass and recoiled at the taste. “Bucky Soot is flat on a slab somewhere,” he finally said. “Phillip should be safe driving home.”
Except for the amber light of the streetlamps slicing through the night, Graham’s bedroom was dark. Trevor snored softly beside him. Graham couldn’t go back to sleep after that terrible dream.
The calming hues of dawn embraced the tree line. Graham attended a funeral. It was hazy—the sun hadn’t dispelled the morning clouds. He loosened his tie and surveyed those he presumed to be his fellow mourners. Trevor stood about one hundred feet away from him. Graham wanted to signal him but feared disrupting the ceremony’s solemn mood.
Immediately beside Graham stood Harlan Soot. Unlike the newscast, he was bareheaded, his hair trimmed and combed.
“Mr. Soot?” Graham wasn’t surprised when Harlan Soot didn’t answer. The mourning father stared into the distance. After waiting a while for Soot to acknowledge him, Graham followed the man’s gaze to the other end of the cemetery.
A hearse led the procession, trailed by about a dozen cars. Graham’s eyes never left the hearse. Spray-painted in bold, white letters across the side: DEAD WHITE TRASH.
Harlan Soot’ placed his hand on Graham’s shoulder. It was all Graham could do not to leap away from shock. Soot’s fingernails sported grime underneath them. Grease lurked in the crevices across the back of his hand.
“It’s a double funeral,” he said and returned his gaze to the procession.
Graham stared at Harlan Soot in confusion until he felt a compulsion to return to the hearse and the parties behind it. This time, however, another hearse trailed the last car in the caravan. It, too, bore writing on its side: DEAD FAGGOT.
Shocked awake, Graham’s eyes popped open after that final image. He shifted away from Trevor and gazed at his laundry hamper, a green shirtsleeve dangling from the lid, until certain he was awake. Those two hearses existed only in his imagination, he assured himself. He listened to Trevor’s gentle snores, synced his breath along with them and, after a torturous half-hour, drifted back to sleep.
The next morning, Graham flipped eggs in a frying pan as Trevor’s cell phone rang for the third time in two minutes. Trevor slept while Graham fixed breakfast.
“That’s the third time in a row,” Graham called to him. “Pick up already!”
After a moment, the ringing ceased, and Trevor moaned from the bedroom. “It’s just my mom,” he said in a low, thick voice.
“Christ, answer it now,” Graham said. “You know what a panic princess she is. If she thinks you’re not home, she’ll call Reggie.”
Graham perched on the tile counter and lit a cigarette. The bacon and eggs sizzled next to him. Trevor’s phone rang once more. Perhaps a minute later, Trevor materialized like a phantom in the kitchen doorway, his cell phone in hand. He stared at Graham until Graham’s skin tingled. Trevor’s lips moved in strange, spastic patterns as if he’d forgotten how to speak—until at last, he did.
“It’s Phillip,” he said. “There’s been an accident.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
“He’s dead,” he said, his voice breaking.
Graham slid off the counter, cigarette clenched between his lips.
“Phillip’s mother called my mom,” Trevor whispered, his eyes glassy. He propped himself with his arms within the doorframe. Graham briefly noted how sexy he looked, his lean, long body tilting into the room, teasing Graham. Graham shook his head and tried to focus. Both young men knew the unofficial network of gay men’s mothers only sprang into operation in the worst of crises. He reached out to Trevor, but Trevor did not move.
“Please,” Graham said quietly. “Let me do this.” He knew Phillip was Trevor’s closest friend, all their nights drinking and careening around the city. Perhaps Trevor would let Graham offer him comfort. It was all Graham could do. Finally, Trevor fell into his arms. For the longest time, they heard only the sizzle of bacon and eggs.
Trevor left Graham’s apartment soon after sharing the news about Phillip. Both decided that under the circumstances, they shouldn’t be found together. Trevor spent the morning dazed, Graham watching him anxiously. He barely touched the breakfast Graham prepared. As Trevor stood in the doorway before leaving, Graham kissed his cheek. His stomach dropped when Trevor whispered, “If I can’t be alone tonight…”
“You’ll come back here,” Graham answered simply. “You’ll stay with me.”
That night, Graham’s phone rang. While going to answer, he noticed the time: fifteen minutes before eleven. Perhaps it was Trevor. With a flush of embarrassment, he realized a whole day had passed and he hadn’t called about his father. His guilt faded upon realizing Lorraine hadn’t called him, either.
“Did you watch the news this evening?” Lorraine asked.
“No, things around here have been—how’s Dad?”
“Oh, you know your father. Was that the boy you know, the one who slammed into the family of gospel singers? What was his name—Phillip?”
“He didn’t hit the family; he hit their instrument trailer.”
“They said he never stopped, not even a skid mark.”
“Who said? What are you talking about?”
“The news, the police—all those people.”
“Is Dad in critical or intensive care?”
”Graham, I’m trying to have a conversation with you.”
He exhaled as if climbing a tenth flight of stairs and leaned against the counter. Phillip’s vodka bottle, almost empty, sat next to the stovetop. Why hadn’t Phillip taken it with him? “It’s the same guy, Mom,” Graham said. “His name was Phillip Burns.”
“What would possess someone to just run smack into…? Well, it’s not surprising, I suppose. They caught him driving drunk three other times, right?”
“He would’ve gone to prison for sure.”
“Praise Jesus no one found out he was at your place.”
“I hate to say this, son, you know I do. But even if he didn’t hurt someone this time, there was always next time. Probably some poor kid, too.” Lorraine sounded like a preacher testifying beneath a tent on a sweltering Sunday. “A boy like that, driving dead-ass drunk as you please—trouble comes damn quick. The world is better off, right?”
“Right,” Graham said, pouring the last of Phillip’s vodka. “You’re right.”
“Anything can kill you if it’s aimed at your head.”
Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Berkeley Fiction Review, Timber, Hobart, Gertrude, A cappella Zoo, Split Lip Magazine, Cutthroat, Litro, PANK, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, Wraparound South, Night Train, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, The Matador Review, Pseudopod, Underbelly Magazine, Black Dandy, the Best Gay Stories series, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and three-time Best of the Net nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as an English tutor at a local community college. His debut collection of short fiction, Texas Crude is now available at Lethe Press, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.