Waltzing with Bears - 4. Part 4. Deception and Betrayal
Eddie finishes telling what he knows of the story of Walter and Joseph, and of himself.
The crowd in Pete’s Saloon is changing from people coming in to eat to people coming in to drink. The wait staff turn up the lights inside as the light outside fades. Eddie continues, “A few months later there’s a knock at our front door. I open it and there’s Joseph, hat in hand, his fingers working on the brim, very nervous about showing up at a white family’s house. He says, ‘Good afternoon. My name is Joseph Gautier. Would it be possible for me to speak to Mister Walter Hanson, please?' So formal. I’ll never forget it.
“My mother rushes in and says, ‘Who do you think you are, coming to my front door? What business do you have here?’
“By then Uncle Walter is on the stairs. ‘Let him in, Amelia,' he says. ‘Joseph is my friend.' His voice is quiet, but you can tell that he won’t take no for an answer.
“Well, my mother is about to explode, so she says, ‘Walter, I’m going to pretend that I didn’t see any of this. And I will want to speak to you after you’re done talking to your -- friend. And you may not use the parlor.' And she retreats to the kitchen.
“So Walter takes Joseph up to his room and shuts the door. I listen to them. Joseph is trying to persuade Uncle Walter to come with him. He says, ‘You could tell people I’m your hired man. Or you could say you’re an invalid and I’m your caretaker. I can earn enough money for both of us.’
“Walter refuses. He says, ‘You don’t know how people have been looking at me. Like down at Pete’s. They won’t talk to me. Pete serves me and lets me drink but even he treats me different now. I can’t come with you. It doesn’t matter where we go, people will find out. I can’t face it. I’m sorry.’
“So they go round and round, Joseph asking him over and over to come with him and Walter saying no. Joseph at one point says, ‘Walter, even if you don’t come with me, you’ve got to find a way to quit the drinking. It’s not good for you. I worry about it.'
"And Uncle Walter says, ‘Do you think I haven’t tried?’
"Finally they stop, and I hear one of Uncle Walter’s records playing. It’s ‘Parlez-moi d’amour.' I hear the sound of their feet in time to the music. They’re dancing. Then the record stops. I look through the keyhole. They’re holding each other close, arms around each other, and they’re kissing.
“I hadn’t allowed myself to believe it all this time, so it’s even more of a shock. All Mike’s gossip had been true. I’m so stunned I can’t speak. The door opens and the two men come out, and they don’t seem surprised that I’m there. ‘Where will you go?’ Uncle Walter asks.
“Joseph says, ‘I don’t know. Maybe California. Might be work down there.’
“Walter says, ‘You’ll have a lot of Okies competing for it.’
“‘I know. Can’t be helped.' Joseph turns to me and says, ‘Do you think you could show me out the back so I don’t have to bother your mother?’
“I nod and lead him down the back staircase, the staircase Uncle Walter uses to escape to Pete’s. I watch him walk away from the house and then I go back up to Uncle Walter’s room. Walter is taking a swig from a flask. He sees me and says, ‘Eddie, is the evening paper here yet?’
“And I bring him the paper without a word. He takes it and says, ‘Eddie, I want to explain something about Joseph to you.’
“Real fast I say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that,' and I turn away and run downstairs. He never mentions Joseph again. And I don’t bring him up either, or Blackie, or Pete’s.
“Uncle Walter stops going out to Pete’s. He just drinks in his room.
“I’m busy with school, and Uncle Walter and I don’t really do the things we used to, not as much anyway. He still defends me when my mother is on the warpath. He’s still my favorite person in the world, but this big thing that we can’t talk about puts some distance between us.
“One Sunday I have a dime burning a hole in my pocket and after church I want to go to the store and buy a comic book. I manage to break away from my family with the promise that I’ll come straight home. And as I’m walking, a big guy comes up to me and says, 'You’re the youngest Hanson boy, aren’t you?'
“‘Yes.' I say, and I’m a little wary.
“‘What’s your name?' he says.
“‘Eddie,' I say.
“He says, ‘Eddie, right. I remember now. My name’s Luther. I just wanted to ask, how’s your Uncle Walter?’
“It finally dawns on me that he’s one of the men Uncle Walter used to dance with. ‘He’s OK.’
“‘Good, good,' Luther says. He thinks a bit. ‘You tell him we miss him down at Pete’s, all right?’
“He leans down and smiles and talks quieter. ‘Tell him if he doesn’t come back, we might just have to come up and kidnap him, OK?’
“‘OK,' I say. I feel awkward.
“‘Don’t forget, now,' he says as he walks away.
“‘I won't,' I say. And I don’t tell Uncle Walter. It’s not a matter of forgetting, I just can’t get the words out.
“Years went by and the war started. I joined the Navy in ’42. The other guys wrote to their parents and ‘the girl back home’. I wrote to Uncle Walter. He was very concerned for my safety. He always said to be careful. I was one of the lucky ones, not a scratch on me even though I was in a skirmish or two.
“The last letter I got from him was early in ’45. It was a strange letter. He wrote,
‘You’ve seen war now, Eddie, so I know you’ve got courage. When you get back, keep it. It’s not just for use against enemies. You’ll also have to use it with your friends and family. Never be afraid of what people say or think. We only get one life. The hell with what people say.’
“I think he already knew what I was just figuring out, that I was gay too. The Navy has no lack of opportunities to make that discovery.
“But the next letter I got was from my mother, telling me that Uncle Walter had disgraced the family by passing out drunk at the dinner table when the mayor was dining at our house. Face down in the green beans. She said they had no choice but to send Walter to a sanitarium down in San Francisco.
“Grandpa was so furious that he threatened to cut Walter out of his will. Probably would have, too, if he hadn’t had a stroke. His ranting about 'that commie in the White House, Rosenfelt' had been replaced by rants about his youngest son. Grandpa died not too long after, with Walter still in his will. My Aunt Leila made sure Walter got his inheritance even though he was in the sanitarium.
“When the war ended, I was discharged in San Francisco. I thought I might as well go visit Uncle Walter in the sanitarium before I headed north. I didn’t write or phone ahead. It turned out to be a very decent place. A nurse conspired with me to keep my visit a surprise as I walked to my uncle’s room. With a big smile on my face, I knocked and opened the door and found Uncle Walter with an orderly who was helping him dress.
“The orderly was Joseph Gautier.
“‘Eddie?’ Uncle Walter said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? Come in! I was just getting dressed. You remember Joseph. He works here now.’
“My smile had disappeared in the first two seconds. Yes, I remembered Joseph. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I kept trying, and nothing came out. Finally I said, 'I — I can’t — I have to go.' And I turned around and left.
“Joseph rushed out after me. He called, ‘Eddie! Please wait. Please stay and talk to Walter.’
“I kept walking as if I hadn’t heard anything.
“Joseph said, ‘He hasn’t had a drink in months.’
“I hesitated, but I didn’t turn around. And then I walked away faster.
“I went home by train and bus. There were passengers who tried to strike up conversations with me, but I just shook my head at them. They probably thought I had shell shock or something. I didn’t say a word the whole trip.
“How could Uncle Walter have failed to tell me that Joseph was with him in San Francisco? He used to be my co-conspirator, my ally. It used to be him and me against the world. I didn’t want someone else having secrets with Uncle Walter, secrets even I didn’t know. I didn’t want someone else horning in on my territory.
“At home, my mother was still wearing mourning for my grandfather. Some of my cousins had served in the war. Some had gotten married and moved away or back into the house with the wife or husband. The business had adjusted to wartime, getting a government contract or two, and then building houses afterward. Other than that, the household seemed surprisingly unchanged. My mother still tried to pretend we were a grand old family.
“She made some offhand remark about Uncle Walter soon after my return, something about feeling bad that she had to send him to ‘that terrible place.’ Easy for her to feel bad after sending him.
“I said, ‘It’s not so terrible.’
“She said, ‘What do you know about it?’
“I said, ‘I went to visit him before I came back up here. It’s not a terrible place. It’s pretty nice.’
“‘You went there?’ she asked.
“I got a little twinge of satisfaction, knowing something she didn’t. ‘Yeah, and from what I can tell, he has it pretty easy.’
“‘He’s still a patient,’ she said. ‘It’s still like being in a hospital. I wouldn’t want to live like that.’
“‘Like what? He has Joseph waiting on him hand and foot.’
“I went ahead and said it, even though I was on the edge of feeling sick. ‘Yes, Joseph Gautier.’
“She stared at me. ‘The colored man who was here once?’
“‘That’s the one. He works there now, at the sanitarium.’
“She strode to the telephone. ‘We’ll see about this.’
“I felt really tired and went upstairs. I heard my mother talking on the phone in her don’t-give-me-any-nonsense voice. I went to my old room and crashed.
“My mother informed me that the sanitarium planned to call Joseph in for a disciplinary hearing. On what charge, I don’t know. But it didn’t matter. The next day, Uncle Walter discharged himself, taking off in a new automobile he had purchased. He had hired Joseph as his personal attendant and brought him along. Because Walter’s commitment to the sanitarium was voluntary, there were no grounds for stopping him.
“My mother wove dark fantasies about Joseph strong-arming Uncle Walter into the escape, and probably into giving Joseph all his inheritance. ‘Who knows what hold he has over Walter?’ she ranted. I snickered, thinking that the hold that Joseph had over Walter was entirely different than she allowed herself to imagine.
“But my mother spread her fantasies around town, making it clear that this was one of the greatest of her many trials. Rumors started that Joseph had kidnapped Walter at gunpoint, probably killed him. Mike Daley in particular took this line to an extreme.
“And it wasn’t incompatible with what my mother thought. ‘You might as well clean out his room,’ she said to me. ‘He’s as good as dead now. Pack up everything and put it in storage.’
“So I did. It brought back a lot of memories, that little room where he spent so much of his life. His gramophone and records still occupied one corner. He had tacked my picture back up. There was a box of letters, dozens of them, that Uncle Walter had written to Joseph and never sent. I don’t think he ever meant to send them. It’s just that he had no one to talk to about all this. I sat and read them all, one by one. Figured it wouldn’t do any harm at this point. I pieced together a lot of what happened from those letters. More important, reading them, I finally could accept that Joseph and Walter had been in love.
“Uncle Walter’s old copy of The Arabian Nights was in a corner by his bed. I picked it up, and an envelope fell out. In it was a letter from Joseph, dated not long before Uncle Walter’s dinner-table disgrace. The envelope was from some bank. Maybe that's how the letter got past my mother. I can imagine her destroying any letter with Joseph's name on the return address. Joseph wrote that he had a good job in a sanitarium in San Francisco. He suggested that if there happened to be an incident that made my mother see how bad Walter’s drinking was, maybe she would send him there for a cure. He wrote that he was enclosing a brochure.
“I think my mother got played.
“I never heard from Uncle Walter again. I don’t know what became of him and Joseph. But maybe I didn’t deserve to know, after the way I acted.
“Years later, as the world changed, I wondered what he would have made of gay liberation and gay rights. It sure took me by surprise. By the time it happened I felt like I was too old for it. It seemed like something for the younger generation. I stayed here while other relatives drifted away. I got a bank job that paid the bills, took care of my mother until she died.
“And now here I am. And you get an earful just because you wanted to buy a house.”
The sounds and bustle around us slowly brought me back to the present.
I said, “Eddie, I do want to buy your house. But hearing this story was a privilege. I’m honored that you trusted me enough to tell it.”
He looked down. “It’s not a nice story. I’m still ashamed thinking about it.”
After a moment, I said, “You were young. You were jealous. You made a mistake. I don’t think you should pay with a life sentence. And you know what? I’ll bet Walter and Joseph had a pretty good life, somewhere.”
He smiled. “I wish I knew.” He sighed. “So you still want the house. I warn you, I’m going to soak you for all I can get, because I’ll need enough to find a new place to live.”
“Well, what if you don’t move out? What if you live there for the rest of your life?”
Eddie blinked. “Don’t you want a place you can move into right away? I warn you, I’m old, but I might take a while to die.”
“Sure I do. But how about if we both live there? It’s a big house. Plenty of room for both of us. I bet you’ve got a good ten years' worth of stories saved up to tell someone.”
“More like twenty.”
“That would be just fine.”
“Oh, Mister Murgatroyd,” he said, holding a hand to his chest, “this is so sudden.”
“Take your time and think it over.”
“All right, all right,” Eddie said, standing up. “I’ll sell you the house.”
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