The Man With the Alabaster Heart

BOOK: The Man With the Alabaster Heart
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The Man with the Alabaster Heart

By Aaron Michaels

My boyfriend, Milton, comes from one of
those
families. You know, the ones with a room in the house that no one ever actually uses for any particular purpose except maybe to impress the Queen if she happens to make a quick stop in town and needs to use the bathroom in some random stranger's house.

I'm not sure what Milton's mom expected the Queen to be more impressed by--the fact that all the furniture in the unused room had crystal clear plastic slipcovers, or the fact that the entire room was done up in various shades of white.

Before Milton took me home to meet his parents for the first time, I didn't even know that white came in shades. I'm a simple country boy from a family with four kids, two dogs, a succession of hamsters and parakeets, and one very confused cat. We were lucky when our furniture stayed in one piece for more than a few months at a time. Between the cat hair, dog hair, traipsed-in dirt and mud, and bits of munchies that didn't quite make the mouths of the neighborhood kids sprawled across the living room furniture watching TV--if anything in our house had started out white, it didn't stay white for long. I don't remember my mom being terribly upset about it.

It's a wonder Milton didn't run screaming for the hills the first time I brought
him
home.

Somehow we've survived our varied backgrounds. We've been together for nearly ten years now. Milton calls me his "significant other." I call him "stud muffin." Okay, I only call him that in bed, but I've never been comfortable being politically correct, so I forego "significant other" and simply refer to him as my boyfriend whenever we're not doing politically incorrect things to each other behind closed doors.

So imagine my surprise when Milton casually mentioned that his Great Uncle Sherman would be attending his family's Easter celebration. I never knew Milton had a great uncle.

"I didn't know you had a Great Uncle Sherman," I said.

Milton, who bears more than a passing resemblance to that guy who plays the Sheriff on
The Walking Dead
, only in Milton's case replace the uniform and shotgun with a cute little bowtie and a pocket protector, scrunched up his nose. "I never mentioned him?"

"I think I would have remembered. In fact, I think you would have made sure I remembered."

The first time I went to one of Milton's family gatherings, he quizzed me on the names of all his various family members and their rather odd histories. While he had two younger sisters (Suzanne and Clarice), one older half-sister (Dory) from a marriage I was never to mention to his mother, one aunt (Mildred, for whom Milton was apparently named), three cousins (Patrick, Summer, and Fern; Patrick was also from a marriage Not To Be Mentioned), an uncle (Roy, who was married to Mildred and drank more beer than anyone I'd ever met), and far too many nieces, nephews, and once-removeds to remember, I was quite sure no one had ever mentioned a Great Uncle Sherman.

"Is he the black sheep of the family?" I asked.

Milton and I were sitting at our kitchen table, dying Easter eggs. We'd never actually dyed eggs before, but his mother had emailed Milton a list of things for us to bring to the shindig. Milton had boiled two dozen eggs according to his mother's written instructions, and now we were dunking cooled eggs into various pots of dye that made our entire apartment smell like salt and vinegar potato chips.

Or at least I was dunking. Milton had snapped on clear latex gloves and was holding his egg half-suspended in a pot of yellow dye.

I arched my eyebrows at him.

"Plaid," he said. "This is how you make a plaid egg. My father used to do all our eggs this way when we were kids." He lifted the egg out of the pot, blotted it gently with a paper towel, turned it slightly sideways, and lowered it halfway into the green pot.

"Huh," I said. At this rate we'd be here all night. Or Milton would be here all night. I'd be done with my dozen eggs in no time. And to think I'd had such high hopes for a little pre-Easter celebration of our own. I'd even bought the bunny ears and a cute little fluffy tail.

"So back to your Great Uncle Sherman," I said.

Milton's hand trembled just a bit. The sharp line of green dye on the egg blurred. I wasn't sure what the quality control standard was for plaid Easter eggs, but Milton looked somewhat annoyed.

Did I mention my stud muffin wears a pocket protector? It's not just for show. You should see his underwear drawer. His brand of anal-retentiveness might not be for everyone, but I think he's adorable.

"I could always boil another one," I said.

Milton sighed. "We might have to boil another whole dozen. If you think my mother's a control freak, wait until you meet Great Uncle Sherman."

The woman with the plastic-covered white living room a control freak? Why would I ever think that?

I plopped an egg in the pot of blue dye. "Your great uncle's that bad, huh?"

"He raised my mother," Milton said. "That should give you a clue."

Yeah. A big one. "So, not a black sheep, then. But not exactly welcome around the family."

"He makes my mother nervous."

I didn't think anyone could make that woman nervous. Not even bathroom-seeking royalty. "How about you?" I asked.

Milton dropped his egg in the dye. "Shit," he said as he fished it out.

I guess that answered that question.

Milton might be anal-retentive to the max, and I know a lot of my friends think he's kind of an odd duck. I mean, really--what thirty year old man wore a bowtie voluntarily? But generally, people didn't make Milton nervous. He told me once that after he came out to his mother, which was the hardest thing he'd ever done, he discovered that other people's opinions didn't matter all that much. Except mine, he'd said. He had it pretty easy there. Given the family I came from, I'm about the easiest-going person I know outside of my own mother.

A new thought occurred to me. "Great Uncle Sherman does know you're gay, right?"

Milton squirmed.

"Right?" I said again.

"Well..." He drew the word out. "I never actually told him. Personally. The rest of the family knows, mother knows." He sighed. "I suppose I thought it would get back to him."

"Because he's the kind of guy everyone has long, friendly chats with on the phone at least once a week."

"Not exactly."

Milton looked at me sheepishly over his ruined egg. I picked up the egg and rubbed at it with a damp paper towel. The towel wiped off most of the dye, leaving behind a marbled effect people would pay a fortune for as a wall treatment.

"There," I said. "Not plaid, but does it qualify as a decorator egg?"

"That's pretty good," my impressed stud muffin said.

I put the egg back down and took Milton's latex-covered hand in mine.

"You're getting dye on your fingers," he said.

"I don't care."

"It won't come off by brunch tomorrow."

"If it makes you feel better, you can bleach my hands before we leave." I squeezed his fingers. "You're a single man who's lived with the same also single man for the past ten years, and you dye your Easter eggs a perfect plaid. I don't think we need to come dressed as The Village People for your great uncle to figure it out, but if you want, I'll give you a big, wet, sloppy kiss in front of him while the nieces and nephews are out hunting eggs. Trust me, you won't have to say anything at all."

At the words "big, wet, sloppy kiss" Milton gripped my hand a little tighter. "How about we just dye the rest of the eggs a solid color?"

"Really?"

"Really." He grinned at me, a decidedly sexy grin. "I found the bunny ears and tail. I think I've still got some of that chocolate-flavored lube around here somewhere."

Now that sounded more like what I had in mind for a pre-Easter Saturday night.

[?]
[?]
[?]

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There's a reason I called Milton stud muffin. As a friend of mine used to say, it's the quiet, unassuming ones who often have the most to offer under the hood. Milton's under-the-hood equipment was high octane, super-charged, and definitely not compact. Thanks to a strategically-placed bunny tail, not to mention copious amounts of chocolate-flavored lube put to good use by my bunny ear wearing boyfriend, I was still feeling well-fucked and more than a bit mellow when we arrived for Easter brunch the next day at Milton's family home.

Or, as I like to call it, The Palace of White.

The
Nobody Go In There!
living room wasn't the only ode to all things white in Milton's mother's house. While everyone else I knew had gone brushed steel, cherry red, or shiny black in the appliance department, Milton's mother maintained a pristine white refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, and even microwave oven. The kitchen table had a butcher block top and white legs, with matching white ladder back chairs. Her dining room table was some sort of antique that had been painted white and decorated with gold trim. The sideboard was white. The walls in the entire house were off white, the dining room carpet cream, the drapes marshmallow, the entry way tiles chalk-colored slate, the fireplace whitewashed brick. Even the little throw rug inside the front door, where we were all obliged to leave our shoes, was white shag. The first time I walked into Milton's mother's house, I felt like putting on my sunglasses.

I've gotten used to the glare over the years. It helps that I purposefully leave my sunglasses in the car. Milton's mother probably thinks my squint is normal.

Thanks to Milton's impeccable sense of timing and his overwhelming need to never be late, we arrived at Easter brunch precisely ten minutes ahead of schedule. Milton's mother met us at the door. She gave her son a quick peck on the cheek and me a courteous nod. I nodded courteously back.

"Mrs. Grosbeck," I said. "I wish you the most joyous of Easters."

"That sentiment is for Christmas, Charles," she said. Never mind that I preferred to be called Chuck. Even Milton calls me Chuck now. "In this family, we wish each other 'Happy Easter.'"

I nodded. "Then the most happiest of Easters," I said.

She sighed. She seemed to do that a lot around me.

I heard the excited shouts of the horde of nieces and nephews coming from the back of the house. The portion of the family that came equipped with small children was scheduled to arrive a half hour before we were.

"Has the Easter Bunny arrived yet?" I asked.

"Did you bring the eggs?" she responded.

"Yes, Mother." Milton handed over the two cartons of colored eggs.

Mrs. Grosbeck lifted the lid on one carton, saw the uni-color eggs, and sighed again. "The Easter Bunny will arrive shortly after we hide these in the back yard," she told me. "I'll give them to Theodore."

Ted Starling was Milton's brother-in-law, married to his youngest sister, Clarice. It was all I could do not to ask Clarice every time I saw her if she'd run off with any lambs lately. She never seemed to appreciate my sense of humor. The first time I tried the joke, she'd looked at me with a blank expression on her less than attractive face, but I could have sworn I saw the tiniest of grins play at the corners of her husband's mouth. That made Ted an okay guy in my book.

Ted was the one who played with the kids at all family gatherings and occasionally drank a beer around his in-laws, but whatever humor he found in his wife's family, he kept to himself. On the way over, Milton told me Ted's assignment this Easter was to hide the eggs, then crawl inside a pristine white (of course) Easter Bunny costume and hand out candy to kids who'd already made themselves hyper tearing apart their grandmother's backyard looking for hidden eggs.

"It's all in Mother's email," Milton said.

Of course, it was. She'd assigned tasks to all the family, right down to scheduling the start and finish times. My chore for the day--Easter egg dying being a chore for the day
before
--was to collect the inevitable trash in the backyard, place it neatly into one thirty gallon trash barrel, and roll the barrel to the side of the garage where it would wait untouched until garbage day.

"What's your Great Uncle Sheldon's assignment?" I'd asked Milton.

"You'll see," he said.

And I did. Mrs. Grosbeak handed the eggs off to Clarice to give to Theodore (Ted), then she turned back to us. "Milton, you need to introduce Charles to Uncle Sherman. I don't believe the two have ever met."

Milton went a shade paler, which made him come uncomfortably close to blending in with the paint on the walls, but he dutifully followed his mother as she turned on her stocking-footed heels. I followed Milton with an equal amount of curiosity and amusement, which quickly turned to astonishment as Mrs. Grosbeck took us into the all-white living room.

Apparently someone was allowed in
Nobody Go In There!
living room.

Great Uncle Sherman.

For him, it fit.

If a person could actually be completely white without being an albino, Great Uncle Sherman was it, and it had nothing to do with his skin tone.

He was seventy if he was a day, but a sturdy seventy. His grey hair was more snow that silver. He had a lot of it, and it looked like it was still all his. He had a little Colonel Sanders goatee and thick, rimless glasses. His faded blue eyes were huge behind those thick lenses, and they stared out at me with the kind of icy regard that a butterfly collector might use on a new prize specimen. He was sitting in an antique-looking wingback chair from which Mrs. Grosbeck had actually removed the clear plastic slipcover.

Milton hesitated as he approached the man. My stud muffin looked like he was about to request some vast favor from a grumpy old king, not introduce his significant other to a long-absent member of the family.

"Great Uncle Sherman?" Milton said. "I'd like you to introduce--" Milton cleared his throat against and started over. "I mean, I'd like to introduce you to Charles."

I raised an eyebrow.

"I mean Chuck," Milton said. "Chuck, this is my Great Uncle Sherman."

I held out my hand. "Pleased to meet you," I said, complete with my
happy to meet more of my stud muffin's peculiar family
smile.

Great Uncle Sherman apparently didn't shake hands. I let mine fall back to my side.

"Gloria!" Great Uncle Sherman's voice wasn't a crotchety old man's voice, but rather sounded like countless cinematic versions of Charles Dickens' Scrooge calling out for Bob Cratchett.

It was the first time I'd noticed that Milton's mother hadn't accompanied us into the living room but had been loitering around the door.

"Yes?" she asked.

Her response was so deferential it actually made her sound timid. Milton's mother--timid? Perhaps I should check Ted's Easter Bunny outfit and make sure it didn't have a waistcoat and a pocket watch, because I certainly felt like I'd fallen down a rabbit hole.

"Who is this young man?" Great Uncle Sherman asked.

"That's Milton's friend, Charles," she said.

Friend
. Not
significant other
. Not even
boyfriend.
It was like I'd been demoted in status the minute I'd stepped into that inner sanctum of white on white.

"What's he doing here, then?" Great Uncle Sherman gave me the butterfly collector look again. "Doesn't your son know we only invite family at Easter?"

Milton looked miserable. Mrs. Grosbeck turned her gaze on him and crossed her arms in front of herself. She didn't look any happier than Milton did.

I leaned over to whisper in Milton's ear. "I could just give you that kiss."

My boyfriend turned a delightful shade of pink. In that room, it stood out like neon. "That won't be necessary," he said. He cleared his throat again. "Great Uncle Sherman, Charles... Chuck... is my significant other."

The pink on Milton's cheeks deepened to a furious flush, but I'll give my boyfriend credit. He looked the old man right in the eye and didn't turn away. Not even when his great uncle called my boyfriend a name I hadn't heard since high school.

"That what you are, boy?" the old man demanded. "That why you never gave your mother grandchildren?"

It seemed to me like Milton's mother already had a sufficient number of grandchildren given the racket coming from the backyard.

You may be wondering why I was thinking about that instead of getting upset about the nasty name the old man had called my boyfriend. I'm one of those people who believe that words have no more power over us than we let them. If I reacted badly to one simple word, then the old man would just keep using it for effect whenever he wanted to hurt someone like me. Besides, having grown up openly gay in my family, I've already heard all possible variations of all possible slurs, and those words have no more power over me than
marshmallow
or
totem pole
, and far less than
Internal Revenue Service
.

Milton, however, is not me.

"I'm gay," he said firmly. "I will never give my mother grandchildren unless Chuck and I decide to adopt, and what you just said is inappropriate."

Go, stud muffin!

The old man's eyes narrowed behind his thick lenses. I thought Mrs. Grosbeck might actually pass out.

"I want you to apologize to Chuck," Milton said.

Even I could tell he was pushing his luck.

Great Uncle Sherman brought one heavy hand down on his knee with a solid slap. I wondered what life must have been like for Milton's mother, being raised by this man. "Apologize?"

I half expected him to roar out the word, like some affronted patriarchal polar bear. Instead his voice got quiet. Cold. Hard. Like he was an alabaster statue in a room full of ice.

"We have no 'gay' people in this family," Great Uncle Sherman said. "We never have, and we never will. Do you understand?"

Milton's mother started to say something, but one look from the old man silenced her. Milton looked like a deflated balloon.

Since this was going so well, I figured I might as well add something to the festivities.

"Ah
ha!
" I said to Milton's great uncle. "That's your assignment. Benevolent despot. But I think you need to work on the benevolent part."

It was pretty clear from the icy stare I got in response that Great Uncle Sherman didn't appreciate my sense of humor either.

"Are you sure you're part of this family?" I asked my boyfriend.

"Not if you're his 'boyfriend'." The old man did such a good job of putting the word in quotes, I almost expected to see the little paired commas hanging in the air over his head.

"You can't be serious," Milton said. "You're kicking me out of the family?" He looked at his mother, but it was pretty clear he'd get no help from her.

I was about to offer to leave just to keep the holiday peace when Milton took my hand in his. He straightened his back, held his head high, and looked down his nose at his great uncle. "C'mon," he said to me. "I hear they're having a great Easter brunch at Casanova's."

We marched out of there like we were part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, stopping only long enough to retrieve our shoes. I decided not to mention that I felt Milton trembling through our joined hands.

He held it together until we were back in the car. I slid behind the driver's seat and looked at him slumped in the passenger seat next to me.

"I could give you that kiss now," I said.

He leaned his head on my shoulder. "Maybe later," he said. "Right now I just think I need a hug."

That, I could do.

BOOK: The Man With the Alabaster Heart
11.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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