by Michael Lockett
On that cold October evening, you sat in your lounge chair. Your head cocked. Your flannel night dress rested over your body in the glow of the television light. You watched the evening news. The report broke through the static of the antenna. It caught your attention as it did mine.
I sat near you on the sofa. I had some college application and financial aid forms on a book in my lap. I had big dreams of going to a school in the city, but I couldn’t get past my name on the forms. Really, I couldn’t get past our tax form. Dad’s layoff at the brickyard. A family of three. Gross income, twelve thousand a year. We couldn’t afford college after all, and I didn’t see a way I could swing it on my own.
On TV, mobs of queer activists marched with rainbow flags in protest of Shepard’s murder. Proof there was gay life elsewhere, outside of our little backwards town. To think entire communities existed, were bold enough to take to city streets. College, I was sure, was the gateway to this world I had long for. What kind of life would I have if I stayed here. Laid off from some go-nowhere labor job, like dad. Living with the shameful secret I was gay.
The newsman said Matthew Shepard, after his terrible attack, had died.
I waited for a sound from you. Your eyes widened with his recap of the events of Shepard’s murder:
Tied to a fence.
By the time the newsman reached left for dead, your mouth hung wide open. Your head, I noticed, shook lightly at the newsman’s words, openly gay.
When he said hate crime, you settled back into your seat. After all, this was something that happened far away to a person in a place we didn’t know.
“Awful,” I said breathlessly. I hoped maybe you’d speak your mind. Dad was out. It was just the two of us in the comfort of our own home. And Shepard was, the first man I heard referred to as openly gay.
You didn’t respond though. And I lost track of my applications. They slipped from my hands loosely onto my lap.
Though, I should have expected you to remain silent. You had a history of it. Never a word when dad scolded me on how I ought not to sit. Not a word when our cousin’s father got furious when I played dolls with the girls. Never a word when I screamed too shrill, playing Indian to cowboys as a child. “Quit screaming like a faggot,” the boys said, popping their cap guns into the sky. It was the first time I was called that word.
Is it true what they say: a mother always knows?
Just like then, you quietly stared off into the distance. When the kids ran in front of the bench where you sat on the playground, it was as though it played out, just like the news of Matthew Shepard’s murder. No different than something on a TV with a hazy reception, like there was nothing you could do about it. Your silence disowned me.
I looked for something to arouse in you besides discomfort. The last time it happened, we sat in Wednesday evening worship in our little church, the Pentecostal Full Gospel Tabernacle. The pastor had placed the loudspeaker in the window. It was directed toward two men staying in the bed and breakfast next to the church. The fire-and-brimstone of Leviticus 20:13 cut through the thick soup of August air and the buzz of cicadas, aimed straight for the two men.
If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both have committed an abomination; they shall both be put to death. Their blood is upon them.
What was their crime? They were two visitors to our quaint little town. Men, so it was rumored, who shared a single room with a double bed.
I watched you spin the top button of your blush pink church dress, as though it were a knob that shut off your voice. You sat like the blank, gray, glass cold screen of a turned-off TV. Surely, you knew the pastor, just as well, spoke of your son.
It was before the news of Matthew Shepard, before openly gay broadcast across our living room. Surely the congregation knew the same softness in me. I grew up with them, after all. Yet, the church folk howled like a pack of wild dogs. My own dad sat on the edge of his seat and waved his hanky. “Preach it, brother. Come on now. Tell the Truth now,” he cried out.
The minister spit his sermon into the microphone. He raced in front of the pews soaked in sweat. Your head dropped to your button with the daggers in his words: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and “Faggots will split Hell wide open.”
That night, when the pastor asked for prayer requests, you raised your hand, finally piped-up. You said “unspoken” for it was something we held so deep, you dare not say. Yet, you and I both knew just what your unspoken prayer request was for.
The power of the unspoken weighed on me as I sunk deep into the sofa. I imagined the parade of rainbow flags, the mobs of queers in the city streets, protesting Shepard’s murder. Couldn’t you see there were places I belonged? I pretended to fall asleep there on the couch after the news. I mourned Shepard. My heart was heavy for him. I imagined his young face from the news, which I found to be quite beautiful. I dreamed we met and fell in love.
You shut off the TV. You took the application that, by then, had fallen loosely beside me. I felt your warm hand brush softly against my arm. I had forgotten after all, how warm the touch could be. Then, you left the room.
The next morning, I found you had laid the applications out on the kitchen table. They were organized beneath a ballpoint pen. The chair was slid back, like an invitation to sit.
With your back turned, you made eggs, and bacon on the stove. When you sat my breakfast on the table, you said, “You’ll make your way in the world.” You sat quietly. You twirled the string at the top of your nightgown while I completed the applications. I signed them and sealed them in an envelope. Though it would always remain unspoken between us, I knew exactly what you meant about making my way in the world. Sure enough, I did.
I’d survive somewhere between the memory of Matthew Shepard and silence. I’d sling back shots in bars. I’d wait for the longing stares, the head nod signals of random men and follow them into bathroom stalls. Leave straight out the exit after the hook-ups that happened without so much as a look in the eye. Never to see them again. I'd survive ignoring your calls, swallow through the awkward silence, the pause of your voice in voicemail while you say, “Just checking in. OK. Give me call.” I mean, really, what I would say to you when everything left unspoken between us says it all.
About the Author
Michael Lockett holds a B.A. in Communications from Clarion University and an M.F.A. from Carlow. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, West Africa as an ESL teacher. Originally from Central PA, he currently resides in Pittsburgh. He works as a Mental Health professional in a public school setting. He is a writer of short stories and is published in the Northern Appalachian Review.