The Care-Giver

“Where am I?” the man mumbled. He was clearly in poor health and disoriented. He appeared to be in his late-sixties, perhaps seventies. Confusion, anger and fear swirled in his voice.

“In your room at your new home.”

“My new home?”

“Remember, you moved here yesterday.” The younger man patted the older man’s hand. “See the view. It’s much more beautiful than the view from the last place.”

The old man, sitting on the side of his bed, looked up and out the window. His face did not react to the sprawling green lawn and view of the Willamette River as it flowed northward to its demise when it became one with the deep, dark Columbia River. “Who are you, anyway?” he asked with agitation.

“I’m Mike, Barrett Hartley’s brother, his little brother,” the younger man answered in a soft voice.

“No you’re not. Mike Hartley is fourteen.”

“Well, I was fourteen when we met, Karl, but I’m fifty-four now. And you’re not twenty any more either.”

“No. I guess not. How old am I again?”

“You’re sixty.”

“Oh, yeah. Sixty.” Karl smiled. “I’m sixty.” He looked at Mike. Puzzlement returned to his face. “Where are we?”

“At your new home.”

“I know. You just told me that,” Karl snapped.

“Oh, we’re still in Portland.”

“Portland?” Karl asked. He looked out the window a moment and appeared to remember something. “I live in Portland, you know.” Karl stared at Mike a moment. Then another wave of confusion crossed his face.  “Who did you say you are?”

“Mike Hartley, Barrett’s brother.”

“Barrett Hartley? How is my old friend anyway?”

“He’s fine, Karl,” Mike lied to avoid reminding the feeble man that Barrett had died two years earlier, a fact Karl had understood when it happened. “Would you like to get in your wheelchair and sit by the window?”

“The window?”

“Here. Let me help you.” Mike moved the wheelchair next to Karl, lifted him up, and pivoted him into the chair. He did it with precision and patience, as if he had done this many times before.

“Where are we going?” Karl asked.

“To the window.”

“Oh, that would be nice. Thank you, Barrett.”

Mike ignored being called the wrong name. He pushed the wheelchair the few feet to the window. But, once settled there, Karl did not show any interest in the world outside. Instead, he looked down at his lap, unaware of the serene lawn and rushing Willamette River in front of him. His head bobbed and he closed his eyes. Mike stood behind the chair with his hands still gripping its handles, gazed out the window, and recalled first seeing Karl forty years earlier. He smiled.

He was fourteen. It was June 1976, an unusually warm June.  Barrett had come home from college and brought one of his fraternity brothers, Karl Fletcher, with him. They were there to look after Mike while the elder Hartleys vacationed at Seaside on the Oregon Coast.  Mike had seen his parents off, his mother’s last words being, “Barrett and his friend should be here around lunchtime. They’re in charge. Listen to them. They know what is best for you.”

After his parents departed, Mike spent the morning working his half-day shift at Best Friends, a pet store, where he cleaned cages and cared for the particularly stressed puppies and kittens. He appeared to have a knack for calming the most frightened ones. This was his second summer working there.  When he arrived home at 1:30, Mike found his brother’s freshly washed black 1969 Chevrolet Camaro in the driveway. It glistened under the hot sun.  The bucket used to wash the car sat unattended near the car, a sponge and several rags next to it. A green hose meandered across the lawn from a spigot on the house to the car. On the grass next to the Camaro, lay two spread out pairs of drenched denim cut-offs, a white t-shirt, and a gray tank top, the result of an apparent post carwash water fight. A pair of white tennis shoes and two navy blue flip-flops lay scattered near the house’s front door. The clothes and footwear, apparently, were left to dry in the heat.

With his sweaty San Francisco Giants t-shirt sticking to his back, Mike entered the house. He peeled off the damp shirt and fanned himself with it. The motion caused a movement of air and, as a result, he smelled marijuana wafting from the rear of the house, from Barrett’s bedroom. Elton John’s album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy drifted from the same direction like the illegal smoke filling the house. Mike dashed down the hall to greet his brother, but was stopped by what he saw when he reached the room’s open door.  Barrett was sitting on the wooden chair at his desk. He was naked. The chair was turned around so Barrett’s backside stared unobstructed at Mike in the doorway. Barrett was drumming an accompaniment to the music on the desk. His black hair, wet with water fight, hung to his shoulders. Sitting on Barrett’s bed was a naked stranger, a handsome young man with a wild bird’s nest of sandy brown hair that apparently avoided the hose’s spray. He played an air piano, mimicking Elton John, as his left foot tapped a rhythm on the floor. His penis dangled off the edge of the bed. It was long enough to dangle.

The stranger looked startled for a moment when Mike appeared, but did not seem flustered. He did not change position. “Oh, hey man. You gotta be Mike. I’m Karl.”

Mike stared at Karl’s crotch a moment. Then his gaze snapped to his face. “Hi,” he said with guilty self-consciousness.

Barrett turned and looked over his shoulder. He smiled. “Hey, little brother. What’s happening?”

Mike eyed his brother. “You guys are naked! How did you get from the driveway to the house?”

“In our underwear. How else?” Barrett answered. “But they’re wet. So we hung them in the shower.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, Mike,” Barrett said changing the subject, “Mom thinks we’re gonna watch over you while they’re gone. But we’re not. You’re old enough to take care of yourself, man. We’re not gonna hassle ya.”

“Yeah,” Karl added as he looked Mike over. “You’re fourteen?” “You look sixteen. At least.”

This was not the first time Mike had been told he looked older than his years. “Cool, I guess,” he said. His gaze switched from his brother to Karl and then back to Barrett. “You guys are stoned,” he said, not so much as an accusation but as a fact. He looked at Karl again, first at his face and then he peeked at his penis one more time and turned and walked to his room nextdoor.

Shit, he thought as he fell face down on his bed, Karl is really good-looking. He closed his eyes. The image of his brother’s friend’s naked body remained. It squirmed between him and the powder blue chenille bedspread.  And, man, his dick is huge. Mike writhed a bit. That is a beautiful dick. I just wanted to reach out and…

                 His thoughts were interrupted by the throbbing sensation of rushing blood in his own penis. Mike, as if an alarm had gone off, pushed himself up onto his knees and hopped from the bed. He stepped to the window and looked into the Hartley backyard. Why am I even thinking that? Still picturing his dick? And why the hell is that giving me a boner? he thought, anguish contorting his face.  He looked down, ordering his erection to shrivel. It did. I thought only gay guys think about other guys’ dicks, Mike told himself.

Mike looked up and out the window again as a long silent reality stared back at him. He realized this had not been the first time he had noticed other guys’ cocks. That had been at the beginning of the seventh grade. He had been quite aware that he was one of only three boys in his gym class who had gone through puberty. He had even assessed that while Marty Wharton’s dick was bigger than his, his balls were more impressive. Vic Evans, on the other hand, probably had the smallest dick of the three of them, but his black pubic hair formed a virtual jungle. Mike also had noticed that three or four other boys were just beginning to develop mature equipment.

Oh, fuck, he realized with exasperation, if I notice other guys’ dicks and I think about them and it turns me on, I gotta be gay. He grimaced. Oh, fuck fuck double fuck! I’m gay, he thought with anger. His hands formed fists. Mike, in deep thought, stared out the window for several minutes. Birds flew by, playing in the warm summer light. Two squirrels frolicked. Flowers smiled. Mike’s facial expression and body language changed, relaxed. His taut fists opened. Jesus Christ! That’s it. I’m gay. I’m fuckin’ gay, he thought now in an almost accepting, celebratory tone. It all makes sense now. A baptizing cleansing mist covered his eyes, but Mike did not cry. Instead, he took a deep relaxing breath, gazed at the joy outside in the open, freeing spaces, and smiled. Oh, shit, this is gonna go over real big at school and with my family.  He laughed.

Karl stayed at the Hartley’s for four days, until Barrett started his summer job in the warehouse at Otto’s Auto Supply. As far as Mike was aware, however, and to his disappointment, the older duo never sat around naked again during those four days. But Mike had not forgotten the image of handsome Karl’s naked body nor had he accepted that he would never see it again. He, in fact, plotted ways to catch his brother’s friend showering, exiting the shower, or getting ready for bed. But none of his schemes proved successful.

Nevertheless, Mike did get his chance to see Karl naked again and it was under unplanned circumstances. On Karl’s last night, a Sunday, Barrett received a phone call informing him that a close high school friend had been severely beaten at some kind of political rally or demonstration. Barrett rushed to the hospital where he discovered, to his surprise, the event had been one of Portland’s earliest Gay Pride celebrations and his longtime friend had been gay bashed.

Because Karl did not know the hospitalized young man, he remained at home.

As soon as Barrett departed for the hospital, Mike padded down the hall and looked in the doorway of Barrett’s room. Karl, lying across the bed, was wriggling to the rhythms inside headphones. His feet subtly danced on the sleeping bag on the floor next to the bed. “Whatcha doin’?” Mike shouted at Karl. Karl, looked up, doffed the headphones and stared at Mike. His facial expression asked, “What?”

“Whatcha doin’?” Mike repeated.

“Nothing. Listening to Elton.” He smiled. “I was thinkin’ about getting stoned. Wanna get stoned with me?”

Mike thought a moment. He wasn’t measuring the pros and cons of the proposition. He was considering the possibilities. “Hell ya!”

Karl sat up, took a small metal container from his Levi’s back pocket, pulled out a pre-rolled joint, and leaned back across the width of the bed again.  He lit the marijuana. Mike stood in front of him on the sleeping bag. Karl took a drag and handed the joint to Mike who took a long, slow toke and returned the joint to Karl.  The next time he returned the joint to Karl, Mike kneeled at his feet. A few moments later, as Mike passed a joint back to Karl for the sixth time, he looked Karl in the eyes and carelessly whispered what he was thinking. “Fuck, Karl. You’re really handsome. Damn, I wished I looked like you.”

Karl laughed. “You look fine, man. But you sure as hell don’t look fourteen. But thanks for the compliment.” He passed the joint to the boy.

Mike took it, inhaled, leaned in close to Karl’s face, and exhaled the smoke for Karl to take in. But instead of leaning back when that exchange was completed, Mike moved closer and suddenly, impulsively kissed Karl on the mouth. Karl did not react for an awkward moment but then reciprocated as the marijuana loosened his inhibitions. With his free hand, Mike pulled Karl closer. Their tongues entwined like hanger hooks on an overloaded closet rod. Within minutes, Mike undid Karl’s belt, unzipped his pants, maneuvered his white underwear and cut-offs to his ankles. Mike, fulfilling the fantasy he had had from the moment he had seen Karl’s penis dangle over the bed’s edge, touched Karl’s hardening organ. At first it was exploratory touching, but it quickly evolved into masturbation.

When it was over, Karl immediately sat up. “Shit! I shouldn’t have let you do that,” he grunted with anger. “We shouldn’t have done that. I’m not a homo. Besides, you’re only fourteen.”

“It’s OK, man. I wanted to do it.” Mike looked at Karl’s face. “How could anyone not want to do that with you, for you? You’re so fucking good-looking.”

“But that was wrong, kid. I’m not a queer. And neither are you. Besides, you’re only fourteen.” Karl stood, pulled up his shorts and pants, and bolted to the bathroom. A moment later, Mike heard water rushing and frantic, panicked activity. The fourteen-year-old, stunned by Karl’s reaction, stood, stumbled to his room, locked the door, and joylessly satisfied himself.

Mike awoke early the next morning and walked to the front of the house just in time to see Barrett’s black Camaro, with Karl in the passenger seat, pull out of the driveway.  Barrett, on his way to work, was delivering his friend to the airport.

“Hello, Mr. Hartley,” a woman’s voice interrupted Mike’s memory. He spun toward the door.

“Oh, hi, Jessica. It is Jessica?” he asked the nurse in the doorway.

“Yes. I’m just checking on my newest patient. Is everything OK here?”

“Perfect.”

Jessica stepped into the room. “I saw that you had signed in and I had been told you would be a regular visitor. But I’m just curious, since you are not a Fletcher, what is your relationship to Karl?” Her tone did not reflect suspicion or judgement, but rather a quality based on patient safety.

Mike laughed. “Well, Karl and my older brother Barrett were best friends. I met Karl when I was fourteen. Years went by. I didn’t see him for decades,” he explained. “But I saw him when Barrett died of lung cancer three years ago and again when Karl’s wife passed away from breast cancer just seven months later.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jessica whispered.

“It was during that second funeral,” Mike continued, “that I realized Karl, as young as he was, was experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s. When I learned his son is a minister in Malheur County, across the state, and his daughter, who lives in Tacoma, is raising two young children alone, I realized it would be difficult for them to make frequent trips to Portland, so I offered to look after Karl as often as I could. But his condition has been deteriorating rapidly and his kids, doctor, and I all felt it was time to move him here where he’ll get constant care.”

“Yes. I think that was a wise decision. It was really nice of you to offer your help to Karl’s family, Mr. Hartley,” the nurse said.

“Well, Karl is very special to me, Jessica.” Mike looked at the floor in thought. He looked up. “You see, through him, I learned a lot about myself. I owe him a lot and I never had the chance to thank him.”

Karl suddenly stirred in his wheelchair. “Who are you people?” he interrupted in an angry gruff voice. He struggled unsuccessfully to turn and see who was talking.

“It’s me, Mike Hartley, and your new nurse Jessica, Karl. And she’s much more beautiful than your last nurse. I think his name was Carlos.”

“I had a nurse named Carlos? Nurses aren’t named Carlos. Stop lying to me.”

Mike walked to the wheelchair, rested a comforting hand on Karl’s shoulder, and gently massaged it. He turned to Jessica. “And since I am trying to slowly remove myself from my veterinary practice and let my two younger partners take over, I have the time to visit with my old friend here.“

“Oh, you’re a veterinarian. I didn’t know. I’ve been calling you Mr. Hartley. I’m sorry, Dr. Hartley,” Jessica apologized.

“No problem. I’ve been called worse, a lot worse. By this guy, even.”

“Barrett,” Karl called, “I’m cold. I want to lie down.”

“OK, Karl, I’ll help you in a second.” Mike smiled at Jessica. “Besides,” he asked, “what else am I going to do now that I’m a bachelor again?”

Jessica did not respond to the last comment. She focused on the wheelchair. “Do you need any help moving him, Dr. Hartley?” Jessica asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ve done this many times. We’re good here.”

“Well, if you need anything, just let me know,” the nurse offered as she turned and left the room.

Mike pulled back the covers on the bed and lifted Karl onto it. He arranged the pillows under his head and placed the covers over the old friend he hardly knew. Then he took from the nightstand a small CD player he had brought the day before when he had helped Karl move in. Mike inserted a CD and adjusted the volume as Elton John began singing the title song from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. He studied Karl briefly, making certain he was comfortable, and climbed onto the bed. He scooted himself back so he sat with his legs stretched atop the covers and put his arm around Karl’s shoulders. “Do you hear the music, Karl? It’s Elton John.”

“I hear it, Barrett.” Karl turned a bit, snuggled his face into Mike’s hip, rested his weak hand on his thigh, and fell asleep.  Before the title track of the album had ended, Mike, too, fell asleep. When he awoke several cuts later, Elton John was singing “Someone Saved My Life Last Night.”

Mike looked at Karl. “You know,” he whispered, “in many ways, you saved my life that night in 1976. Man, you saved me from a lot of struggles, a lot of difficulties, a lot of wasted time. And I’ve never had the chance to thank you. Thank you, Karl, even if that weird experience didn’t mean the same to you as it did to me.”

It was then Mike noticed Karl was not breathing.

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