The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.21: Coffee, The Darker the Better

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 6, 8:12 am

By the time Michelle arrived at Keith’s house, the neighborhood was coming to life for the day.

One thing you could be certain about in a Utah suburb on a beautiful summer day, was that there would be lots of kids running up and down the sidewalks, and lots of Norman-Rockwell-like scenes in the porches and the yards that you passed. On Keith’s street alone, one guy was washing his car in his driveway, and a man was playing catch with his son in the yard right next door.

If any place is stuck in the 1950s, Michelle thought, it’s Utah. Not even a horrific murder in the neighborhood can upset the domestic routine.

She waved to Keith’s neighbors, some of whom she had met and some she had not. It didn’t matter. In the Avenues, everyone had a tendency to wave at each other when they passed.

Michelle knocked at Keith’s door, but then let herself in with a key. She’d always been careful never to do that when Richard was home, but Keith didn’t seem to mind.

“Honey, are you awake?” she yelled through the open doorway, even though the text message had said that he was.

All the way over Michelle had fought off the butterflies in her stomach, but seeing Keith standing behind the dining room table, she immediately felt better. He did it, she thought. He got through a whole night alone in this house, and he looks just fine.

And he did, from a distance. But as she got closer, she could see that the smile on his face was forced, and the haunted look in his eyes hadn’t diminished. He was trying to put on a brave face, but it was clear he hadn’t had a good night, or a good morning.

Keith was just pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“Oh, honey, you look exhausted. Did you sleep at all?”

“Yes, mama bear, I actually slept really well,” Keith said, as he put down the pot and submitted to her hug. But as soon as she released him, he sank down into a chair, as if standing was too much for him. “I actually thought I was doing really well,” he said, “until I came downstairs and looked in the living room. Then I realized that… Well, that I wasn’t.”

She kissed the top of her friend’s head and rumpled his jet black hair. His hand was still on the handle of the coffee pot, and she saw he was gripping it tightly, as if to stop his hand from shaking. Gently, she took the pot from his fist and poured her coffee into a second cup.

“How did you sleep?” he asked her.

He wants to know if I got laid last night, Michelle thought, and smiled to herself.

“Good, actually,” she said with a wink. That actually lightened Keith’s mood.

“Nice. Speaking of horizontal therapy, where is the big galoot? I thought he was coming with us today.” She could see the disappointment in his eyes. He really missed Pil. It was so clear on his face. The realization caused her a bit of a tremor. Would Keith now fall deeper into his affection for her husband, now that Richard was gone? She wouldn’t mind, but she worried how each of them would handle Keith’s emotions, if that happened. If nothing else, Keith’s love for Richard had kept his feelings for Pil in perspective. What happened now?

“He’ll be here tonight. He has to work, but he promised he’d come with us to the funeral home.” She took his hand. “You miss him a lot, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess I do. It just feels like we’re not the three musketeers without him. And you and I haven’t been great about keeping ourselves from melting down the past few days. I think he helps.”

“He does indeed.” She paused a moment and changed the subject. “I was really worried about you being here by yourself last night. But Pil said you’d be fine, and I think he was right.”

“Well, I slept the whole night. But it was weird waking up in such a quiet house.”

“You used to tell me you liked having the house quiet.”

Michelle had long come to understand that Keith was, by his very nature, a bit of an introvert. On those evenings when Richard had to stay late at the University, attending a faculty meeting or a reception, Keith would love the quiet house and the ability to read silently there in his favorite chair in the living room.

“Well, you know me. I’m a hermit,” Keith said. “I don’t mind a quiet house. But I also loved looking up from my book when Richard came in the door. I’d always say the same thing. I’d say, ‘How’s the bear?’ and he’d always answer, ‘The bear is good. How’s the cub?’”

Michelle rolled her eyes. “Oh god, I know. The bear thing. Do you remember how confused I was when you tried to explain that to me?”

“You were, until you met all of Richard’s friends, anyway.”

“Absolutely,” she laughed.

Keith and Richard were part of what used to be a fairly obscure gay subculture that called themselves “bears.” Almost without fail, all of Keith’s and Richard’s friends were big and hairy guys, and she had to admit, being a “bear” had certainly done a lot for Keith’s body issues. His friends loved his roly-poly little body, and that made him much more comfortable in being who he was. She knew she was pretty much the only woman that Keith and Richard spent any time with—which, of course, made her a “Goldilocks” in bear parlance.

No wonder she had to roll her eyes from time to time.

Keith had fallen silent for a moment, lost in his memories. There were tears in his eyes, but he was fighting them back.

“Those little rituals are over,” Keith said, using a napkin from the table to dab at his eyes. “A lifetime of building and growing together now finished. All those shared memories. All those shared jokes. All the things we agreed about, and all the things we fought over. All the plans we’d made. It’s all gone now.”

She almost told him differently, but she knew it would sound as false as it was. Keith was right. And trying to minimize the loss wouldn’t do him any great service. Instead, she glanced at the paperwork from the funeral home. It looked as if Keith had been going through it this morning, which was another good sign.

“Are you ready for this today, honey?”

Keith blew his nose. The change of subject was something he clearly appreciated. “No. But I can be. I will be. What time are we going over?”

“Oh, it’s not until this afternoon. We have plenty of time. We could run out and get some groceries, if you need them. Or just relax here.”

“Relax here, I think,” Keith said, his eyes down on the coffee cup. He was dipping his spoon into the black coffee, watching it appear and disappear. Keith and Richard had always made their coffee exceptionally strong, and “the darker the better,” as Richard had always said. They’d settled on Starbucks French Roast, which always tasted burnt to her. It was just one of the many things Richard had insisted upon.

“Yeah, relaxing out on the back porch this morning sounds like a good choice,” he said, mesmerized by the black coffee.

“Have you had breakfast?”

“Yeah. Just Cheerios.”

“That’s fine. As long as you’re eating.”

Keith looked up with a knowing smile. “Did you eat this morning?”

She just smiled back at him. “No, of course not. A girl has to stay in shape.”

“I’m in shape,” Keith said, completing their old joke almost out of habit. “Round is a shape.”

They both laughed, but it was hard to tell where the laughter let off and the tears began. The emotions were still so raw, so easily exposed by even the slightest gesture or comment. Michelle took his hand and squeezed it. She wanted to say to him, see, the rituals aren’t over. And we can always make more…

“Are you doing okay, sweetie? I was so worried about you being here by yourself last night.”

“I had to do it sometime. I actually think I did pretty well. I certainly slept through the night.” As if needing to change the subject, Keith went on. “You said Pil was making arrangements for the funeral?”

“Yeah, I think it’s all set. He met with the Bishop and they have everything set for the graveside service. Pil’s already sent out a lot of invitations. Richard’s colleagues in the Linguistics department were really helpful. I think there will be a lot of people there.”

“Did you invite the bears?”

“Yeah, of course. I used that e-mail list you gave me. A bunch of them are desperate to see you, you know.”

“I know. I’ve seen the e-mails. But right now, I just don’t think I’m ready.”

“I told that to the ones that wrote to me,” Michelle said. They’re spreading the word. But they’ll definitely be at the funeral. When you’re ready, I’ll forward you the notes they sent along. Some of them were very sweet.”

Keith’s attention had wandered a bit, so she squeezed his hand. “Do you think you’ll want to say anything? At the funeral?”

“I think I should. I don’t know too many of his colleagues from the University, but a lot of our friends will be there too. Between the bears and the academics, it will be an interesting crowd. I should say something, but I’m not sure what.”

Michelle said, “I can’t believe I haven’t asked this, but in all that we’ve been going through these past few days, I haven’t… Have you told your mother and sister what happened? Maybe your sister could drive here up from Las Vegas?”

“No, I haven’t told them. That’s one bit of drama I don’t want to face yet. My mom was never very supportive of my being gay, and she’s never met Richard. She knew about him, but it would just seem… strange to have her here. My life with Richard was never something she had anything to do with, and I don’t think I want her to start now.”

“But honey, she needs to know. Don’t you think she’ll want to be here for you?”

Keith had a wry smile on his face, showing that there was a lot more going on with his family than he wanted to get into. After a moment, he just said, “Remember, Mish, not all families are like yours. We’re definitely not the big happy Mormon family.” He paused for a moment, like he was trying to find a way to say what was on his mind. “My family has always been Richard, and you and Pil. Now, it’s just you and Pil. And that’s fine. It’s all I need.”

“And your bear friends,” Michelle added.

Keith had to think a minute. “No. They’re good guys, but they’re not family the way you and Pil are. I think Richard would have told you differently. To him, gay friends were much more important.”

“Maybe that’s because of the years he was an activist in New York.”

“Probably. Being gay was more central to his identity than it ever was for me. Probably because he was older.”

Michelle wanted to question him about that, but she didn’t. She thought he was probably right. Keith had engaged in all the social stuff with their friends, mostly for Richard. Keith would have been happier just staying at home, the two of them, and reading books in bed together.

Besides, she understood. She felt it too. She loved her mom and dad and sisters, and they had other friends too. But in the final analysis, her chosen family was just Pil and Keith. It was a family every bit as real, and perhaps more so, than her biological family.

She asked, “And what about Richard’s family? We can take care of inviting them to the funeral, if you want to give us a list of who to contact.”

“Well, Richard’s family is pretty small too. His father died when he was just a teenager, and his mother has been dead for thirty years too.”

Michelle knew the story. This was the house that Richard Pratt had grown up in, and he had come back to it after his mother had died, and he got a teaching job at the University. He had promised he would never come back to Utah, and he always said, when he told the story, that he was surprised to be here. Michelle understood that, because she too never felt like Richard belonged in Utah.

“The only member of his family that is left is his brother, and his brother’s wife. They live in Vermont. I think his brother owns a bicycle repair shop there, that he bought with the money he got when Richard bought out his share of the house. I’ve only met him a few times. But he’s nice. Yeah, somebody should call him. They weren’t super close, but I suspect he will want to come to the funeral.”

“You haven’t heard from him yet?”

“I don’t think so. But I haven’t looked.”

“You haven’t looked at your phone?”

“I looked at it yesterday, before we went out for dinner. The e-mail was way too much to deal with. And I think there are phone messages.”

“Here. Hand it to me.” She put out her hand and gave Keith a look that made it clear ignoring his phone right now wasn’t acceptable.

As she had suspected, there were a dozen messages on there, and over a hundred e-mails. She sighed. “So, I know what we’re doing this morning, once Pil gets here. We’ll listen to all these messages, and we’ll call back the people we need to call. Then I can help you answer the e-mail.”

Nothing told her as much about how devastated Keith was than this. He was never the kind of person who would ignore his phone messages. He was always a stickler for responding to people.

“Speaking of responsibilities,” she said, putting his phone down on the table. “Pil says he talked to your boss at the University and confirmed you have at least ten days of bereavement leave. More if you need it. So far you’ve only taken three, so you have a lot more. Today is Saturday, so by my calculation, you don’t need to go back to the Library for at least another week.”

“That was really nice of Pil. But I think I’ll go back earlier. In fact, probably within a couple days. I really feel like I need to get back in a routine. If I don’t, I’ll just sit in this depression and it will kill me.” He winced at his own use of that word. “I mean, it will just make me more depressed. Going back will be good for me.”

“Okay. Just take your time. Nobody is in a hurry.”

“I guess nobody but me,” he agreed.

“Pil says your boss relayed best wishes from all your co-workers. They’ll be sending flowers to the funeral. And they want to know if there is anything else they can do.”

He was mesmerized by his coffee again and didn’t respond. The spoon dipped into the steaming cup, and then slowly reappeared, as if emerging from a dark room. And Michelle suddenly realized that Keith was drinking his coffee black, the way Richard did.

“I know this probably sounds a bit out of the blue,” she said, “but did you turn on the news last night?”

The question startled him a bit, and he looked up from his coffee.

“No. Why?”

“Well, there was a big… incident… last night at Valley Fair Mall. At the theaters there. A pilot from Dugway went crazy with a knife and a bunch of people are dead, and even more wounded. It was all over the news last night. I’m glad you didn’t turn on the TV. It was the last thing either of us needed.”

Keith looked perplexed. “That hardly ever happens in Salt Lake City.”

“I guess it happens everywhere now.”

Keith looked suddenly frightened. “Yeah, but don’t you feel it? It’s like something has changed. It’s like some kind of poison got into the air or something. The cops can’t explain why that boy shot Richard. And now this?”

“It’s just coincidence, honey. It’s America. This stuff is happening everywhere now.”

“It doesn’t feel like it. I don’t know why, but something feels out of whack. Like this city is a washing machine that is out of balance and about ready to fly apart.”

Michelle felt a tug of recognition in her gut. “I guess it’s natural to feel that way after something happens like this. I feel it too. You can’t have something this violent happen to you and not feel like it upsets everything. But I think we have to fight it. It’s the same world that we lived in before. We can’t let the despair take root.”

“It doesn’t feel like the same world.”

“I know. But it will be. Eventually.” She got up from the table and took her empty coffee cup to the sink. Keith was still staring into his. “You should drink your coffee. I know you get headaches if you don’t have it.”

“Okay.” He took a sip. “It’s weak. I didn’t have enough to make a good pot. If we go to the store, we need to put coffee on the list.”

“Let’s make a list now,” she said, pulling the magnetic pad off the side of the refrigerator. “It will help us kill the time until Pil gets here.”

But Keith didn’t seem to be listening. He was still toying with his coffee. The spoon dipped into the liquid like a fountain pen—there one minute, and then gone. He took the spoon out of the coffee and sat mesmerized as the dark ink of the blackness swirled slowly around in the white porcelain of the cup.

The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.

For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.

To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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