The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 42: Big Bird

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 6, 3:15 pm

Michelle checked her watch. It was after three pm, but there was still plenty of time to get Keith and get to the funeral home. As long as Pil didn’t linger with the Hotline volunteers.

For the past two years, Pil had been the Volunteer Coordinator at the Utah Youth Crisis Line, and he had an office in their call center up in Sugarhouse. As she waited at a stoplight on Foothill Drive, Michelle remembered that he had only landed the job because of Richard Pratt. As out of character as she thought it was for Keith’s husband, Richard had once volunteered at the Crisis Line many years ago, and it was Richard that suggested Pil would make a good fit for the program.

Pil had started as a volunteer, and although he had done great work as a counselor, Michelle knew he needed to be with someone physically in order to empathize and help them. Just talking on the phone could be frustrating, but working with the volunteers was another matter. So when the half-time Volunteer Coordinator position became available, Pil jumped at it.

The volunteers were young, earnest, and desperate to be of use in the world. In his new role, Pil supervised their training, and provided the listening ear they needed as they worked through the trauma of their first calls. The drug overdoses and the suicide attempts often took their toll on a new volunteer, and so Pil’s phone was likely to light up, day or night. And he was far more likely to drive to the office to talk down a counselor after a tough call, than to just work them through it on the phone. But that also often meant that getting out of the office when he promised could be a challenge.

 The big man surprised her this time. As she pulled up their yellow Chevy Tahoe in front of the office, he was looking out the window, waiting for her.

“Hey, Meowi…” she said, as her husband lumbered through the door of the low office building. The door was good and wide, but Michelle saw he still turned his shoulders and ducked his head as he walked through. She had noticed years ago that he had just made it a habit to perform that little dance move when going through a door, even when it wasn’t necessary. It had probably saved him many a nasty crack on the head.

As usual, the people on the sidewalk scattered as he appeared. A man Pil’s size just suddenly lumbering onto the sidewalk was enough to startle anyone, and she could see them turn their heads to follow him with their eyes as he rushed over to the car.

As he always did, Pil came around to her side of the vehicle first, gave her a big kiss through the window and then hustled around to his side. They had bought a Subaru Forester when they first got married, but getting Pil in and out of a regular sized car was both painful and hilarious. So despite the ecological footprint, they’d switched to this big yellow Chevy Tahoe (which Keith promptly christened “Big Bird”). Richard and Keith had taken the old Subaru off their hands, and it was now parked in their garage.

The Tahoe was a ridiculously large vehicle, and Michelle felt like a ten-year-old when she was driving it. But it was at least a vehicle that Pil could get in and out of without spraining something or damaging the vehicle.

“How did it go today?” Pil asked, squeezing himself into the passenger seat.

“Everything is fine, I guess,” Michelle said with a sigh. “I have the groceries in the back. Not much, but enough to keep Keith afloat for a few days, if he really insists on being back in that house.” She was sure her disapproval of that possibility was clear in her voice.

Pil put a big paw on her shoulder, and gave it a light squeeze, as she maneuvered the big boat out of the parking lot. He often said it amazed him that a little lady like her could pilot their behemoth with such skill.

“Do you have the papers for the funeral home?” Pil asked.

“No, I left them with Keith. He went over them last night and said he’d bring them when we pick him up.”

Pil bit a fingernail on his right hand. “And you’re sure this is a good idea.”

She glanced over at him and playfully batted his hand out of his mouth. Chewing his fingernails always made him look about twelve years old. “Stop that. It’s a nasty habit. And am I sure what is a good idea?”

“Me. Going to the funeral home. Are you sure it wouldn’t be better for Keith if you two just did it alone?”

Michelle wanted to swat the big man, for real this time, but the look in his eyes made her stop. She hadn’t seen him look that uncertain, that vulnerable, in a very long time. She didn’t realize he was this nervous about spending time with Keith again.

“Don’t be silly. Of course it’s a good idea. I think he’s about over my company. He practically kicked me out of the house this morning so he could write in his journal. A new face is exactly what he needs.” They drove in silence for a couple blocks, and then she continued. “In fact, he’s been asking about you. And he needs to see you. He’s grateful for everything you’ve done, and he understands how much of your time that’s taken the past few days. And honey, if you don’t start spending more time with him, he’s going to be hurt.”

Pil looked stricken. “It’s not because I don’t want to, Mish. It’s just that I’m not sure it would be good for him.”

“He’s fine, Meowi. In fact, I’d venture to say, he needs you more than he needs me right now.” She paused, wondering if she should say the next part. “And I think you know why.”

Pil didn’t say anything, so as soon as they were stopped at a traffic light, Michelle decided it was best to just say it. She turned to face him.

“It’s because he’s in love with you, that’s why. He has been since before he met Richard.”

There was a long pause, and the light turned green.

“I know that,” Pil said, unconsciously biting his fingernail again. “You and I have talked about it. But like we’ve also talked about, neither of us are sure that Keith knows it. Which is why I’m not sure I should be there. He’s going to be very vulnerable for a while. I don’t want to take a chance of hurting him more. Or confusing him. He… means a lot to me.”

“I know that, babe. He means a lot to us both. But please don’t worry and don’t be self-conscious around him. We’ve known how he’s felt for more than a decade. There isn’t any reason for it to become a problem now.”

“But it’s just that he’s so devastated. I don’t want to take a chance of making that worse.”

She actually laughed, but it was a harsh laugh. “Believe me, nothing could make it worse.” Michelle realized, as soon as she said it, how cruel that sounded. “Sorry, baby. I don’t mean to be negative. He’s doing better. Really. I think he’s going to be fine. But he needs us both right now. Neither of us should be afraid of showing him affection. He needs it.”

And, she thought, you need it too. You need to hold him and help him through this. Your heart is too big to just watch from the sidelines while he’s suffering. Doing that would probably hurt you as much as Keith.

She thought all this, but she only said, “Keith is your family too.”

Pil held her hand, and she felt the tension that he was radiating begin to melt. “You know that you’re fucking amazing, right?”

“So I keep telling you,” she said with a giggle. “I’m also amazing at it… If you know what I mean…”

He laughed. “That you are! As you proved last night.”

They were nearing the Avenues when Michelle remembered something she had wanted to talk to Pil about.

“So, when I was at the grocery store, I got a call. Can you guess from who?”

“I have no idea.”

“Detective Grayson.”

“Again? I thought maybe she was done calling you. What did she want?”

“Well, she said she just wanted to update me on the case. But it became pretty clear right away that she had something else on her mind.”

“Oh? What?”

She sighed. “Pil, do you think there is any chance that Richard was… That Richard was fucking that boy, Howard Gunderson? The one who shot him?”

She had thought that Pil would deny it immediately, but to her surprise, he stopped to think about it before answering.

“No, I don’t think so. But there isn’t much I would put past Richard. He was a strange guy. And we know he was attracted to younger men. Keith was only twenty when they met. Richard was more than twice his age. So could he have been screwing some unknown young guy? I wouldn’t put it past him.”

Michelle sighed. “Well, I told the detective I didn’t think Richard was seeing anyone, and I think he would have told Keith if he was. And of course, Keith would have told me. They’ve both had flings over the years, and I guarantee, I’ve heard about them all.” She could imagine Pil rolling his eyes. “But… I guess I’m just not sure. Gunderson probably would have been Richard’s type.” When Pil didn’t respond, she added, “It will devastate Keith if that ends up being the truth.”

Pil was silent. He didn’t need to say he agreed with her. They both knew very well how honesty was the thing that mattered most to Keith, in his relationship with Richard. It wouldn’t have devastated Keith to find out his husband had slept with somebody else. But somebody that young, and then not being honest with him about it? Yes, that would devastate Keith.

“I don’t think it’s true. It can’t be,” Michelle said, hoping that would be the last word.

They drove in silence. Michelle realized they had just passed their own house. She was now driving along the same two blocks she ran the night Richard died. She wondered if she’d ever be able to look at this street again without remembering that night.

Keith was waiting in the open door as they arrived, fumbling with his keys and the brochures Michelle had left with him that morning. Michelle hopped out and grabbed the bag of groceries, leaving Pil in the SUV. She gave Keith a quick peck on the cheek as she ran into the house to throw the milk and eggs in the refrigerator. The rest she left on the counter.

When she came back out, she saw the two men standing next to the open passenger door of the yellow SUV. Pil had enfolded Keith in his big, tattooed arms. Keith was even shorter than her. So he looked like a doll or a chubby teddy bear in her husband’s thick embrace.

As she walked up, she saw Keith eyes were dry. Maybe he truly was past the crying. But there were big tears silently rolling down Pil’s cheeks and wetting the top of Keith’s head.

She thought again how much she loved these two men.

Pinned like a butterfly in these pages—
Blue lines peel from the sharp white edges

to bind your wrists, your ankles. Your struggle
blurs ink with sweat, staining us both.

Holding you fast every morning—
a silent meditation of paper and flesh.

In the fading light of the day I itch to crumple
these tear-stained pages and scream. 

Instead, I draw new word portraits of your eyes—
staring into them until your memory blinks,

lick my pen to keep the blood flowing, feel
your firm grip and the rhythm of your breath,

To run my fingers between your pages—
flesh seeking warmth and moisture.

The tap tap tapping of memory. Then sleep and
dreams of loosening blue bonds, setting you free.

I should and yet I don’t, I must and yet I can’t—
but close the cover and press you against my cheek.

For every morning, holding you fast,
I can feel you struggling against my breast. 

Every afternoon, from the distant shelf—
I listen to your muffled singing.

—Excerpt from “Grimoire” by Keith Woo, as it appears in “The Heavy Work of Vanishing: The Collected Poetry of Keith Woo,” edited by Pi’ilani Kilani, page 203.

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 60 chapters of the book are already available there for subscribers.

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