Chapter X from The Other Man
(A novel written in the 1970s)
by Ronald Linder
Early Sunday morning, weary but buoyed by the fact that he might be discharged that day, Ralph shaved, preparing for the psychiatrist’s visit and his decision whether or not he would let Dr. Ralph Bouman go home. The telephone rang, and for an uncontrollable instant, he hoped it was Jeff. But Ralph realized that was weak and wishful thinking.
As the phone kept ringing, he turned off the water in the sink and thought about answering it, wondering if it was Jeff begging for a second chance. But how could a second chance get rid of Jeff’s family or his idea that the world came on a serving tray? Jeff would probably laugh at his story of the orderly he’d ditched who’d been assigned to guard him last night so Ralph didn’t “hurt himself.” Jeff had to learn they were through.
Ralph wiped his mouth and chin and picked up the phone. A familiar coaxing voice with the clink of ice cubes in a highball glass greeted him. “Ralphie – is that you?”
“Yes—Agnes.” Ralph hadn’t expected a call from his sister. They hadn’t spoken in two years.
“You have to come down right away! Dad’s had a heart attack and Mom’s going crazy. I can’t handle her. And she blames you because you weren’t here being his doctor!”
Scatching a sudden painful itch on his neck, Ralph saw blood on his fingernails. “Just wait a minute.” He tried to keep his voice low and controlled. His arms and hands dropped with a special heaviness he always felt when he talked with Agnes—those weights of anger, fear and disappointment. The older sister who should have been around and never was, when Ralph was growing up. She was a ghost who never helped with anything. For years Rob hadn’t been able to finish reading a story or sit through a movie with happy brothers and sisters or families.
Ralph was also surprised that he felt no reaction at the news to his father’s heart attack, but years of his father’s schemes and promises that never came to pass dulled his son’s senses and feelings. He didn’t believe anything his father said or did.
“Agnes—you’re calling me at the hospital. I’ve been sick myself,” Ralph said flatly.
There was a pause at the other end, then Agnes’s young, surprised voice asked slowly—“I didn’t know. I thought I was getting you at work. Are you better? Uh—what was wrong with you? Anything catchy? Agnes was always the hypochondriac.
“Just pneumonia and a coma.”
Another pause, “Then—you’re better now?”
“Yes, I hope to go home in a day or two.”
“Good Ralphie—then you’ll come down. I’ll meet you at the airport.”
“You don’t need me that fast! I haven’t been to Vegas for two years…and Mom’s last letter said I was dead to her!”
“Oh, you don’t take her seriously! Remember—A wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish one is the grief of his mother—.“
Ralph shook his head wearily. His sister had always been conspicuously religious, but only for her own purposes. “Please do me a big favour and don’t quote the Bible. It makes my stomach hurt, coming from you.”
“—Whoso despiseth the word shall suffer thereby. But he that feareth the commandment, shall be rewarded.”
“Agnes—I’m going to hang up!”
“Don’t do that. I’ll stop.” But you know, we don’t hold grudges. Mom and Dad need you now.”
Dizzy and angry, Ralph twirled around, just catching the edge of the bed in time to sit down. “Why do they want me around just when they need me?”
“You know, that’s not fair. They really love you.”
“Then why couldn’t Dad ever pay the bills or have food in the house?”
“Ralphie—they had a lot of hard luck.”
“Because Dad would never quit the theatre and get a real job. He always had to be the star.”
“He was a star, Ralphie, twelve shows a week, and don’t you ever forget it!”
Ralph could see Agnes sitting at a desk in the back at one of her ice cream parlours in Vegas, her young, underpaid, high school soda jerks out front scooping ice cream, making malts and shakes and stealing a little money out of the till. She had the highball glass in her hand as she read the Bible on one side of the table and How to Win at Blackjack on the other.
His father had always praised Agnes. “Such a good girl, so smart and sweet with a real future.” He hardly said anything about Ralph who’d been born thirteen years later.
“Let’s not fight,” he said. That’s all Mother ever does.”
The voice from Vegas became frantic. “What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you have a heart? Your father—your Dad almost died! Mom wants you here! She needs help to get back and forth to the hospital—I’ve got a business to watch!”
“So do I! Listen, Agnes, I was very sick. I almost died. I didn’t let Mother or Dad know because they’d only say I brought it on myself. That I deserved it, because I didn’t live down there with them and support them.”
“Ungrateful for what? Oh, Christ, I’m sorry you called. I was planning to go down there anyway in four or five days—God knows why. I really must be crazy, but maybe that was to convince myself one final time before I break all ties that I wouldn’t be losing anything worthwhile!”
Agnes’s voice changed from a sullen, self-pity to a bright, saleswoman’s banter. “Listen, Ralphie, if you’re interested in something new, I’m thinking of opening up another store, right on the Strip.”
Rob looked for cigarette, but saw none in the room. “I’m broke, Agnes.”
“You always say that. How can a doctor be broke?”
“It takes careful planning.”
The new shiny voice went on. “Five thousand will do it.”
“I don’t have five hundred!”
“What the hell do you do with your money?”
“And what about yours, Agnes?” What about your husband and daughter? Do you have any insurance for them or do you trust your luck, like Dad did? Or do you have a son who’s a doctor who they don’t know about?”
“Don’t get nasty, Ralphie. George is still working. I don’t have to worry about him. I’m warning you…!”
“Or you’ll do what?”
“You— you and your roommate!”
“Me and my roommate what?” Agnes didn’t know that Chuck had been gone for four years.
Ralph remembered his fights with his family always came down to something like this—some innuendo or half statement he was supposed to carry the rest of the way—so that he’d been forced to pay his mother and father a hundred dollars a month for years to keep them quiet—to keep them from bothering Chuck—and forcing him never to be able to tell Agnes what a stinking bad, big sister she was.
And Ralph blamed them for his never having any money—because they would want it. Any savings would mean a fight. He couldn’t have money and just tell them “No,” because he’d feel too vulnerable as a queer. It was easier to say, “I don’t have it.” But he knew he’d have to learn to say “No,” or he’d find himself trapped in a net of yesses and sures and okays, with no way to escape except by taking another bottle of sleeping pills.
Talking to Agnes he felt a bone-hollowing loneliness. He looked down at a stack of books he had checked out of the hospital’s library. For years when there was no one to talk to, he lived with books. They were his mother, father, sister, friends—but Jeff showed him there could be so much more. He caught himself almost crying.
Ralph’s father and mother tried to take everything away from him. They’d been American nomads—with their midnight elopements from landlords who kept Ralph’s books hostage in hotel basements, never to be recovered. Ralph brooded over how many other families in moving-crazy America drifted from city to city with stuttering jobs and incomes. He wondered how many other men his age could never remember a home—not even a kitchen-heated tenement. He could see himself, age nine or ten, sitting in big chairs in hotel lobbies, reading—because his father and mother were upstairs “busy for awhile.” But they had taught him how to fight in a silent sneaky way. He had to battle to stay in school. His father wouldn’t have minded if Ralph had dropped out of school to get a job and “contribute to the house.”
So he fought and stayed in school—despite his father’s demeaning smiles, his mother’s angry, nagging eyes, Chuck’s putdowns—because his medical-student-lover was poor and he didn’t want Ralph to ever feel good enough to leave him.
“So, will you be here tomorrow?” Agnes asked.
“You have to—it’s your duty!”
“Right now it’s my duty to stay alive! I told you I almost died, you bitch!”
Ralph thought of the parents who depended on him—he had a responsibility to them. They were mostly simple, trusting people who could never understand the complications of his life—but who knew if they were sick, he usually made them well. Some of Ralph’s patients had died when he had left New York because they refused to go to anyone else. The doctor who took over his practice told him. And though he’d always considered himself dispensable, always thought if he wasn’t around there would be some other doctor to take his place, there were certain patients who wouldn’t go to anyone else. He had saved lives because he was somewhere at the right time and did the right thing—if he hadn’t been there, those people would have died—and death is the only real endpoint in life that can’t be apologised for or corrected—no matter what anyone straight, gay or “family” yelled. He realized that his keeping alive meant that probably at least a few other people would live, instead of die. But if he gave in anyone longer to what he wasn’t himself, he wouldn’t want to live.
After the long pause on the phone…softly…hurt…”Ralphie—you don’t have to use dirty language.”
“You don’t understand any other way—and even then you don’t understand! Mother won’t have anything to do with me unless I give her my whole life—and father wants money—any money—from anyone—that’s Mom and Dad! God—you people make me angry!”
“If I were you, I’d come running and pray to God and your parents for forgiveness.…I can’t keep driving Mom around…she screams for her darling Ralphie!”
“Agnes—I won’t be there at all! You’ve convinced me. Thanks! The faster I forget all of you and the rotten life I had with you, the better. I’d only give Mother a heart attack—or get blamed for one anyway.”
“You have to come!”
“I’m hanging up. Tell Dad good luck!”
“How can you be such a bastard?”
“Maybe I am a bastard! Maybe that’s why the three of you are so different from me. I was born by accident—Mother told me a hundred times. Doesn’t that make me a legitimate bastard?”
“But we always treated you like one of us!”
“No you didn’t. I was a pain in the ass to all of you—then a pain in the ass who was a doctor who could do the things a doctor does. I was never a son or a brother!”
Ralph slammed down the phone, furious and guilty and lonely and for an instant, he wanted to try to ram his body through the tenth-story, wire-reinforced window.