Rumpus Original Fiction: The Man from Washington

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Croydon came out from the kitchen and onto the front porch and there he was, the man from Washington, toeing a chair out from under the patio table with a loafer like an alligator snout. Croydon struggled for a name. M-something. Matt? Mike? He’d have to go back and check the register.

“You look exhausted,” the man from Washington said. He patted a hand on the empty seat next to him. “Join me.”

“For a moment,” Croydon said. He eased himself into squeaky wicker and looked at the square of egg casserole on the man from Washington’s plate with its modest nibble. Annoyed, he focused instead on the front porch, which didn’t help. Buckling slats of wood warped with age, the sad slope of a landing like lips loosened from their muscular moorings. It was embarrassing. Tragic. Every time Croydon saw the front of the Mortimer River Inn, from across the yard or through a gap in the garden, he felt as if he were looking at something sick.

The man from Washington poked his strata with a rummage sale fork. “I’m sure it’s delicious,” he said. “It’s just I don’t usually eat breakfast.”

Milo?

Marv?

Whatever his name, the man from Washington was brawny enough that Croydon couldn’t believe he hardly ate. Powerful chest straining in his tight-fitting polo shirt. Long hair the color of leather, tied behind his head in a fat doorknob and smelling of the buttery shampoo with which Croydon stocked every bathroom before a new guest arrived. The man’s movements—pushing of empty chair, sipping of black coffee, teasing of uneaten strata—felt to Croydon like a calculated performance, as if every gesture and attitude had been painstakingly crafted from online tutorials. Here was a man, Croydon thought, who gave himself pep talks in the mirror every morning. K Street lobbyist? Maybe a congressional staffer, someone who worked behind the scenes to secure political agendas. (Conservative ones, most likely.)

“This is a bed and breakfast,” Croydon said, stating the obvious.

“I know, I know.” The man from Washington gave up on trying to convince Croydon he was interested in the strata. “How long have you owned this place?”

Croydon looked up at the trees along the porch, tapped his chin to make a show of searching his memory. “We bought it in 1992. June, I believe. So what is that? Twenty-five years? It used to be an old granary.”

“We…”

“My partner and I.” Croydon worried a small hole in the tablecloth.

The man from Washington edged back in his seat and stretched his arms along the wrought-iron railing behind him. “Long time to be stuck in one place,” he said.

“It’s what I have now,” Croydon said.

Merl?

God, no.

Why could he not remember the man’s name? With Andre, it had been different. They’d gone to great lengths, at Andre’s insistence, to memorize their guests’ names before they arrived. They wouldn’t have thought twice about sitting with someone at breakfast. Now, Croydon thought of his guests not by their names so much as their place of origin, the length of their stay. The couple from Newark, here for a week, intent on spending it bickering inside their car or on the lounge chairs facing the towpath. The woman from Boston, here for a long weekend, currently sitting in the garden with a sunhat collapsed like a clamshell around the bright pearl of her face.

The man from Washington (two nights, thankfully) patted a painted stone column like a rancher testing the flank of a steer at auction. He asked how old the property was. Croydon told him the granary had been built in the mid-nineteenth century, then passed down to reluctant generations until he and Andre had bought it at auction.

“Fuck, that’s old,” the man from Washington said. He couldn’t have been but thirty-five, nearly half Croydon’s age.

“Yes, it’s old,” Croydon said with waning patience. “Good bones, though.”

The man from Washington reached for his coffee mug and Croydon saw a rainbow flag tattoo, the size of a Post-it note, on the inside of his upper arm. He also noticed, for the first time, the gold band on the man’s left ring finger.

“Can’t imagine there were a lot of fags already up here. At least back then. How’d you find this place?”

Croydon winced at the careless use of the word, reclaimed and recycled, drained of its venom much to his disdain.

“Andre was in charge of that,” he said. “He wanted to leave the city. I just followed. And if it’s other gay men you’re looking for, you might want to stop by Zantium. It’s right here on the towpath, almost a mile north. A young couple, from Baltimore I think, just opened it last year. It’s been pretty popular. Modern, luxurious. Glass walls, hardwood floors, a pool with a small fountain.”

(Croydon didn’t mention his afternoon walks, when he’d sometimes stop and peer at the property through the screen of bamboo, when he’d watch water-slick bodies move like dolphins, catch the violent flash of red plastic cups, hear the low thump of trance music from speakers mounted on the pool house roof.)

“I know,” the man from Washington said. “I tried to get in, but they were booked.”

Croydon looked down at the wood under his sneakers, at the darkness between two planks. Something small and nimble rushed through the catalpa trees and plunged into the still water of the towpath, leaving trembling buds in its wake.

“Ever thought about selling?”

“Selling.”

“For a good price, of course.”

“No. No. No, I’m here for good.”

“I see,” the man from Washington said with what sounded to Croydon like pity.

“Now that Andre’s not around, it’s up to me to run the show.”

“Oh. Well. Sorry to hear that. Was it amicable?”

“Excuse me? Oh. No. He passed, I meant. Two years now.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.”

The man from Washington blanched and looked down at ring finger, then his plate. Croydon, triumphant, imagining an alligator loafer crammed between those thin lips, stood up.

“Back to the kitchen,” he said. Then—because he was, after all, a host—he took the coffee pot off the breakfast bar against the wall and asked the man from Washington if he’d care for a warm-up.

 

Croydon checked after clearing up breakfast. It was Marc. Marc with a c.

 

Sitting in the parlor that doubled as a library and TV room, Croydon thought about the man from Washington’s words. Why was he still here? Why wasn’t he back in Philly with what few friends he had left there? Why didn’t he just cut his losses, sell the Mortimer River Inn for peanuts to the part-time workers and college students who helped him with the cooking, the cleaning, the maintenance?

He knew why. Because Andre was everywhere. In the gardens boiling over with hydrangeas. In the moss clinging to the roof over the converted garage. In the early-evening mosquito bites and the buzz of errant dragonflies. In the small tables on the dilapidated porch set for breakfast every morning from seven to ten. In the baskets of hanging flowers. In the bric-a-brac from junk stores and antique graveyards: broken-limbed statuary, an old canoe with a chunk missing from the bow like a shark bite, archaic plow pieces, the still-dangerous curve of a scythe blade over the front door. Andre was in all of these things—and he was also back in Philly, tucked inside cemetery earth, holding down the fort until Croydon arrived.

There was no explanation for Andre’s lung cancer (he’d abhorred cigarettes), but sometimes, like a detective who’s stumbled upon a truth everyone else refuses to see, Croydon believed he’d found the culprit. It was this place. It was all the construction work, the dust and dirt and grime of years of fixing up this old property: scraping paint, knocking down walls, digging into the earth, uprooting particles of who-knew-what carcinogens that seeped into their skin and slipped inside their nostrils. If Croydon had to pin down a reason why he was slowly letting the place fall into disrepair, it was because he knew of no other way to mourn—and no other way to take his slow revenge against the property. Only fitting that, as Andre had disintegrated into the dirt (Croydon had occasional nightmares about those delicate, lonely bones), so too should the Mortimer River Inn.

Now the bed and breakfast was less a weekend getaway (“an affordable, unlikely gem” as one travel site had it) and more of a shrine to the years Croydon and Andre had had together. Just the two of them out here, pioneers in the wilderness, stubborn in their insistence on monogamy as a defense mechanism from illness, vindictive at times in their approach to laying out the garden or arranging the wingback armchairs in the library, tender in the lovemaking with which they christened each new guest room they finished: the English cottage, the Parisian pied-à-terre. A relationship, a life that was comfortable and content (perhaps even boring—Croydon was willing to concede that). They had, together, built something that, while not without its faults, was strong. Something designed to last much longer than it had been allowed to. Something so essential to who Croydon was that while he hated to live here he was also terrified to leave.

 

The man from Washington—Croydon couldn’t think of him as anything else—stood in the afternoon sun in the parking lot, hands on hips, face flushed, gleaming with sweat and toeing bits of gravel with his running shoes, shorter than Croydon remembered from that morning.

Surrounded by boxwood clippings, holding a pair of half-open garden shears, Croydon listened to the man from Washington recount, through deep pulls of breath, his three-mile jog along the towpath. He waited, impatiently, while the man from Washington reviewed photos he’d taken for his husband: rusted hulks of abandoned trains, busy communities of butterflies, a blue heron perched in wait for the glimmer of fish scales between pockets of pond scum.

“Beautiful,” Croydon said. He turned to get back to work.

“Oh, I stopped by Zantium,” the man from Washington said like a school kid expecting a reward for passing an exam. “One of the guests invited me in, showed me around. Quite an operation there. I told them about you. About the Mortimer River Inn. They said they’d heard of your place. They said to stop by sometime and say hello.”

In another life, Croydon had already clipped off the man from Washington’s head with his shears, had already carried it like a giant root vegetable across the parking lot and tossed it into the towpath. In this life, however, he simply said, “I’ll do that sometime,” and went back to clipping.

“Just you keeping the grounds here?” the man from Washington asked. “Lot of work for one man.”

You mean one old man, Croydon thought.

“I enjoy gardening,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”

The man from Washington kept standing there. Croydon felt keenly aware of what age had done to his once powerful, once desired body. He felt the weight of his sinewy arms and legs, of the slight hunch to his shoulders, of the pate of his skull with its thinning gray hair, of the snag in his lower back, of aching hands that had once held slim hips against his and now held just garden shears and screwdrivers and coffee pots.

“I mean,” Croydon continued, “it gives me time to myself. Time to think.”

The man from Washington smirked.

“Point taken,” he said. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

 

At 5:30 p.m., with nothing more expected of him for the day, Croydon made himself a gin and tonic and stepped out onto the second-floor landing. He watched the sun through the catalpa branches, followed the discursive paths of squirrels, slapped at the occasional mosquito. Down in the garden, he saw the woman from Boston on a warped bench, ears stopped up with headphones, scribbling into a notebook. Downstairs, the front door slammed and the husband from Newark stamped out to his car saying, “I guess I’ll go fucking get it then.”

Croydon heard the cry of hinges from the front door of the converted carriage house. There he was, yet again: the man from Washington, looking just as officious as he had at breakfast, as he had after his run. Croydon watched him cross the gravel lot toward the side yard and the open gate leading onto the towpath, where he tapped something into his phone, then poked his head out as if playing hide and seek.

Croydon leaned forward to see under the dangling catalpa seeds. Green-bean trees, Andre had called them. Croydon also recalled Andre’s common chastisement: “Stop spying on the guests. They’re not ants, Croydon. And we’re not perverts.”

 

A few minutes later, Croydon heard the scrape of sandals. Then he saw, through the fence, slivers of thick black hair, smooth flesh, denim shorts. The man from Washington laughed, said, “You made it. You survived the epic journey.” He stepped out of view and returned holding the hand of a slender boy, bare-chested save for black sunglasses that dangled from his neck between nipples like pinpricks. The boy looked, to Croydon, starved. Years ago, that body would have been a warning. Noli me tangere. And now? Now it was an invitation. Tangere! Please, please tangere! Which the man from Washington was doing: tracing the curve of a hipbone, the swell of a shoulder blade, with no regard for anyone who could be watching.

They’re not ants, Croydon. And we’re not perverts.

The man from Washington led the boy—from Zantium, Croydon guessed—across the parking lot toward the carriage house. He opened the door to his room, whispered something into the tiny whorl of an ear. Then the two young men went inside. The door closed.

 

Croydon kept watching, as if the longer he looked at the front door of the carriage house the greater his chances of seeing through it into the room beyond, with its lace canopy over the queen-sized bed, its walls of ocean blue, the giant metal whale Andre had pulled from the depths of a yard sale and suspended with fishing wire above a dresser made of driftwood. Thinking of that whale made Croydon think of being swallowed, of hiding in something dark and damp and snug. He set his drink on his lap, tried to cool the heat he felt there.

 

An hour later, the door to the carriage house still closed, Croydon drove across Mortimer River and into town for dinner. He chose Carl’s, a diner tucked behind an old steel mill that had been converted three years ago by Brooklyn expats into a community theater and arts workspace. After dinner, he took the main road back across the river and kept driving, past Mortimer River Inn, past gas stations and dry cleaners and half-abandoned business parks. Past the new shopping plaza anchored by its two-level grocery store.

Andre and Croydon had first gone to Rosemary’s on Bruce’s recommendation. What had once been a small motel became, sometime in the early 1980s, the area’s only gay bar. As such, their old friend said, it demanded their patronage. And while they’d never come frequently enough to be considered regulars, Andre and Croydon made occasional trips for after-dinner drinks or to show visiting friends from Philly or New York that, yes, gay life could exist out here.

Croydon pulled into a spot near the front of the bar, sitting for a moment in the silence. He checked his khakis for spots of steak sauce, undid the top button of his dress shirt, rolled his sleeves up above his elbows. Then he got out and went inside.

At the main bar, paneled like a hunter’s lodge in dark wood and displaying paintings of equestrians and hunting dogs, Croydon ordered a gin and tonic. He sipped it while watching a drag contest on the television, tried to hear what one garishly decorated queen was saying over the music from the dance floor behind him. Maddened by the music— a steady, predictable heartbeat rhythm, all pulse, no lyrics—Croydon took his drink and moved toward a large oak door that led to a cocktail lounge and performance space. What had Andre called it? Yes. The early-bird lounge. Two-for-one vodkas and Metamucil.

As soon as Croydon opened the door, he heard the voices. A mess of ranges and pitches singing the lyrics from—Was it? It was.—”Anything Goes.” He stood on the landing, transfixed by the tableau in front of him: the baby grand piano around which a dozen men stood and sat, its black top covered in tasseled lace and half-empty glasses. In the center, like something out of a Gothic film, a massive electric candelabra cast a sickly light on the motley group. Between the heavy scarlet drapes hiding an adjoining stage, the dark walls, and several small chandeliers of shaded lights—the entire scene had a touch of the antique, the surreal.

Croydon watched the piano player’s fingers rove up and down the keys, stared at the bristle of white hair on his head like a paintbrush. A plaid-shirted, broad-shouldered man conducted the singers with swooping gestures through a peppy rendition of “Cheek to Cheek.” A wrinkled man in a too-big baseball cap nodded his head along to the music, as if in agreement with the piano player’s skill, his selection of songs. To his right, an ancient man stared across the room with eyes like clouded bathwater.

Used to filling in the corners of public spaces, Croydon moved behind an empty round table by the door. He’d been leaning against just such a wall when he’d first seen Andre all those years ago, when he’d first caught his green-eyed gaze through strobe light, first watched him move through the crowd (surely not toward him?) and extend a hand in greeting. A hand that, hours later, would brush against Croydon’s inexperienced nipples and push down on the crown of his inexperienced head. Then the boys arrived. Four of them, stumbling through the thick oak door. Croydon saw them at the edge of his vision. He watched them glide over to the bar, smelled the faint sting of chlorine as they passed his table. Gelled hair, t-shirts clinging to lanky bodies, white strings dangling from cutoff jean shorts. The slap of sandals, the tap of fingers on phone screens. Sunglasses dangling from a cord around one boy’s neck. Behind them, like a remora attending to sharks, followed the man from Washington.

Croydon, from his corner, watched the gleaming group stand in a tight defensive circle, drinks in hand, oblivious to the singers in the center of the room as they segued into one of Andre’s favorites, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” The man from Washington aimed his phone at the singers, snapped photographs. One of the boys looked like he was taking a video. The boy with sunglasses whispered something into the man from Washington’s neck. They laughed, and the sound lit through Croydon like electricity.

The boys and the man from Washington stood there for another two songs, watching the old singers through their phones. After the conclusion of “Nowadays,” they put their phones away and moved toward the door. As they left, the man from Washington casting a disparaging look on the scene, no one at the piano paid attention. Not the ancient prophet in his Phillies cap, not the plaid conductor with his whirlwind arms. Not the old man with the vacant gaze, whom Croydon now felt certain was blind.

 

Croydon’s bladder wouldn’t wait for “If I Were a Rich Man” to finish, so he got up mid-song and left the lounge. He pushed through the bodies massed around Rosemary’s main bar, wormed his way through the crowded dance floor where more bodies—so young these days!—moved to repeated phrases and deliberately skipped beats.

There was no sign of the man from Washington or his harem.

Outside the bathroom, Croydon paused by a long gallery of framed photographs from Rosemary’s earlier days. Pool parties, drag shows, tea parties frozen in time. He’d never seen this display before, wondered if he’d find Andre somewhere half-hidden by the blur of a passing body, but he couldn’t bring himself to investigate. Dwarfed by the noise around him, he feared that if he were to see the youthful face—the eyes with their slight droop, the packed curls of black hair, the long neck he used to nibble like an ear of corn—something inside him would shift and snap. Maybe it already had. Croydon made his way through a series of screened doors and out into the cool night. Drawn by the splash of kicking legs, he crept over to the motel’s pool. From behind the metal fence, he watched the underwater lights turn the swimmers’ bodies pink and purple, followed the path of an inflatable dolphin across the surface until it led him to the same boys from earlier, shirtless now and slung back in plastic lounge chairs, sipping from tumblers and staring at the stars. By the side of the pool, the man from Washington crouched like a gargoyle over the boy he’d sneaked in to the carriage house.

“Waffles,” the man from Washington was saying, and Croydon had to move closer to the latched gate to hear better. “If I stayed over, you think I could have some of yours?”

“Now why would I do that?” The boy made a lazy turn in the pool. He twirled his sunglasses by their red cord. “Breakfast is for paying guests only.”

“Oh, I’ll pay.” The man from Washington reached a hand out and tapped the underside of the boy’s chin with a long finger. “Fine. How about you come stay with me? The old man won’t mind.”

“Sure your husband’s cool with that? It’s one thing to say you’re in an open relationship.”

The man from Washington laughed. “My hus—No, no. God no. Not that old man. I mean the one running the place I’m staying at. He’s harmless. Not the best cook, though. Maybe I should take you out for breakfast, instead.”

“My friends might get upset.”

“I’ll take them, too.”

Someone raised the volume on the outdoor speakers, drowning out the man from Washington’s voice. The boy said something and the man from Washington tossed his head back and laughed, deliriously. Then, without another thought, Croydon unlatched the metal gate and stepped onto the pool deck. The boy in the water gave a strange look, but before the man from Washington could turn to see who’d joined their conversation, Croydon pressed the sole of his shoe against the seat of the man’s pants and shoved him into the water.

The pool fell silent. The man from Washington surfaced, tangled in the other boy’s limbs, long hair undone and plastered to their faces and necks. Croydon stood on the edge of the pool with his hands in his khaki shorts so no one could see them shaking from what he’d just done. He waited for the pool to erupt in laughter, but no one said anything. There was only the music and, beneath it, the wonderful sound of the man from Washington spitting hair out of his mouth.

 

Back inside the cocktail lounge, the show tunes were still going, as if the singers had always been there and always would be, whether Croydon was listening or not. Croydon went over to the bar, ordered another gin and tonic, then walked slowly around the perimeter of the paneled room until he found an empty patch of wall.

The current song (Croydon had no idea what it was) ended to polite applause. The man in the Phillies cap got up and moved around the piano. One by one, as if conducting some byzantine ritual, he pecked the other singers on the cheeks and lips and foreheads. Then he slipped out the oak door, into the dance music, and was gone.

The piano came back to life, and the singers launched into the opening lines of “Hello, Dolly.” Scanning the room, the cloudy-eyed man—who clearly, it seemed, wasn’t blind after all—saw Croydon and motioned him over. Croydon sipped his drink. The cloudy-eyed man beckoned again, urging Croydon across the modest gap of red carpet between them. Croydon stared at the oak door across the room, then back at the piano. The cloudy-eyed man, mocking exasperation at Croydon’s insufferable indecision, pulled out the empty chair next to him. Insistently, he patted the plastic seat.

***

Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.


Zak Salih lives in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Apogee Journal, Anastamos, and other publications. His debut novel is forthcoming in 2020 from Algonquin. More from this author →