They were not lovers. Kenny made a point of explaining that to the hospice staff. Charles was always particular about their relationship being properly understood. Kenny was his roommate, his grocery-shopper, his prescription-fetcher, his bathroom-cleaner, and, in the backside of their forties, his comrade in Male Menopause. In the AIDS support group where they had met, they were encouraged to name someone on a medical directive and power of attorney. In only a few weeks, Kenny asked Charles to be the name on his forms. Four years later, when the doctor said it was time to call the sister, Charles asked Kenny to be the name on his.
“Did you talk to her?” Charles asked, looking down ata his eggs as if they were a small child tinkling on his foot. He didn’t like the hospice food, so every morning Kenny stopped at the bakery next to what used to be the antique jewelry shop Charles had owned in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood. He bought a bear claw with extra glaze for Charles and tried not to buy one for himself remembering the encouragement he got on the forums at WeightWatchers.com. But he usually bought one anyway, sometimes two or three, and ate them in his pickup truck so Charles wouldn’t know.
“The nurse called your sister,” Kenny said.
“I would have preferred it if you had talked to her.”
Charles looked away from him and the eggs and stared out the sliding glass door that led into a garden filled with those purple flowers on long stems that Kenny thought looked like space alien pods.
“She’s young,” Charles said. “Mother would never admit it, but she was unplanned. I never even met her until she was 12 when Mother fell ill that first time. Mother was always gracious enough to visit me without her second family.”
Kenny straightened the lavender paisley collar on Charles’s silk robe. In health, Charles had been long and lean, perfectly tailored, and moved as if he were in a Fred Astaire movie. In the hospital bed, his head shaved, his skeleton protruding, he was a newly hatched bird too big for his nest.
“She goes to poetry slams,” Charles said, his southern accent filling his vowels like puff pastries. “And lives with a meth addict.”
Kenny wasn’t sure what a poetry slam was but meth addict wasn’t good.
“Honey, she’s flying all the way from San Francisco to see you,” Kenny said.
“It’s a 90-minute flight. It’s not like she lives in Nepal.” Charles stroked his jaw line with long fingers like the stems on the alien pod flowers. “She’s lived out here for five years, ever since Mother died. She’s never troubled herself before.”
Kenny knew Charles had never gone to see her either. Charles never offered, only reciprocated.
“She’s your sister,” Kenny said.
“Half sister. That man was not my father.”
Kenny stared at the slim braid come slightly undone around Charles’s cuff. It was an expensive robe. From England, maybe.
“She’s family, dear,” Kenny said.
“You are family.”
Charles rolled his head away from the garden and looked up at Kenny hovering over him. He lifted his hand, his fingers brushing the small V of skin above Kenny’s top button. Kenny’s breath drifted into his chest like a paper airplane until gravity took hold when Charles dusted powdered sugar from his collar.
“You really need to lose weight, dear,” he said. “You’ll need a husband to look after when I’m gone.”
The night before the sister arrived, Kenny and Charles watched Muriel’s Wedding on cable while they ate. The evening meals were better for Charles than the breakfasts, and the nurses always brought an extra one for Kenny. No one could understand where Charles’s food was going. The doctor’s said the pregnant bulge of his belly was the tumor. There was no room left in his stomach. Yet he ate and ate and ate. “We’re past the point of looking at why symptoms occur,” the doctor, a cream-faced farm girl from Montana, had explained to Kenny. “We can only make him comfortable now.” So Kenny kept snacks in the dresser along with Charles’s silk pajamas. Ladyfmgers from a teashop in La Jolla, the peanut butter pretzels from Trader Joes that Charles would only eat when no one else was around.
When Kenny left around 9:00, a nurse stopped him on the way out.
“Thrombosis,” she said. “It’s a blood clot in his leg.”
“Is it serious?” Kenny asked.
“It will move things along. Eventually, it’ll work its way up to his heart. Especially if he walks. It’s for the best.”
Kenny went home, heated three Lean Cuisines, watched HBO, and fell asleep in Charles’s bed.
The next morning, Kenny arrived at the office a half hour early so he could leave \ at 4:30 to fetch the sister. On the way, he skipped the highway and took the side streets passing bungalows and palm trees. When he came to the one he’d lived in with his mother and grandmother, he slowed. He saw a redwood swing set in the side yard and the edge of a doghouse in back. The curtains he’d seen the Pottery Barn catalog hung in the windows. Twenty years ago, after his mother died, he and his brother had to sell the house because neither could buy the other out. The both had wanted it and so neither got it. Kenny had looked for an apartment in Hillcrest. He was only out to himself then, and the neighborhood beckoned him like the smell of fresh bread. A boy with Marlon Brando eyes who wore only cut-off shorts and smelled of fudge and pot leaned against the bathroom doorway of the apartment he was showing Kenny and said, “I’m not sure you’re pretty enough to live in Hillcrest.” Kenny moved to a sprawling, stucco apartment complex near a Bennigans where no one noticed if he ate alone.
During the day, Kenny worked for a military contractor whose name he didn’t mention off the naval base. He liked his job, supervising document management, so he changed the channel when his company was mentioned on the news. People didn’t understand what a good company it was. He had moved ahead even without a college degree, had a good salary (though he wasn’t sure where it all went), and four-star benefits. At the support group, the weeping talk-over coffee cake was all about phone calls with insurance companies. Kenny felt like a man with a no-limit credit card every time he handed his doctor’s receptionist his insurance ID.
At baggage claim, Kenny stood with a sign he’d printed at work with the sister’s name on it—Violet Pickney—and was surprised at the girl it drew to him. He’d expected a female version of Charles—Audrey Hepburn in Chanel. But this girl wore frayed bell-bottoms and clogs and a floral top that pudged out a bit over the slight inner tube of flesh around her middle. When she greeted him, her accent was southern, like Charles’s, but clipped along like a Dixie jazz band instead of a slow waltz like her brother’s. She couldn’t have been taller than 5’2. Her hair was short as well, spiked straight up, and tipped in platinum on the ends. She was 27, 21 years younger than her brother, but she looked much younger to Kenny. When she introduced herself, she hugged him, her arms not long enough to reach around his shoulders. He was hugging an elf.
“So you’re the friend,” she said.
“And you’re the sister.”
“How about that?” she said. “We’re the the’s in his life.”
He offered to carry her luggage, but she only had the purple backpack with a logo of some company he’d never heard of. Later, he would see that it held a laptop, three books, a brush, two more floral tops, and no make-up bag.
On the ride from the airport, not knowing what else to talk about, he asked her about the poetry slams. She laughed.
“That’s high school stuff,” she said. “You know, excuses for guys to talk about masturbating.”
Kenny couldn’t look at her for five blocks.
“Who did that to your hair?” Charles asked when she walked into his room.
Violet leaned over his bed and pecked his cheek. Kenny stood in the corner and watched Charles pat her hand on the bedrail.
“An opera queen in the Castro. Just your type,” she said.
Violet plopped into Kenny’s guest chair beside the bed and propped her feet on the bar holding the catheter bag.
“How long has it been, young lady?” Charles asked.
“Mama’s funeral,” she said.
“Five years then,” he said.
Violet gave him a sly grin. “Too much time or too little?”
Charles smiled. “How is the meth addict?”
She winked at Kenny. “His stajt-up just got fifty million in venture capital so he’ll probably move up to heroin now.”
Kenny had never seen Charles alone with anyone but him before. He stood by the sliding glass doors that led to the garden, jingling the keys in his hand to remind them he was in the room.
Charles looked away from her and stroked his jaw line. “So what’s it like to come here and watch your brother die?”
Kenny looked back at Violet, his heart beating hard against the flesh that surrounded it. They never talked of the dying. Never. He felt as if one of the alien pod flowers was stuck in his throat.
Violet looked at Kenny and shrugged. One comer of her mouth curled up. She looked like a piece out of his mother’s collection of Precious Moments figurines displayed in a curio cabinet in his dining room.
“It’s a way to kill a weekend,” she said.
On their way home, Kenny took Violet to the bakery in Hillcrest. By the time they left the shop, Violet had an open invitation to stay with the owner, Brad, and his partner anytime she was in town. When Brad asked about her friend, she introduced him to Kenny who had been coming to the bakery every day for six months.
Outside, Kenny walked her by the space where Charles used to have his shop. He’d sublet it to a chiseled gym bunny who opened an organic, vegan take-out place.
“What was it like when the Queen Mother was here?” Violet asked.
Kenny thought of the glass counters lined in velvet, glittering rhinestone brooches and silver cigarette cases that looked like they’d been plucked from Greta Garbo’s apartment. It had taken him two hours to find it from Charles’s vague description at their support group meeting and another two to muster the courage to go inside. Charles had pulled out a tray to show him a cluster of men’s rings. Kenny picked one, even though it was too small to fit on his finger. “You have a good eye,” Charles said, as he wrapped up the black onyx ring with the gold emblem. “I’d love to have this one for myself.” And then the two of them went across the street for a dry martini and a strawberry daiquiri before Charles took him home. Kenny had never been touched by anyone so beautiful. As they lay naked together, Kenny held Charles as if he were holding the moon. Then Charles patted the arm that held him. “Time for you to go, dear. There’s no room for me in the bed with you in it.” Kenny didn’t speak to Charles for a long time after that, not until the emergency room call in the middle of the night. There was no one else. For either of them. But they were not lovers. Charles made sure everyone knew that.
“It was shiny,” he told Violet. “Everything looked expensive, even if it wasn’t.”
“What happened to it all?” she asked.
“He had to sell everything. The store, the condo. His insurance covered practically nothing. Then he moved in with me.”
Violet leaned down and petted a Boston terrier someone tied to a bench outside the shop.
“I don’t know how he is with people,” she said.
“But you’re his sister,” Kenny said.
“No, I’m his mother’s other child.”
Violet unzipped her backpack next to Kenny’s La-Z-boy and dropped face first on his sofa, the one Charles said came from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s House of Design.
“You can stay in Charles’s room if you like,” Kenny said.
Violet sat upright and bounced a couple of times on the sofa.
“I’m good here.”
Kenny showed her where the towels and the bath soap were, and then he took her to Chili’s for dinner. They sat in the bar, had burgers and beer, and watched the Padres on TV. Violet leaned back in her chair and patted her belly. “Tomorrow I’ll cook. I hope you like spaghetti.”
“My mother used to make spaghetti,” he said.
At home they watched Wanda Sykes on Comedy Central until Kenny looked over to see Violet asleep. A foot had slipped out from under her sheet. A toe ring. Purple nail polish. A lizard tattoo on her ankle. She snored like her brother. Kenny slipped the foot back under the sheet and spread a blanket over her before he slipped out the door.
Back at the hospice, Charles was waiting for him.
“Well? What do you think of her?” he asked Kenny.
“She’s sweet,” Kenny said. “I wish I had a sister.”
Charles folded over the top sheet across his belly and pressed down on the crease over and over until Kenny thought the sheet would break in two. “I wanted to go home to see mother more, you know. I did. I just couldn’t. Not after she married that man. Not after what he called me, what he said to me.”
Kenny, standing over him, tried to stop his hands.
“He was probably gay, you know,” Charles said. “They often are, the worst ones. That’s what makes them so vile. Hating themselves.”
“Darling, you’re upsetting yourself.” Kenny tried to hold Charles’s hands still, to bring him back from his memories, back to this room where he was safe. But Charles jerked his fingers out of Kenny’s hands and shoved them under his covers.
“How could Mother marry a man who hated me so much?”
Kenny thought of the woman he’d met only once before her death. Not the handsome woman who took them to lunch at Neiman-Marcus, but the picture Charles showed him once, a young widow in front of a cinder block duplex where the two of them lived on their own. Charles’s confidences of teenage romances involving different closeted men in his hometown did not bring giggles from Kenny that Charles expected. Kenny thought of Charles’s mother at home, waiting for her son, inside the cinder block duplex, and wondered at the concessions a lost heart can make.
The next day was Saturday, so Kenny could stay all day at the hospice. Today, instead of sitting in Charles’s room, he spent most of his time at the nurse’s station so Violet and Charles could talk. Kenny liked how the nurses told him about their children and their husbands and their pets. They always had pictures. He wished he had pictures of his mother and his grandmother to show them, ones when they were young like Kenny remembered them.
Kenny got the three of them sandwiches for lunch at the deli on College Avenue, pastrami with extra mustard for Charles, the Californian with extra avocado and no sprouts for Violet, and turkey and cheddar on white bread for himself.
“I’m going to cook for Kenny tonight,” Violet said.
“You’re not eating here?” Charles asked looking at Kenny.
“Kenny needs a night off,” Violet said. “He’s here every night.”
“I’ll come back,” Kenny said.
“Brad from the bakery said he’d stop by and sit with you while you had your dinner.” Violet said. She had avocado on her lip. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Brad?” Kenny pictured the man in the bakery, in his 50s, built like a sailor, sitting in the same chair he sat in every day next to Charles’s bed. He wished he’d bought a second turkey sandwich to eat on the way home.
“I don’t know any Brad,” Charles said.
“His bakery was next door to your store,” Violet said. “How can you not know him?”
“I’ll have dinner with Violet and come back,” Kenny said. “We can still watch a movie together.”
Charles smoothed the lapel on his robe.
“No, no. Have your dinner. I’ll be fine with this Brad.”
Kenny stepped forward, ready to protest, but Charles raised a single finger and stopped him.
“Please, Kenneth. It’s what I want.”
That night, Violet warmed up a jar of spaghetti sauce and micro waved a box of frozen meatballs. She tore open a bagged Caesar salad and warmed up a pre-buttered loaf of French bread in the oven. They ate off the Dutch china Kenny’s grandmother had left him.
“I’m glad he has you,” Violet said as she lifted seconds of the noodles onto her plate.
“He has you, too,” Kenny said. He watched her twirl her fork and lean over her plate to slurp up the spaghetti.
“Not really,” she said. “I’ve only ever seen him half a dozen times. We’re kind of brother and sister in name only. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to come this weekend. Mama would have wanted me to. But I can’t be here for him. Not like I was with Mama. Not like you are with him. Him and me, we just aren’t that way. I helped my mama and daddy pass on. I don’t have the stomach to do it for him, too.”
He thought of her with her mother and her father years before that. She was so young for so much loss. She was alone, except for the meth addict. And Kenny was alone, too, his mother and grandmother gone, his father never there to begin with, a brother somewhere in Nebraska who wouldn’t speak to him. He placed his hand on the table over his butter knife and wished that she would take the knife away and slide her fingers under his.
“Will you by my sister?” he asked. “After Charles is gone.”
She bit her lip and scooped another meatball onto his plate.
“We’ll keep in touch. I promise.”
The next morning, Sunday, Kenny bounded out of bed as soon as he saw the time. After dinner, he’d gone into his room and stayed there the whole night, not wanting to see Violet after their dinner. He was going to wait until she fell asleep to go back to the hospice. But then the next thing he knew, the morning alarm sounded. He’d fallen asleep. He’d left Charles alone. He wouldn’t forgive himself. He ran down the hallway to wake Violet, but he found the sheets on the sofa washed and folded neatly on top of the blanket with a note.
Couldn ‘t sleep. Called a cab. Meet you there.
Kenny rushed through a shower and ate a bag of Fig Newtons in his truck on the way to the hospice. He sped by the nurses and into Charles’s room. No one was there. Kenny gulped in air, feeling the full breadth of his body. The room was so small when it was empty. From the door, he could see all the way into the garden and its invading army of alien pods bursting into purple flowers. He could hear noise from the highway in the canyon below, cars speeding, going places or returning home. He could smell freshly cut grass with a bit of salt, from the ocean. The sliding glass door to the garden. It was open.
They were on the other side of the garden, Charles holding a rolling tower holding plastic bags full of fluids and Violet, walking ahead then turning to wait for him to catch. Charles was walking.
Kenny charged into the garden, knocking over a geranium pot and bursting through the alien pods that pounded his body like green fists. A large circle of lawn was between him and Charles. Violet turned and saw him running toward them. Before he knew it, she was beside him, holding on to his arm.
“Breathe, breathe,” she said. “You’re so red. Here sit on this bench.”
Kenny followed her to the stone bench, pointing at Charles, trying to get breath behind his words to carry them out of his throbbing heart.
“He’s doing fine,” Violet said. “He wanted to see the flowers.”
“He’s… not supposed to walk… dangerous.”
“Nothing is dangerous for him. Not anymore.”
Air. Kenny needed more air. If he could breath, he could make her understand.
“There’s a blood clot…”
“In his leg,” she said.
Lights like flashbulbs went off in front of Kenny’s eyes, and he struggled to stay upright. Violet stood and pressed on his back to lean his torso forward. She wet the tail of her shirt in the sprinkler and pressed it against the back of his neck.
“You know?” Kenny asked.
“He knows,” she said. “The walk was his idea.”
“Mother loved me more than anyone before you came along,” Charles said as Violet bent over to peck him on the cheek.
“Yeah. Sorry about that,” she said.
He patted her hand. “You could be so pretty if you wanted to. Buy a skirt and dump the meth addict.”
“Be good to Kenny.”
She swung her backpack onto one shoulder and turned to Kenny.
“I’ll get the truck,” Kenny said.
“I called a cab.”
She stood on her toes and hugged him as she had done at the airport. She smelled like strawberries and bubblegum.
“He asked me not to forget you,” she whispered. “In the garden, he said, ‘you mustn’t forget dear Kenny.’ And I won’t. We’ll keep in touch. I promise.”
Kenny watched her as she opened the door, feeling like he was snapping pictures of her, capturing each second until the one where she wasn’t there anymore.
“You like her,” Charles said.
“You do, too,” Kenny said.
Kenny stood at the edge of Charles’s bed and rested his hand on his friend’s leg where the blood clot was supposed to be.
“Careful, dear, my leg’s been sore.”
Kenny moved to the foot of the bed, slipped off Charles’s socks and began to massage his feet.
“You had a big day today,” Kenny said. “Had a walk in the garden?”
“Yes,” said Charles. “The agapanthus are lovely.”
Agapanthus. The alien pods had a name.
“I’d like to go again” Charles said. “Later, perhaps after our dinner.”
Kenny nodded and ran his hands over Charles’s foot.
“If you like, we could go before dinner, too,” Kenny said. “If we go to the other side of the building, we can see the ocean.”
Charles held up his hand and motioned for Kenny to come sit in his chair beside the bed.
“I’d like very much to see the ocean this afternoon,” Charles said. “With you.”
Kenny sat very still, wishing for words that could not be said, as Charles lifted his hand and held it to his cheek.