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The Man With the Wrong Umbrella
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by Betz88

 

 

 

 

 

“THE MAN WITH THE WRONG UMBRELLA”

 

-Betz 88 -

 

The sky had been threatening all day.  He could hear the wind whistling through the leaves when he woke up a little after five, and he’d wondered at the time if it had been the wind which woke him, or the arthritis misery in his knees and hands.  It didn’t matter.  At times like these, when he woke up, he stayed up.  It was raining by six, and that delayed the daylight for awhile as leaves from the big maple tree out front played a waltz across the porch roof that sounded like a trap set using metal rhythm brushes on snare and cymbals.  “Shhh-tap-tap-Shhh-tap-tap-Shhh …” 

 

 God!  Sometimes he still found himself thinking in musical metaphors!

 

He puttered around doing household chores until nearly eleven, then stopped long enough to make a cup of coffee and grab a sandwich.  Now that he was retired, he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted and with whomever he wanted.  It had been years since he’d received a telephone call that got him out of bed in the middle of the night.  Many times he had awakened from a shallow sleep with aural illusions of antique bells echoing off the walls, only to realize the bells had been in his dreams, and the phone call he most wanted to receive was never going to come.  That was life.

 

It was almost noon and the rain had been on-again-off-again and he had errands to run.  He was getting low on a prescription he’d been putting off refilling, and he was also low on liquor and mixers.  He thought of those as prescriptions also that needed refilling every now and then; better than sleeping pills, actually.  He made up a small grocery list and shoved it in the pocket of his corduroy pants, then picked up the narrow-brimmed corduroy hat, settled it onto his head in a rakish manner and shouldered into the old London Fog raincoat.  The tall black umbrella with the cane handle stood in the corner by the front door, and he debated taking it.  Reason finally won out however, and he grasped it to his side, along with his house-entry node and the node to the Lexus-XI.

 

It was still windy and cold when he let himself out and keyed the door behind him.  Too bad no one had yet come up with a way to regulate the weather.  The silver Lexus XI was still in the driveway from yesterday.  He’d forgotten to run it into the garage and he was still a little too old-fashioned to set the action correctly into the electronics.  He shook his head in silent self-reprimand.  His memory was definitely on the decline, along with his eyesight, his hearing, and a few other things he refused to dwell on or cater to.  He beeped the car open and slid behind the wheel.  Over on the other side of this quiet development with its neat white houses and tree-lined streets, lightning spiked and thunder rolled.  He wondered if he could complete his errands and get back home before all hell broke loose.  He sighed.  Should have done everything this morning instead of putting it off ‘til now.  Procrastination:  another senior citizen habit that galled him.  Most of his instincts were gone, replaced by ennui. Oh well. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and activated the car.

 

The wind picked up again about 4:00 p.m. and it wasn’t long before the clouds darkened and scudded across the heavens as though running for their lives.  Within seconds the skies opened to the point where the car’s climate sensors could not handle the onslaught and he looked for someplace to pull off the street.  He was at the outskirts of town, heading back home fortunately.  Just ahead was the old Palmer House Café with its faded sign above the door and the pot-holed parking lot alongside.  It had been a long time since he’d been in there, but as they say: “any port in a storm”.

 

When he pulled onto the lot, scraping bottom with the smooth undercarriage of the Lexus, he took note that his was the only car there if you didn’t count the two others in back which could only belong to the owner and his wife.  He pulled the threadbare collar of the London Fog up against his neck and tugged the brim of the corduroy sport hat down lower to protect his glasses.  The rain wasn’t slacking off any and he knew he’d have to run for it.  Running, however, was not an option anymore, but his immediate goal was to walk over there as quickly as possible.  The black umbrella was propped against the passenger seat and he reached for it, loosening the snap that held the tented sections tight against the ribs.  He pressed the release button when he opened the car door and it billowed around him as he stepped out.  The embossed initials on the handle were beneath his thumb, and they triggered old and painful memories when he rubbed gently across them.  

 

 He was the man with the wrong umbrella …

 

 So long ago!

 

Rain beat down with a splattering sound as he made for the door, his arthritic knees screaming that this was not a good idea.  He pulled the outer door open and stood in the vestibule shedding water all over the floor.  The glass panes in the door and the big front window were fogged, giving him a feeling of looking out from inside a light bulb.  He shrugged the raincoat off his shoulders and shook it to dispel the rest of the wetness, then doffed the hat and laid it atop the metal coat rack that had been standing there in the corner since the days when he was a young man.  He hung the raincoat first and then the black umbrella beside it.   He paused at the inner doorway to steal a glance through rain-streaked bifocals into the café’s dim interior.  A sign on a metal stand just inside the door read:  “Please Seat Yourself”. 

 

He walked to the far side of the room to an achingly familiar table, positioned as far as possible from the place where the wind let the rain in, and pulled out a chair.  He shuddered, his mind taking him back nearly thirty years.  He sat down, glanced around the interior of the place and found it to be blurred.  He pulled his glasses off his nose and used a couple paper napkins from the dispenser on the table to polish the lenses.

 

Behind him and somewhere to his left, a bat-wing door whop-whopped a couple of times, and in another second, a pleasant middle-aged waitress in a burgundy uniform stood before him with a small electronic menu in her hands.  She placed the instrument on the table before him and stood poised.  “May I get you something to drink, sir?”

 

He nodded and smiled his best smile to her.  “May I have a coffee with cream, please? Real coffee … not that counterfeit stuff …and a glass of water.   Oh … and may I ask if a Mister Simon Calder still runs this place?”

 

“He certainly does, sir … and may I tell him who’s asking?”   She smiled, looking down at him curiously.

 

“My name is Wilson.  Dr. James Wilson.  I used to come in here quite a bit, but it was many years ago.   Just tell him I said hello.”

 

“I certainly will, Dr. Wilson.  And I’ll be right back with your ‘real’ coffee.”  He nodded shortly, his mind already elsewhere, and she went away.

 

He let his reminiscences take him back again to the days when he and a colleague had first begun coming in here for reasons neither of them understood at first, for they both had other relationships and commitments governing their lives.  He thought back to the beginning of the friendship that developed between them, and the gradual change that evolved from that friendship as time went on.  Such things had happened to others before them; they weren’t the first.  But at the outset it had embarrassed them both as the dawning comprehension unfolded in their minds simultaneously like flowers blooming in the desert.  His mind turned quietly backward to envision quiet evenings at this very same table.  It had seemed a little foolish at first.  They would come in separately and pretend to run into each other by accident.  They would sit across from one another and engage in quiet conversation made even more private when blended with the chatter of other patrons.  Their non-dominate hands would stretch idly on the surface of the table, reaching, not quite touching, but shooting electrical sparks that skittered like static up their arms.  It had been a time of bewildered transition for them both, and this was the place where they’d first confessed their feelings in such an awkward manner.  They would order a hot meal and a carafe of coffee, share a few shy smiles and startled looks; still tip-toeing around and around. 

 

This was the place where they first knew for certain that it wasn’t just infatuation.  It was real.

 

Blinking rapidly, he brought his errant thoughts back to the present.  He scanned the menu twice before settling on anything, and by the time she brought his coffee in a heavy white mug, he was ready to order.  “I’d like your baked haddock, please; scalloped potatoes, stewed tomatoes and cole slaw … and a refill on the coffee.”

 

“Very good, Dr. Wilson; Simon said to tell you he’ll be out as soon as he can.  He’s working on tomorrow’s menu, but he’d very much like to see you again.   Will that be satisfactory?”

 

“Yes.  Thank you very much.”

 

She left, and he took a few minutes to appraise his surroundings.  The interior of the old Palmer Houseouse had changed very little over time.  The wall paper was the same, as were the carriage-light fixtures evenly spaced all around the room.  Mahogany chair rail, woodwork and baseboards spoke of faded elegance from very long ago.  The multi-colored oriental carpeting on the floor had not changed either, except for appearing a little more ragged and a little more worn in the middle.  The tables were still the round pedestal types which had been there forever and which someone had once referred to as metal mushrooms.  The red and white checkered table cloths were familiar and already bringing back memories that clawed painfully across his heart.  Even the little hurricane candles in the middle of each table were just like the ones that had been there thirty years before.  They were probably the same ones!  Who knew?

 

*Oh God, why did I come in here?  I should have gone on home.*

 

He leaned forward and ran his fingers through his snowy hair, pushing back the still-damp forelock that had sprayed over his right eyebrow.  He picked up his coffee cup and drank half of it in two gulps, mindless of the heat that seared his mouth and brought tears to his eyes.  At least these tears were genuine.  The tears he really wanted to shed would be maudlin:  tears of memory and guilt and regret. 

 

He had both hands around the coffee cup, sipping at it a little slower now, when his meal arrived piping hot, fresh from the kitchen.  He thanked the waitress who smiled kindly and retreated toward the bat-wing doors.  He ate slowly, savoring the excellent food, eyes moving slowly around the room.   Still remembering.   Always remembering!

 

He had just finished wiping his mouth when a rotund man in shirtsleeves, kitchen apron, scraggly mustache and gold rimmed spectacles came through the doorway and looked about for a moment, then made straight for his table.  He looked up and could not help smiling.  They had both changed.  The years had insinuated themselves drastically across their faces and bodies.  But it didn’t really matter, because the other man was smiling too; beaming as a matter of fact, and his hand was out-thrust in eager greeting.  “James!  My God, it really is you!”

 

“It really is, Simon.  Have you the time to spend a few minutes?”  He reached out his hand and shook the other man’s with enthusiasm, although his wrist screamed in protest.

 

“For you, Dr. James Wilson, anything!”  Simon Calder seated himself in the chair opposite.  The waitress appeared simultaneously with a full carafe of coffee and an extra cup.  She set out spoons and napkins and real sugars and real creamers, and withdrew from whence she had come. 

 

Both men looked at each other with approval, each endeavoring to gauge the mood of the other.  It was Calder, however, who spoke first; the subject which was foremost in both their minds, even after all these years.

 

“Have you seen him, James?”

 

“No.”

 

“Heard news of him?”

 

“No I haven’t, not really.  Only that he has moved out of the apartment and bought a home somewhere outside of town.  When we parted, I promised him I would never bother him, and he promised me the same.  I have always lived up to my part of the agreement, and as far as I know, he has lived up to his.”

 

Simon sighed, looked down into his coffee.  “He is not well.”

 

“I … had not heard.”

 

“Did you know he still comes in here once in awhile?  Always sits at this table.”

 

“No.  I didn’t know.”

 

“He does.  He and Christopher.”

 

“They are still … ?”

 

“They are.  Christopher … cares for him … and he is much changed from the man you loved so long ago.”

 

“Not ‘loved’, Simon …”

 

“I suspected as much, James, and I am so sorry, although there are things you are not aware of …”

 

The doctor looked up and met the other man’s gaze, his eyes bright, welling up.  “It was a mistake for me to come here …”   His voice choked out suddenly and it was difficult for him to continue.  “… and I will pay for it with insomnia and regret.”  He pushed his chair back, legs aching with the effort.

 

Calder placed a gentle hand over the other man’s, mindful of his inner pain and causing him to pause for a moment.  “Please return again, James.  After all this time, there are some things I can help you understand that he never wanted you to know.  I don’t think he would mind anymore.  Please!”

 

Dr. Wilson did not answer. He straightened, pulled a bill from the pocket of the corduroy pants and placed it face down upon the table.  “It was nice to see you, Simon.  I’ll think very hard about what you ask.”  He turned and trudged toward the door.

 

Simon Calder, silently, joylessly, watched him go.

 

It was still raining.

 

 

 

                                                                 ////////

 

 

 

His hands were jittery on the steering wheel, and he was shivering from the frigid depths of his soul by the time he pulled into his driveway.  The foul weather was making his entire body ache, and the prospect of returning to the comfortable refuge of his home had never felt so hollow.  He sat hunched behind the wheel for a long time, staring blankly out the windshield and into the rain, regretting his choice to stop by the Palmer House.  It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, and from the way he felt now, it had not been a wise one. 

 

Beyond the wind and the rain and the whirling leaves, his imagination began to play tricks on him.  A faint image began to coalesce from within his awareness like grains of sand with minds of their own, leaping upward, taking a vaguely human form.  He watched it at first without emotion, letting his senses follow along as it took shape.  The image became more and more familiar as it emerged into the outline of a man:  tall, slender; handsome and strong.  Wilson squinted, allowing himself to be drawn into the illusion.  The likeness turned its head and the doctor was mesmerized by the blueness of the eyes, holding him breathlessly in place with their intensity.  Faded jeans, old tee-shirt, running shoes:  Gregory House appeared before him as he had been when they’d first known each other.  It had been back in the 1990’s.  Almost a lifetime ago.  They’d been so young, so idealistic, so filled with dreams.  He was still an intern, and Gregg House was already being called a young genius!

 

Wilson felt his vision losing focus, eyes filling all over again with the depth of his yearning and sorrow and pain.  The apparition was still turned in his direction, blue eyes slowly clouding, moving away from the penetration of their shared gaze.  Puzzlement.  Anger.  Misery. Accusation.  The image continued to change and mutate and evolve and the dark hair slowly lightened to gray.  A stout cane extended from the right hand. The vigorous athletic form began to lose substance and grow thin, then emaciated.  The muscled shoulders gradually took a slant to the right and downward; weight shifted to the left side, right knee bent, a little at first, then more and more. The increasing weakness in the leg was supported by one cane, then two.  Then a wheelchair appeared beneath him.  After that, the image began to fade away and continued to fade until it was gone, melting, finally, into the wind and the rain and the leaves … leaving Wilson empty and sick and out of breath.

 

He fingered the black umbrella with the cane handle and touched the embossed initials again with his thumb.  “G. A. H.”

 

He was the man with the wrong umbrella.

 

He got out of the Lexus, took his two small grocery bags from the rear seat and went into the house.  He did not put the car in the garage.  He set the groceries, bags and all, into the refrigerator.

 

 He did not turn on the lights.

 

                                                                   ////////

 

 

Wilson did not sleep well that night.  The rain continued and a stiff wind played a continuous drum roll on the porch roof outside his bedroom window.  His back ached with tension, and pain radiated down his legs, making it impossible to lie still.  His hands hurt and he knew without looking that there was swelling in his fingers; the same swelling and stiffness that had ended his active medical career almost five years before. 

 

Sighing, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and eased up.  Old age pain was a pain in the ass, he thought to himself as he felt about the floor for his slippers and slid into them one at a time.  The dim light from the hallway did not necessitate that he turn on a light and he moved toward the open bedroom door, then to the right in the direction of the bathroom.  He palmed two tablets of his pain medication even though it was much too soon after the last dose. 

 

“My God!  I’ve turned into Gregory House,” he murmured, even as he threw back his head and swallowed them dry.  Now that he was physically able to relate to House’s constant need for pain pills, he experienced retroactive guilt for having labeled the man an addict.  It was a whole other ball game when the same shroud dropped over one’s own head as well.  He turned out the bathroom light and shuffled back to the bedroom, toed off his slippers and slid back into bed.  It would take awhile for the meds to calm his aching body, and he stretched out flat on his back, trying to keep as still and as relaxed as possible.  It was difficult.

 

His brain was still in overdrive from that afternoon, his thoughts constantly rolling back the years to a time when he believed there could never be an end to his happiness.   He was with the person he loved more than life itself, and existence had never been so sweet.

 

He had never regretted the sacrifices he’d made as the other man faced a desperate illness and crippling disability and months of pain and grief.  He had been there twenty-four hours a day when Gregg couldn’t sleep and lay sobbing from the agony that no medical intervention could alleviate.   Wilson had held him and soothed him and loved him, stoically ignoring Gregg’s scathing verbal abuse, because half the time Gregg didn’t even realize he was doing it.

 

He’d pushed House in the wheelchair during the months immediately after his surgeries while still maintaining his own responsibilities at the hospital.   He’d helped Gregg to learn balance while his friend took the first tentative steps on crutches.  He’d steadied House gently when at last he was able to use the cane and struggle to cope with a whole new center of gravity and a new and painful method of movement.  He’d been there when Gregg’s precarious balance went out from under him time after time, and while all this was happening, he continued to run the Department of Oncology.  He worried constantly and went without sleep and lost weight.   He continually rescued House from falling to the floor, using his own strong arms to shore him up, and he was often wracked with overwhelming fatigue.  He whispered encouragement in the face of House’s humiliation and increasing depression as the bitter truth became more and more obvious that it would never get better than it already was.  And he had loved Gregory House with all his heart and soul, and knew without a doubt that he was loved in return with all of the love Gregg still had left to give, which some of the time wasn’t much. 

 

The beginning of their lives together was not easy.  Wilson learned to bite his tongue until he thought he did not have much of his tongue left to be bitten.  House could be sarcastic, cruel and insensitive when his pain neared the unbearable, and he would take his misery out on anyone who happened to be close by.  That person was usually Wilson.  They survived it because the reality of the love remained deep within them both, even when life seemed the most insane.

 

They made it for almost twenty years.  Then it fell apart.

 

House’s leg took a drastic turn for the worse.

 

And Christopher came on the scene.

 

 

                                                                   ////////

 

 

It was in the spring of 2024.  He and Gregg had been together for nineteen years, still colleagues, still at Princeton-Plainsboro, both at the apex of their professions.  When Lisa Cuddy died suddenly in the freak highway accident earlier that year, their lives had been turned upside down.  She’d been only fifty-eight years old, and deeply revered and respected among her colleagues and constituents.   Allison Cameron-Jackson and her husband came back for the funeral, as did Eric Foreman and his family, and Robert Chase and his fiancée.  It was a major blow to the renowned hospital, and the entire institution mourned her loss for many months.

 

When at last the beloved James Woodrow Wilson was named as Dr. Cuddy’s obvious successor, there was a collective sigh of relief that whispered through the halls as PPTH slowly returned to business as usual.  There had been rumors that the prestigious position might settle onto the stern shoulders of Gregory Allen House.

 

*Whew!*

 

But House had other concerns.  His crippled leg had become even more so as he grew older, and the years of pain and overmedication finally began to catch up.  Although medical science had come a very long way in nineteen years, bringing the eradication of many strains of cancer, arthritis, cardiac malfunctions, and the development of newer, stronger and safer medications, it was too late for both House and Wilson.  The Vicodin had done its damage many years before, and House’s liver had died.  Though he lived in moderate health with a transplant, his bizarre eating and living habits were vastly curtailed, and he was reduced to maintaining a health regimen he hated with a purple passion.

 

Wilson’s advancing arthritis was far beyond the capabilities of any of the new reverse-and-block medications.  Though his disease was partially controlled, he was no longer able to tolerate any active participation in the strenuous practice of day-to-day medicine.  His knees and hands could not stand the strain.  When he advanced to the Administrator’s position at age fifty-five, he gave up the job as Head of Oncology.   Fortunately his time was filled to overflowing with administrative responsibilities and official politicking which continually amazed and confounded him.  He’d handled it admirably, and the Board of Directors let it be known they were proud of their choice. During this time, his shining hair turned from dark auburn to snowy white, and the glasses he’d worn on his nose for years went from single lenses to bifocals to trifocals.

 

At the same time, Gregg’s status was changing again.  He finally had to give up the use of the cane due to the misery in his leg.  The weakened muscles in the thigh had atrophied over the long years of limited mobility, and he had to place more and more weight on his already overworked right shoulder.  Now, finally, the shoulder gave up the ghost also, and he developed bursitis and tendonitis to the point where he had to resort to a wheelchair for three months while it recovered even a modicum of strength.  His back was also giving him trouble.  The constant sway from right to left when he walked caused a curvature to his spine which told him in no uncertain terms to “cut it out!”  When he finally got back on his feet, it was with underarm crutches which he hated and bitched about constantly. He was thin and unhealthy looking, and the pain was taking its toll in a nasty manner as he got older.  His hair and the stubbled growth of beard were on the pale side of salt’n’pepper, and his face began to take on the look of parchment.  He was frail, and so fragile!

 

Wilson backed away for a time for his own peace of mind.  He had physical problems of his own, but did not want to burden House with them.  Compared to Gregg’s, his were nothing.  He continued to hold House in his arms at night and try to ease his pain until his meds took effect and enabled him to sleep.  For awhile it was difficult, and things became strained between them.  Wilson began to feel that House was backing away more and more also, but could not put his finger on any specific problem other than the pain …

 

 

It came to a head in the summer.  Gregory House had been acting very strangely for quite some time, and it worried Wilson to the point of distraction.  His partner sometimes went for long periods of time without so much as a word shared between them.  House began to sit in the big lounge chair, prop up his leg, wrap both hands protectively around the old surgical site and stare out the window for hours.  He had no interest in television, even with its new satellite feed; he ate barely enough food to stay alive, and the beautiful grand piano sat quiet and dusty in the dim living room where he refused to turn on the lights.  He took more and more time off from work, and Wilson believed he was still mourning the tragic loss of his sparring buddy, Lisa Cuddy.  House never mentioned her name after the funeral, but his snarky asides were becoming fewer and fewer, and Wilson knew Gregg missed her.

 

Sometimes when Wilson came home from work on the days Gregg refused to go to the hospital, House’s car would not be in its accustomed space in the underground parking garage.  This was unusual, since he seldom drove anymore, but Wilson believed the man needed to get away from the apartment alone once in awhile.  The only two places he ever went anymore were home and PPTH.  They seldom went to the Palmer House for dinner these days, and Gregg could not vegetate in the apartment twenty-four hours a day.  The hand controls in his car still allowed him a few hours of freedom from his self-enforced confinement.  He would return at night, sometimes quite late, sometimes in a better mood, sometimes not.  Wilson never questioned him about where he’d been, and House never volunteered any information.

 

One day early in May, Gregg announced that he was going to retire.  He was, after all, very nearly sixty-five.  “Time to rack it in!”   He growled.  He filled out his papers and filed them.  A month later he was cleaning out his office, stuffing things into cardboard boxes and making plans to have it all delivered to 341 East Side Drive.  Heartsick and worried, Wilson let him be.  This was Gregg’s decision and Gregg’s alone.  All he could do was be there when the “House of Cards” finally came tumbling down … and he knew it would.  It was only a matter of time.

 

By the first of August, Gregg was back in the wheelchair, no longer able to exercise or even support himself on crutches.  Wilson feared for his life, but House stubbornly refused to submit to any suggestions of physical examination or monitoring.  “I’m a doctor, for chrissake!”  He would grumble.  “If I was about to croak, I’d know it.  Quit worrying, Wilson!  I’m fine!”  But something much deeper than that was very wrong, and Gregg absolutely refused to discuss it.

 

Wilson did not retaliate.  Instead, he bit what was left of his tongue.  But he was frightened out of his wits.  Would he have to call an ambulance with two EMTs to bodily hold down the person he loved most in the world, and force him to go to the hospital?  For the hundredth time in his life with this man, Wilson was at an impasse, and did not know what to do.

 

 And so he did nothing.

 

A few mornings later when he got up for work, House was already awake, struggling into his uniform of the day:  grey sweats and running shoes.  It didn’t matter to him that the weather outside was hotter than the hinges of hell.  Gregg was even pleasant for a change, and Wilson should have been suspicious.  But he wasn’t.  He welcomed the moments of snark and banter, and when he left for the hospital, Gregg was still animated and moving about.  He even told Wilson to have a pleasant day.  Wilson’s jaw dropped, but he’d smiled and kissed his partner tenderly, then left.

 

And that was the day the “House of Cards” came crashing down.

 

 

                                                                  ////////

 

 

Why didn’t he question Gregg about hiding something?  Why did he ignore all the signs?  He was almost fifty-six years old, for God’s sake, and it had been a very long time since he’d fallen off the turnip truck!  He even hated going to work and leaving House alone anymore.  And yet, if he hired a nurse, House would never forgive him.

 

When he came in from work a few evenings later, Gregg’s car wasn’t in the underground garage again, and that was disturbing because he now had to manipulate a wheelchair along with all the other hassles he must bear.  Getting in and out of the driver’s seat was a chore, and the extra effort of collapsing even the light-weight wheelchair and sliding it behind the front seat was difficult for him.  Gregg had obviously planned this excursion far ahead of time; had sat and brooded about it for weeks, and for some unknown reason had not said a word to his partner; his friend; his lover.  Why?

 

Wilson pulled his own sedan into its parking spot, gathered his briefcase and sport jacket and walked to the elevator.  He checked their mailbox and pulled out a stack of medical catalogs and junk.  The apartment was cool, the Alto-Aire quietly taking the edge off the heat, ridding the air of odors and contaminants.  Wilson walked into their bedroom and looked about.  No clothing was scattered on the floor, so Gregg was wearing sweats again.  He checked the kitchen.  Nothing was out of place.  Leftovers were still in the fridge.  Gregg must be eating out.

 

Wilson sighed and shoved his misgivings out of his mind.  He decided to do the same.  He slipped into jeans and a clean tee-shirt, changed into loafers without benefit of socks, a very old fad that he still enjoyed from time to time.  He grabbed his wallet and the sensor for the car, opened the door, keyed the lock behind him and took the elevator back to the underground garage.

 

The Palmer House was only two city blocks from the apartment.  He could have walked, but he was getting lazy in his old age, and his knees probably wouldn’t have allowed him to make it that far anyway.  So he drove slowly with the windows down.  The evening breeze was balmy, or at least as balmy as it ever got in New Jersey.

 

There were about a dozen cars in the café’s parking lot, one of them Gregg’s.  Wilson was surprised, but not that much.  The place had always been their favorite restaurant.  He swung the sedan into the nearest empty space and doused the electronics.  He got out and started to walk back along the side of the building.  It was dark, but the interior lights were up during the evening meal, and people sitting at the tables were clearly visible from where he was.

 

Gregg was there, in his wheelchair, at “their” table.  He was not alone.  Across from him sat a very young, very handsome man with wavy black hair and striking green eyes.  There was something about the set of the nose and tilt of brow that struck a chord with Wilson, but he was so startled to see Gregg with someone he, James, didn’t know, that a bitter bite of jealousy skittered up his spine and heated his face with annoyance.  Who … the hell … was he?  He froze, hidden behind a window frame and watched, wide eyed, holding his breath.

 

They were concluding their meal, finishing the last of their coffee, placing their napkins on the table, along with a sizable tip.  Then the young man came out of his chair, smiling, and walked around to Gregg.  He knelt low by House’s side and reached out to take one of House’s hands into his own.  Then he bent to place a kiss gently on the palm, raised himself to his feet, stooped again to hug House’s face very close to his own.  When he stood up again, House was smiling self-consciously, and it looked as though he was quietly weeping.

 

Wilson’s jaw dropped, and suddenly he lost all his air.  He felt as though he’d been pole-axed.  What was going on here?

 

They were leaving, heading for the cashier together.  The younger man offered a credit card and then they were moving toward the door.  Wilson gathered himself and retreated quickly along the walkway, all the way back to his car.  He stood in the darkness beside a front fender and watched them emerge onto the sidewalk out front, the young guy pushing House’s wheelchair … and Gregg was letting him!  The kid pushed the chair all the way to House’s car, lifted House gently and helped him into the driver’s seat.  Adjusted House’s hand controls and easily slipped the folded chair into the narrow space behind the front seat.  Again he stooped, and Wilson could hear his words clearly in the night air.

 

“I’m so glad we did this … I can’t tell you.  And I’ve come love you very much.  We’ll do this again often, won’t we?”

 

“Yes,” Gregg was saying.  “We will.  Soon.   I don’t say this very often … but I love you too … more than I would have believed, and I wasn’t sure, at first, if I could.  Thank you, and good night.”

 

“Good night.  Drive carefully …”

 

His voice trailed off as the car window rolled closed and Gregg keyed his car’s electronics.

 

The kid walked to one of the other cars, got in, keyed it into action and drove off in the opposite direction.

 

Wilson got into his car, slammed the door and sat behind the wheel, stunned.  *I love you?*   Gregg had been so closed off in past weeks.  Now he knew why, and he was crushed.  He sat and stared straight ahead, jumbled thoughts and visions fighting for control in his imagination.  Nothing made sense!

 

*I love you.*

 

*I love you too.*

 

James Wilson keyed the car and revved the silent engine.  When he left the parking lot of the Palmer House, he drove directly to the nearest bar.

 

 

                                                                ////////

 

 

The interior of the “Handle Bar” was dimmed almost to the level of having to adjust his eyes to see where he was going.  There was a very old juke box against the wall beyond the far end of the bar, and he quickly discovered he would have to adjust his ears as well as his eyes if he intended to stay there long enough to get totally wasted.  And he did definitely intend to do that!  The place was full of regulars, biker-types, mostly, leaning on the bar, beer bottles dangling from idle fingers, shoe and boot heels hanging from the rungs of the bar stools like owls with their talons wrapped around a tree branch.  Some of them looked as though they were carrying on conversations, because he could see lips moving here and there.  He doubted if any of them could hear anything.  Sort of like … “everybody talk, nobody listen, nobody give a damn!”

 

He turned to the right and followed the length of the room until it turned the corner where the construction of the bar turned the corner.  Off to the left side sat a small solitary table in a dim alcove where the music was muted almost to a level of tolerance.  He walked over and pulled out one of the two chairs; plopped down hard, partly because he was troubled and angry, and partly because his knees simply gave out on him.  He sat with his chin propped on both fists, glancing around.  The place looked as though it hadn’t seen a coat of paint in twenty-five years.  Chipped remnants hung from the ceiling like tinsel, and the walls were darkly clouded from cigarette smoke.  God!  Smoking was not allowed in public places anymore, but this one was obviously not very good at obeying the law.  Actually, he hadn’t seen anyone with cigarettes when he came in … lit or unlit.  Could the damn paint be THAT old?

 

He’d been there for five minutes before the balding waddling bartender decided to come over and take his order.  “What can I get fer ya, Pop?”

 

*Pop?*

 

Was he being ridiculed?  Or was he being asked if he wanted a soda pop?  He decided it was the former rather than the latter.  “Bring me a bottle of Bacardi 151 and a shot glass.  Then get lost!”  He reached into the pocket of his jeans and extracted a one-hundred-dollar bill and palmed it onto the table top.

 

The bartender looked at the bill with wide eyes.  “Are you serious?  I can’t do that … the LCB would be on me like stink on shit!”

 

“I’ll only ask once,” Wilson replied calmly.  “Then I’ll take my business elsewhere.  This place doesn’t look like it follows the rules too strictly …”

 

The bartender eyed the hundred again, then scooped it up in a meaty hand.  “You’re the boss,” he said tightly.  “You aint drivin’, are ya?”

 

Wilson stared.  “Matter of fact, yes I am.  But when I finish in here, you can call me a taxi.”

 

The bartender snorted, pulling a tiny note pad out of an apron pocket.  “Write your address down.  When and IF you finish your bottle, you won’t even remember your own name!”

 

“That’s the general idea!”  Wilson growled.  He scrawled his address on the small sheet of paper and handed it across.

 

Palming it in the same manner he’d palmed the large-denomination bill, the other man smirked.  “Your girlfriend and you have a fight?”

 

“No.  Boyfriend!  Now bring the bottle!”

 

“Yes!  Sir!”  The bartender snorted, clearly not believing Wilson’s declaration of the truth.  He turned and marched back to the front of the bar.  Five minutes later he returned to Wilson’s table with the bottle and a shot glass.  He had just earned himself a 200% profit!

 

 

It took five shots over the space of about a half hour until Wilson was pleasantly sloshed, and the bottle was still more than half full.  He was still seeing visions of wavy black hair, a devastating smile and clear green eyes looking directly into the mesmerized face of Gregory House, and it would take a lot more booze than he’d already had to wipe them out.  James Wilson leaned forward and poured another shot.  And another.  And another.  It was time to get down to some really serious drinking!

 

At 2:00 a.m. the bartender appeared at Wilson’s table.  Wilson’s face was in his hands, and the level of the Bacardi bottle was down to about an inch in the bottom.  “I called a taxi,” the man said, “and I want you out of here before you puke all over my goddamn floor!”

 

“Mmmmfff !”  Wilson replied.

 

He did not remember the ride home, but he vaguely recalled the taxi driver steadying his elbow on the ride up in the elevator, then pausing there to watch as he careened down the dim hallway to his front door.  He keyed his way in and stood leaning against the door in the dark, head reeling, equilibrium gone, wondering if he could make it to the couch before his legs went out from under him completely.  He had not been this drunk in years.  He pushed away from the door, wondering why the room seemed suddenly on a slant.  He reached out blindly, searching for something to steady himself, but he was way off balance, and he went down hard on his right side, the inside of his left knee striking the floor a direct blow as he landed.

 

“Ow!  Fuck!”

 

The light beside the lounge chair snapped on as he rolled over on his back, blinding him, pushing back the curtain of inebriation for a moment, and he saw Gregory House sitting there glaring at him with unabashed scorn.  “Where the fuck have you been, Wilson?  I’ve been worried out of my fucking mind!  Do you know what time it is?”

 

That was too funny!  Too funny to take seriously!

 

 The irony here was piled higher than cow shit in a barnyard.  Wilson giggled at the unbridled crap of it all.  Gregg House … worried? … about him?  What a crock!  The only thing House had been worried about the last fifteen years had been his own whiny, self-absorbed, bitter, freaking self!

 

Wilson giggled louder, letting the sound of it become a little hysterical, and a lot out of control.  “You … were worried about me!? ‘Now aint that a kick in the scrotum?’ As my lover is so fond of saying!”  Wilson rolled over onto his side, bringing his knee up toward his body, rubbing at it with his hand.  His movements were slow-motion, his speech slurred.  He was still giggling drunkenly, hissing pain through his teeth at the same time.  “At least it got you to talk to me, you prick!  It’s only been about three months since we actually carried on a coherent conversation.  Guess I should go out and get hammered more often.  It causes you to open your mouth and try to make intelligent sounds come out!  Imagine that!”

 

“Shut up, Wilson!  What the hell is the matter with you?”

 

“I can’t shut up and tell you what’s wrong at the same time, now, can I?  Like being told to ‘shut my mouth and eat my supper’!  But not to worry … it’s just like the great Gregory House to want everything for himself without ever having to give back anything in return.  And you want me to ‘shut up and tell you what’s wrong’!  Well screw you!  You’re not my daddy, so don’t ever try to tell me what to do!  It wasn’t me who clammed up for a month, or sat in the dark hours without so much as a hint about what was going on in your fucked-up head.  Every time I asked you an honest question you’d rant and rave at me to mind my own business.  So I did.  Then I’d come home at night and your car would be gone, and I’d worry about you out there alone and vulnerable as hell … well shit!

 

“So!  Tonight I found out you haven’t been alone at all, have you?  I found out what all the secrecy is about, and why you won’t talk to me.  It seems there’s a new little fish in the pond, and all of a sudden there’s a Pisces in the equation.  Tell me about it, Gregg!  Tell me about the handsome kid with the black hair …”

 

Suddenly, Wilson couldn’t go on.  In his anger and hurt, all his famous control was gone; drowned in a twenty-five-dollar bottle of Bacardi 151 rum.  He lay hunched on the floor, dizzy and nauseous and humiliated and defeated.

 

Across from him, out of his line of sight, Gregory House sat in the dark leather lounge chair with his painful leg propped in front of him, quite unable to move or kneel on the floor beside Wilson or take him in his arms as Wilson had done so many times with him.  A look of horror crossed Gregg’s face; his jaw dropped and his mouth came open, for once in his life, speechless.  He knew instantly that he had gone one step too far with Wilson’s tolerance, and he had but one chance to explain.  Then, not at all to his credit, he tried to bluff.  “What in the hell are you talking about?”

 

“You know damn well what I’m talking about, you son of a bitch!  When I came home, you weren’t here.  So I stopped at the Palmer for supper.  Your car was there, and I was going to join you.  But that would have been really inconvenient, wouldn’t it?  You weren’t alone, and it seems that all my worry lately has been groundless.  I saw you together and I saw him kiss you, and I saw that you didn’t object.  I felt like I’d been hit on the head with a baseball bat.  Completely stunned!  Then he helped you into your car, and he said he loved you … and you said you loved him too.  So I’ve been replaced, it seems, by a handsome face.  If that’s the way it’s going to be, I’ll leave so he can move in!”

 

House’s anger rose up swiftly, obliterating all other considerations and effectively canceling out any chance he might have had for reconciliation.  Unable to get to his feet and stomp about; completely vulnerable, impotent and exposed, he lashed out.  “You were spying on me?  You had the nerve to follow me and watch me to see who I was with?  And then eavesdrop on my conversations?  My God, Wilson!  You make me sick.  I don’t ever spy on you!  Have never spied on you!  You betrayed me, for God’s sake!  Hid in the shadows like a common thief and watched me … just like a jealous lover.  You have no idea how wrong you are, or what the real truth is.  I was going to tell you … but now … fuck you!

 

“And yes, I love him … and now you’ll never know how much, or why.  His name is Christopher, by the way.  And tonight was the first time he’s ever been able to tell me he loves me too … even though I never did a thing to deserve it.  So take your jealousy and your suspicions and shove ‘em up your ass!  You and I are done, Wilson.  Now and forever.

 

“And you’re right!  It might be a good idea if you found yourself another place to live!”

 

“Gregg?”  Wilson was sobbing now.  Incredulous and blubbering.  Was he actually being thrown out of the home they had shared for almost twenty years?  It seemed so.  He lowered his head to the floor and lay there, even after Gregg House struggled to maneuver his reluctant body from the chair to the wheelchair and rolled it into the bedroom.

 

Wilson finally went to sleep on the hard living room floor, laying in his own drool, his damaged knee swelling beneath him.  He did not feel it; not yet, anyway.

 

 

                                                             /////////

 

 

The next thing he remembered was the slamming of the door as Gregg’s wheelchair rolled out into the hallway in the morning.

 

 It woke him with a jolt.  It was full daylight, his head felt as big as a watermelon and his stomach was churning with all the effects of a bad hangover.  He sat up slowly, careful not to stir that witches’ cauldron in his gut, grabbed onto the arm of the leather couch and levered himself slowly upward.  His body reeked with the foul, sweet-sour odor of way too much booze, and every joint and every muscle screamed with abuse.  For a moment he was not sure if his left knee would even hold him up, but after a few moments, it did.  He straightened and looked down at himself.  His tee-shirt was wrinkled, sweated and spotted with his own drool, his jeans were sweated wet at the creases, and he was missing one of the expensive French loafers.  Glancing around, he spied it close to the edge of the end table beside the lounge chair, and he moved gingerly toward it. 

 

*Uh oh!*

 

His stomach lurched threateningly and the loafer was forgotten in a rush for the bathroom.  His knee hurt and he could not walk without limping, but he was in a hurry! He knelt on the floor, lifted the commode seat and poked his head over the rim just in time.  Foul smelling vomit poured out of him like a human fire hydrant, and didn’t stop until there was absolutely nothing left.  He flushed the toilet.  Still the dry heaves continued until his stomach muscles felt as though they were trying to wrap themselves around his backbone. When the episode finally ended, his head ached with a thumping intensity; there was spit and snot hanging from his nose and mouth in sticky strands that reached into the toilet bowl.  He flushed it down again and again, and still his bodily fluids ran out of him like a miniature waterfall.  He grabbed a fistful of toilet paper and mopped his mouth and nose and face, finally leaning back, feeling light-headed and ill.  What a hell of a price to pay for a few hours of forgetfulness, and now it all came thundering back as reason slowly returned and he would spend the remainder of the day … hell … the remainder of his life!  … paying for last night’s jealous indulgence.

 

He went into the bedroom for fresh clothing and found all his bureau drawers cleaned out, everything piled on the bed.  Was it possible that Gregg really meant everything he’d said in anger last night?  It couldn’t be!  He would shower and get himself cleaned up and then wait until he came back … and they would talk this out. 

 

Wilson took underwear, shirt, jeans and running shoes with him into the bathroom.  He stood under the hot water for so long it began to run cool.  His knee was still angry with him.  It ached and was swollen, and a nasty bruise had appeared on the inside of the knee joint; sober reminder of the drunken evening.  He dried off and got dressed, shaved and ran a comb through his snowy hair, peering at his image in the mirror.  His face was lined and seamed with little reminders that time was passing incredibly fast, but the full lips had not changed, nor had the gleam of his dark, deep-set eyes.  He threw his towel in the hamper, hung up the bath mat and turned out the light.

 

He went to the kitchen and took a small bottle of ginger ale from the fridge.  That was about all his stomach could tolerate right then.  He rummaged in the silverware drawer for a coaster, found one, and limped over to the kitchen table to sit down before he fell down.

 

There was a note in the middle of the table, folded into quarters.  His name was written in the middle.

 

WILSON

 

His stomach lurched.  Gregg never wrote notes!  Feeling an icy dread, he could not resist reaching … unfolding …

 

                       Wilson:

                        I am at the Marriott for one week.  You should have everything out

                        by then.  After that, anything you left behind gets tossed out.

                        Please do not contact me again, and I will not contact you either.

                        Make excuses to others as you see fit.

                                                                                                     House”

 

 

It seemed there would be no talking anything out.  Not ever.  How had they come to this?

How, in such a short span of time?   They’d gone from lovers to strangers in a heartbeat.  He was sure it was a dream … and please, God … could he wake up now?

 

For hours and hours he sat.  He got up only to go to the bathroom.  His knee throbbed and he hobbled.  He feared he had done more to it than just the bruise.  It was the least of his worries.  Sometimes while he sat there, he felt himself overcome by unbearable sorrow and his body trembled with the sobs that caught in his throat.  The bottle of ginger ale grew warm on the table, and he toyed instead with the penciled note, written hastily in Gregg House’s crabbed hand.  He read it and reread it until it was imprinted indelibly into his mind.

 

At last he knew he had to get moving.  He had sat there all day long, for God’s sake! Today was Saturday and he decided he would comply with everything Gregg had asked of him.  He would find a place of his own and get himself and his belongings out of this one.  He would gather his memories together without disturbing any of Gregg’s possessions, and he would pack all of it and leave it in the living room, then call a pack-and-store outfit to get it out of here.  He had moved in here in less than a week; he could move out in the same amount of time.

 

 He fingered the note in his hand lovingly, sadly, then unfolded it and picked up the pencil which Gregg had discarded beside it.

 

At the bottom, below the signature, he wrote:

 

                                    “House:

                                     I love you.

                                     I have always loved you.

                                     I always will love you!

                                     I will never bother you again.

                                                              Wilson

 

 

                                                              

                                                            ////////

 

 

He found the little house listed in the Classified section of the Sunday paper the very next day.

 

“Bungalow:  New listing.  One floor, two bedrooms, one bath, attic.  Basement w/inside-outside access.  Oil heat, quiet older neighborhood.  Brentwood East.  One-car garage unattached.  Call 555-1313 anytime.”

 

He called.  He drove out to look.  Three steps up onto the front porch.  His knee suggested he take them one at a time.  The woman was sweet, patient.  She gave him plenty of time, seeing he was in pain.  They toured the place in five minutes.  Stove, fridge and dishwasher were already there. They made small talk.  He liked what he saw; compact, well cared for.  He told her he was a doctor, but did not elaborate.  She was impressed.  Her father had been a doctor also.  Greenawalt, Pediatrics, PPTH.  He’d been dead for years.  Turned out Wilson had known him.  They were both impressed.  She named a price.  He wrote her a check.  He had never bought anything so quickly in his whole life!

 

Her husband was an Attorney, she was a Magistrate.  They closed on Thursday evening.   His bank transfer electronically added to their account, key-mode and wet-ink deed in his hand, Wilson moved everything out of Gregg’s on Friday.  He left his two apartment key-modes on the piano along with his key-mode for Gregg’s car.  When he set the lock on the door, he had the black umbrella in his hand, using it for a cane.  His knee hurt like hell, and it was raining.   The door closed behind him for the last time.  Another chapter of his life was history and his existence was erased from the apartment on East Side Drive.

 

And he had the wrong umbrella

 

 

                                                                ////////

 

 

The small amount of belongings the delivery company brought to the little house in Brentwood East didn’t even fill the living room.  Everything they’d owned at the apartment on East Side Drive had already belonged to Gregg.  Everything of Wilson’s had belonged to Julie!  That was life.

 

He went shopping for furniture at a local warehouse, determined to do it in one stop.  With table and chairs, he got flatware and linens for free.  With a brown leather sectional, he received lamps and end tables for free.  Another lamp and side table came free with a big black leather La-Z-Boy recliner.  The fancy room-size rug alone was more than $500.00.  He nodded and they rolled it up. When he bought a grouping (called a “stable”) of smaller kitchen appliances, the salesman threw in cutlery and a T-Fal cookware set.  He chose the largest flat-screen television the place had to offer, and they threw in a stereo because stereos weren’t so popular anymore, and they had stockpiled hundreds of them.  They also threw in a DVD player and a whole box of CDs and DVDs.  He bought a kind-size bed because he was, at heart, an optimist, and they included linens and towels and washcloths.  As the years passed, however, he knew he was destined to sleep in it alone.  So be it!  He spent $25,000 that day, put down his credit card and never blinked an eye.

 

Eleven years later he was still using everything he had purchased from that warehouse on that day in 2024.

 

Eleven years!  Eleven long, lonely years since they had parted, and not even once in all that time had their paths crossed.  It was 2035 and they were both old men; old men who would have nothing to say to each other even if they tripped over one another while walking down the street.  Except that Gregg didn’t walk down the street anymore.  Wilson doubted that he walked anywhere anymore.

 

It had been eleven years since he had bought the bungalow in Brentwood East, which wasn’t a sub-division anymore, but a growing, evolving small town just across the river from Princeton.  Princeton itself was an old city filled with old people and old buildings.  Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital had become Princeton-Plainsboro Medical Complex Number One, and its smaller satellite hospitals were spread out all across New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Upper New York State.  It was the largest teaching hospital in the country, and prospective medical students world-wide competed hotly for a place on its rolls.

 

 Just as it had been when he, House, Cuddy, Foreman, Travis, Lyons, Cameron, Chase and the rest of their friends had worked there, suites and entire wings had been named for prominent physicians as well as for contributors and donors.  There was now the Lisa Cuddy Wing, the Gregory House Wing, and even the James Wilson Wing, for which he felt no end of embarrassment.  And in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the satellite hospital there was called “The Gregory House Institute for Diagnostic Medicine”.  And Gregg wasn’t even dead yet!

 

Wilson had had to smile a little when he learned what the place was being christened.  Knowing Gregg and his habit of pooh-poohing that type of obvious “apple-polishing”, as he’d so often called it, he doubted that House would ever go anywhere near the place, let alone visit it and be seen traversing its halls or glad-handing any of its staff.  But that was only Wilson’s take on it.  Perhaps Gregg had changed in intervening years, though he seriously doubted it.

 

A day had not gone by since Labor Day 2024, the day when he and Gregg had officially parted, that Wilson didn’t think of him, say his name out loud, wonder how he was doing, wonder if he had ever found a small amount of happiness in his life; something he, Wilson, had never seemed to be able to give him.  And he wondered about Christopher.  Wondered if they were together, and whether Christopher had slipped so easily into his former place at Gregg’s side, caring for him, loving him …

 

Gregory House would be in his seventies by now; certainly not such a terribly old man in this day and age, although his precarious physical condition, at which Simon Calder had hinted, would set him apart from others of the same age, and perhaps Gregg’s time on  Earth was limited.

 

Wilson thought about going back to the Palmer House to speak with Calder again.  The man did mention there were things he should know; things which Gregg had forbidden him to speak of, but which by now Calder believed he wouldn’t mind if they became known.

 

Wilson was curious and worried all over again after all these years; emotions he had taken great pains to squelch and eradicate from his memory for so long that they came into his mind as foreign intruders, bringing back all the old hurt and guilt, and longings.

 

Now he was wondering again if there was anything he might have done to patch things up after the fatal night he’d seen Gregg and Christopher touching so lovingly in the old café’s dining room and parking lot.  What might he have done differently that would have healed it, smoothed it over; made the whole thing just go away?  There was no solution.  He had seen what he had seen, and later Gregg had gone through the roof.  Now the memories were back to haunt him, and there was no end to the misery.

 

Wilson decided finally, to go back in order to calm his nerves, try to satisfy his curiosity and perhaps even save his sanity.  He finally called and spoke to Simon Calder.  He needed answers which made sense.  When would be the best time for a serious talk?

 

Calder seemed so happy to hear from him that his voice over the phone was nervous and shaken.  Wilson thought for a moment that he would cry.  Calder told him to come to the restaurant’s back door at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, the least busy evening, and they could talk without interruption in the preparation room just off the kitchen.  He would ask his employees to avoid them at all costs.  Would that be satisfactory?

 

Wilson thanked him sincerely and hung up.  His stomach was jumpy, his hands shaking and clammy with perspiration.  He sat with the phone in his lap for an hour while fantasy scenarios painted a wild fresco of possibilities inside his head.  Tuesday was still four days away.

 

 

                                                                 ////////

 

He fidgeted all day.  He ran the Dyson, dusted, re-arranged the silverware drawer and the bedroom closet.  He went into the second bedroom which he had turned into his office and got online to chat with some old colleagues.  He played solitaire and Inka-Blinka until his eyes were burned in his head.

 

He took a long, hot shower and dried off leisurely.  He donned new blue jeans, new hard-sole moccasins without socks, and a fresh sport shirt.  He combed his hair, which did no good … it never had! … and he splashed on a little cologne.

 

At 7:30 p.m. he went out to the Lexus XI and keyed the motor.  He backed carefully out of his driveway.  He was on his way.

 

The Palmer House parking lot was full, even on a Tuesday night.  If this was the slack night, he wondered what the others were like.  When he got out of the car, it started to rain.  *Well damn!*   The umbrella was in the back seat.  He opened the car’s rear door and got it out, took it along with him when he knocked on the back door.

 

He was still the man with the wrong umbrella.

 

Simon Calder opened the door at the first knock.  He too was dressed in sport shirt and jeans.  What hair he had left was combed back in a rakish manner.  His mustache was trimmed neatly and his gold-rimmed glasses still slid about halfway down his nose.  He reached out to shake Wilson’s hand, but when Wilson reached out to clasp the other man’s in return, Simon pulled him into a fierce bear hug that Wilson returned in kind.

 

“I am so glad you decided to return, Jimmy.  There are things you never knew about, and if Gregory had let me, I’d have told you about them many years ago.  But he said he would never speak to me again if I dared say a word.  I knew he was not in the best of health, and I did not wish to offend or upset him.  He is such a stubborn man!”  Simon stretched his arm out, indicating a closed door just ahead.  “In here …”   He held the door and Wilson walked inside past him.  A plate of marvelous looking sandwiches, icy glasses of beer and an assortment of chips and dips were laid out on the table.  Simon indicated a chair and Wilson sat down in it.

 

He looked up at his host’s face expectantly, a little unsettled that Simon had called him “Jimmy”, the childhood nickname that House used to tease him with when they were alone.  “This looks wonderful,” he said.  “I didn’t realize I was hungry until now.”

 

“Please … help yourself.  There’s a lot more where this came from.  All I have to do is stick my head out the door and someone will come running.”  He grinned, indicating the food.  They filled their plates and ate, savoring the rich, cold beer and sandwiches so thick that the sauces ran out the sides.

 

“First of all, I should fill you in on some background.  I knew Gregg House since he was a kid.  He and I are about the same age.  I might be a year or two older than he is ...  I was born in ’56, he in ’58 or ’59, I think.  He was always at the head of his class.  Always.  I can’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t.  He was always up to his ears in sports and girls.  He couldn’t keep away from sports, and girls couldn’t keep away from him!  He was a shy kid, if you can believe it.  Not much for anything except a bit of flirting, but deep into baseball, football, soccer, la crosse … anything where you got to throw a ball around.  He read encyclopedias for fun.  He could tell you the populations and the capitols of any city in the world by the time he was eight, and drove the rest of us nuts with it.  He was a walking dictionary of trivia.  Got into motorcycles by age eleven, owned his first one at twelve.  He started to read medical books about that time and  devoured those too.  Then his folks started him on piano lessons and guitar lessons.  He taught himself to play harmonica and sax and trumpet and drums … you hand him an instrument and he’d play it.  He wrote some songs … some of them pretty damned good.

 

“Gregg was valedictorian of his high school class.  Four hundred students.  He was numero uno.  By that time though, I was in Manhattan, interning at Max’s East Side Bistro.  I lost track of him for about seven years, then I moved back here and started working at this place.  Old Billy liked me pretty much, so when he retired, I bought him out.  We used to cater and deliver at the university, and at the hospital.  Since it was a teaching hospital, I ran into Gregg again when he was interning there.  Big shot doctor now.  I used to tease the hell out of him about it.  He was always good natured, but his mind was over-the-top.  Absolutely brilliant, and moving up fast.  He had a number of med students under his wing then, and one of them was Lisa Cuddy.  She was no slouch herself in the brain department, and they used to go after each other’s throats like a couple of hungry wolves.  I remember when they used to come in here with a bunch of other students and interns.  The debates would get pretty noisy, but they needed a place to sound off, and I’d let ‘em.  Nobody got out of hand, and they were fun to have around.

 

“Then one day Lisa disappeared.  She was just … gone.  No explanation, no reason, no discussion or questions from the others.  Just … pffft!  Gone!”

 

“What happened?”  Wilson injected.  “Where did she go?”

 

“I’m getting to that, Jimmy.  Hang on.”  Simon took a bite of sandwich and chewed thoughtfully, then washed it down with a swallow of beer.  Wilson followed suit, eyes wide, never leaving Calder’s face.  After a time, Simon continued.

 

“For a few weeks after that, the same gang kept coming in, but they were quieter.  Not as  argumentative.  I figured it was because Gregg and Lisa weren’t sitting there together  arguing everything from theology to evolution, and nobody else was willing to take on Gregg the way Lisa had.  It kind of killed the fun.  After awhile, they began to drift away, one at a time.  Gregg usually came in alone by that time.  Gregg was Gregg, after all.  If there was no party for him to be the life of, then he would be the ‘life’ and pull a party around him.  We got to be friends.  I wouldn’t argue with him … I wasn’t crazy enough to think I could keep up with that kind of brain … but we had some serious talks, and he told me things that curled my hair.  In fact, he told me some stuff that used to make my toenails curl up, and even then he swore me to secrecy.  I liked him, and it wasn’t like he’d robbed a bank or committed a murder or anything.  But he wasn’t this shy kid anymore.  He had some secrets and he told me all of them.  And I never told a soul.  You can probably take a good guess at most of them.  Later, he got involved with Stacy, and he met up with you, and Lisa Cuddy came back and got the job as hospital Administrator and so on and so on and so on.

 

“And then his leg went bad.  And Gregg changed.  He changed 180 degrees … you know about that … you were there to see it happening … and Stacy couldn’t take it.  I think she ran away from her own guilty conscience.  She couldn’t stand to look at Gregg’s leg.  It was ugly, and very hurtful at first, and it sickened some of his friends who saw it.  He hated that and began to hide it from everyone.   She couldn’t stand to see him struggle with crutches and a leg that made him scream in pain and was always in the way … and his rage and despondency and mourning for the loss of mobility.  His pain made him the center of attention, and it pushed her into the background.  It was a bit much for her ego. She left.

 

“Thank God you were there for him.  He would still come in here with you, even in the early days, but the rest is history.  But he wasn’t the same Gregg.  He was pathetic.  He was crippled and he went from a sweet, sarcastic, brilliant guy to a total asshole in less than a heartbeat.”

 

“But I know all this,” Wilson said, puzzled.  “What is it that you still need to tell me?”

 

“That’s what I’m going to tell you next.  In the meantime, I think we need another sandwich, and refills on the beer.”

 

Wilson knew he wasn’t going to hurry the story by asking questions, so he nodded and sat still until Simon stuck his head out the door, and sure enough, more beer and sandwiches appeared on cue.

 

They ate, they drank, and Simon continued.

 

“Remember when I said Lisa Cuddy disappeared?” 

 

“Yeah …”

 

“She was gone for a year.  That was back before you entered the picture.  You were still a little too young.  She took a year off med school.  Ring any bells?”

 

Wilson frowned, thinking.  “Not really.  Why would she do that?”

 

“Jimmy … you were naïve when you were younger, you’re still naïve!  It’s the most charming thing about you.  Why would a woman go missing for a year and then show up again?  Hmmm?”

 

Wilson’s eyes widened.  “You mean she was … ?”

 

“You got it.  She was pregnant.”

 

“Oh my God!   I never knew!   And I’m sure Gregg never knew.”

 

“Ohhh … Gregg knew.  He knew because he was there.”

 

“Huh?  Oh!  Ooh … My … Oh My God!”

 

“Yeah!  Lisa was pregnant and Gregg was the father.”

 

 “And when, exactly, was this?”

 

“It was 1991.  Lisa missed the ’92-’93 school year.”

 

“What happened to the child?”

 

“He’s fine.  He’s all grown up now.  He’s married, and he has a son of his own.   He’s a lawyer.  His name is Christopher Westerbridge.”

 

Wilson jumped to his feet, jostling the table,  spilling his beer, dislodging his sandwich from his plate.  He stepped back before the liquid could splash his pants.  “I’m sorry Simon … but good Lord!  You’re saying that the Christopher who is with Gregg House is his son?”

 

“That’s what I’m saying.  That’s what Gregory made me promise not to tell a single soul.   Not you, not anyone.  Up to this moment, I’ve kept that promise.”

 

“Did he know all along?”

 

“He knew there was a child … but he believed Lisa gave it up for adoption.  He thought he would never see his own baby, so he never talked about it.  Even he and Lisa buried it so deeply that they never talked about it again either.  She never told him that she didn’t give the baby up.  Gregg didn’t know.  But they couldn’t deny their connection, since they eventually began to work together.  They just resumed that same snarky relationship-friendship they’d had back in the beginning. 

 

“After Gregg was hurt so badly, Lisa protected his job again and again when he was absolutely unable to work, and was in danger of being fired by the board.  She stood up for him in ways he’ll never know.  Christopher told me about some of that.  He’s a brilliant young man … not so young anymore.  He’s a perfect blend of his mother and father.  Lisa loved Gregg, but never told him because her career was important to her.  That’s the way it goes sometimes.  And Gregg couldn’t love her back, of course, because of one of his secrets … he loved you.  He stayed with Stacy for years because he was in denial for a long time … just the same as you had failed marriage after failed marriage because you loved him. Gregg didn’t even know his child’s sex until Lisa was killed in the accident early this year.  Then it all came out when her will was read.  She specified that Chris’s father be told about his existence, and that the boy had been raised by Lisa’s younger sister in Pennsylvania.  Her sister’s married name is Westerbridge; thus Christopher Gregory Westerbridge.  Chris was always told that Lisa was his aunt.  He knows the whole truth now.  He and his dad get along beautifully.”

 

Simon’s face was full of sadness when he looked up at Wilson.  The man was devastated, guilty for the terrible mistake he’d made that cost him the love of the only person who had ever meant so much to him.  “Jimmy, I’m sorry.   So sorry.  What you saw that night was a father and son getting to know each other after both of them had just come to find out the other existed.  That wasn’t what it looked like to you.  They were just discovering each other, but you were hurt and you lashed out.  So did Gregg. 

 

“But now you know.  Chris doesn’t live with Gregg.  He lives close by with his own family, and Gregg is a grandfather.  His grandson is a handsome seventeen-year-old with big blue eyes just like Gregg’s.   He and the boy had to get used to each other just as he and Chris had to do.”  Calder shrugged.  “Gregg has changed a lot after all these years. Maybe you can both make up for lost time.  I don’t know.  It’s all up to you and Gregg.  Are you willing to meet with him?”

 

Wilson’s breath hitched suddenly in his throat.  He was older.  Gregg was older.  They had both changed; become set in their ways.  Could it work again?  Could they iron things out without killing each other?   He didn’t know.  He only knew he was willing to try.  His face clouded and he could not speak.  Tears came to his eyes unbidden.  Then

Wilson nodded.

 

When he left the Palmer House about midnight, it was raining like the hammers of hell.  He flipped up the umbrella and made it to his car, lowering the ribs back against the stem.  He placed it on the seat beside him and looked at it for a moment, then reached over to touch the raised initials in remembrance and regret. 

 

 “Oh Gregg … we have squandered all this time … could you love me again?”

 

 

                                                                 ////////

 

 

James Wilson thought of nothing else for two straight weeks.  Gregory House was seventy-six years old.  He himself was sixty-six.  What was the saying about teaching old dogs new tricks?  Most old dogs didn’t think much of new tricks.  Most old dogs preferred a fireside and a warm rug; familiar surroundings, not uncharted territory.

But some old dogs might be persuaded to lift a paw in greeting in exchange for a bite of beefsteak.  Were he and House this kind of old dog?  Or would they stay by the fireside and cling to the lonely familiar?   The thought scared him to death, and he didn’t know what to believe.

 

Next week was Christmas, not that he gave a damn.  He didn’t keep kosher anymore, but neither had he celebrated the other holiday since the days of cardboard Chinese and plastic chopsticks at Gregg’s apartment.  He smiled as he thought about that.  The first time they had done it was the Christmas before they had admitted exactly what they really meant to each other.  Those were still days of pussyfooting and guarded questions;  eyebrow-wiggling innuendo and stolen meaningful looks; shy smiles and the delight of discovery.   They had shared porn movies and football games.  Courting!    Those had been the days when they were still afraid of asking direct questions for fear of freaking each other out forever.

 

How foolish they’d been!  How terrified of coming right out and saying “I love you!”  They’d played silly games for months before finally beginning to meet “accidently” at the Palmer House.

 

 Make love in public before you made love in private!   How gauche!

How utterly “twelve-years-old!”

 

 

                                                              ////////

 

 

 

He was in the black leather recliner with a book in his hand, staring at the plasma TV without seeing it.  He was trying to read, but he’d scanned the same paragraph three times without understanding or even caring.

 

The knock on the door startled him.  He had not heard anyone come up on the porch.  He put the book down and lowered the recliner’s footrest.  He walked to the front door and opened it.  There was a pleasant-looking black-haired man standing before him.   He was mid-forties and rather handsome with streaks of silver in his hair, a dark mustache, and very green eyes.

 

Wilson knew, and the knowledge sent a cold spike of panic down his spine.

 

“Hello Christopher.  I’ve been expecting you, I think.”

 

“Hello, Dr. Wilson.  My dad’s in the car.  He would like to talk to you, if it’s convenient.”

 

Wilson’s eyes moved immediately to the curb.  A burgundy Edinburgh hydrogen-powered citicar stood there majestically.  A grey-haired man with a trim beard and mustache was looking his way from the passenger side.  Wilson’s stomach did a somersault and his breathing hitched up suddenly.  Gregg!  “Of course it’s convenient!  Please … have him come in.  Do you need help with his wheelchair?”

 

“Dad doesn’t use a wheelchair anymore.  He’s been doing very well without it.”  Christopher Westerbridge turned around and beckoned to the man in the car, and Wilson saw a huge grin cross the older man’s face.

 

Gregory House opened the car door and prepared to get out.  He was using arm canes, and his movements were strong and confident, much better than he’d been when Wilson had last seen him.  When he stood up, Wilson drew a sharp intake of breath.  The crippled leg was gone.  It had finally been amputated at the hip.

 

 “Oh God!”  He could not help himself.  House’s pain was gone as well!

 

“It’s all right, Dr. Wilson,” Christopher said.  “He’s so much better for it.”

 

Gregory House walked slowly up the sidewalk of James Wilson’s little bungalow.  His face was scrunched into something like the expression he used to wear when he was evaluating something someone had said which he knew was bullshit.  In his right hand, clutched in the palm beside the crutch handle, he held something long and black and slender, and when he stopped in front of the porch steps, he brandished it, held it out to Wilson and the scrunched look turned to a smile.  “I’ve been talking to Calder,” Gregg said.  “He told me you wanted to talk to me.  So if you two would be so kind as to help me up these damned steps, maybe we can do that …”

 

They grasped him beneath his arms and lifted him easily onto the porch.  He wasn’t as light as he looked, nor as feeble.  He turned on the canes, gracefully, and pointed to the slender black umbrella Wilson was now holding by his side.  “I think that thing belongs to you.  I told you if you left anything, I’d throw it out.  But for obvious reasons, I hung onto it.” 

 

Wilson said nothing, just stared as House reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a yellowed piece of paper, folded into quarters.  “I found this on my kitchen table one day.”  He opened it up and began to read:

 

 “’I love you.  I have always loved you.  I always WILL love you.  I will never bother you again …’  By the way, that last line doesn’t count!  Not anymore.  So … are you going to invite me in?”  He turned to his son with a grin.

 

 “Go home, Chris!  Marty and Maria are waiting.  Put that damn thing away, Wilson, and let’s go in so you can give me mine! 

 

“I’m sick and tired of being the man with the wrong umbrella!”

 

                                                                 

 


                                                         -The End -

 

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