Monday, November 1, 1999

Mr. Gilton's Last Christmas

This story originally appeared on the Secret Garden website and is archived here at the request of author Doug Rogers.

I don't remember if it was the fourth or fifth day after they did the second amputation to my leg that they moved Mr. Gilton into the bed next to me. My insurance isn't that good, to put it bluntly, and they didn't view an above knee amputation as a condition 'requiring a private room.'
I, on the other hand, had taken the situation a bit more seriously. I was depressed as hell and mad at the world. The privacy curtain was pulled between the two beds so I couldn't see much as they wheeled the fellow in on a Gurney. He was just a shape under the white sheet that I glimpsed as he cleared the door. I forgot the interruption to my angst almost immediately.
The door closed and it was quiet in the room. Quiet. Man, was that ever the bane of my existence in those terrible days. All I could do was seethe. "It's so Goddam unfair!" I thought.
"Life is often unfair, young man," a voice called.
I gasped. I hadn't realized I'd spoken my thought aloud. "I beg your pardon?" I returned.
"You were saying it was unfair," came the answer. The voice was obviously old and somewhat shaky. Still, there was a calm there that somehow gave me comfort.
"I'm sorry," I told him. "I didn't realize I was thinking out loud."
"Nothing to be sorry for," the voice returned. "We need to let our feelings out, to be heard." He paused. "And we need someone to listen to them."

I said nothing.
"I can do that, if you like," came the offer. Then he added, "Or I can be quiet and not bother you."
I rose to a sitting position. What the hell? The rehab bitch had told me she wanted me up and moving. I swung my right foot to the floor and stood so I could reach the edge of the curtain. With a single sweeping motion I pulled it back.
"Charles Gilton," the voice said, extending a boney hand. "Pleased to meet you."
I took a hop, steadying myself on the side table. "Greg Hathaway," I returned, taking his hand. "Good to meet you."
"How long have you been here, Mr. Hathaway?" the old man asked.
I looked into the heavily lined, almost leathery face. The man had to be past ninety. He had huge ears and the calmest, bluest eyes I'd ever seen. The face matched the soft yet commanding voice I had heard. "I've been here three weeks," I finally got out.
Gilson saw me grab at the table for balance. "Perhaps you ought to get back into bed, Mr. Hathaway. That way we can visit very nicely and neither of us is going to fall down."
I looked at the foot of his bed. "Have you lost a leg too, Mr. Gilton?"
The chuckle was warm. "No, not lost. It's just that I'm one hundred and three years old, young man, and at my age nothing works very well any more!"
I sat down on the edge of my own bed. This old fellow was a charmer!
"Three weeks is a long time," he observed. "I suppose you'll be leaving soon."
"Not for another week at least," I told him. "I was in a car wreck. A piece of the frame sliced through my calf, bone and all. There wasn't anything for them to do but sew it up when I got here. For some reason, the antibiotics didn't take care of the infection. Gangrene set up and they had to take it off through the knee." I lifted the hem of my hospital gown to show him the mass of bandages I was sporting around the end of where my knee should have been.
"That's a tough break, Mr. Hathaway. A tough break."
"Please, sir, call me Greg. You're 'way too much my senior to call me 'Mister.'"
Gilson laughed, this time out loud. "That's a good one, young fellow," he giggled. I liked the way he laughed. "I'm too old to call ANYONE 'Mister,' if you go by that. Tell you what, I'll call you Greg if you'll call me Chuck!"
"Okay, Chuck, that's a deal," I told him.
"Do you have family?" he asked.
"That's a little messy to answer," I told him. Somehow I didn't think I ought to tell this old fellow I'm gay and my family had disowned me.
"I'm sorry you are estranged," came the answer. "It's a sad thing when parents don't support their children, regardless of what the case may be."
This old cocker was amazing! "How did you know we were estranged?"
"Elementary, my dear Watson," he quipped. "Were your parents alive and in touch, you would have said so. You would also have said if they were dead. Were you married, you would have told me of your mate. The conclusion is easy to draw: whoever you may have been close to, you are now estranged."
"Quite good," I said, a little bitterly. "How about you?"
"Me? I'm over a hundred. Everyone that meant anything to me has been gone a long time."
"You have no children? Grandchildren?"
"In my day, son, you had to get married to have those things. I never went that route. No, I'm afraid that time has taken it's toll. A century is a long time to watch come and go. I've lost more friends over the years than most people ever make. When I was born, man had never flown... by the time I was sixty, men had walked on the moon. I've lived through six or eight wars, depending on how you count it and twenty different presidents, counting that nincompoop who's screwing things up now!"
Mr. Gilton seemed nice. He was a no-nonsense man who seemed to have no regrets about his long life. Over the days to come, we talked of many things. I found that he had been a resident of the Mist Lake Assisted Living Center until a couple of weeks before we met. They had moved him to the hospital when his heart started acting up, and for some reason nothing the doctors were giving him seemed to quite do the trick. He was the oldest resident at the home, and as such the younger residents fussed over him a lot. "A damned nuisance most of the time," he had commented, but the smile on his lips and the twinkle in his eyes revealed that he enjoyed the attention.
I did notice that he had not a single visitor. Of course, neither did I. It was on the third day of our mutual captivity that he finally broached the subject of family again.
"Are you new in town?" he asked after the lunch dishes were carried away.
"Not really. Been here a couple of years. Why?"
"Visitors," he said simply. "Rather, the lack of them." He paused. "I'm an old man. All my friends are dead or can't get out. But you? You're a young man..."
I took a deep breath. Perhaps this was something that needed to be handled now. After all, I wasn't going to be here much longer, and if the old fellow didn't take my being gay very well, what of it? "Chuck, you just as well know I'm gay. I had a partner who I'd lived with for the past year, so I had sort of dropped out of the party scene. He hasn't been back to see me since the night they took my foot off. He tried to act like it didn't matter, but it was written all over his face. I called the apartment over the last couple of weeks, but never get an answer. He's gone too. I don't think he even knows about the rest of the leg. As to friends, well, what can I say? I've been out of the club scene since Steve and I were together, and besides, most gay guys don't handle physical imperfection very well."
Gilton's eyes had never left mine during the entire speech. He nodded his head twice. "I know what you mean by that," he answered calmly. "Most of the younger men are a little shallow around the edges." He paused, his mind seeming to drift for a few seconds. "Of course, back when I was your age, we had to be far more secretive; you couldn't just come out and ask someone if they were interested."
"Wha..." was the only sound I could make.
"Close your mouth, Greg," he told me kindly. "Did you think the 80's generation invented it? Read your Greek history, my boy." He chuckled. "Besides, I'd already had you pegged."
"How?" was all I could ask.
"Son, again, you think you're the only ones with "gay-dar?"
"I would never have guessed," I began.
"Of course not. As I said, when I was your age, we had to be oh so careful. It was a matter of life and death, not to mention that a college professor could lose his job over such things back in the 30's. Just because I'm not young and not a looker any more doesn't mean that I didn't see my share of action."
He smiled broadly. Part of me wanted to ask him to relive those earlier times, and indeed, he would do so in the weeks that would follow my release from the hospital, but Attila the Hun from rehab appeared at that moment.
"Sorry Mister Hathaway," she began without introduction. "We had a steam pipe spring a leak up in the rehab gym. About all that we're going to be able to do with you to day is a little crutch walking and sit-ups. I'm here to help you with that right now."
"Wonderful," I said sourly.
Attila reached for the privacy curtain to close the rest of the room off from Gilton. "Miss?" the old man asked politely, "I wonder if you might leave the curtain open enough so I could see the TV?"
"Hell, don't pull it on my part," I told her. "Chuck, here, has seem me hobble to the bathroom more than once."
The therapist shrugged her well-muscled shoulders and pulled the curtain back where she had found it, and reached up to turn on the TV.
For the next half hour I couldn't help but notice that my room mate was spending far more time with his eyes on me than on the television screen. I did a mental shrug and guessed it was just his interest in how I was doing and went on with my knitting.
Brunhilde the second had been gone about ten minutes when Gilton finally spoke. "You're getting quite graceful on your crutches."
"You think?" I asked absently.
"Much better than when we first met," he told me. "You're much more fluid and seem far more sure of yourself."
"I hadn't realized it," I answered. "I don't believe a thing that old warhorse tells me. She alternately bitches and pumps sunshine up my ass."
"Well, it's true. I've seen a great many people use crutches over the years, and many never get the idea."
"Yeah, I guess a lot of the people at the home would use them," I agreed.
"Oh, not just there," Gilton volunteered. "When I was teaching at a state college in the late forties there was a host of young men through my classes on the GI bill who, like yourself, had been deprived of one of their legs or arms. Many of them used prostheses, but many did not. The same was true after the Korean conflict. A great many amputees. The snows were as bad as the wounds, or so they told me. Frostbite and all of that."
"It must have been just as spooky for the soldiers as it was for me," I told him. "I mean, one minute you're minding your own business and you're whole, and then you wake up and find out that the world changed while you weren't looking!"
"The world can change in many ways, young man," Gilton said a bit sadly. "One wakes up one morning and finds oneself to be one hundred and three, and wonders where all of the time went." He smiled. "But I understand what you are saying. Still, you must believe that there are compensations. You may not understand them now, but they exist."
"What in the he... uh, world could be a compensation for losing my leg?" I asked incredulously.
"Greg, you have no idea," Gilton said seriously. "You may not realize it, but your disability is going to attract a whole new group of men to you!"
"Yeah, right. Who's going to want a gimp?"
"More men than you can imagine. Have the doctors mentioned anything to you about a group called 'devotees?'"
"No. What are they?"
"Just what the word implies."
I thought a moment. "Someone who is devoted. Okay, devoted to what?"
Gilton nodded toward my stump. "Amputees."
The silence in the room was palpable. I frankly didn't believe him. "It's nice of you to try and make me feel better, but this is a little much to buy, Chuck."
"Disbelieve if you please. The doctors will visit with you about devotees at some point in your counseling. They will probably tell you they are perverts to be avoided at all costs, and I assure you, there are some real sickos in the group. However, there are also men of culture and insight with a deep capacity to care out there. And they will find your lack a genuine attraction." He looked me in the face. "You are an attractive young man. Nothing has changed."
I just shook my head. "You sure seem to know a lot about these guys. How so?"
"Well, for one thing, there are countless Internet sites that support the interest. I can tell you of some of them if you are interested." He paused. "But there is an even simpler answer how I know theses things."
"Which is?"
"I am a devotee myself."
My mind kept turning over what Chuck had told me. I wanted to ask him more, but the nurse had come in to give him his sponge bath and that had put the brakes on our conversation. Then a social worker had come in to see me. Seems they were getting ready to send me home, and he was all smiles and helpful encouragement. Oh, please! Where do these people get their reality checks?
It was after supper that evening before the conversation returned to Gilton's startling revelation of the afternoon.
"Were you serious about what you told me earlier?" I asked.
"Quite," came the answer. "I hope I didn't upset you with what I said."
"I'm not upset," I answered, "just confused, and a little disbelieving."
"Very understandable. I was confused myself when I first realized I had the attraction."
"When did that happen?" I asked.
"When I was a child. We had a neighbor boy about ten years my senior who was involved in an accident laying a rail spur at the north end of town. The doctors were forced to remove his right leg mid-calf. For a time, he went about on crutches until he finally began to wear a peg leg. I was fascinated by both."
"What happened to him?"
"In time, he married and moved away. That fascinated me also, that he married, I mean. It was the first hint that someone other than myself found him attractive!"
"Maybe she just was willing to overlook it."
Gilton smiled. "When one chooses a life-mate there are enough things that are going to show up years down stream to overlook. No, I believe she was utterly fascinated with him. At their wedding he wore what we called back then a 'wooden leg.' It was shaped as a natural foot and he wore a shoe on it. At the reception, he had switched back to his peg leg, which he wore outside of the trouser leg! They were dancing away, and his bride was giggling and laughing all of the time. Neither of them seemed at all self-conscious."
I shook my head. "And you think this is... attractive?" I pulled up the gown to show the naked stump below. "This is... grotesque!"
"Perhaps to you," the old man answered. "Allow me a question. If you don't mind telling me, describe Steve."
"Steve? Okay. He was about five-ten, 200 pounds, brown eyes and hair, had a nice chest pelt." I paused. "Do I need to get more personal?"
"That's fine. Now, you on the other hand are about six feet tall, can't weigh more than 160 pounds and appear to have little body hair."
"Why did you find Steve attractive. He certainly is not 'like' you!"
I paused. "I've always liked 'bears.'"
I shook my head. "I don't get it."
"It doesn't matter that we do not look like our own ideal," he said slowly. I had the feeling we were in a class somewhere. "It is only important that we match the ideal of our partners." He smiled. "And your leg is not grotesque. It is simply shortened. It appears to be healing quite well, and my guess is you are going to get along quite nicely in all regards."
Part of me wondered if the old man was crazy. What he was saying didn't make much sense. No, I knew he wasn't crazy. He had been nothing but kind and entertaining, and the light of his intellect shone through every conversation I had spent with him. There was no reason for me to think that this one was any different. It would just take time for me to accept what he was telling me.
The sawbones had told me it would take another two months or so before my residual limb (as they liked to call it) would be able to accept a prosthesis. In the meantime I had figured out all of the classic dodges that people on crutches work out to get on with daily living. I used one of those dodges and placed my laptop computer and a set of DVD's in my backpack and crutched down to the curb where I hailed a taxi. On the ride to the hospital, I smiled a bit at what I was about to do.
Chuck was sitting up in his bed when I came in. "Greg," he said warmly. "How good of you to come!"
I looked at the empty bed at the far side of the room. "No new room mate?" I asked.
"Not yet. I must say I'm surprised. My last co-inhabitant has been gone three days and the bed is still empty! But enough of that! It's so good of you to drop by and see me."
"I'd meant to come Wednesday," I told him. "I sort of let my time at the gym get in the way. I've just broken a plateau, and I wanted to keep the muscles growing."
"I wish I could visit to watch you work out," Gilton told me, his eyes twinkling.
"You old pervert," I teased. It was my turn for eyes to twinkle. "Would you like to see how my workouts are coming?"
"Certainly, but I doubt they're going to let you sign me out for a field trip."
"No need."
I pulled off my pullover shirt, then unbuttoned and unzipped my jeans. I had my gym shorts on under them. I pulled the jeans free and stood up again, crutching to the center of the room. "Now, watch the hamstrings," I told him.
As I flexed, I saw him nod.
"Chuck, you're supposed to be looking at the hamstring of my right leg." I teased.
"I look at what's beautiful," he returned. "All of it."
I laughed and did a couple of arm flexes before I crutched back to the chair and pulled my street cloths back on.
"A fetching show," my friend announced.
"That's not the half of it," I announced. I placed my laptop on his bed table and inserted a DVD.
"What is 'Queer as Folk?'" Gilton asked.
"I guessed that was not something they watched at Mist Lake Retirement Home," I said. "It's a TV series from Showtime about a group of gay friends and all the things that happen to them. It's sort of a gay soap-opera with high production values. I thought we might watch an episode or two if you think you'll be interested."
Interested was not the word. Gilton was quite taken with the story. He was so taken that he wanted to see episode after episode. We were well into the third 45-minute program when I noticed that he had drifted off to sleep. I stopped the player and sat back in my seat. I was happy. I was about as happy as I had been in the last three months. This old man had seemed to devour the vicarious gay lives before him, and I was pleased I had thought to offer it to him. I looked at my watch: five-thirty.
I went down to the cafeteria and had soup and sandwich. When I made it back up to Gilton's room, he was still asleep. I reached over and snapped the screen of the laptop closed, preparing to leave.
"Are the ill-manners of an old fool running you off?" he asked through slitted eyes.
"No. It's the fact that your guest has overstayed his welcome," I returned.
"Then perhaps we are both in error," he said, opening his blue eyes full. "Please Greg, I'm quite refreshed. Won't you stay and at least allow me to see how Ted fares with the young man he's picked up?"
I smiled. "Sure."
I was setting the machine back up when they brought Chuck's supper. He seemed in a hurry to finish it, and I said nothing. It pleased me that he was excited. Lying in a hospital bed there is so little to be excited about!
Before the evening was over, we were all the way through episode five.
"I'll bring QAF back next time and we can have another marathon," I told him as I was packing up the gear.
"I would like that," Gilton returned. "Although things were quite different back then, the club - Babylon is it? - reminds me a little of a certain bar in downtown Chicago that I visited in 1938. There were so few establishments that catered to gays back then and none that did so openly. I had heard of this place through a friend I was visiting in the windy city, and he and I went there one evening. The music was from phonograph records and there were no flashing lights, rather the lights were low. It was the first time I had ever seen men dance together openly."
"Did you get lucky?" I prompted.
"You bet I did! Both William and I. I was forty by then you see, and I was amazed that a young man in his twenties sat down next to me and offered to buy me a drink. We wound up spending the night at his place." The old eyes twinkled. "You see, I know more about how Brian is feeling than you might think!"
"Naw," I returned, "you're not the arrogant bastard that Brian is!"
We both laughed.
"Do they really have places like Babylon now?" he asked.
"Sure. I used to go to the clubs all of the time."
"Perhaps it's a habit you should resume," Gilton suggested innocently.
I looked down at my pinned up pants leg. "Come on, Chuck," I began.
"As you wish," Gilton returned, " But I would admonish you to remember the discussions we've been having over the last weeks about how life can hold surprises. I think the sooner you get back into circulation, the sooner you're going to realize that your life is not over, simply more interesting."
"Do you ever get tired of being right?" I asked Gilton as I dropped my backpack next to his bed some two weeks later.
"Right about what? Our discussion Monday last about how stupid Emmet is to deny his gayness?"
"You old fox, you know exactly what I'm talking about!"
"Ah! You've been clubbing," he returned and then added: "Get lucky?"
I grinned.
"It was just like you told me... yeah, there were a lot of the snots that snubbed me there on my crutches, but there were three different guys that hit on me. In the end, it was 'take your pick.'"
"And your pick was?"
"Wonderful," I answered with a wide grin.
"I'm so pleased for you," Gilton returned. You must tell me all about it."
I did. I made it in good taste, but I described the entire evening back at my apartment where John (who is only 23 by the way!) and I spent one of the most strenuous evenings I can ever remember. I had no idea what a devotee was going to do to me once I got hold of one, but I had found out! I had no idea that my ruined leg was going to get so much attention and out right adoration. It had been what I had needed, proof that not only I was still attractive, but that my ability to 'play' the game had not been amputated with the leg.
When it was over, we watched three more episodes of QAF. That done, I delivered the news of the evening that I was afraid would sadden my friend.
"Um, Chuck, I got another bit of news today."
"What was that?"
"My insurance company finally came through and I'm getting fitted for a new leg."
"How wonderful!"
"Well, yes and no. The wonderful is they are going to do it right. The leg is being made and fitted by a comprehensive rehab facility that my company uses. The bad news is, it's up-state. I'll be gone six weeks."
Gilton was quiet for a moment. "My, that is quite a while," he said. His voice was neutral. "I shall miss our visits."
"Well, so will I. But I thought ahead."
"Yeah." I pulled seasons two and three of QAF out of my backpack. "I brought you all of the episodes of our favorite show that are out there. If you'll ration them to one or two a day, you ought to just about be at the end of them when I get back and we can talk about all that happened."
"You're so kind, Greg," he said, shaking my hand. "I will use the programs to both pass and mark the time. You go and get the very best help that you can."
I reached down and hugged Mr. Gilton. I was afraid it would be the last time I would be able to do so.
Of course, I was wrong.
Dephine Rehabilitation Systems sits on a twenty-acre plot just outside of a small town up state. It's grounds are private, away from prying eyes. I enjoyed the gentle roll of the lawn, it giving me no problem with my crutches.
Sandy Connors, the prosthesist who worked with me, took the casts and measurements to start on my leg the second day I was there. Somehow I had expected all of the measurements to be done with lasers and all that high-tech stuff, but it wasn't. Sandy just smeared a bunch of Vaseline over my stump and then started wrapping plaster-soaked gauze around it. As it turned out, he couldn't have done a better job.
I got the first training leg about three days later. It was a molded plastic shell with a simple swing knee. I complained that this was not what we had talked about, the consultation having yielded that I was to get a high performance hydraulic knee. Sandy assured me that was in the works, but that he liked to start gait training with this sort of limb.
The leg seemed clumsy to me. In fact, at one point I was thinking that crutches were a better alternative. The limb was heavy and uncomfortable, and the effort required to lock it before I put weight on each step seemed far more than it was worth.
Then came the day that we switched to what was to be 'my' leg! What a difference. I suddenly understood why Sandy had made me spend all that time in that old clunker of a leg. Moving to this one, I felt as though I had been set free. The gait seemed simple and natural, needing only a fraction of the energy that the older model had required. My first trip down the parallel bars on the new prosthesis set my heart free! Everything that the doctors and the social workers and yes, even that Chuck had told me was true. I was going to get on with my life just fine!
It was December 22nd when I got back home. I admit to spending that first night at the club, watching the heads turn as people checked me out. I looked for John, but didn't see him there. I didn't try to pick anyone up. I didn't even try to dance, although Sandy had spent some time working on that with me as well! I just enjoyed being free again.
John, of course, was just a phone call away. He and I spent almost the entire day together on the 23rd. It turns out he's a dyed in the wool devotee. He likes the hardware, too. I spent quite a bit of time walking and running and showing him how my new leg worked.
The morning of the 24th dawned, and I was ashamed of myself. I had not even given Chuck a call. Rather than do that, I simply got dressed and headed down to the hospital.
"I'm afraid Mr. Gilton is not having visitors," the all-to-proper nurse told me.
"Is he not well?" I asked.
"Are you family?" she asked.
"No, I'm not," I told her. "I'm a friend."
"Than I can't give you any further information," she announced.
I lost my temper. "Look, you officious cunt," I began, "I'm a hell of a lot more than a friend. I'm the only one who's been coming to see Mr. Gilton since he checked into this miserable hell hole six months ago! Who the hell is in charge around here?" I finished angrily.
"What's the problem?" The voice was that of a white-clad older man.
"I'm here to see Mr. Gilton," I told him. "I can't seem to get any information at all."
He waved the nurse quiet. "I'm Mr. Gilton's doctor," he told me. "Who are you?"
"Greg Hathaway, like I said, I'm the only guy who's been coming to see him since he got here!"
"Ah, yes. Mr. Hathaway, Mr. Gilton wanted me to give something to you." He handed me an envelope with my name across the front.
"What's this?" I asked, turning the sealed packet over in my hands.
"It is Mr. Gilton's will."
I was dumbstruck. "My God, is he..."
"No. Not yet. But we are right here at the end. His congestive heart failure is almost complete. I suspect he will slip away sometime tonight. That's why we put up the no visitors. He needs quiet."
I turned the envelope over again, then looked up. "Please, Doctor. I've been away a long time. If tonight is... it... I really want to see him again before he goes. I've got things to tell him."
"Of course, come on in," the doctor said.
"Hi, Chuck," I said quietly as I slipped through the door.
"Greg, how good to see you again," he sighed weakly.
"I got back in town two days ago," I said. "I'm sorry I haven't come before now. Are you okay?"
"Just weary. The fool doctors seem to think I'm about to meet my maker. Who knows. Perhaps that's the case. I've cheated the reaper far too long as things stand."
"What's all this nonsense about a will?" I asked, holding up the envelope.
"I told the damned doctor to give you that after I was gone," he croaked. "You can't depend on anyone these days."
"But why me? What do you want me to do for you?"
"The first answer is, because you're you. You've been my last friend these past months. I wanted to do something nice for you in return. There's not much to my estate at all. Some books and cd's at the Home and whatever is left in my savings account at Guaranty Trust."
"No, I can't..."
"Yes, you can. It can't be a great deal by now. Maybe two-and-a-half tens of thousands. But it may come in handy at some point. Please, take anything you want and leave the rest at the Home. But let's not talk of that. It's Christmas Eve!"
I looked around the room. You couldn't tell it was a holiday by anything there.
Gilton saw my eyes cut. "Yes, we used to decorate to the nines at Mist Lake. It was a wonderful time of year. A huge tree trimmed in light and glass. All of us who cared to worked on it... it wasn't the staff, you know. And the music! We would always attend the midnight Mass at St. Luke's. They have the largest choir in town, you know. I lived for those trips. But enough of that, tell me of your adventures."
I stepped back from the bed. "What do you think of the new me?" I asked.
"Very nice. I can't tell you are wearing a prosthesis at all." He coughed a few times weakly.
"Let me get the nurse," I suggested.
"Not at all. Walk a bit for me."
I did. Gilton's eyes never left me. He was obviously appreciating what he saw. Another, more powerful series of coughs began to wrack him. Without asking, I buzzed for the nurse.
It was the Doctor who answered the call. "I'm afraid you'll have to leave for a bit, Mr. Hathaway," he told me. "I have a procedure I need to do for your friend and I need to do it now. Come back after supper, all right?"
I nodded and left. I did not, however, go home. Instead, I found myself wandering the city. The decorated windows and light poles had always been there, but the fondness my friend had expressed for the glitter and color had caused me to see it all with new eyes. I ate lunch at one of the larger department stores, then did a bit of shopping.
"Mr. Gilton is down at Respiratory Therapy," Miss Officious Cunt announced curtly when I returned.
"Fine," I told her. "I'll wait in his room." I left the desk without waiting for her to complain.
Chuck returned about supper time.
"What in the world?" he asked in amazement as they wheeled him in.
"Merry Christmas," I announced.
The old eyes scanned the room. Where before there had been nothing, now there was a six foot tree at the foot of his bed, all strewn with lights and shiny silver balls. A golden fringed garland completed the tree decorations. On the far wall I had pinned up a life size Santa poster and on the near wall, a poster of the Nativity. The only other decoration I had been able to carry with me had been the white candle I had lit next to his bed. My finger pressed the button on my laptop and the newly purchased sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir CD burst forth in the Hallelujah Chorus.
I didn't know if Chuck was about to laugh with glee or cry. "Where did all of this come from?" he asked.
"Me." I answered. "You seemed to miss the decorating this morning when I was here. I'm sorry there isn't more, but I had to lug all of this on foot." I smiled. "It was a good thing I had two for today!"
Gilton looked closely at each item. "I don't know how to thank you," he finally said.
"No thanks required," I told him, taking my seat. "Now, how far did you get in QAF?"
"All the way through. But it didn't end!"
"Right. It's a soap. They never end."
"I kept rather hoping that Michael and Brian would wind up together," he said seriously. "They're made for each other, don't you know."
"Maybe they will," I agreed.
We talked into the night with Chuck being alternately animated and almost groggy. Sometime after eleven the conversation returned to my prosthesis.
"You haven't shown me your artificial leg yet," Chuck announced.
"Well, you know, I haven't," I told him. I rolled up the pant leg to the knee, then got a mischievous look. I stepped back and pulled off my trousers. I had on shorts beneath them. "Here," I said. What do you think?"
Chuck smiled broadly. "I definitely think it's 'you.'" he announced. "I wonder, Greg..."
"I've never seen a modern prosthesis close up. Might I take a look at it? I mean, if it's not a lot of trouble for you to remove?"
"No trouble at all."
I sat down on the edge of the bed and hit the release, pulling the limb free. It actually felt good to get out of the leg after all the walking I had done today. I went ahead and removed the silicone liner to let things air out and laid the device across Chuck's lap to let him examine it closely.
We must have talked about the features and so forth for ten minutes before I saw his eyes on my bare stump.
"Do you still think your leg is grotesque?" he asked softly.
"No," I answered. "An old boy friend of mine changed my mind about that."
"Old in what regard?" came the sly reply.
"You know damned well what regard," I smiled back.
Gilton reached a hand toward my stump but then caught himself. I understood what he wanted to do. John had done it so many times in the short time we had been together.
"Go ahead," I told him. "It's okay. I don't mind at all."
The wrinkled hand lightly caressed my abbreviated thigh. There was nothing sexual in the caress. It was simply curiosity and fascination. When the hand was withdrawn, Gilton smiled.
"Yet another Christmas gift from you," he quipped.
"What do you mean?"
"Greg, I've wanted to have an amputee boy friend for all of my life. I had always wondered what a stump would feel like, and never got the opportunity. All of those countless young men who paraded past, and never the proper moment. Thank you so much."
I patted his hand. "No, Chuck. Thank you. Without you I'd have never realized what my life could be. It's you who gave to me." I leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "You're the boy friend I'm going to remember the most when I'm an old man."
The room was quiet. Outside in the distance, I heard a peal of bells begin. I smiled. "Chuck? Do you hear that? It's Christmas."
"Midnight," he said softly. "The only thing that would make the hour more perfect would be if I could hear the choir at St. Luke's."
"Would you like me to play the CD again?"
Gilton paused, as if something had caught him by surprise. He looked up and smiled into midair, his head nodding up and down as if there was music drifting to his ears from afar. He nodded for about fifteen seconds or so, and then at the end of one cycle, his head came to rest on his chest. Outside at the nurse's station, I heard an alarm sound. I wiped a tear from my eye and leaned over to blow out the candle.
Mr. Gilton's last Christmas was complete.

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