“ROBERT EDWARD HAWKINS!” his mother called from downstairs, and Arie set down his violin before opening the door to his room where he’d been practicing.
“Yes,” Arie called as he heard footsteps on the stairs and saw June’s head appear.
“Your mama has been calling you for the last ten minutes,” June told him in her sweet voice as she glared back down the stairs. “I only came up so she wouldn’t continue working my last nerve.” June, Arie’s mother’s long-suffering housekeeper, was one of the few people who could ever stand up to Suzanne Hawkins.
“I was practicing,” Arie explained in a soft voice as if that explained everything. Over the past six months, playing had become his one escape from the new reality that was his family.
“I know, honey, and that’s what I told her, but she don’t listen to anything she don’t want to hear. She hasn’t since….” June walked past him into the room and began straightening up without finishing her sentence as though her thought didn’t need to be said.
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll pick up later,” Arie said to her, but she simply shooed him away, and Arie figured he might as well go downstairs to find out what his mother wanted.
Arie found her on the veranda in back, sitting in one of the cushioned wicker chairs, her feet up with a glass of iced tea on the table next to her, and he figured that since it was after five, there wasn’t just tea in her tea.
“Arie, sit down,” she said, patting the chair next to her. “Your father and I want to have a talk with you.” The ice tinked against the side of her glass as she tipped it to her lips, and Arie shook his head. His mother hadn’t been a drinker before, either.
Arie sat and used the small sound of the old wicker chair creaking slightly to cover his sigh. So this was it—the talk, one of the things that he’d been trying to put off. Arie simply waited and listened to the sounds of the late afternoon: the birds chirping and the insects buzzing like they always did. Everything looked the same and sounded the same, but nothing was the same and never would be again.
“Arie.” His father’s booming voice announced his presence, and soon the large man strode out onto the veranda, taking his usual place. “Your mother and I have been meaning to talk to you for quite a while, and we feel we cannot put this off any longer, no matter how hard it is to speak of.” His father had always been a stereotypical Southern gentleman—steady, reliable, honest to a fault, and straight-talking. Things that Arie loved about him, but now a lot of his vibrancy seemed to have slipped away, like it had for all of them. “We believe that it’s time you settled down and got married.”
Arie stopped himself from snorting out loud and faced his father in a serious manner. “I doubt that will ever happen. I’m gay, and both of you know it. I have no intention of marrying anyone unless my marrying another man suddenly becomes legal in Mississippi, and we all know pigs will sprout wings and fly before that happens.” This was not the conversation he had been expecting. Honestly, he’d been expecting questions that were more career-oriented.
“Look, son,” his father began. Robert Edward Sr. never yelled or raised his voice—he didn’t have to. You knew how he felt simply by the tone, and this was the one he used when he would take no argument. “You’re our only son, and if the family is to continue, then you must produce an heir.”
Arie knew it was their grief talking and tried not to let himself get overly upset. “This isn’t the eighteenth century, Dad. I do not need to produce an heir, and if the family name dies out, so be it. It’s not the end of the world.” Arie stood up to leave, but his father stood as well, the large man saying nothing, his glowering expression saying it all for him, and Arie stared back at his father. This conversation had to be one of the most unbelievable in his whole life. Everyone’s life had been turned upside down, but this definitely wasn’t the answer.
“Arie, come with me,” his father said, and Arie followed him into the house, through the morning room, and into the large hallway that ran through the center of the antebellum mansion that he’d grown up in. “These are all your ancestors, going back almost three hundred years. This is where your portrait will go, and this is where your son’s should go.” His father pointed to the paintings that chronicled his family tree. “Does all this end with you? What will happen to Arbor House and all of this when you’re gone? You have to think of the future.”
“I know, Dad. But I will not marry some girl just so I can make both our lives miserable. I’m not interested in having children at this point in my life. Maybe at some point in the future if I find someone I wish to settle down with, we’ll make arrangements for children, but I think you and Mama need to understand that that may never happen.” Arie had rarely spoken to his father like this. In fact, they rarely spoke much at all. “I know that disappoints you, but I’m gay. I think you and Mama need to truly accept that.”
“You know we could force you,” his father said, but there was no heat in his voice and no fight in his posture, and Arie figured he already knew the answer.
Arie laughed. “Actually, you can’t. You could try to disinherit me, and that would be fine, but you cannot force me to do anything, not really.” Arie sighed, not really feeling up to this conversation, either. “I’m not saying any of this to hurt you, because I love you both very much, but you have to let me live my own life.”
For a few minutes, Arie thought his father would argue, but then Arie saw something in his father he’d rarely seen: resignation touched with disappointment. Oh, he’d seen the expression before, but never leveled at him, and it tore at Arie’s heart. He loved both his parents, and like most children, he wanted them to be proud of him and he wanted them to be happy, just as he wanted and needed to be happy for a change. Arie didn’t know what else to say, and he hoped his father would say something, but he simply turned around and walked back the way he’d come, joining Arie’s mother on the veranda. Arie stood where he was, trying to figure out if he should try to speak with them some more, but he wasn’t sure if it would do any good. Turning, he walked toward the stairs, figuring he’d go back to his rehearsal, but he really didn’t feel like it anymore.
At the top of the stairs, he paused, looking down the hallway where as a child he’d played hide-and-seek with Charlotte. He could almost hear his older sister’s laughter carrying on the breeze as it blew through the open windows. He knew his father’s words were brought on by loss and grief, and he doubted they really expected him to marry.
“What is it, honey?” June asked as she came out of his bedroom. “You look all twisted up.”
“Mom and Dad want me to get married,” Arie answered, and June’s eyes widened before she broke into a smile. “I’m serious,” Arie added, and June’s smile faded.
“I’ve known you and your sister since you were both in diapers, bless her soul, and I’ve known your mother since she was a young lady, so I know that woman almost as well as I know myself. And I can tell you that since the accident, they’re both just feeling their mortality, and they want you to be happy. Marrying you off prob’ly ain’t the way to do that, but they don’t know how to say that they hope you meet someone, settle down, and have babies.” June took his hand in her work-calloused hands, and it felt as comforting as a security blanket. “Just give them some time, and they’ll come around. They’re both at loose ends and don’t know where to turn.”
“Thanks, June,” Arie said, shaking his head, feeling a bit shell-shocked as his own grief bubbled to the surface. Opening the door to his bedroom, he saw his violin lying in its case on his now made bed. Picking it up, he ran his hands over the instrument that was almost as much a part of him as his arms and hands. Lifting the bow, Arie placed the instrument under his chin and waited, the bow stopping just above the strings. The music that usually flooded his mind wouldn’t come. Arie lost track of the amount of time he simply stood there, lost in thought, and then the music began to play, slow and deep, his grief melding with the song in his mind.
Without thinking, Arie lowered the instrument, carrying it with him as he left the bedroom and descended the stairs. Walking through the hall and the morning room, he saw his parents still sitting in their chairs. What surprised him was that they’d moved their chairs side by side and were holding hands, not saying anything. Lifting his violin to his chin, Arie drew the bow over the strings and let the song playing in his mind and heart burst out of him. As soon as he played the first note, Arie lost sight of everything around him, the music powerful enough to transport him in his mind. He played the loss that had been building for months. Even as he moved outside, he continued playing. He didn’t really see his parents, either, but he knew they were there, and he knew they’d stayed stock still.
Arie played on and on, not stopping, because the music in his head wasn’t stopping. When he opened his eyes, the world seemed watery. Realizing that he was crying, Arie played through the tears and a lump in his throat so large he thought it would choke him, and still he played and played, letting out everything he’d been trying to hold inside. He’d been using his music as an escape, and now he used it as a release.
Once the song stopped, Arie lowered the bow and stood looking out across the manicured yard where he’d played as a child. No one moved for the longest time, and then Arie turned to look at his parents and saw trails of tears running down both their cheeks. Arie had never seen his father cry in his life, and he wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or worried. Through everything they’d been through, Senior had never cried. His mother had, but not for months. Lately she just sat, looked around her, and drank too much. “That was beautiful, Arie,” she said, her voice cracking. “Who wrote that?”
“No one, Mom. That was just what I was feeling,” Arie explained, looking away so he could give them some privacy as he began to play once again. This time, rather than his feelings, he played his memories, the happy times he’d had with Charlotte when they were children, the first time he’d gotten to hold his nephew, the day of Charlotte’s wedding—everything melding together. This time, when he lowered his bow, Arie felt wrung out. Without looking at his mother and father, Arie walked back into the house and up to his room, placing his instrument back in its case before collapsing onto his bed, burying his face in a pillow and letting the tears come.
He felt like such a baby bawling his eyes out like this, but he couldn’t help it. He’d held in the grief and loss for so long that he couldn’t pretend that everything was okay any longer. A soft knock on his door broke through his tears, and Arie lifted his head. “It’s time for supper.” June’s voice drifted through the door, and then he heard the familiar creak of the floorboards outside his door as she walked away. Wiping his eyes, Arie forced himself to get up. He knew he probably looked terrible, and he didn’t want his family to see him like this, so he made a stop in the bathroom to splash water on his face before heading down the stairs.
He found his parents still on the veranda, with the table set there. Arie sat down and placed his napkin on his lap while his mother and father silently lifted themselves out of their chairs. It didn’t look to Arie as though either of them had moved a muscle since he’d gone upstairs, and even when they came to the table, they seemed to walk mechanically, their eyes slightly glazed over.
June set dinner on the table and then left, and the three of them ate in near total silence. It had been this way for months, with only brief periods where they seemed to talk to one another, and then silence again.
“We have to stop this,” Arie said as his mother pulled out her chair. He couldn’t take much more of this. “We’ve just been wallowing in grief for months.”
“What do you suggest we do? Forget them?” his mother snapped before reaching for her newly refilled glass of tea. “I’m not ready to or willing to do that.”
“Suzanne, Arie’s not suggesting that. I think he’s saying that we should talk to each other.” His father turned to him. “You had an audition last week, and you never told me how it went.”
Arie set down his fork as he swallowed. “I think it went very well. They told me there were a lot of applicants, which means they weren’t getting anyone’s hopes up, but they seemed impressed, and the fact that I’m relatively local seemed to interest them. I’ll have to see. They said they would be making a decision in a few weeks. I’ve gotten some referrals from the high school, and it looks like I may be able to work with some of their orchestra students in the fall.” Arie had been trying to figure out how to turn his love of music into a career. “I’ve been auditioning quite a bit over the last six months. I just wish I could catch a break.”
Senior had trained as a lawyer, but he’d also inherited a lot of family money, and he’d made a career out of taking the family inheritance and making it larger. He was also a partner in a Natchez law firm, but no longer went into the office very much. His name was on the door, and that was enough to bring in clients. “I know you have, and I’m very proud of you.”
Arie’s eyes snapped from his plate to his father’s eyes as though he could hardly believe what he was hearing. Senior had never been liberal with his praise. “Thank you. I’ve worked very hard, but there are limited opportunities in this area.”
“Then maybe you need to look farther away,” his father said, and Arie heard a thunk and then a cry and the crash of breaking glass followed by the scrape of his mother’s chair on the floor. June was right there almost instantly, wiping up Arie’s mother’s spilled tea and blotting the tablecloth before hurrying away, only to return with another glass and a broom and dustpan to clean up the mess.
“I will not lose another child,” his mother nearly screeched, her eyes wide, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I just can’t.”
Arie looked at his father, who shook his head, and they both let the subject drop for now, and the table returned to silence broken only by the clink of utensils on plates.
Once he was done eating, Arie left the table and his parents, returning to his room. He needed to get out of the house for a while, but he wasn’t sure where to go. Picking up the phone, he looked through his contact list and stopped when one number stood out. Pressing the connect button, he waited and hoped for an answer.
“Arie,” his friend Robbie’s voice nearly sang through the line. “I’m so glad you called.”
Usually Robbie’s enthusiasm was catching, but not today for Arie. “I was wondering if you would do me a favor. I need some time away, and I was wondering if I could come up and visit you and Joey.”
“Things aren’t good?” Robbie paused as though he realized the answer to his own questions. “Sorry, of course they aren’t. Has anything happened?”
“Nothing new. I really need a change of scenery and perspective. Mom and Dad mope around the house, hell, we all do. The place feels almost dead. And I could use some… I don’t know. I guess I could use my best friend.” Arie hadn’t been sure if he should ask. After all, Joey and Robbie didn’t have their own place. They both worked on the farm and lived there as well, so technically it was Geoff’s house and his decision.
“Hold on just a minute,” Robbie said, and Arie heard muffled voices for a few seconds before Robbie came back on the line. “How soon can you get here, and how long do you want to stay?”
“I’ll let you know once I make the travel arrangements.”
“Geoff said there’s plenty of room, and he’ll have a list of chores for you to do.” Robbie’s voice held laughter and happiness, something Arie hadn’t heard in quite a while, and he felt it begin to reach into his spirit. He and Robbie talked for a while, and by the time Arie hung up, he knew this was the right thing to do. A half hour with Robbie, and already his soul seemed a bit lighter and some of the grief not quite so sharp. Now he just had to figure out how he was going to tell his mother.