MY LIFE was going to shit, and then I stepped in it.
“Crap!” I wrinkled my nose, swearing at everyone who didn’t bother to pick up after their dog. Thankfully there was a small patch of grass where a tree once graced the sidewalk. I walked over and scraped my shoes clean, recoiling at the stench once more. “God, I hope there’s a special place in hell for people who can’t clean it up.”
The Tuesday morning mob of sidewalk commuters flowed around me as I reached into my bag, found a napkin from Starbucks, and used it to get off the last of the mess. A toss into the nearest trash bin and I was on my way again. I hitched my bag up on my shoulder and strode down Seventh Avenue, making my way to Forty-Seventh, where I turned right to head for the theater.
“Shit,” I breathed as I reached the doors, passing workmen on ladders at the marquis, making changes. Could this day get any worse? I went inside to find the bereft looks of the rest of the cast. “What happened?”
“Apparently we’re playing out the next two weeks and closing,” Louise said as she dabbed the corners of her eyes.
“But I thought ticket sales were up? And the theater has been full.” I set my bag down on a seat and slouched into the one next to it. “Things were dicey for a while, but we did all that publicity and it seemed to be working.”
Louise shrugged, and I knew she was right. That was the theater business—you worked your ass off and then the show closed around you. Not everything was a huge smash and ran for years, like the damned show across the street that had been playing for almost thirty.
“It seems the seats were filled with half-price tickets, and no show can survive on that for long. I guess the producers decided to call it quits while they were ahead, rather than trying to beat the dead horse.” Louise sat back, pulled out her phone, and her fingers flew wildly over the screen.
I didn’t need to be told what she was doing. Hell, I should have been on the phone to my agent as well, to try to line up another job. But my heart wasn’t in it right now. The thought of yet another audition, one more cattle call, filled me with dread. I had a résumé of four shows, including great supporting characters, and even took over a leading role for a month and got praised for it. I couldn’t help feeling let down by all this.
Feeling resigned, I sighed, stood, and walked to where the meetings were being held. “Morning, Peter, Duncan,” I said, with the best smile I could muster, to the producers of our now lame-duck show, who sat in the small theater office.
“We want you to know that we’re thrilled with the job you did for us,” Duncan began. “A show closing is always hard for everyone involved, but we were coming to the end of the run anyway. We want you to know that we recognize how you stepped up at every turn.” He smiled and looked at Peter, who nodded. “We will definitely think of you for projects in the future. Don’t doubt that.”
“Thank you.” What the fuck else was I going to say? I wanted to fucking scream that they shouldn’t give up so easily, but I had no power, and if I wanted to work in this town again, I needed the goodwill of as many people as possible. “We’ve still got two weeks, and we need to give those ticket holders the best show we can.”
“Well, the show is only running for two more performance days. Peter and I thought it was fair to give the cast members two weeks’ notice. You’re professionals, and so are we.” Duncan stood, rising to his full, near-gigantic height. He had to be six foot seven and loomed over everyone. It was a good thing he had a great smile and wasn’t one of those guys who got angry often.
I tried not to blanch at the thought of unemployment. Two days and I was out of a job. At least I had the pay for a few weeks. “That’s very considerate of you.” Again, what the fuck else was I supposed to say? I’d just been chucked into the unemployment line. I knew I should be grateful for the fact that I’d been working steadily for the last two years, moving up to better and more challenging roles. I should have known it wasn’t going to last. I stood, shook both their hands, and escaped the office before I could open my smart mouth and say something completely stupid.
Cut your losses, don’t burn bridges… blah, blah, blah.
As soon as I left the office, I sighed and went to do what I should have done earlier: message Payton about the closing. I walked back to my dressing room and shut the door. After I sent a quick message to my agent, I made a call.
“The show is closing,” I said as soon as Greg answered the phone.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his put-upon tone setting my back on edge. “I suppose this is a bad time, but I can’t deal with things here anymore.”
My mouth hung open. My show had just closed and now my boyfriend…? “What the hell?”
“Look, none of this is your fault. It’s me. I’m not happy here in New York, and moving here was a huge mistake. Things here are too hard, and I’m tired of waiting tables, waiting for some big modeling break that’s never going to happen. I’m going back to Omaha.”
“You’re leaving me… over the phone? Can we at least talk about this?” A black hole was opening near me, threatening to pull me in and swallow me up.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Greg was so full of platitudes today. This breakup sounded like some bad sitcom dialog. “I have my plane ticket for three this afternoon. My stuff is packed and I’m going.”
“Jesus….” Heartless bastard!
“Don’t worry, I’m not taking anything of yours or anything. I just think it’s better that I go, now that I’ve decided. And it’s easier this way, without any long goodbyes.”
Or me kicking your ass from here to the airport for being such a heartless little shit.
“You’re a nice guy and I’m going to miss you, but I’ve got to do what’s right for me, and New York just isn’t it.”
The line went dead, and I stared at my phone. Then my door swung open.
“Lost your best friend?” Chet asked and then laughed. “Not possible, since I’m right here.” He laughed again, throwing an arm around my neck.
“Can’t you knock?” I grumbled.
“And miss all the fun?” He ran his knuckles over the top of my head, and I smacked his shoulder.
“We aren’t in high school anymore.” I straightened up. “Greg is going back to Omaha.” Just the name made me shiver.
Chet stared for a split second, then smiled and started dancing from foot to foot. “It’s about fucking time! I kept hoping you’d kick his useless ass to the curb, but he did it himself. When is hick-boy leaving? Maybe we should have a going-away party and not invite the loser.” He kept dancing, spinning around like a top. It was his signature move. Chet could spin on his toes faster than anyone I’d ever seen. It got him lots of dance jobs and was always a crowd-pleaser onstage.
“It’s good to know how you really feel. You’re just as unemployed and just as single as I apparently am.” I shook my head. Just this morning I thought I had it good, had the things I wanted. Now, in the matter of a few hours, it was all fucking gone. I wrinkled my nose. And my shoe still stank. I kicked them both off.
“Dude,” Chet groaned. “Shit happens.” He laughed at his own joke.
“Cute, really cute.” I went to the tiny bathroom off the dressing room, grabbed some towels, and washed off the last of the shit from my shoe. I sat to put them back on, relieved I wasn’t going to be leaving a trail of stink everywhere I went. “What am I going to do?” I asked out loud, though not intending to.
“Do what we always do: pick ourselves up, audition for the next show, and hope it lasts longer. I understand there are a few road shows that are looking for casts. We could contact them, see if they’re interested.”
“I’ve done that.” Fucking hell, I’d done it all already.
Chet plopped down in the small chair along the wall. “We can’t all have gigs that last as long as we want them. This is all part of the game. It has been for years. Nothing is going to change. There are no guarantees and you know it. So quit acting like someone kicked your dog and get on with it.”
“Nice pep talk.” But I knew he was right. Behaving like a spoiled brat wasn’t going to change the nature of things.
“You call Payton?” Chet asked, and I nodded. “Me too. We’ll see what he comes up with. This is how it always works.” He did another turn. Chet was tall, lean, and every gay boy’s dream, with near shoulder-length blond hair and a look that could melt butter from across the room. “Come on. We have a matinee this afternoon and another show tonight and tomorrow. Then we’re done and can have a rest for a while. That will do us both good.”
I nodded, half thinking about what I wanted. Ever since my mom had taken me to my first show, Chicago, I’d known I wanted to be onstage. I’d already taken years of dance and ballet. I added voice training as an additional talent, and I was on my way. At least that was my dream, and I’d been living it until today.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself.” Chet pulled out a chair and perched on it. “It’s unbecoming and gives you lines.” He turned to the mirror. “Let’s go have some lunch. Then we’ll come back here, get ready, and give them the time of their lives.”
“Yup!” Chet was right. I needed to get on with it.
I stood, left my stuff in the room, and we headed back out to the street and down to a bodega we both liked. I got a rice dish with vegetables and a water, needing to watch my weight again. Not that it wasn’t a habit, but doing eight shows a week for months required energy, and I’d been able to let some of the diet slip just because I was working it off. Not for much longer, though.
I paid for both lunches, and we sat at the counter, looking out the window as people passed in front of us. “Are you really happy doing all this, year after year?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m in New York and not Great Falls, Idaho, the soul-sucking center of the gay universe. My mom and dad still don’t talk to me, so there’s nothing to go back there for. Though why they left the East Coast is beyond me. And don’t give me this sad-sack routine. I know you love this life. There is nothing like the energy of the audience and the delight you can feel coming off them night after night. It’s like a drug that we get paid for.”
I sighed and tried to hide it. “Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m a little overwhelmed today and need a chance to think… and maybe some alcohol.” I turned in time to see Chet roll his eyes. “Okay, a lot of alcohol.”
We thunked water bottles and went back to eating our lunches.
THE SHOW went as usual, with the audience a little extra enthusiastic. They must have known they were seeing one of the very last performances, and maybe that added to the excitement for them.
Chet and I got a light dinner and then prepared for the second performance of the day. By the time I left the theater to drag my ass down Forty-Seventh Street, it was nearly midnight.
“Do you want to go out?”
I groaned at the idea. “God, no. I can barely move, and I need to go home and get some rest. After the day I’ve had, I think I need to see if Greg left anything in the apartment or if the little shit sold everything before he left.” Things had been fantastic at the beginning. We’d had a lot of fun together, and Greg was gorgeous, with a lot of energy. But I think the city might have been too much for him, and the demands on my time most likely hadn’t helped.
“Then come on.” Chet took my arm. “No one should have to face that alone.” He walked with me to the subway, we rode to the Village, and I unlocked the door to my tiny two-room apartment.
I stepped inside. Most everything seemed in order, except the place had been scoured of anything Greg’s. The bath and bedroom were empty of his things, and his part of the closet was bare. All my stuff seemed to be there. Not that I had much of value, but at least I wasn’t going to have to start over.
“Not a thief, just a jerk?” Chet asked, waving a bottle of vodka as he stood in the doorway.
I grabbed it, twisted off the top, and took a swig. Hell, I deserved it. “A scared man whose life just became too much for him,” I said, giving Greg the benefit of the doubt. Why the hell not? “The pace and demands here were too much for him.”
“You deserve to be told to your face.” Chet grabbed the key to the mailbox and went back downstairs. He returned a few minutes later with a pile of what looked like bills and a large manila envelope.
I set the mail on the table and took the envelope, curious about it. The return address was a law firm, and I cringed. What else could go wrong today? It would be just my luck to be sued for something.
Chet peered over my shoulder as I pulled out the pages. “Huh.”
“Yeah.” I scanned the letter, glad it wasn’t a summons, and then read in more detail. “It looks like I received an inheritance from my uncle Samuel.” I closed my eyes, trying to picture him. Ah, yes. He was my mother’s brother, and the two of them hadn’t talked to each other in years—some family feud whose origins had been lost to time, but the resentment lived on forever. At least it had for my mother. I opened my eyes and finished reading. “It looks like I’m the sole heir.”
“Do you know this guy? You never mentioned him.”
I had to think back and nodded. “He was the uncle who never married and lived on his own in a small town. My mother used to tell stories about how weird he was, but she also hated him for something to do with my grandmother’s death. I have no idea what. The reasons weren’t discussed. If anyone ever brought it up, she changed the subject or cursed him out no end, depending on her mood.” And if she’d been drinking.
I reached for the vodka, put the lid on, and handed it back to Chet to put away. The taste no longer appealed.
My stomach did a little rumble. My mother had that effect on me.
“I remember coming home from school with a note from my first-grade teacher because I’d been caught saying ‘shit.’ My mom asked me where I learned to talk like that. I told her I learned it from her.” I grinned. “Mom went into a tirade, and Dad told her it was her fault and she needed to learn from it. I just went to my room while they fought for a while.” I shrugged. “Good times.”
“How is your dad?” Chet asked with a slight smile. They’d met when Dad had visited and hit it off.
“Great, the last time I talked to him. I need to call and tell him about the show. He’ll be bummed for me.” I could always count on my dad to be there.
“And your mom?”
“The scream queen?”
Chet chuckled. It was my latest nickname for her.
“No idea. After the divorce, she and my dad fought for custody, but I said I didn’t want to go with my mom, and when the judge asked why, I said because she was drunk and mean. Dad got custody, and he did his best to be both mom and dad. He did a good job.” I was rambling a little and missed him all of a sudden. I really wanted to talk to him, but it was way too late to call. Dad would have been in bed for hours by now, and he needed to get up to work at the Ford dealership where he was a salesman.
“You don’t see her.” It was a statement, and I nodded in agreement.
“I might get a card from her at Christmas. The last one was postmarked Arizona, and the one before New Mexico. So I think she’s in the Southwest somewhere, but other than that, nothing. I haven’t seen any of her family in a long time either. You’ve met my dad’s family.”
“Hell yes!” They loved Chet to death, especially the nieces and nephews, mainly because he was a big kid. Chet put the bottle in the cupboard. “Is there anything in the letter about what you inherited?”
“Nope. Only that I’m the heir to the entire estate.”
“What did your uncle do?” Chet asked, and I shook my head.
“No idea whatsoever. I haven’t seen him since before the divorce, and I was… fourteen or fifteen? All I remember was him and my mother fighting… again, and then my dad getting her out of the restaurant to stop making a scene. Afterward, Dad filed for separation, and that was that.”
I honestly hadn’t thought about my uncle much in all that time, which was very sad. Was Uncle Samuel cool? Would he have been fun to spend time with? I had no idea and suddenly wondered what I’d missed out on.
I GOT up in the morning to find Chet crashed out on my sofa and a half bottle of vodka on the coffee table. Obviously Chet had imbibed after I’d gone to bed.
I put the bottle away, leaving Chet alone. Then I hunted for my phone and grabbed the paperwork to retrieve the phone number.
“Charles Laughtner,” a man answered.
“This is Jonah Hughes. I received a letter about an inheritance from my uncle, Samuel James. I wasn’t very sure what time I should call and—”
“It’s no problem at all. I’m glad you received the information,” he said, sounding genuine. “As I said in the letter, you are his primary beneficiary.”
“Why me, Mr. Laughtner?” I asked. “I haven’t seen my uncle in ten years or so, and I don’t know why he would leave everything to me. There have to be people he loved and who were a part of his life.” It was totally confusing for me, and to tell the truth, I hoped Uncle Samuel had had people in his life he was close to. I hated the thought of him spending his life alone.
“Call me Charles, please, and I have a letter that your uncle wrote you, as well as a list of items included in the estate, which include his home and car and money. Over the past few years, I worked with your uncle to simplify his estate as much as possible. I’d like for you to come to Carlisle so we can speak in person. Is that possible?”
“I suppose I could rent a car.” I was still overwhelmed and thinking out loud, I guess.
“You’re in New York, right? Just take the train to Harrisburg, and I can arrange to pick you up. Once you’re here, you’ll be able to drive your uncle’s car.” He paused, and papers shuffled in the background. “What sort of work do you do?”
“I’m an actor on Broadway, but I can come tomorrow. The show I was in is closing tonight anyway.” I was at loose ends, so what did it matter if I made a trip to Pennsylvania to check out my inheritance? I could see what it was, make some decisions, sell what I needed to, and come back to New York. Charles said there was some money, so at least I wouldn’t be out anything.
“Very good, then. Call me when you know which train you’ll be on, and I’ll come to meet you at the station. You can plan to stay in your uncle’s house. It’s quite nice.”
“How did he die? Did he have a lot of friends? Was he alone?” I had a ton of questions, and some of them tumbled out.
“Samuel died of a heart attack. His body was immediately cremated, and all arrangements have been made for his memorial service, which is on Monday. As for friends, he was a popular man in town and will be deeply missed by a lot of people,” Charles explained, sounding defensive. “Are you surprised?”
“I’m pleased.” It was a relief to know Uncle Samuel was cared for. “I’ll call you as soon as I make the train arrangements.” I only had the one show to do and then I was free to leave town. “It will probably be later this morning.”
We ended the call, and Chet groaned as he sat up on the sofa.
“God, I am never doing that again.” He rubbed his eyes, and I grabbed him a bottle of cold water. Chet drank it down and stumbled into the bathroom, then returned and gathered his things. “What’s going on?”
“I talked to the lawyer, and I have to go to Pennsylvania. So I figured I’d do the show tonight and then leave town tomorrow to see what’s up with this inheritance.” I yawned and sat down myself. “Go get cleaned up and pull yourself together. You look like hammered shit.” I was more than a little grateful that I’d stopped drinking last night. I knew the misery Chet was going through.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Chet asked.
“It isn’t necessary. There’s probably a whole bunch of legal stuff, and I don’t know what I’m going to be walking into. I figure I’ll stay a couple days, make a plan, and go from there.” If a part opened up or there was a great opportunity, I was only a train ride away from the city.
Chet looked most definitely relieved. “Then I’ll see you at the theater tonight.” He picked up his phone and checked the messages. “There’s a party after the show to say goodbye. You know how it will be. Everyone saying how good it was to work together and that they hope they get to do it again. After that, it will degenerate into a sloppy drunkfest.” He rubbed his hands together. “I can’t wait.”
“You’re a sick man.” I unlocked the door, and Chet headed home. After closing the door again, I opened my laptop and went online to buy a train ticket and messaged Charles with the time I expected to get in. I showered and checked in with Payton. I explained where I was going to be, but that I’d be available by phone and would come back for interviews or auditions.
“Good. There aren’t a lot of shows moving into production at the moment.” Payton was usually an optimist, so this kind of reaction was more than a little disconcerting. “I’ll find you some work. There are always the traveling shows, and I can look at booking you into the Fulton in Lancaster. They need talent and their runs are short, so you wouldn’t have to pass on any other offers that come in.”
That wasn’t what I wanted, but I needed to work. “Thanks. Do what you can.” There was no use putting pressure on Payton; he always did his best for me. There had been times when he’d been a miracle worker, and I was counting on that now. Payton was one of the hardest-working, scrappiest, most incredible agents in New York today, and I was lucky to have him working with me.
“I’ll be in touch. Don’t worry. Shows close all the time, and the beauty of it is that new shows open. It’s one of the best parts of Broadway. Go to Pennsylvania and see to things there. I’ll be watching out for you here.” Payton was not only a great agent, he was a good guy who didn’t play a bunch of games or treat me and the other actors he represented like interchangeable chattel. “And I’m sorry about your uncle. I really am.”
“Thank you. I’ll talk to you soon.” I ended the call and made a list of the other things I needed to do.
I SPENT the day making plans and getting ready. Then I went to the theater, did the show, and let Chet drag me to the closing party. It was just as he said, and underlying sadness permeated everything. I sat to the side, in a folding chair hauled out for the incredibly festive occasion, nursed a beer, and listened to one of my fellow performers wallow in self-pity until I wanted to scream myself.
“It will be fine, Julie, you’ll see.” I patted her shoulder and hugged her, looking over her shoulder for Chet, because as soon as I could disengage, I was going to go home. I understood being upset about the show closing, but….
I stiffened and swallowed as Julie demonstrated that she didn’t really seem to care that I was definitely gay.
“Have you ever tried it with a girl?” She lifted her gaze. “I could rock your world.”
“No, Julie. I’m flattered, but no thank you.” I lifted her hand off my dick and untangled her arms from around me. She’d had too much to drink, and I was going to keep my cool. I stepped away and finally saw Chet, his arm draped around the shoulder of Marcus, one of the chorus dancers with a butt you could bounce quarters off. Yeah, I had definitely noticed him, but you don’t shit where you eat, and you don’t date where you work. Apparently they had decided to console each other now that the show was done.
Too bad Chet had seen him first.
“Come on, Jonah, give me a spin,” Julie said as she got handsy once again.
I’m a perfect Kinsey 6. I love women—adore them, in fact. They are amazing people, and I gravitate toward and seek out their company all the time. I’m more comfortable with women than I am with other men, as a general rule. But I am not interested in sex with women… in any way.
I have traveled with women and even roomed with one during a road gig years ago. Jeanine and I are still friends, but when she and I shared a hotel room, we had one rule: no naughty parts. I didn’t want to see hers and she didn’t want to see mine. So, please, no parading in things that go under clothes. I didn’t run around in my boxers or even go shirtless.
I hurried to Chet, cock-blocking the guy, but at this point, my need to get away from the octopus lady outweighed his desires. “I need to go.” I turned to where Julie was making her way over.
Marcus stepped closer to Chet. “That woman is a menace.”
“She thinks it’s her mission to turn every gay man straight.” He turned to Chet. “Let’s get out of here. I could use some real food, and we’re going to need our energy for later.” He probably growled, I don’t know.
Julie was approaching, so I headed for the door. Chet and Marcus, thankfully, were right behind me, and we grabbed our things and walked out of the theater for the final time.
There was a late-night diner a few blocks over, where we headed. We slid into a booth, and the server handed us menus.
“What time do you leave?”
I yawned, already trying to stay awake. “My train is at ten from Penn Station.” I was surprisingly hungry and ordered a roast beef sandwich.
When the food arrived, I ate quietly. Marcus and Chet seemed more interested in each other, which was fine. I paid my bill, told the two guys good night, and hailed a cab to take me home, where I pretty much dropped into bed.
I MANAGED to get up and to the train station on time, settled into my Amtrak seat, and dozed off for most of the trip. The last few days had been completely draining, and I needed to rest. When I exited the station in Harrisburg, I looked both ways.
“Mr. Hughes?” a man asked. “Charles Laughtner.” He shook my hand and motioned to his large black sedan. “It’s good to meet you.”
“Same here.” I stowed my luggage in the trunk, climbed into the car, and sank into the luxurious seats.
“I thought I’d take you back to my office to start with. We can review the estate, and I’ll show you the various properties along the way. How you been to Carlisle before?”
“Not that I remember. We might have visited when I was a kid, but mostly my mother and uncle weren’t on speaking terms.” I watched as a sea of green passed outside the window. I was so used to concrete, glass, cement, and hordes of people that it took me a few minutes to adjust to the open space.
Charles got off the freeway and drove through a business neighborhood and then into a quiet residential neighborhood. We passed a Giant grocery store and pulled off to the side of the road.
“What’s going on?”
Charles got out, and I followed.
“Is this Uncle Samuel’s house…?” I looked around. There was a small park across the street and a path into the trees.
“I’m afraid not. How much do you know about your uncle?” He turned to face me. “I suspect not very much. See, your uncle Samuel was respected and cared for. He knew every family in town and dealt with each and every person with a quiet, soothing dignity. It was how he was and what made him the best at what he did.”
I scratched my head as Charles walked toward the path. The trees quickly gave way to an open space with freshly cut grass broken up by tombstones, grave markers, and mausoleums that had to date back a hundred years or more. “Are you taking me to where Uncle Samuel will be interred?”
“No… well, yes, in a way, but no. Your uncle was a funeral director. He worked for the oldest funeral home in town, and some decades ago, purchased the business.” Charles paused, turning around. “Samuel handled the funerals for both my parents, and there was no one who could have helped us through the process more. He was understanding and caring without being false. Samuel knew how people grieved and understood what they needed. Your uncle was an amazing man. He retired a few years ago and sold the business… well, most of it.”
A chill went up my spine. “Most….” I was seconds from racing back to the car and to the train station.
“Yes. See, this is Ashford Cemetery, and your uncle owned it. He tried to sell it with the funeral home, but there were no buyers, so he sold the business to simplify the estate and had to keep the cemetery.”
I found it hard to breathe, like all the oxygen had been pulled out of the air. “You’re telling me that my uncle left me a cemetery? This cemetery?” What the fuck was I supposed to do with a goddamn cemetery?
“Yes. Parts of it date back to when the town was founded, in 1750, and it was apparently increased in the mid-1800s to the twelve or so acres it is today. Back then, this was beyond the edge of town by a good half mile, so it was a perfect place for a cemetery. When your uncle had the mortuary business, he sold plots here. There are still some that can be sold, as well as a trust fund for the care of the cemetery. Perpetual care and all that. But yes, this is part of the estate.”
He sounded so damned reasonable, like I’d just inherited an office building or apartment complex. Not a cemetery.
“Let me get this straight.” I was afraid to take a step in case the damn ground opened up and swallowed me whole. “You’re telling me that this is part of my inheritance…?” I didn’t know what else to say. I was shocked and scared all at once. What the hell would I do with a cemetery? “Oh my God.” I placed my hands on the sides of my head. “I own dead people.”