Charleston, SC—September 2, 2023
The significance of that number still awed Caleb Hudson. In two months, he’d be celebrating having Hal Zimmer as an integral part of his long, wonderful life. It blew his mind and made his chest ache with the weight of sixty years of loving and belonging.
Caleb parked their car under a shade tree at James Island County Park and glanced over at Hal. Throughout all the changes stretched over their lives, Hal had become a vital part of him as much as skin and bone. More even. Caleb couldn’t imagine Hal not being in his life. The thought terrified him as they grew older.
All those years spent as friends, then lovers, and finally, after having grandkids, getting married. When he first fell in love with Hal, marriage had been impossible. It was hard enough being of different races, even more difficult because they were gay. Then all of that ceased to matter so much. Which just illustrated the craziness of life. Caleb laughed and reached for Hal’s hand as he shot Caleb a questioning look. “I love you,” Caleb said.
Hal smiled, his gray-green eyes softening as he squeezed Caleb’s hand. “I love you too.”
The years seemed to have elongated Hal. The lean lankiness of his body had newer, sharper angles, and his receding hair had gone silver. Caleb tried to picture the sweet-faced, sandy-haired, freckled boy he’d met as a kid, but the image had faded over the years. Now he barely remembered a time before Hal had been in his life, and he didn’t want to.
“If you keep looking at me like that, the kids are going to tease us about acting like newlyweds again.” Hal’s eyes glinted with humor.
“They’d have to get here first, and not one of them has any notion of what it means to start on time.” Caleb swung his legs out and braced himself to stand on his stiffened joints. Today it was easy to overlook the aggravation in his building excitement to have his entire family together again.
The late-morning sun heated the air and sank into his bones with a familiar southern comfort. A light breeze promised to keep the day tolerable once the sun reached its zenith. The picnic area was silent, the grills cool, and the meadow empty of playing children. Caleb couldn’t wait for the noise and bustle of their family to fill those quiet spaces.
“Let’s start with the banner,” Hal suggested. “We can worry about the food after we conscript helpers.”
“If they’re not here by then, I say we go for a walk and leave them to wonder what happened to us,” Caleb said, looking out at the low line of bushes obscuring the creek. There had been a time when their entire summer had been spent exploring all the little creeks and wooded areas around Charleston. He wanted to revisit that today with the grandkids.
“I doubt they’ll be that late.” Hal nudged Caleb with his elbow. “We can sneak away after lunch for an hour.”
When they were little that would’ve been a suggestion for shenanigans, then later on a hint for getting their hands on each other, now it meant they’d probably actually go for a walk, Caleb thought with an inward chuckle. Some people yearned to go back to past days, but even with the nostalgia and reminiscing, right here was exactly where he wanted to be. Right here with Hal, getting ready to greet their extended family, outsiders no longer. Now they belonged to their own community where differences were a matter of celebration.
They pulled out the stepladder and proceeded to string the banner over the large pavilion they’d rented for the day. Hudson-Zimmer Family Reunion. Sixty years of family and friendships. The years stretched back so far… a shining path of memories, some good, some bad, the way of every life, though there had been far more good. Caleb liked to think that when he and Hal moved on, the memory of the obstacles they’d overcome to be together would be an example to their kids. Love sure as hell conquered everything, even if it was a tooth-and-nail, bloody fight.
Charleston itself had changed so much in those years, that old southern belle had on a new dress and attitude as neighborhoods shifted and tourism boomed. Though change could come late to the city, there were times when it seemed like Caleb didn’t recognize her anymore. Most of the changes were good, some traditions, though, it had been sad to watch slipping away. The sounds of his childhood, the old brogue of the white gentry, that was unlike any other southern city, the cadence and rhythm of his Gullah side of the family. Still, it had a love of history he didn’t think would ever fade, and he was reminded of that every time he walked the Market or down through the historic homes south of Broad Street.
“You’re quiet today,” Hal said, steadying the stepladder as Caleb climbed down.
“Just thinking about us and our home.” Caleb folded the stepladder to return it to the car before the grandkids arrived and decided to play with it.
Hal scratched behind his ear and shot him an amused glance. “That covers an awful lot of ground. Anything specific?”
“No, merely reflecting. We have quite a history,” Caleb replied in an offhand manner.
The honk of a horn interrupted them, and they turned to see their nephew’s car pull into the lot. Memories cascaded through Caleb’s mind of the terrible, rainy night when a seven-year-old Drew had shown up on Caleb and Hal’s doorstep to tell them his dad, Caleb’s brother, had shot himself. He remembered how worried they’d been when Drew joined the Marines and served in Iraq. Caleb had never understood how much his own parents loved him until Drew came to live with them as their ward.
Seeing Drew now brought that warm wash of pride, love, and a renewed pang. Caleb still missed his brother and regretted not being able to help him with his demons. It was a tragedy that PTSD had never been discussed until long after his passing.
“Hey, Uncle Caleb, Uncle Hal,” Drew called with a wave before heading to the trunk of the car. His wife and their two children, Joshua and Abby, came to join Caleb and Hal under the pavilion as Caleb’s heart picked up in excitement. Abby ran up for a hug as Joshua followed behind at a slower pace, caught between wanting to do the same and a new teenage aloofness.
“Who are you?” Hal said gruffly, squinting at Joshua with humor flashing in his gaze and a faint smile touching his lips. Caleb hid a grin as Joshua hesitated, his eyes widening. Hal could be such a tease. Joshua flashed Caleb a questioning look and turned back to Hal.
“Pawpaw, it’s me, Joshua.”
Hal squinted even more and shook his head. “Can’t be.” He measured a height with his hand, several inches shorter than what Joshua had grown into since they’d seen him last. “My grandson’s about yea high. You, on the other hand, look like you could’ve eaten him for breakfast.”
Caleb caught Joshua in a hug. “He’s just having fun with you. Give him a hard time about his eyesight, and he’ll ease up.”
“I heard that,” Hal retorted.
“I guess it’s good to know all your senses aren’t going,” Caleb shot back as Hal embraced their grandson.
Drew came up with a loaded hamper and set it on one of the long picnic tables. His broad grin lit up his dark brown eyes as he moved toward them. Caleb found himself checking Drew over, cataloguing changes. He’d recently been to the barber, and the lines on his fade haircut were sharp and new. It was funny how a child could age, have children of their own, but it didn’t stop their parents from checking on them.
“Looking good, Uncle Caleb,” Drew said, clasping his hand and pulling him close for a hug before turning to do the same for Hal. “You too, Uncle Hal.”
“How’d the move go?” Caleb asked as another car turned in and Hal went off to greet them.
“Good. It’ll be different now that I’ve retired from service, but Atlanta’s not that far away, so we’ll be able to visit more.” Drew replied as they both turned to see Hal embrace a tiny white lady with an abundance of graying curls. “Oh wow, Aunt Lily made it too? I haven’t seen her since the wedding.”
“Hey, Lily,” Caleb called with a wave to Hal’s only sibling. “We’re not looking for any trouble today.”
“Then why’d you invite him?” Lily said with a poke to Hal’s side.
Caleb couldn’t stop grinning as more family arrived. It had been too long since they’d all been together, and family was everything. First Caleb and Hal’s other two foster sons, who now had families of their own, arrived and then some of Caleb’s cousins. The sounds of shouting, playing children filled Caleb’s ears and heart with a steady, happy warmth. Life was good today.
Finally their youngest, and only daughter, pulled into the parking lot as their sons were setting up the grill. Hal shook his head. “Now who’s surprised Kendra’s the last to get here?”
“Nobody with any sense,” Caleb commented and raised his voice for Kendra. “You do realize you’re the only child to live in Charleston with us. What took you so long?”
“One word and it starts with a Z,” Kendra replied in exasperation.
“Grandpa! Pawpaw!” Caleb straightened at the sound of the high, piping voice and caught Zoe as she hurtled toward them. He swung his littlest grandchild up while she squealed with laughter. “Grandpa! Grandpa! Like my shirt?” She patted the T-shirt they’d all received for the reunion, only she’d covered hers in colored marker spots and stripes.
“I do. Did you decorate it yourself, baby girl?” Caleb asked studying the colorful mess she’d made of herself all before the noonday sun had hit its peak.
“Yep.” She grinned, showing a gap between her front teeth, and hugged him hard around his neck. For the love of the good lord, she’d even managed to get colored marker all over the dusky skin of her arms like an abstract tattoo. She leaned precariously out of his arms toward Hal. “Pawpaw!”
Hal scooped her up with a shake of his head. “You have extra spitfire in you today, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh.” She hugged him, then wiggled and reached for the ground. “Wanna play, k?”
Hal set her down and watched as she raced off to join her bigger cousins who were playing ball in the nearby field. He winced as she dove headlong into the fray, and Caleb echoed the sentiment. “That girl fears nothing.”
“That’s the truth.”
“Hey everyone.” Kendra waved to them and set down a wrapped box on one of the picnic tables. “It’s so good to see y’all again,” she said, hugging each one of her brothers in turn before turning to Caleb and Hal. “Dad, Pops.” She dropped a kiss on their cheeks. “Give me a moment,” she said and chased after her daughter.
Hal took his hand and gave it a little tug. “Hmmm?” Caleb said. There was a twinkle in Hal’s gaze. The same twinkle he always got when he was about to tease Caleb. That at least had never changed. They were the eyes of the oldest friend Caleb had. Of one who had stuck with him through separations, disagreements, and big blow-ups. Damn he loved that man.
“What’s so funny?” Caleb asked as Hal’s twinkle transformed into an open grin.
“You.” Hal slipped an arm around Caleb’s waist. “Being with family has always made you the happiest.”
“I can’t deny that.” Caleb glanced up at him. His family started with Hal.
“It feels good to see them all together again, doesn’t it?” Hal asked softly.
Caleb looked over the group, a hodge-podge of black, white, and in-between… how things had changed. When they’d met, Charleston was just starting to desegregate, years behind other cities. To go from that, to this… it humbled him. It awed him. Caleb squeezed Hal’s waist and smiled.
“Yeah, it does feel pretty good,” he replied, as the grill sizzled and the air filled with the scent of roasting meat and oysters, the sound of the grandkids’ laughter carried on the breeze from the river. It felt pretty close to perfect.
HAL SAT back with a groan and dropped his napkin on his paper plate. That last bite had been a mistake, but his sister could make the best cobbler, north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I never could understand how you can eat like you do and still be rail skinny,” Caleb said with a shake of his head.
“It’s one of my many gifts,” Hal replied. He took his husband’s hand with a warm rush of affection. He’d never take the simple gesture for granted. Not after so many years of having to disguise it, of having such touches questioned.
He watched Caleb as he savored the last few bites of banana pudding, chuckling as Caleb licked the spoon clean. “Sure you got it all?”
“Hush, you, and let a man enjoy a few indulgences today,” Caleb retorted with an amused gleam in his eyes.
Hal had been giving him a hard time all day about being sentimental, but they’d both been doing a lot of reflecting as this anniversary approached. Caleb’s face showed none of the exhaustion that came upon him periodically, though the darker bags under his eyes would probably never go away. It worried Hal and made their time together even more precious.
Caleb caught his look and frowned at him. “You’d better not be sitting there worrying about me today. I’m fine.”
“You talk as if we’ve ever stopped worrying about each other.” Caleb was just as bad, concerned about Hal’s eyesight and always leaving lights on all over the house just because he’d taken that little tumble down the stairs last year. He lifted Caleb’s hand to his lips. “Your knuckles are getting ashy.”
They weren’t really; Caleb was meticulous about using lotion. He remembered a time when he had been a little jealous of Caleb’s rich, warm brown tone and despaired that he’d never lose his freckles.
Caleb raised a brow, meeting him stare for stare, but didn’t give Hal the satisfaction of rising to his bait. “Since the first day we met, you’ve given me more cause for anxiety than I have you.”
Kendra rolled her eyes and pulled the dark twists of her hair into a ponytail before coming to take their plates. “You two,” she chided. Hal remembered the long months of waiting during the surrogacy and then the joy of bringing her home from the hospital, a little bundle of waving fists, wide, dark eyes, and a puff of curly black hair. From day one the boys had been enthralled with her, and God help anyone who ever gave her trouble.
“Name one time I stressed you out when we were younger. I was the calm one,” Hal continued to tease, pulling his thoughts away from the memories.
“Don’t believe one word he says,” Caleb retorted, as their grandkids crept closer. “Your Pawpaw believed a little too much in causes and flag waving, and he didn’t always think his actions through, like hopping on a bus for Charleston without telling his parents.”
“You did not.” Joshua’s eyes widened.
“Well.” Hal tugged on his earlobe. “I had to come. Your grandpa was going off to war, and I needed to see him before he left.”
“Like Dad,” Joshua glanced toward Drew who was deep in conversation with his brothers.
“Yes, and I think it was more cause for concern on my part than his.” Hal laid a hand on his chest as Caleb shook his head. “I was perfectly safe at college in New York.”
Caleb snorted. “I know all about the trouble some of those antiwar protestors got into. Every time I thought about Kent State, I went cold inside worrying about how it could be you if you didn’t start watching your step.”
“You’ve done it now, Joshua. You’ve got them started,” Drew called out. “They’ll go on nonstop for the rest of the day.”
“Not yet. First, let’s get the leftovers put away.” Hal adjusted his glasses and rose from the picnic table. Once they marshalled all the grandkids into service, cleanup was fast and fun. More than once Hal found himself watching his family laugh and bustle. He truly was as bad as Caleb. They were really all here. They all were a part of his and Caleb’s lives. The amazing beauty of reality was enough to make a man ache.
His gaze sought out their children, lingering on each one in turn. “You okay, Uncle Hal?” Drew asked.
“I’m just happy you’re all here. Now that you’re closer and your brothers are just in Savannah we need to get together more often,” Hal said.
“I promise we’ll make more of an effort. In fact, I was thinking everybody could come to my place for Thanksgiving.” Drew looked around the gathering. “Wow, there sure are a lot of us.”
“I know. I swear, your Uncle Caleb has cousins I didn’t even know existed.”
Drew laughed. “You tried claiming the same thing when they showed up for your wedding.”
“Yeah, I’d like to know how they found out. I told Caleb we should’ve eloped, but he was sure we could get away with a small, quiet ceremony.” Hal searched for Caleb as the memory of that long-awaited day still had the power to make his throat close.
“Then you both were deluding yourselves,” Drew replied. “If I recall, y’all led the whole family on a two-day party that ended with you, Uncle Caleb, and the grandkids in the Pineapple Fountain.”
“Good times.” Hal watched Kendra and Lily talk with their heads together under the pavilion. “You know I’m beginning to think Caleb is right. The whole gang of you is up to something,” Hal accused, and Drew merely grinned with a shrug.
“We won’t keep you in suspense.” Drew turned and waved at his siblings. “I think we’d better fess up before they decide to finagle answers out of us. We all know how that’ll go.”
“Come on, Pawpaw, Grandpa, take a seat,” Joshua said, and Hal followed the sound of his voice to find two chairs set out underneath the arbor.
“Ooooohh,” Zoe squealed. “Is it time to—”
“Shut it,” Abby hissed and tugged on one of Zoe’s braids. “It’s a surprise.”
Zoe clamped her lips together, glared at Abby, and yanked her braid free. “I wasn’t gonna say what it was, dummy.”
“Be nice,” Caleb cut in before the argument could get physical. When the two girls weren’t getting along like the best of friends, they were fighting like they meant to draw blood. That’s all it took, two words in his deep rumble, and they quieted down. Hal wished it had worked as well on their kids when they were younger, but grandkids were a whole different breed.
He followed Caleb to their place of honor with bemusement. Everybody had been astir for months now, going about whispering and calling them up to ask crazy questions about their history together. He’d even caught Kendra rooting around in their attic one afternoon when they’d come home early from a trip to New York.
“We wanted to do something special for this reunion. After all, in two months you two will have known each other for sixty years,” Drew said as he grabbed the wrapped box from the end of the picnic table. “So we came up with a plan, got together, and everybody worked on the surprise, even the grandkids.”
Caleb smiled, and Hal ran his thumb across Caleb’s knuckles as he looked down at their linked hands with a tender ache. He loved the way they fit together, loved the contrast of their skin tones, loved knowing they’d had all those years together and managed to maintain their closeness, even during the years they’d been apart. Sixty years…. It was hard to believe how much had changed, and yet there had been constants too, like the bond of their friendship. How they both had clung to that anchor. Hal smiled and squeezed Caleb’s hand, felt the reassuring press of his fingers in return.
Drew brought the mystery box over and set it on their knees. It was heavy, wrapped in beautiful thick paper and tied with a silver bow. That part had to have been Kendra’s work. She always took extra time with things like this.
“Can I help open it?” Abby asked, fingering the paper where it was taped down.
“No, let them do this one,” Drew said and tugged her out of temptation’s way and onto his lap to watch.
Conscious of all the attention and cameras on them, Hal gave Caleb an amused smile as they tore off the paper and lifted the lid of the box. Inside sat a handmade photo album with a picture of their wedding on the front. Caleb drew the book out, and Hal leaned over to look as he leafed through the pages. There were photographs, letters to each other over the years, notes from old friends commenting on their relationship, and hand-drawn pictures the grandchildren had done. Hal’s chest tightened, and his eyes stung. The whole family had gotten involved… the way families should.
“Oh my, will you look at that?” Caleb’s gnarled fingers paused on a picture of them from fourth grade. Caleb had his arm around him, his chin thrust out in an expression Hal had often seen on his face, a kind of protective challenge that dared anybody to say anything.
Hal remembered the day a reporter had come to the school to do a story on desegregation. He’d been so caught up in confessing his homesickness to Caleb, leaning into him trustingly, that he hadn’t even realized the man was there. The flash of the man’s camera had come as a shock.
“That picture sure caused a fuss, didn’t it?” Hal said with a laugh. Time had caused the picture to fade and go grainy. He couldn’t believe the kids had managed to dig that one up.
“I’d forgotten all about that. I was more worried about James Littleton that year.” Caleb mused. “Remember him?”
“How could I forget?” Hal thought back on the little boy with a mean face and meaner mouth.
“Who’s James?” Zoe asked, coming over to look at the picture. “Is he there?”
“James was the bully your Grandpa saved me from during my first week at school. Right after I shocked the entire class by shoving my foot so deep in my throat I choked on my kneecap,” Hal replied.
Joshua’s eyes widened as Zoe giggled at his words. “You embarrassed yourself in class?” he asked. At almost thirteen, the thought of being humiliated at school was the worst horror he could imagine.
“Your Pawpaw didn’t just embarrass himself, he upset the teacher so much he barely passed history, and I didn’t save him from the bully, he saved me,” Caleb said. “First time in my life a white kid ever stuck up for me. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Hal chuckled at the curiosity lighting their grandchildren’s eyes. “What happened? Did you get in a fight?” Abby escaped her father, bouncing over to look at the book.
“You don’t want to hear any of my old stories, do you?” Caleb asked with a look of feigned astonishment as their adult kids exchanged amused glances.
“Uh-huh,” Zoe said with a nod and plopped down on the ground next to Abby. “I love your stories, Grandpa.”
“That’s because he makes things up to make them sound better,” Hal said.
“Not this time. This story needs no embellishment. Let me tell you about how I met your Pawpaw and of some of the crazy times we had as kids.” Caleb settled back with a grin on his face. “Now, in 1963, things were very different, and I’m not talking about all those gadgets and nonsense that y’all have now….”