THE EVENING news usually didn’t make Theodore jump up and try to dance and do a cheer, but it did on Saturday evening, June 28, 1969.
“Theodore, stop!” Jasper warned. “You’re going to fall and break a hip.”
But Theodore didn’t care. “They did it. By God, they did it!” he said as he thrust the fist at the end of his skinny arm into the air.
“Who did what?” Jasper asked, confused.
“Our people,” Theodore gasped out, as he fell back into his chair. “Our… people.”
“Mr. McCall, you having trouble breathing, baby?” a health aide asked anxiously when she saw Theodore panting for breath.
“The old fool was just trying to dance a jig or cheer or something ridiculous,” Jasper said critically but with a hint of concern. “What were you thinking? You’re nearly ninety years old. You can’t do things like that anymore. Especially after being in the hospital just two weeks ago.”
“Oh, hush,” Theodore said. “This is a day… that will go down in the history books. And I lived to see it. I’ve dreamed of this, but I was afraid I wouldn’t live long enough. But I did. What a glorious day.”
“What are you talking about?” Jasper asked, looking more concerned about Theodore than he was about having an answer to the question he’d just asked.
“That last news story. Didn’t you hear it?”
“I must have, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about.”
“There was a riot last night—this morning, I suppose.”
“Who rioted about what?” Jasper asked.
“Our people. The homosexual youngsters.”
“Right here in New York. Some place called the Stonewall Inn.”
“Have you been there?”
“No. And you know that, because you haven’t been there, and you and I go everywhere together. We have for more than sixty years now.”
The health aide had been taking Theodore’s pulse while they talked. “You’ve known each other how long?” she asked.
“More than sixty years now,” Theodore said.
“Sixty-five years,” Jasper corrected.
“Good Lord,” she said admiringly. “My mama wasn’t even born yet when you two met. I’m not even sure if my grandma was alive yet.”
“That’s because we’re older than dirt,” Theodore said.
“Hey,” Jasper said, “speak for yourself, old man. I’m younger than you are.”
“Only by a couple of months,” Theodore said. “It’s not like I robbed the cradle.”
“Whatever you say, oldster.”
The health aide laughed. “You two are too much. My job wouldn’t be half as much fun if I didn’t have you guys here.”
“Thank you,” Jasper said.
“How did you meet?” she asked.
“I hired him to work in my store in 1904,” Theodore said. “Best decision I ever made too.”
Looking at Jasper, she asked, “Now don’t you know you’re not supposed to have workplace romances?”
“I was the only employee. It was him and me. We didn’t have any rules like that back in our day. And let me tell you,” Jasper said, leaning forward as if to share confidential information, “if you could have seen him… oh, my goodness. Just the sight of him made my heart race. The man was quite a looker.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Theodore added.
“We were much more focused on living without attracting a lot of attention. It was hard to be homosexual back then,” Jasper said.
“Hell, it’s never been easy to be gay in this country. Doesn’t matter that we’ve been here right from the start, a part of every single generation that made this country what it is today.”
“We had to conduct business, live our lives, and help everyone believe they couldn’t see and didn’t know what was going on between us. Everybody knew, but God forbid their safe little worlds be disrupted by something that didn’t fit their concept of what was what.”
“Everybody had their heads buried deep in the sand. Sometimes I wondered how they managed to breathe,” Theodore said.
“You spoke about something going down in history. Gentlemen, you are history.”
“You trying to say we’re old?” Theodore asked with a smile.
“I didn’t say anything about you being old,” she said. “I said you two are history, not historic.”
“This day, today, what just happened last night, is finally our people not quietly letting the cops beat us down and abuse us and treat us like less than dirt. This is for Martin.”
“Well, one of you better start and tell me that story.”
“Well, you see, it started on the last day of 1902, New Year’s Eve. But let me back up a little. It was Christmas Eve, 1902….”
Chapter One—Christmas Eve 1902
“STEP CAREFULLY, Mrs. Robinson,” Theodore said as he helped her into her buggy after loading her purchases. It wasn’t a big step, but she was an old woman.
“Thank you for your help, Theodore,” she said, once she was seated. “I hope you and your family have a very happy holiday.”
“You as well, Mrs. Robinson.”
Theodore hurried back inside the store with an involuntary shiver. His height made it easy for him to reach things off high shelves, but his slenderness didn’t give him a lot of insulation from the winter cold.
Not only was the day dull and gray, but the wind was also biting cold. It had been frigid that morning when he’d walked to work in the dark, and the arrival of daylight had done little to make the day any warmer.
Had he been planning to walk more than ten feet from the store’s front door, he would have grabbed his jacket before going outside, even for a moment, but they had been so busy that day he hadn’t wanted to waste the time.
He wasn’t back inside with the door completely closed before he heard his boss, Mr. Hoffman, calling to him. “Theodore. Mrs. Moscrip needs help getting her items to her wagon.”
Inwardly he groaned, but outwardly he planted a smile on his face and grabbed the box filled with her purchases.
“And hurry back, Theodore. There are other purchases to be carried out.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Hoffman,” he said, even though he wondered where he might dally outside without a jacket, had he been so inclined. He wanted to say, “Step lively, old woman,” but of course he could not, nor would he ever say that.
All day that December 24th, Theodore was in and out of the store, helping to carry items to wagons and carts and buggies. Every two minutes it seemed Mr. Hoffman was calling him to assist someone. He’d lost track of how many times he’d been outside.
When Mr. Hoffman closed and locked the store doors at six that evening, pulling the blinds down to signal they were closed, Theodore wanted to fall on the floor and give thanks. He was exhausted, but somehow Mr. Hoffman, more than twice his age, seemed perky and energized.
“We’ve had a most lively season of holiday shopping this year, haven’t we?”
“Yes, sir, we have.”
“We have shelves to stock, Theodore.”
Theodore groaned silently. He’d stayed late nearly every night that week, and he was not in the mood to do it again. It was Christmas Eve, and he just wanted to go home and sleep.
Either Mr. Hoffman read that on his face, or he’d been toying with Theodore. “But that can wait until after Christmas,” he said, giving Theodore, his one and only employee, a smile.
“Thank you, sir,” Theodore said, immediately moving to grab his coat and hat to bundle up and prepare to make the long trudge home.
Mr. Hoffman had disappeared somewhere in the back, so when a loud rapping sounded on the front door, Theodore was left to shout, “We’re closed.”
Either the person did not hear him or did not choose to hear him, because the rapping repeated.
“I said, ‘We’re closed,’” he shouted a little louder. Surely the person could hear him or at least read the sign prominently displayed in the middle of the door announcing the time of their closing that day. But the person apparently did neither, and the loud knocking came yet again.
Usually unflappable, his overall fatigue made Theodore more easily irritated. After striding to the door, he yanked back the shade that Mr. Hoffman had lowered and was about to shout once again that the store was closed, when he beheld a sight for sore eyes.
“Martin,” Theodore squealed with delight. His best friend stood on the other side of the door and stared in through the glass, a huge smile on his face.
He unlocked the door and admitted Martin, then quickly locked it again before throwing his arms around his friend and hugging him so hard he was surprised he didn’t do damage.
Martin wasn’t as tall as Theodore, but he was more solidly built—not stout but muscular.
“What are you doing here?” Theodore asked. “I didn’t know you were coming home. I’ll have a word with my mother for keeping that from me. I didn’t know she was capable of keeping a secret.”
“She didn’t know,” Martin said.
“You mean your mother didn’t tell her?”
“No,” Martin told him. “No one knew I was coming home. I didn’t even know until this morning when I decided. Plus I need to tell you all about the big bad world and try to rescue you from a slow death here in the back of beyond.”
“What do you mean?” Theodore asked.
“Those last few letters you wrote sounded morose. I was seriously worried about your state of mind.”
Theodore cast his gaze downward, embarrassed, and shrugged, trying to act as if there was no problem. “I’m fine.”
“I know, because I’m here,” Martin joked.
“Sounds like city living has given your confidence a boost,” Theodore remarked.
“Oh, Teddy, you have no idea. But fear not, your fairy godfather is here to save the day.”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here and get home.”
“Theodore?” Mr. Hoffman said.
Theodore turned, amazed the man had crept up on them without him noticing. “Yes, sir.”
“I have a little something for you.” Mr. Hoffman handed him an envelope.
Theodore looked inside and was astonished to see cash—a surprising amount of cash.
“What’s this, sir?”
“A Christmas bonus, son. I know how busy the last several weeks have been, and I also know how hard you’ve worked. Business has been good, and I’ve made an acceptable profit this month. Of course that profit has to sustain us throughout the rest of the year when business is slower, but still, I wanted to share something with you as a way of saying thank you for all of your hard work.”
Theodore was astonished. In previous years, there had not been a bonus, Christmas or otherwise. “I don’t know what to say, Mr. Hoffman. Thank you so much. It is most appreciated.”
“It’s good to see you back home, Martin. How is city life?”
“Great, Mr. Hoffman. I love it.”
Turning back to Theodore, Mr. Hoffman said, “Go home, Theodore. Enjoy the holiday with your family, and I’ll see you back here on the 26th, bright and early.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered before he and Martin left the store and started the walk to their families’ farms.
Chapter Two—The Long Walk Home
THE SUN had long since set by the time Theodore and Martin exited the store. With no moonlight, they had to walk slowly and carefully to avoid ruts.
Martin stopped suddenly and sniffed the air. “What is that?” he said.
“What?” Theodore asked.
Martin wrinkled his nose. “It smells like… manure?”
“Oh, you city boy. You just stepped in horse shit in the road.”
“Disgusting,” Martin said.
Theodore wanted to commiserate but couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Come on. Pick up the pace. It’s cold out here.”
“I know it’s cold. I can barely feel my toes.”
“Then step lively, man. I can’t believe it’s really you.” Theodore looped his arm around Martin’s waist and held him close as they continued their trek home.
“I missed you terribly and was worried when I read your letters.”
“Was I really sounding that terrible?” Theodore asked, feeling embarrassed.
“You sounded like a man trapped in a bad situation.”
After a moment, Theodore answered simply, “That’s because I am. My life isn’t really a life. It’s more of an existence. I get up, go to work, come home, eat, fall asleep, and get up and do the same thing the next day. Over and over and over again. My job is not remotely challenging.”
“Oh, Teddy, I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad.”
“Me too. But enough about that. How long are you staying?” Theodore asked.
“Long enough to get a solution for your problem. And I have a good one in mind.”
“You do? What?”
“In due time.”
“Tell me, please,” Theodore begged.
“No fair,” Theodore complained. “You can’t tell a fellow something like that and then keep him waiting.”
“Yes, I can. I just did.”
“I hate you,” Theodore joked, withdrawing his arm from Martin’s waist and giving him a shove.
“Hate me or love me, it’s your choice. But I think you’re going to love me—just like so many men have loved me since I moved to New York City.”
Coming to a complete stop and lowering his voice so no one could possibly hear their conversation—even though there wasn’t another person anywhere within a mile—Theodore whispered, “Really?”
Martin excitedly nodded. “Oh, Teddy. New York City is an amazing place. There are men like us there.”
“You’ve found others like us?” Theodore breathlessly asked. He had dreamed of such things.
“Oh, yes. Many, many, many other men like us. I’ve wanted to write to you about this and tell you how many of our kind there are, but I was afraid your mother would read my letters and that she’d find out about you or me or us.”
“You’ve met some of those men?” Theodore asked, lowering his voice, partly from a desire for secrecy and partly from excitement at the idea of finding other men like him and Martin.
Martin smiled. “Oh, yes, Theodore. Oh, yes. I’ve met a good many of them. But even with all of those men, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are just so many of our kind there.”
“Have you… have you… been… with any of these men?”
“You mean, have I had sex with them? Yes. With many of them.”
“You have? You’ve been with other men… since… me?”
“Of course,” Martin said.
His words stung. Theodore knew he had no right to feel upset, but he had always fantasized about Martin off in the city, pining for him as he was for Martin. But he knew he had no claim on Martin, and his friend was growing in ways that were not an option for him.
“I’ve learned some new things that I can’t wait to show you,” Martin said, pulling Theodore from his reflections.
Theodore snorted. “Well, that will have to wait until summer. There is no way I’m disrobing outdoors in temperatures like what we’ve had lately.”
“I would never ask you to do such a thing.”
Theodore quickly looked around to make sure no one was about.
They took advantage of their isolation and wrapped their arms around each other again. Martin rested his head against Theodore’s shoulder. Had it not been such a bitterly cold night, they would have lingered longer, but a gust of wind encouraged them to move along.
They came to Martin’s family’s farm first.
When they walked up to the front of the house, Martin hid while Theodore went to the door and knocked.
Mr. Fuller, Martin’s father, opened the door after a moment.
“Theodore! This is a surprise. What are you doing out on such a cold night?”
His wife was right behind him, echoing his feelings. “What a surprise,” she said.
Theodore smiled, barely containing his excitement. “I wanted to stop by on my way home and wish you both a very Merry Christmas and to ask you a question.”
“All right,” Mr. Fuller told him after glancing curiously at his wife.
“What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas this year?”
Mr. Fuller laughed, but his wife seemed to be considering the question. She answered, “Probably for Martin to be home for the holidays.”
“Well, ho, ho, ho.” Theodore’s imitation of Santa Claus wasn’t very good, but he tried. “Merry Christmas.”
Martin stepped out from the shadows and stood beside him. They put their arms on each other’s shoulders and were nearly bursting with delight at the response they got from Martin’s parents. Both his mother and father cried out at the sight of their son.
Martin’s mother wrapped him in a huge hug, and his father patted his back.
“You boys get in here. You’re letting all the heat out,” Mr. Fuller ordered.
Theodore was tired but decided a few minutes wouldn’t hurt, especially since the alternative was leaving Martin when they’d only just been reunited. After coats were hung and boots removed, Mrs. Fuller ushered them into the kitchen and parked them at the table. Mr. Fuller tagged along and took a seat before asking, “Why didn’t you let us know you were coming, Son?”
“I didn’t know myself until today. I got up this morning and just decided it was time for a visit, so I hopped on an early train and just got in a short while ago. I stopped by Hoffman’s Store to pick up this one,” Martin said, reaching over to playfully tousle Theodore’s hair. It was a system they had worked out over the years so they could enjoy each other’s touch while surrounded by people. That and the arm thrown around the shoulder were their most common moves.
Mrs. Fuller produced a plate of cookies along with the offer of tea or coffee. Her cookies were legendary in the valley. Martin and Theodore both took a cookie and practically moaned on the first bite.
“Oh, how I’ve missed these,” Martin told his mother, words that made her smile.
“It must have cost you a fortune to get a train on Christmas Eve,” Martin’s father commented.
“It wasn’t cheap, but there were a few empty seats on the train. Don’t get me wrong, there weren’t many—the train was mostly full. I guess everyone who wanted to go home had gone earlier in the week.”
“What a wonderful surprise to have you here with us for Christmas,” Mrs. Fuller remarked again. “Since it’s just the two of us, we haven’t put up any decorations or anything festive. I’ll have to go up into the attic and see what I can find.”
“No, please don’t,” Martin instructed. “Please, sit with us, talk with us. I’ve missed you folks.”
“So what is life like in the great big city?” his father asked.
“Wonderful. I love it. My job is good. I’ve got lots of friends.”
Theodore sat up straighter at that. What friends? Martin had not mentioned any friends in his letters. But then he suddenly remembered how little Martin had actually been able to say in his carefully worded letters.
“And do you have a steady gal?” his father inquired.
“I’ve got many friends, and I don’t want to tie myself down with anyone right now.”
“You’re not getting any younger, Son. A fine young man like you should be finished with sowing his wild oats and should be getting settled down with a nice wife and then some children.”
Martin’s happy look was slipping away. Theodore knew Martin had had this same talk with his parents on a number of occasions. They had never understood his desire to move to New York in the first place. Martin’s return to see his parents for the first time since he’d left their valley two and a half years earlier opened him up for a revisiting of that conversation.
“A family takes a lot of money, Papa. My job is good but not that good just yet. I need to become more established and more secure in my profession before I even consider something like that.”
Theodore watched his best friend and his father debate. He knew the script that each man would follow, but he still paid close attention to their words.
“It’s time to become a man and do what a man is supposed to do.”
“I am a man, Papa. A man is responsible, but he has to have the resources to take care of a family.”
Their conversation went back and forth for some time, with both sides remaining fully entrenched. Martin seemed uncomfortable and was becoming increasingly annoyed. Theodore suspected this conversation was one of the reasons Martin had not returned home.
After a quick check of his pocket watch, Theodore knew he needed to get on to his own home. “I’m afraid I must head home. My mother will be waiting. She will not go to bed until I’m home each night.” Rising, he said his good nights, lingering perhaps a moment longer than necessary with his hug for Martin. Once again he felt the telltale stiffening in Martin’s midsection, a feeling he had so desperately missed during the time they had been separated.
“My mother is cooking a feast tomorrow,” Theodore announced. “She still cooks as if there is a huge family to feed, but they all have their own families now and no longer come home for the holidays. There is just entirely too much for my father and I to possibly eat. So, why don’t you all come over and join us?” Theodore took a chance with his invitation. He knew he should clear such a thing with his mother first, but he wanted more time with Martin, and that was about the only option he could come up with on short notice.
“No, we wouldn’t want to impose,” Mrs. Fuller protested.
“No imposition. You weren’t planning on having a houseguest, especially one who can eat his own weight in a single meal,” Theodore joked, taking his turn at tousling Martin’s hair. “I won’t take no for an answer. Tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. I’ll be highly offended if you don’t attend.”
Mr. Fuller responded for himself and his wife, “We weren’t planning to do anything special for the holiday,” he explained. “We’d be delighted.”
“Wonderful. I’m off. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Partly due to the cold and partly due to his excitement, Theodore ran the rest of the way home. When he told his mother he’d invited the Fullers to dinner the next day, he was met with all sorts of protestations.
“Theodore, how could you?” she demanded. “This house is a mess. I was only planning on three for dinner.”
“Mother.” Theodore gave her a sweet smile.
“You and that smile of yours,” she said, trying to be angry and failing. “You know I can’t say no to you, my boy.”
“Why would you? I’m so sweet,” he joked. “You still cook like we were a much larger family, even though I’m the only one left at home.”
“I can’t help it. I cooked for so many for a lot of years. It’s hard to make the switch to cooking less.”
She swatted him as she headed into the kitchen to check on Theodore’s dinner.
They all retired for the night, Theodore excited at the prospect of time with Martin the following day, and his mother and father with checklists of things they wanted to do before guests arrived.