The boy stood silently beside the table while the masseur finished his father’s daily rub-down. The boy was ten, just tall enough to look down on his father’s pale back being pummeled and kneaded. The masseur’s hands were dark and hairy against his father’s skin. Like courting tarantulas, the hands followed each other around the back in a pattern that never varied.
The boy looked at his father’s face. Peter Maguire was in his early forties, but his face seldom indicated his age. Depending on his mood, his level of sobriety, and the company, he could look boyish or ancient. He was considered handsome, despite a weak chin and crowded, overlapping teeth.
Peter Maguire’s family, friends, and business associates were well-acquainted with his petty tyrannies, yet he held sway over them all not through fear alone. His agile mind and quick wit were seductive distractions, and a thick and generous purse soothed what charm could not.
Now Maguire’s features were slack, his jaw dropped open. Enlarged adenoids his immigrant parents had been too poor and too frightened to have removed made his breathing in repose loud and feral. The man, tranquilized by the massage, seemed dangerously vulnerable to the boy, though he could not have said where the danger lay.
When the boy noticed a thin slaver connecting his father’s face to the table pad, he quickly averted his eyes. His face reddened with the same embarrassment he’d felt once when he’d burst in on his mother after a bath and seen droplets from the oiled water caught in the many soft folds and lines across her belly.
The masseur lay a large white towel on the father’s back and nodded to the boy.
“He’s all yours, Michael,” he said.
Peter Maguire groaned and sat up, clutching the towel and swinging his legs over the edge of the table. He blinked at his son as if he didn’t recognize him and held out a hand towards him. Michael put a cigarette pack and a tiny gold lighter on his father’s palm. Maguire lit a cigarette, handed the things back to Michael, and left the room.
Michael sat down on the bed to wait for his father to finish showering. Michael was the only family member allowed to see his father before breakfast. His three sisters didn’t object to being left out. His mother, installed in a bedroom across the hall, left her husband’s bed soon after he fell asleep on the occasional nights she was invited to visit him.
Beyond being allowed, Michael was expected to attend his father’s daily morning routine. “Your father needs you,” his mother would call crisply, rapping on Michael’s door on the rare mornings when he overslept.
Mostly, Michael just watched while his father received his massage and got dressed. They talked very little or not at all. Sometimes Michael put in his father’s cufflinks or removed the trees from his shoes. The boy’s mere presence seemed to comfort the man, and in turn the boy was comforted by that appreciation.
As Michael sat on his father’s bed, he looked around the large, orderly room with satisfaction. He thought of the room as his and his father’s, physical evidence of his special place in his father’s affections. Michael needed such evidence because his father never directly expressed love for him. Michael was sure that no one else in the family besides his father loved him.
Michael had been tutored at home by a succession of teachers too eccentric to hold regular jobs. The arrangement suited Maguire’s classical ideas about education and Michael’s erratic learning style. Michael’s current overseer was a retired WAC whom he had dubbed Sgt. Mary. Her Army career had prepared her well for an imperious employer and enigmatical responsibilities.
Michael had been reading Kipling’s Just So stories last night and had been captivated by the author’s addressing him, the reader, as “best beloved.” He repeated the intoxicating phrase to himself now in the sanctuary of his father’s room.
When Michael’s eyes lighted on his father’s battered alligator suitcase set just inside the open closet door, he hugged himself gleefully. The suitcase’s usual place was at the back of a high shelf. Its appearance at the door could mean only one thing, because this suitcase was used for going to only one place.
Peter Maguire owned a small hunter’s cabin beside a lake in the hills of western Pennsylvania. He didn’t hunt or fish, but he enjoyed swimming in the icy, spring-fed lake in summer and hiking through the woods in all seasons.
Maguire always took Michael with him to the cabin. And Hamilton. Michael liked Hamilton because in Hamilton’s company Maguire was relaxed and unpretentious. In Michael’s mind, Hamilton and the cabin were inseparable. He never saw one without the other.
The simple world of the cabin offered Michael many pleasures. He loved to run ahead on a trail and hear the men’s feet rustling faintly through the leaves behind him. Out of breath, he’d lean against a tree to wait for them. He’d keep looking straight ahead and imagine them striding along, Hamilton with his grandfather’s shotgun slung loosely over his shoulder and Michael’s father with his hands jammed down in his pockets and a cigarette in his mouth. Only at the last moment, when the rustling drew close would Michael turn for a quick look at them before running ahead again.
At other times Michael, floating on an inflated raft in the lake, would lift his head to see the men stretched out silently side by side on the pebbly beach, one on his back and one on his stomach.
Best of all was falling asleep on the sheepskin in front of the fireplace, the men’s droning voices his last awareness. One of them always lifted him to his cot some time before morning. Michael liked to imagine it was his father, but he knew it was probably Hamilton.
The men had known each other since high school, where they’d been rivals for the attention of a local beauty who had spurned them both for a college boy from Bucknell. Their friendship did not include their families. Their wives had never met. Michael was the only representative of their lives outside the cabin. Maguire’s activities as a lawyer to the rich and infamous of Scranton and Philadelphia kept him apart from Hamilton’s humbler world as a grocery store manager.
A particularly complex lawsuit involving an important client had prevented Maguire from spending the usual number of weekends at the cabin this past summer. It was well into autumn, and Michael had despaired of seeing the cabin before the first snowfall. Now here was the suitcase on a Friday morning, offering Michael the same anticipatory thrill as a big box with his name on it under the Christmas tree.
He must be planning to surprise me, Michael thought. The splashing sounds from the shower became jolly and intimate to his ears.
His father seemed to Michael to be dressing especially slowly this morning. The boy steadfastly kept his back to the closet so that he wouldn’t spoil the moment when his father told him the happy news. They were on the staircase before the man finally spoke.
“Hamilton and I will be going up to the cabin this weekend, Michael,” he said. “Check the mail for me, will you? Put anything for me on my dresser. I’m expecting some important documents from New York.”
Maguire didn’t look at Michael as he spoke. He stared instead at the closed door to the dining room at the foot of the stairs. Before Michael could shape his astonishment into words, the door opened and his mother poked her head out.
“I thought I heard you,” she said to Maguire. “Running a little late, aren’t you? Good morning, Michael.”
When the boy didn’t respond, his mother gave him a puzzled look, then shrugged and followed her husband into the dining room. Michael turned and ran back upstairs.
It rained hard all weekend. Michael drifted aimlessly around the big house and avoided his sisters and mother. On Saturday, Sgt. Mary spent two hours in the kitchen retelling Michael her most entertaining World War II stories over a pot of tea. It was the only time he didn’t feel dismal.
Michael kept thinking about what it was like in the cabin on a rainy day. He smelled pine wood smoke and the wonderful aroma of Hamilton’s special bacon biscuits. He saw the men playing chess, his father lingering over every move and Hamilton playing almost carelessly, sometimes even asking Michael’s advice. Hamilton was not a father, so he often spoke to Michael as if the boy were a much older or a much younger child.
Sunday evening finally arrived, and then Sunday night. When his father hadn’t returned by 11:00, Sgt. Mary forced Michael to go to bed. He lay awake waiting for the sound of Hamilton’s car in the gravel driveway.
When, near midnight, he heard it, he went to the window. The sky had cleared, and the moon was full. The car sat idling for five minutes before Maguire got out. He opened the back door, pulled out his suitcase, and set it on the grass.
Then Michael saw his father do a curious thing. After his father shut both doors, he spread his right hand flat against the windshield and held it there for a few moments. When he dropped his hand to his side, the car moved away so slowly that Michael could barely hear the gravel shifting beneath its tires. Maguire stood watching the car until it turned a corner out of sight.
Michael sat back and tried to memorize the scene he had just observed. Over the years, Michael had watched his father in many situations and in various moods, and though his father had seemed, most times, to be ignoring him, Michael knew that Maguire was well aware of the watching. No one could do anything around Peter Maguire that he didn’t want them to do. But tonight, Michael’s witnessing had been a secret one, and that made it important. He had been granted a mystery, and it was, he felt, the reward for his vigil.
Michael stayed at the window a long time after his father had entered the house. The shrill moonlight shaped tiny shadows from each gravel stone and each grass blade. Michael was reminded of late afternoons at the lake, when the water caught the sun’s setting rays and shivered into thousands of bright surfaces. In that was the beauty of sparkling movement. The moon also fractured the areas on which it shone, but the light’s flatness and stillness made Michael uneasy.
Realizing he hadn’t heard his father come upstairs, Michael headed for the study downstairs. He knew his father’s habit of a bedtime brandy there whenever he arrived home and found the household asleep.
Michael was in front of the closed study door when the phone rang. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. When he heard his father’s muffled voice, he let go of the knob and leaned against the wall to wait.
Michael listened to the voice in the study, not trying to make out distinct words, but simply wanting to determine when the call would be finished. At first, Maguire crooned between the intervals of silence, then he spoke more rapidly. A tall grandfather’s clock in the hall ticked darkly. The interplay of sounds was like a musical score.
“Hamilton! Wait! Hamilton!” Michael clearly heard his father shout.
A few seconds later, the study door slammed open. Maguire looked quickly up and down the hall, as if he were a man in a desperate rush to cross a street heavy with traffic.
“Michael,” he said, and the anguish in his voice frightened the boy.
Looking into his father’s face, Michael knew that something terrible had happened, and, with a start, he sensed that it was the end of a chain of happenings which had excluded him. Somehow, foreign circumstances had encircled his father and were encircling him still.
The man and the boy stood staring at each other. It would have taken only a few steps to bring them close enough to touch, but neither of them moved. Then Michael lifted his hand, and leaning forward, as if he were on the slippery bank of a deep, fast river, he reached out until he felt the muscles stretch down the whole length of his arm. He hooked two fingers in one of his father’s belt loops and tugged gently. Maguire closed his hand over the boy’s. Maguire’s grip was hard, and Michael winced a little as his bent fingers were pressed against the thick leather belt, but he didn’t object or resist.
“Get dressed,” Maguire said, his voice shaped now in its familiar authoritative tone. “Hurry.”
An hour later Michael was sitting alone in his father’s car in front of Hamilton’s house. Neither of them had spoken during the short ride. Michael felt dizzy whenever he looked at his father’s figure heavy and black beside him. When they arrived, Maguire had ordered Michael to stay put and had run to the house.
Now a police car was parked in front of Maguire’s silver Mercedes. Its spinning red light illuminated a small group of head-shaking neighbors in bathrobes. Maguire still had not returned to the car and Michael.
“It’s Mr. Hamilton,” a man called to his wife, who was leaning out an upstairs window in the house next door. “Put a shotgun in his mouth.”
No one noticed Michael. He tried to focus on physical reality in order to push back the edge of panic. He stirred the cigarette butts in the ashtray with his finger. He pressed his back firmly against the curve of the seat. Weary of struggle, he lay his forehead on the cold glass of the window.
Finally, Michael climbed into the back seat and lay down on his side, curling his legs toward his thin chest and tucking his hands between his thighs for warmth. He stopped waiting for his father and let sleep overtake him.
In his last drowsy moments of consciousness, he whispered a litany to himself: “O, best beloved. O, very best beloved.”
“The Acolyte” was published in the journal wordplay, vol. III, #1, Portland, Maine, 1997.