"What's that for?"
John was shaken out of his reverie. Thomas had been so quiet for the last few hours he'd almost forgotten he was there. The man had wandered around, played a song or two - rock, of course, always rock - on the jukebox, and helped Mary with the food orders. John had been hesitant about that, but Mary watched over him like a hawk, even while she preened over having an "assistant."
"That. On the door."
John's eye followed Thomas' finger to the small triangle sticker in the bottom section of the front door's window.
"That's a rainbow. It means the place is gay friendly," John replied.
Thomas took a deep breath. "I wouldn't have thought this area would be."
"Well, the owner's gay so it better be."
Thomas gasped and looked at John.
"Yeah, I get a lot of that. I'm gay. Non-practicing, but gay." He picked up a rag and started to polish the counter. "My dad actually put it up. He wouldn't speak to me for ages after I came out but after his first heart attack he, I don't know, came to his senses or something. Slapped the sticker on the door and told everyone in here that his son was gay and if they had a problem with it they'd have to answer to him"
"You were here?"
"Nah. Heard about it from some of the regulars when I moved back. Sure wish I could have seen it, though. My dad wasn't bad: stuck in his century where guys didn't fall in love with guys, but not bad. He was one of them 'tough love' guys, you know? He spared the rod, mind you, but he sure didn't spoil this child." Thomas smiled. "My father was the same. Though he was willing to bring out a hickory switch if need be."
A Southerner, then, John thought, though he didn't say it aloud. What the hell was a Southern boy doing this far North? None of your business, he chided himself silently.
"Yeah, well, Dad was a nagger. Things had to be just so. But he could come around. Obviously." John spread his arms out. "All this glory wouldn't be mine if he wasn't."
Thomas nodded and then dropped silent. After a few minutes he spoke again. "So what happened?"
"Well, as far as I could tell, no one talked to him about it. As long as he still poured the beer and didn't serve any frou-frou drinks all was okay. I did get some stares at first. But I am hardly a queen-type of queer so they stopped eventually."
"I wouldn't have known," Thomas said quietly.
John nodded. "Not many do. I mean a few would probably remember, but it's been so long no one ever mentions it. And it's not like I broadcast it. It's just something I am, just like I'm a bartender, bottle washer and garbage picker-upper. No biggie."
"It can be a biggie."
John looked at the other man. Somehow he sensed that this was big to him. Not bad, just big. Something that had had a significant impact on his life. What it why he was out of the streets? Enquiring minds want to know…"
John blushed. "Sorry, must have said that aloud. I mean, yeah, it can be a big thing if you are a politician or a celebrity or something. But I'm just me and it's who I am. Sure, Dad did kind of throw me out when he first found out. Said all that crap about how it was a good thing my mom was dead… I never told him that she'd known for years. I was ready to leave the nest, anyway. But then he got over it and, in a way, so did I, so it's nothing big."
Thomas had gone pale while John spoke. "'Big if you are a celebrity?' What does that mean?" There was a bit of a frightened squeak in his voice and John frowned.
"Well, I mean, some folks don't want their actors or singers to be gay. I mean, when Ricky Martin finally came out all people were going on about was which songs did he write for a guy and which ones were for women? Who really cares? That guy who played Will on that Will and Grace show was straight and you didn't see the gay alliance getting their panties in a bunch? Okay, so maybe a little, but it's not all that important, you know? I mean I know the guy is acting: why can't other people? And as for Ricky, hell who cares who he is singing to? Love is love."
"Doesn't the Bible say that that kind of love is wrong, though?"
"You a homophobe?" John asked brusquely, thinking that maybe his dad had been right. Maybe helping this guy shouldn't have been his good deed for the year.
Thomas shook his head, a look of fear crossing his eyes at John's sudden change in demeanor. "No! Just…" He looked around the room for a moment, seeming to be checking to see that no one was listening. John could have told him not to worry. The crowd at this time of day were more interested in the suds in front of them (and the game on television) to bother about anyone else. "I want to understand."
John thought about it. "Not a hell of a lot to understand. I prefer the company of men in the bedroom. That's about it. Got nothing against women, they just don't do it for me." He shrugged. "And as for the Bible, well, I've always thought it was the Bible-thumpers who were the worst of that. I mean I am sure that it does say something in there about not loving your same kind and all, but it also says Adam lived to be 900 or so. And don't eat pork. And stuff like that. For me and the Bible: if it ain't in the Commandments I am not going to pay it a lot of mind."
Thomas gave a short barking laugh. "Pretty simple approach to life."
John shrugged. "I'm a simple kind of guy. Live and let live, I say. I'm sure that church lady and her pack of hens might want to cluck over me if they found out, but I don't broadcast. Not like it's ever going to be an issue."
"Have you ever…" Thomas blushed fiery red and John laughed
"Man, I just said I was gay. I wouldn't say it if I hadn't checked it out first."
"Oh. Okay." Thomas was so red now it was like someone had turned on a light switch.
"It's nothing, man. Get over it. Everyone's a little curious the first time they meet someone different."
"I've met… gay people… before," Thomas stuttered. "I just… I never asked…"
"I don't go around asking my straight friends what the great thing about breasts are, so I guess that's fair." John smirked. "Man, you embarrass so damn easy."
The other man glanced down, trying to get his cheeks to stop being so rosy. "Sorry," he muttered.
"It's cool. Funny, but cool."
Thomas smiled tremulously. "Not much good with people lately."
John went back to his work while Thomas sat there trying to digest what he'd heard.
"Why don't you… I mean, aren't you…" Thomas gulped. "You said you were non-practicing."
This time it was John's face that clouded over. He supposed he should have expected the question, but he had hoped that Thomas would have been too embarrassed to bring up the subject again.
"My lover died."
"He had AIDS."
"Oh," Thomas gasped.
"Yeah." John was silent. "Never told anyone that. "Cept my dad, of course. They all think he died from cancer. And that's true too. He did, but it was the AIDS that made the cancer stick and there was nothing to be done."
"So am I," John replied wistfully. He thought back to that handsome man with his flashing cocoa-brown eyes and ready smile. "Patrick was an amazing person. When he died, I did too."
Thomas watched John's face as he got caught in his memories. "Is he why you said you understood?" he asked quietly.
"When you said I needed a day away… if he why you said it?"
John took a deep breath, trying to will away the memories that had threatened to flood back. "Yeah. Yeah. If there was ever something I wish I could have done for him it was that: give him one day away from all the pain. And the pills. And the treatments. And the simply knowing he was going to check out… I would have given it to him. No matter what the cost." John started rubbing the counter with his cloth again: Thomas had noticed that it was the man's nervous fidget. "And if I could have just forgotten myself… after he died… Well, you know."
"I guess I do." Thomas replied softly.
"Okay, enough of this heavy talking shit. You want a drink?"
Thomas shook his head with a smile. "Don't drink. Not much at least."
"I got that." There was a look of surprise on Thomas' face. "I'm a bartender, man. I can smell alcohol a mile off, and if you had any on your clothes, well, it would surprise me. You had just about every other smell, but not booze."
Thomas blushed. "Maybe I just managed to hide it well."
John could tell he was being tested. "You could have. But I'd lay odds that while you may have been around a bottle you weren't drinking it. I ain't like all the others. I do know that not all homeless folk are drunks. I don't know why they chose that life, but I do know that."
"Sometimes the life chooses you."
John cocked his head. "It could. But I think you are one smart guy, despite everything you've been through. If you didn't want to be where you ended up you wouldn't be. Not gonna play twenty questions with you, and all. That's your business. Just think you would be better getting a job. Trying a life. Giving it a second chance."
"That's your speech?" Thomas retorted. "Trying to save me, barkeep?"
John held up his hands defensively. "Can't save you if you don't want saving. That's my point and I'm stickin' to it. Just offering you a drink is all."
"Water then, please."
John handed him a glass, then had to run to a table that was getting a little rowdy over the fact that their team was not winning. It seemed like the bar just plain got busy after that. Both John and Mary were run around ragged, and it took them a while to notice that Thomas had pitched in. John was shouting drink orders over the bar when he realized that he was on the giving not the receiving end. Thomas just grinned at his astonished face and handed him the bottle of beer he'd called for before grabbing the bucket of dirty dishes and disappearing into the kitchen.
"Well, if that don't beat all… That boy's good for something."
"Don't you dad me. I would never have thunk it. He ain't so bad, you know? Proud of you, son."
That comment - internal as it was - was enough to bring John up short and he almost spilled beer all over the table. It had been a long time - living or dead - that his dad had told him he was proud of him.
It was almost 3 a.m.
Time for Thomas' "day away from his cares" to end. John wanted to tell him to stay: not go back to the streets, but he knew that Thomas would say no. Heck, he was amazed the man had stuck around as long as he did.
"So. You're off then."
Thomas nodded. He'd appeared at the back door dressed in all his layers. John had just dropped the garbage in the dumpster and was about to have his usual bowl of soup.
"I understand," John said. Though he didn't. "Man's gotta do what he's gotta do."
"Yeah," Thomas replied. "Say bye to Mary, ok?"
John nodded and stepped aside as Thomas shuffled out into the cold. He stood there for a moment, watching him head down the back alley, then sighed and shut the door.
Some supper in him, all the lights out and the place locked up, John was just about to leave when he heard a knock at the back door.
John blinked. "Thomas?"
"Look… I thought about what you said. I think I want to be human again."
"I was wondering… do you need someone to help out? Just part time. You don't have to pay me… giving me a place to sleep is good enough…"
John grinned widely. "Hell, yeah."
"Just room and board. I mean it," Thomas cautioned.
"We'll work that out." John couldn't seem to wipe the grin off his face. "Welcome back, human," he said holding out his hand.
Thomas shook it shyly. "Ummm… there is something else…"
"I'm gay too."