Tony looked at me sadly. “Is that why you left the mountains?”
I shrugged. “I had to.” I sat forward. “My parents don’t think I’m gay, but possessed.”
“Possessed!?” Tony said loud enough to attract some looks from other customers.
I chuckled at the lady that was looking concerned. “We’re fine, thanks.” I waved, then looked back. “Yes.” I whispered. “Possessed. They believe it’s a demon making me do these things.” I took a deep breath. “First is the McKenzies. My late grandfather, my father’s father was a preacher, but he was one of those….Bible carrying, pulpit pounding, Hell Fire and Brimstone preachers who knew the Good Book from cover to cover.” I laughed. “Other than preaching, he was good at one other thing. Fucking.”
Tony sat back suddenly when I said that. “I don’t remember you saying anything like that before. The occasional damn, sure. I’ve even heard a shit before. Why this now?”
I nodded. “Dad is one of sixteen children.”
Tony’s eyes widened. “Sixteen!? But you’re not even Catholic!!”
I chuckled. “What else was there to do at night out in the boonies!? Dad is number eleven. There is JC, Thomas, Robert, Calvin, Bernie, Earl, Marjorie, Virginia, June, Judy, Faye, Evelyn…”
Tony held his hands up. “Woa, woa…I get it. Lots of brothers and sisters for your Dad.”
“And that wasn’t exactly in order.” I smiled. “And their spouses and children.” Then I shrugged. “By the time Grandma’s eldest were old enough to marry, she still had children for a few years. Meaning I had cousins as old as Dad. I was so confused when I learn that Uncle Clint was not an uncle at all, but a cousin. There were others also. Family reunions are a little crowded.”
“No doubt.” Tony marveled.
“They grew up in a very isolated part of North Carolina, near Ellerbe. A little patch known as Derby.” I glanced up and saw Tony shake his head. “Don’t be worried, few know where it is. Think of it as a suburb of Ellerbe, which is suburb of Rockingham, which is a suburb of Darlington or Fayetteville. For a long time, no one lived within two miles of them. It was a farm. They grew everything from cotton, to tobacco. But they are a sad people. Very clannish.” I chuckled. “Well, they are Scottish. I found that out for myself. No one told me. But they were only good at eating, cooking and fucking. Conversations were mostly about who was sick or dying. The type of family you described as your family sounds happy. The McKenzie’s were not.” Then I smiled. “Now Mom’s family is a little better. She has a sister, Mary, also married a few times. Two brothers, Robert who’s married and Earl who is the youngest, with two children and married again. Dad and Mom settled in the mountains. Mom and Dad met, fell in like and Dad moved there.”
“Fell in like?”
I shrugged. “To say they were in love is a stretch. They got along okay, but I never saw much passion. My grandparents on her side are both alive and still live in Morgan’s Branch. Dad and Mom raised me and my sister on a piece of Grandpa’s land. We had a farm there, only twenty six acres!”
“You were raised on a farm. And only twenty six acres!?”
I chuckled. “That’s small compared to some but because we were attached to grandma and granddad’s farm, it seems bigger. And I was raised there feeding chickens, tending the garden, rode horses, dealt with cows and goats.” Then I grinned. “It wasn’t bad. I know where milk comes from.” I grinned.
Tony frowned. “Sure, the grocer on the corner of my block and they deliver.”
“I mean, I’ve milked the cows. I know where milk comes from.” I said. “I’m a real live country boy.”
Tony shook his head. “And your father is a preacher, too?”
I nodded. “Sure is. Only unlike Granddad, he went to school for it. Even got his Masters of Theology. But Mom said he wouldn’t have made it if she hadn’t typed his papers and helped him out. She was smart. She could have been so much more, but let Dad be the breadwinner and professional. A lot of Granddad’s Fire and Brimstone is still in Dad. All that knowledge just didn’t help. And there’s Lynn.” I sighed. “She left home years ago. She is three years older than me. I don’t know where she is now.”
“Is she married?”
I had to chuckle, but there was no humor. “Several times. The first was when she was seventeen. Dad and Mom had that one annulled. But she married again, not the same guy, when she was eighteen. Again when she was twenty-three, again when she was thirty…” I shrugged. “It’s hard to keep up with the last names. She’s been a Miller, Yeager, Garner and the last one I knew of, was Green. I don’t know if she’s still married to him, or even what he looks like. A psychologist would love to do a study on us. Both the McKenzie children are into men and both were eager to get away.”
This time, Tony looked at me with sadness, but also compassion. He reached across the table and took my hand. “Well, you’ve got new family now. I want us to be a family.”
I smiled at him. “We are.”
Tony looked at his watch. “We’d better head to Pearlz. He’ll get off soon. Prepare to meet another member of the family.”
We drove into downtown. If you’ve ever been to Charleston, you’ll soon realize why I hate driving there. Charleston is an old city, over three hundred years having celebrated the three hundred years in 1970. Lots of one way streets and if you miss a turn, you have to drive several blocks, find a one way street back and circle around and try again. After two attempts, I directed Tony to a street a block over and told him to park there.
“But Pearlz is over there!” Tony pointed the two blocks away. “I gotta walk!?”
I chuckled. “They walk in New York. I’ve seen it on TV.”
Tony looked at where we were, it was a mix of businesses and houses. The businesses were closed now. “We should park in a garage.”
I nodded. “You can, there’s one two blocks that way.” I pointed even farther away from where we were going.
Tony huffed and rolled his eyes. “Has no one around here heard of valets?” He hit the alarm for the car which chirped.
I rolled my eyes. “You’d let some stranger drive this? I wouldn’t give my keys for Bubba.”
“That’s what valets do!” Tony said coming toward me as we began our walk to Pearlz. And as it was now a habit, his arm came around my shoulder and mine went around his waist. He was taller. “And what’s the appeal of Bubba?”
I smiled remembering. “It’s Granddad’s truck. I was twelve when he let me drive it.”
“Don’t they have laws for that?”
“On the farm.” I clarified. “I’d haul hay bales to the fields in cold weather for the cows. My feet could only just reach the pedals.” I grinned. “Then when I was fourteen, Granddad said if I kept it running, I could have it when I got my license.”
Tony looked at little impressed, he looked at me appreciatively. “You’re a mechanic, too?”
I waved that off. “Don’t get excited. I can fix an old Ford, not these computerized things on the road now. It’s basically nuts and bolts. But I can change the oil, a tire and I’ve fixed almost everything in him. The odometer has rotated a few times, but it’s mine.”
As we got close to Pearlz, it was a raw bar serving drinks and specialize in oysters. People mingled and ate happily talking, laughing and had an atmosphere of wellbeing. I spotted who I knew had to be Nick. He was the only guy there with the olive complexion and had his father’s black hair. And size! Looking again, he might have been taller, but he loved to eat. Not that he was fat, but he carried a few more pounds than he might have or wanted to. And he was young. He had a face that looked a little like Tony, I could only guess the rest was from his mother. It could be more of Tony’s family I hadn’t seen yet. We walked in and approached the bar. Tony smiled as Nick looked up and smiled to his father as he was shucking an oyster, but his eyes traveled to me. Tony still had his arm over my shoulder. Nick held up his finger, looked at the clock and held up five fingers. Tony nodded and sat, letting me go as I sat next to him. I was nervous. None of my previous….boyfriends or whatever had kids. Now I was meeting, what I considered a life partner’s son. That son was practically an adult.
“He’s working here because….” I asked.
Tony smiled. “I pay his tuition and rent. If he wants a car or even just beer money or something like that, he needs a job.” Tony said logically. “Besides, work gives a man character.” He smiled at the bartender. “I’ll have whatever’s on tap.” He smiled at me. “What do you want?”
“Just a sweet iced tea.” I told the man who nodded.
“Okay, what’s so different about sweet tea in the South?” Tony asked. “We have tea in New York, if you want it sweeter, you add sugar.”
The bartender came with our drinks.
“You’re from the South, right?” I asked the bartender.
“Born and raised.” The bartender smiled.
“Have you traveled out of the South?” I asked.
“A few times.”
“Have you ever had iced tea when traveling?” I asked.
The bartender nodded, but frowned. “It’s not the same.”
I looked at Tony. “See? Every Southerner knows just adding sugar to iced tea isn’t enough. It’s got to be brewed in it.”
“Damn straight!” The bartender nodded. He shrugged. “Even adding simple sugar doesn’t help. It’s got to be brewed with the tea.”
I waved at the bartender. “There you go.”
Tony chuckled and took my glass of tea. He sipped it carefully and licked his lips tasting it. “It tastes…” he thought. “Kind of like Kool aide.”
“And there lies the mystery.” I chuckled. “Everyone makes it differently. Some are very sweet, others, not so much. Some add lemon, my family doesn’t. It’s a unique flavor everywhere you go.”
The bartender was nodded in agreement, then looked at Tony, then back at Nick. “You’re Nick’s Dad.”
Tony smiled, but he looked cautious. “If I say yes, do I need to pay someone or something?”
The man shook his head laughing. “No, no…well, he’s kinda unusual here. We have Italian’s here, but you two look similar and I was just curious.” He thumbed toward Nick. “He’s a good guy. I used to be a student at the College of Charleston also. Going to graduate school in the upcoming Fall.” He stuck his hand to Tony. “I’m Kyle Jenkins.”
“Anthony Delveccio.” Tony said shaking the bartender’s hand. “This is Mitch McKenzie.”
I shook Kyle’s hand. “I’m guiding this Yankee through the Southern Experience.”
Kyle nodded with a smile. “They need all our help.” He grinned and bowed off to tend to another customer.
Tony put his hand on mine. “Understand.” He began. “I’ll never be ashamed of us. But I wasn’t going to introduce you as more to him, when I haven’t even told my son.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me. “I’m fine.” Then the old me came in. “So, I haven’t been rejected?”
Tony shook his head, but smiled at me. “Not a chance.” He did lean forward and bumped his forehead against mine gently. Then Tony looked up as Nick threw a towel over his shoulder, He put a tray of oysters he’s shucked up and walked around the bar. His grin was just like his father’s.
“Dad.” Nick greeted as Tony rose and they hugged briefly. “I was wondering if you went back to New York.”
Tony laughed at that idea. “No chance of that.” Then he looked at me. “Things have sort of changed in a way I hadn’t planned on.”
Nick looked at me, but I could see that he suspected and was just waiting for confirmation. “I see.”
“It just happened.” Tony said but there was a pleading tone in his voice. “I didn’t plan on it, I wasn’t looking for it.” Then Tony put his hand out to me. “But this man has come to mean a lot to me. Nick Delveccio This is Mitch McKenzie.” Then he looked at his son. “My life partner.”
Nick was not ready to hear that. “What!?” He looked at his father. “You’ve only been here less than two weeks! Sei fuori di testa?”
Tony nodded and held his hand up. “English, Nick. Speak English.”
Nick waved his hand at me. “Do you know him!?”
Tony again nodded, but patted his son’s chest. “We’re getting to know each other. Like I said, I hadn’t planned on it, it just happened.”
“Does he know you?” Nick challenged. “Your past?”
“I know some of it.” I said softly. “I know about the others and your mother. I know about Luke and the towers and the horrible thing your father went through there. I even know about you Aunts Louise, Kathy and their husbands Mike and Al. I know about your grandparents and the long Sunday dinners. And I know how he feels about you.”
Nick just stared. I saw Nick was considering this news slowly.
“Now, are you upset because you think he doesn’t know me, or that you don’t?” I asked.
“Well, yes.” Nick nodded. “He just got here. Where’d you two meet?”
“In church.” Tony said with a laugh. “I always told you, the best place to look is in church.”
Nick nodded. “At that gay church?”
“At the only church that will let us in.” Tony said. “The church started because we weren’t welcome anywhere else.”
“Does it bother you that you father’s gay?” I asked.
Nick shook his head. “I don’t care about that.” He said instantly. “I care about him.”
Tony nodded. “Well, this is why I wanted you two to meet.” He looked around. “Can we sit and maybe talk?”
Nick nodded and waved to a table. “We’ll be closing soon, the raw bar part, the drinks will go on another couple of hours so over there should be fine.”
Once seated, Nick looked at his father. “So, you’ve been with him the past few days? Is that why you haven’t been around.”
“I was there at first.” Tony nodded. “Then I began looking for a place to live and a job, but yes.”
“Your father’s right.” I said. “It just happened.”
Nick waved helplessly. “How does it just happen?”
Tony smiled at me. “I saw something in him, I’ve rarely seen in anyone else. He’s smart, kind and…he loves me.” Then he looked at his son. “He makes me laugh. I love him. Talk to him, he’s not going away. You’ll get to know more about him as the years pass.” He took his son’s arm. “I know it’s right.”
“All because he wouldn’t give up his place at the end of the pew.” I chuckled.
Nick bowed his head laughing. “Yep, that sounds like Dad.” He looked up at me, then his father. “He always sat on the end at church. To get away when it was over.”
Tony smiled. “They were always asking for handouts and stuff like that. I often had to get out to save my wallet!”
“And I know why that was.” Nick asked his father. “Remember the time when Father Thomas said the heat needed fixing. He locked the doors and sent the offering plates around, even after the general offering was taken.”
Tony laughed. “And we waited as they counted.”
“But he said it wasn’t enough! So he sent them again!” Nick smiled. “Mom tells him to put a fifty in the plate or we’d never get out of there!” Then he smiled looking at me. “So, what do you do?”
I smiled. “I manage a hotel downtown. The Historic Charleston Town Center.”
Nick let out a whistle. “That’s pretty ritzy.”
I shrugged. “It’s a façade. I was a police officer before that.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “A cop!?”
“But I was shot while dealing with two guys arguing over a girl and had to give that up.”
“Damn.” Nick marveled. “And you agreed to fuck with Dad!?” He pointed at his father.
“Nick!” Tony said shocked.
Nick rammed his shoulder in his father’s shoulder. “I’m kidding. But I am surprised. Everyone first thinks we’re in the mob or shit like that.”
Tony chuckled. “Mitch first asked me if he had to worry about a mob hit when with me.”
“I was joking!” I said in defense.
Nick was laughing with his father, but looked at his father seriously. “Are you happy? I’ve not seen this side of you before. Not in a long time.”
Tony nodded. “Like I haven’t been happy in years.”
Then Nick looked at me as he pointed at his father. “He was so serious. Don’t let him back the other way.”
I smiled. “He’s with me now. He won’t be able to be serious much.”
“Although I should grill you like you did with me and Dreeta.” Nick said to his father.
“Dreeta’s mother was a Don’s daughter, Nick!” Tony said as if he’d said it many times before. Then Tony looked at me. “That’s the head of a crime family.”
“Godfather?” I reminded. “Goodfellas? Seen it, understand that.”
Tony nodded. “I mean she was the granddaughter of a real mobster! I wasn’t having a grandchild born into that family even by accident!”
“We were sixteen!?” Nick said, as if that would help.
“All the more reason.” Tony said.
Then he tried to suppress it, but Nick yawned. “I’m beat. I have an early class tomorrow.” He rose and hugged his father. “I can see it’s good for you. I hope it will be.” Then he turned to me. I wasn’t sure yet, so I offered a hand to him. Nick shook his head. “You’re going to be family I hear. So…” the he grabbed me in a tight hug. “Be good to him.” He said quietly so even Tony couldn’t hear. “He’s been through a lot lately.”
Parting, I nodded. “I know.”
Nick turned to his father. “And you be good to him! I’m going to get used to him, so don’t blow it!” He pointed at his father’s midsection. “Okay?”
Tony was so pleased it went well. He hugged his son again.