The comment on a post on the neighborhood community page reads: What we should all be doing with all this time on our hands is to use the time to restore our relationship with God. Pray for Him to deliver some comfort to those who need it in this time of crisis. #PRAY #JESUSSAVES.
Eltinge has sworn to himself several times over he won’t jump into the fray. This isn’t what he does. He’s no troll. He’s no evangelist. But his fingers betray his good intentions. Ten backstabbing little bastards affixed to his arms’ ends.
There is no god, Eltinge pounds out on his keyboard. Read poetry. Learn a foreign language. Call your mother. Enough of this spiritual navel gazing and your masturbatory theist fantasies.
Eltinge is feeling sorry for himself. For the last few years, he’s been beset by a host of afflictions that he cannot control. The virus is just the latest. He’s also recently discovered he’s a bloated middle-aged person with ruined skin and more jowls than he cares to count. This discovery has affected him worse than his demographic’s keen susceptibility to the virus, though both are unfair and inexplicable. He thinks these reversed priorities demonstrate he’s a shallow person, which is probably the least of his problems.
I lost my mother, the woman from the community page wrote.
Course you did, Eltinge typed back furiously. #boohoo. Everyone’s lost someone.
Who did you lose?
Taken aback, Eltinge froze over his keyboard. Was this a challenge? Compassion? Loneliness? Genuine interest? There’s simply no way he’s going to give up having lost William. It’s too raw. He hasn’t even mentioned it to his own brothers and sisters (and screw them, by the way), let alone complete strangers on a neighborhood group chat.
Eltinge is suddenly conscious he’s taking too long to respond. The woman on the community page will suspect he’s making shit up if he doesn’t write something.
Lots of people, he typed to buy time. My this. My that. My real estate agent. The first girl I ever kissed.
Tell me about her.
I like boys now.
Was she pretty?
Eltinge is willing to answer these questions, because who cares? Because what the fuck? What difference does it make? Rachel was the first person he came out to. She was someone he had almost never spoken to in adult life, but within minutes of connecting again, they’d been dissolved in laughter.
Just don’t offer to pray for Rachel, please, Eltinge thinks. That would be irritating. Disrespectful. Undignified. Neither of them had ever believed.
Thankfully, the woman on the community page writes instead about her mother. She jokes about her own incompetence with technology.
Otherwise I’d have a video to share with you, she writes. Are you keeping safe?
It’s a question Eltinge hasn’t heard since the AIDS crisis.
I am. You?
I cheat every once in a while. I know, I shouldn’t. I’m sorry. It’s terrible.
Eltinge starts to cut and paste his standard Anne-Frank-stayed-in-a-closet-sized-garret-for-seven-hundred-days-surely-you-can-keep-your-ass-at-home-for-a-few-weeks-grandma response to cheaters.
Before he can press send, the woman describes a Biblical set of afflictions that makes Eltinge’s past couple years pale in comparison.
I couldn’t let my mother go, she admits. I snuck out and retrieved the cremains.
Oh, Eltinge writes. He doesn’t want to write that's understandable or sanction her behavior or do anything that would give the plague a fighting chance of spreading. But finding adequate words to recite, that would not offend but might have some power to change her is hard. They would be, he thought, almost exactly like a prayer, and fuck her.
But Eltinge swallows hard. He knows he’ll hate himself in the morning for going soft. He writes, The best thing you can do is forgive yourself and go back at it again. It’s what all of us have to do.
You’ll know I’m just looking over your shoulder and rooting you on, he types. His gorge rises. He flips his laptop upside-down and lurches out of the room.
* * *
The next day, William’s sister Anna raps on the door again. Breaking her quarantine, she’s come bearing a plate of ginger spice muffins. Eltinge hadn’t even known she could bake. To be fair, he hadn’t known shit about her since she and William hadn’t spoken for years.
Since William’s death, Anna has visited every week and sometimes twice. She’s discovered Eltinge is the executor of William’s estate, and she’s clearly hoping lurking around will somehow earn her some goodies from probate.
Eltinge doesn’t blame Anna for her greed. Hadn’t he acted the same way after his father passed? No, it’s the pretending she had given a shit about William when he was alive that irks Eltinge.
In any event, Anna is going to be savagely disappointed. William has left everything to Eltinge. Nevertheless, Eltinge enjoys stringing her along. Plus, there were the muffins, which smell delicious.
He indicates Anna should place the muffins on the railing and back off six feet. She does. They chit-chat. Anna asks how he’s doing, and he mentions the woman on the neighborhood community space. They have a good laugh at her expense. Then Anna leaves. Thank the evil sky creature that sucks up praises for the virus, so Eltinge has an excuse not to invite her in.
As soon as Anna’s gone, Eltinge throws the cupcakes out. He suspects she’s trying to poison him. Then he puts the trash out, too, because he knows himself too well; he’ll be dumpster diving by midnight.
The words would be, he thought, almost exactly like a prayer, and fuck her.
The next time Anna visits, Eltinge prods her to talk about William. Mostly, to gather evidence she doesn’t know the least thing about him. But Anna surprises Eltinge with some tidbits from William’s childhood. William, it seems, had been an inveterate and unmistakable nancy from day one. He had once dressed in her ballet tutu. He got beat up in high school after enduring a girl-on-girl porn with a bunch of straight guys and then suggesting they watch boy-on-boy for symmetry, and such had been his innocence, William had only made his suggestion from a purely artistic point of view, not for the sex, for balance, for aesthetic rather than sexual pleasure.
Anna at last broaches the topic of the will. He can see how it pains her to unmask herself. She doesn’t want to think of herself as a mercenary, money-grubbing sort of person. Maybe she has convinced herself she’s doing the right thing lurking around Eltinge’s front porch. Comforting the grieving widow. Maybe she’s even come to like Eltinge just a little bit.
Eltinge, on the other hand, is now tired of the game he’s begun. He feigns a pained expression, as if he has passed a particularly noxious bit of gas.
“Is it soon?” Anna asks. “The reading of the will? The, what do you call it, probation?”
“Probate,” he says. The vocabulary of death is a new language he has mastered.
She looks down at her hands. Eltinge notices she’s not wearing a mask. Political move? Her husband? Trying to get Eltinge infected to reduce the competition for William’s estate?
“I’m sorry to ask,” she says. “But I really need it. My kids need it. I haven’t been able to work since February, and the unemployment….” Her voice floaters. She throws up her hands. “It doesn’t cut it.”
She looks away. She bites her lip. “We split. Last year.”
Eltinge nods. He is going to say sorry out of reflex but then he starts thinking whether in fact he is sorry, and then it’s too late to say anything at all. Except the truth.
“It’s done,” he says. “William left everything to me.”
He might as well have spoken in Chinese. Anna doesn’t get it all.
He repeats what he said. God (or the Imaginary Magical Sky Daddy) help him, he can’t keep out of his tone the sound of great satisfaction. Me. Mine. All mine. Gleefully rubbing his hands together and proclaiming himself rich. Gloriously rich.
Of course, he only thinks these things, but the effect on Anna is the same. She brings her hand to her mouth in horror and backs away. Six feet. Ten feet. Twelve. Then she turns and flees.
Don’t touch your face, Eltinge thinks. He figures he’ll never see her again.
* * *
Eltinge wants to give the community page woman a name, but her screen name is PraisedBe and he refuses to use that for everyday conversation. Also, he doesn’t want to ask her. He doesn’t want her to name a name that doesn’t fit how he sees her, or a name that Eltinge associates with someone he cares about like Rachel. He prefers to supply his own apt name for her. Specifically, Eltinge wants to call her Betsy.
He’s now told Betsy all about Anna via private message. He’s told how Anna begged and touched her face and how he expected he’d never see her again.
He describes how his father had cut him out of his will, and how his siblings had promised to make it up to him but ended up mumbling about gift taxes and their spouses and pastors and he hadn’t seen a dime.
“Don’t worry,” his eldest sibling had assured him. “We’ll find a way.”
And Eltinge hadn’t worried in the least, because he’d always assumed his siblings would fuck him in the end and of course they had, even while assuring him that their dad wasn’t so bad, and if the old man had had just had a year or two more, he’d have made peace with Eltinge and put it right.
“But God called him,” they said, shrugging, “so what can you do? A man’s time is his time. It is what it is.”
“God?” Eltinge had asked. “I don’t think God had any interest in that old bastard. If anyone called him, it was Satan. That’s far more believable.”
“Don’t be that way,” each sibling scolded.
“That’s how we ended in the situation we’re in,” his eldest sibling said, meaningfully. “That tongue of yours.”
Fingers. Tongue. Every body part betrays Eltinge sooner or later.
Anyhow, he concludes, it’s not that I don’t understand what she’s going through.
Poor girl, Betsy types. I’ll keep her in my prayers.
Can’t eat prayers.
You could give her some of what your boyfriend left you.
Husband, he writes. He doesn’t really register the substance.
I’m sorry, I can’t use that term for what you are.
Eltinge thinks of a few choice terms he’d like to apply to Betsy, but he types, What can I do? I don’t leave the house.
But you’re smart. You could find a way. If you wanted to. I wouldn’t know how, but you? You could.
You’re just trying to butter me up.
Hahaha. Think about it. And speaking of butter, I can make muffins, too. And I won’t poison you.
Eltinge feels cold inside, as if he’s swallowed a bowling ball left out in the snow. He hopes to God (or the Imaginary Magical Sky Daddy) he doesn’t have to shit that mass out.
* * *
Anna pounds on the door. Her hair is a mess. She seems to have aged a decade. She pleads and begs for a little help. She heaps praises on Eltinge. She tells him she knew he was a kind and generous person.
Eltinge thinks, This must be what it feels like to be God, getting all these prayers and petitions and praises.
They make him feel unclean.
When Anna sees she’s getting nowhere, she turns ugly. She curses Eltinge. She threatens to sue. She accuses him of having turned William against the family and taken advantage of him while he was sick.
“He wasn’t like you,” she says. “William had a family that loved him.”
Eltinge thinks: This is the other shit God has to deal with--the curses. Not uncommonly paired with or interspersed with pleadings and sometimes threats.
He feels sorry for God. He pulls down the blinds.
In some ways, Anna is right. William hadn’t been like Eltinge. Had their roles been reversed, William would have grieved more for Eltinge than Eltinge felt capable of grieving for him.
But one thing for sure: William wouldn’t have wanted to give his sister a dime.
* * *
What is it with you people? Eltinge DM’d Betsy.
The pause lasts too long. He’s insulted Betsy.
He writes, How do you sustain your fantasies in the face of all this shit, pardon my French?
Betsy has made clear she doesn’t appreciate strong language, but in a tone so gentle that her equanimity only makes him hate her.
Let me see if I can satisfy your curiosity, she finally writes.
Curiosity is far too mild a word for Eltinge’s outrage.
She writes, Look out your window.
Eltinge freezes, afraid of what might be there. As if she or God (or the Imaginary Magical Sky Daddy) had sent something to punish him, visited on him yet another Biblical affliction. Locusts, this time?
Are you serious?
Eltinge carries his laptop to the front door and looks out.
OK, he types. I’m looking out the window.
Go out on the front porch.
What do you see?
Not a soul. Though there’s always a chance my sister-in-law comes back.
Betsy writes, The absence you’re seeing is love.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder kind of thing?
No, no, it’s a collective act of will. Of mercy. I’m not one of those people who think the virus was God’s gift or punishment. But this act of will and mercy is. It reflects softened hearts. Hearts softened by God’s word. We’re all looking out for one another by not going outside.
Fear is what softened those hearts, Eltinge thinks but he can’t bring himself to type the words.
I’m pulling punches, he thinks. What’s wrong with me? I’m losing my edge.
He thinks, If I wrote a check to Anna right now--no, not a check, he doesn’t want her to know it was him, he doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction, or think he is feeling guilty or forgiving, which he isn’t, and he certainly doesn’t want her to have his bank account number from the check’s bottom--but if he sends her a wire or dares to go out to scrub down an ATM and extract a wad of cash and leave it on her stoop, will Anna take it as God’s mercy or intercession? He desperately doesn’t want to prove her right. Or Betsy right. He doesn’t want to give them evidence against him. He doesn’t want to betray William or admit somehow that Eltinge doesn’t believe he deserves what he’s got.
He turns to the sky, shakes his fist, and demands guidance, and it feels good, even though he knows there’s no one there to tell him what to do.
Scott Pomfret is author of Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir; Hot Sauce: A Novel; the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails, and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Gertrude, Ecotone, The Short Story (UK), Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott writes from his tiny Boston apartment and even tinier Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of twenty years. He is currently at work on a queer Know-Nothing novel set in antebellum New Orleans. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.