Joel: Book Three ~ Back To Normal

Chapter Three

About eight o'clock Saturday evening, Manfred drove up the lane to the house. I noticed that he had a passenger with him but couldn't see who it was. Hildy came out of the house to greet him. The boys had heard the car coming and they came racing around the corner of the house to see who it was.

Manfred stepped out of the car and greeted Hildy with a kiss, which caused the twins and Chris to snicker. TJ ran up to Hildy and him and tried to join in their embrace. Manfred picked him up, gave him a big hug, positioned him on his hip and began walking around the car. As he did, the passenger door of the car opened and a tall and very thin young man stepped out.

"Hildy, this is my son, Horst. I just picked him up at the airport."

Hildy approached the young man and ignoring his outstretched hand, pulled him to her in one of her patented all embracing hugs. "It's so nice to finally meet you, Horst," she said as she released him. "Your father has bragged about you so much that I feel like I already know you. He didn't tell me you were so thin though. We'll have to fix that while you're here."

"I'm happy to meet you," Horst said. "Dad has told me a lot about you also."

"Oh, where are my manners? Horst, this is my employer, Crane Johnson. And these are my boys," she said and introduced the rest of the boys. "The one in your dad's arms is TJ. He's the baby of the family."

"I'm not a baby," TJ retorted.

"You'll always be my baby even when you're all grown up," she said taking TJ from Manfred and giving him a kiss before setting him down.

"Won't you all come in? I think it's about time for the boys' snack and I'm sure that Hildy has prepared enough to feed an army," I said pointing toward the front door.

"I'll make some coffee," Hildy said giving me a dirty look and took off for her kitchen. The rest of us followed her into the house. The boys were right on her heels at the mention of a snack.

The boys enjoyed their snack in the kitchen while the four adults had our coffee in the family room. Horst was a very intelligent individual but I couldn't get over how thin he was. He was nearly as tall as I am which would put him at about six feet. I judged his weight at no more than 130 lbs. I learned that he was a full professor at Northwestern University, teaching in the Kellogg School of Management. He earned his Doctorate from Harvard and had taken his current position shortly after he delivered his dissertation. I had to admit that he had excellent academic credentials.

The conversation eventually turned to the upcoming wedding, which occupied us until it was time to tuck the boys into bed. When I returned, Hildy was recounting all the things that she needed to do this week to be ready by Saturday.

"Hildy, why don't you take this week off? The boys and I can manage and if we can't, I'll see if Mrs. Fuentes will come in and help. You haven't had a vacation in nearly a year and you certainly deserve it," I said.

"Oh, I couldn't do that..." she started.

"Yes you can. I insist on it. Don't argue. I'm the boss - at least some of the time," I chuckled.

"Okay, but..."

"No buts. We can manage. You just take care of your wedding preparations. End of discussion," I said smiling.

After a while, Manfred decided that it was time for him and his son to head back to New Braunfels for the night saying that they would see Hildy in church in the morning. I walked with Horst to the car as Hildy and Manfred followed behind.

As I shook Horst's hand, he said quietly to me, "Dad said that he thought you might be gay." I started to interrupt but he continued, "I'd really like to talk to you sometime, if that's all right?"

"Yeah, I guess," I responded. "I have some foundation business that I have to take care of next week, but if you give me a call I'm sure I can make some time available."

I was a little mystified by Horst's request, but it really didn't occupy too much of my mind. I was more concerned about how we were going to get by without Hildy's help this coming week.

Hildy said goodnight and went to her apartment. I went to check on the boys to see if they were all sleeping. On my way, I grabbed the book that I had been trying to read for the past couple of weeks. The twins and Chris were fast asleep as were their dogs. I don't know what I expected when I opened TJ's bedroom door. He wasn't in his bed. I just assumed that he had gone to Joel's room. I closed his door, went down the hall and opened Joel's door. Joel was alone in his bed. I began to panic. He must be in my room then, I thought. When I opened my door and examined my bedroom, he wasn't there either. Now I was really beginning to panic. Rushing back to TJ's room I threw open the door and turned on the lights. As I hurried around the bed, I nearly stumble over him. He was asleep on the floor with Bandit curled up against his stomach and his arms were hugging his pet.

I nearly collapsed with relief. In fact, I did sit down on the bed to settle my nerves. Slowly I knelt down and gently picked up my youngest son. He didn't wake as I placed him back in his bed and tucked him in. Bandit looked up at me and then walked over to his doggy bed and after turning around a couple of time settled in for the rest of the night.

I picked up my book where I dropped it on the floor of my bedroom when I didn't find TJ. Reading was the farthest thing from my mind. I was so relieved after my missing kid scare that all I wanted to do was to go to bed.

As was usual for Sunday morning, it was my job to fix breakfast for the boys. I decided that I would fix oatmeal since we hadn't eaten it for a while, and besides, it was easy. It didn't test my culinary skills. I had just started to fix the toast when I heard three pair of bare feet hurrying down the stairs followed by the clicking of three dogs' nails on the hard wood.

"Hi, dad," Chris said as the three of them looked longingly at the pot on the stove. "What's for breakfast?"

"Good morning to you, too," I said. "Oatmeal, toast, fruit and juice, how's that?"

"I like oatmeal," Larry said. "Can we have brown sugar?"

"Of course, you can't eat oatmeal without brown sugar," I said giving them a group hug. "Now, go take your friends outside and then wake TJ and Joel."

"Okay, dad," Lenny said. "Come on Buster, let's go."

"Don't forget to wash your hands," I hollered after them.

It wasn't long before Joel and TJ were leading their dogs outside to be with the rest of the dogs. They weren't outside very long before everyone was back in wanting breakfast. I dipped up the bowls of oatmeal and put the platter of toast in the middle of the table. I had already place the bananas and raisins out for the boys to help themselves if they wanted to put them on their cereal.

We were nearly finishing breakfast when Hildy came in all dressed for church. She gave each of the boys a hug before taking off. The boys did take time out from eating their breakfasts to return Hildy's hug.

"Okay, guys," I said when they had finished eating. "I thought that we would go to the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch today. They have lots of wild animals that you can get close to. Do you think you might like that?"

"Yeah," TJ said. "Joey said his dad took him. He said it was fun"

"Go get your teeth brushed and get dressed. Also, see that your pets have fresh water and food before we leave. They can't go with us."

Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is located about half way between New Braunfels and San Antonio a few miles west of I-35. It only took us about thirty minutes to get to the refuge.

"Why do they call it Natural Bridge? I don't see any bridge," Joel asked.

"Did you see the sign back there that said Natural Bridge Caverns?" I asked

"Yeah," he said looking back down the road.

"Well, that's where the Natural Bridge is. Some day, maybe, I'll take you to see the caverns. It's really a wonderful sight, but the tour is a little long. It lasts over an hour and you're walking all the time. It's also like a steam bath, but not as hot. The humidity in the caverns is very high," I said.

"You mean it's like Carl's Cavern?" Chris asked. "We studied them in Geography class."

"I think you mean Carlsbad Caverns, but yes, it's sort of like that. It's just not as big," I said as we approached the entrance to the ranch.

I paid the entrance fee and everyone was given a small bag of animal feed with the instructions not to hand feed the animals. The man said to keep the windows rolled up on the van and only throw the feed out to the animals when they were well away from the vehicle. We were told we could spend as much time driving through the over three miles of roadway. Also, we were allowed to stop anywhere along the road to take pictures or just to watch the animals.

As we entered the ranch, we were immediately surrounded by ostriches. Evidently, they were conditioned to expect treats from the cars. They were very persistent, pecking at the windows hard enough that I thought the windows might crack. We drove on leaving the ostriches to pester the car that pulled in behind us.

For the next two hours, we slowly drove and stopped the van to watch a variety of animals. There were a couple different antelopes, some zebra, llamas, buffalo, a couple white rhinos and even Long Horn cattle. Some of the animals approached the van while others stayed clear of the roadway and weren't even tempted by the food that the boys offered from their quickly dwindling stash.

Circling back, we stopped at the visitors' center to take the walking tour and to get some refreshments. TJ was in awe of the giraffes. He couldn't get over how tall they were. That is, until we came upon the kangaroos. At least I thought it was a kangaroo until I saw the sign saying it was a Wallaby. It looked just like a small kangaroo. One of the mother wallabies had a baby in her pouch. All the boys thought that was the neatest thing. I explained that the baby was called a joey.

"That's funny. I'm gonna tell Joey," TJ laughed.

We decided to skip the petting zoo and go find somewhere to eat lunch. "Where do you want to eat?  We can get hamburgers, pizza, Chinese, Mexican, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Schlotzky's. Or we could stop at Luby's Cafeteria. What do you think?" I asked.

"Pizza!" came back the unanimous reply.

"Okay, I know where the Cici's is. Remember we went to one in San Antonio after a ballgame. It's all you can eat," I said.

I'm sure that the manager was pleased to see us leave after the mountain of regular and dessert pizzas that we consumed.

It was nearly 3:30 when we got back home. Manfred's car was in the driveway. The boys got out of the car and ran to let their dogs out of the dog run to play with them. I went into the house to put on some comfortable clothes and shoes. When I went out onto the patio, Hildy, Manfred and Horst were sitting under one of the umbrellas drinking ice tea.

"Crane, would you like some tea?" Hildy asked when she saw me. "Let me get you a glass."

"Thanks, I'll get it," I said turning back into the house to retrieve a glass. I set out some juice for the boys. I knew they would want something to drink when they saw us drinking our tea. Thankfully, Hildy had not sweetened the tea. She knew I hated sweet tea.

"Can I get something to drink?" TJ asked as he rounded the corner of the house with Bandit in tow.

"Sure, tell Joel there is juice on the kitchen counter. Have him pour you and your brothers a glass," I told him.

His brothers heard what I said. They took off yelling for Joel to hurry up. It wasn't long before they joined us on the patio with their glasses of juice. TJ came over to me and climbed up on my lap. Bandit curled up at my feet.

"You have a wonderful family," Horst said. "I envy you."

"You're right," I said giving TJ a squeeze. "These guys make my life worthwhile. I don't know what I'd do without them. What about you? Any family plans?"

"No, nothing on the horizon," he said with a note of sadness in his voice.

"It's hard for a single man to manage when he has to work. If it weren't for Hildy, I know I could never manage this crew," I said.

"Yeah," TJ chimed in, "Hildy's like my grandma. Isn't she, dad?"

"Yes, she is, son," I said looking at Hildy. I noticed that she dabbed at the corner of her eyes. "Look, I was going to put some chicken on the grill later. Would you all like to stick around and eat with the boys and me?"

"Manny and I have a meeting with Pastor Rollins later about the wedding and we're going to take him out to supper afterwards," Hildy said. "Horst was going to stay here until we got back..."

"You're more than welcome to stay and have supper with us, Horst. I know it won't be as good as what Hildy would fix, but the boys usually eat whatever I put on the table," I chuckled.

"Thank you, I accept," Horst said.

"Can we go swimming?" TJ asked as he finished his juice.

"I don't know why not. We have a couple of hours before I have to start supper. Go get changed and wait for me in the shallow end of the pool until I get there," I said lifting him down off my lap. "Horst, would you like to swim? I probably have a suit that you could wear. I have one with a drawstring."

"That's very kind of you, but no thanks," he replied. "I think I'll just sit here and enjoy the scenery. You have a fantastic view of the lake."

The boys were waiting for me when I returned to the patio. I ran to the pool, dived in and immediately was pounced upon by five laughing boys. We played and dunked each other for about an hour when I decided that I needed a rest. Joel had taken a couple time outs while we were playing but I could tell that he was regaining some of his former strength. He still had a ways to go but I couldn't help but feel good inside to see his progress.

I got out of the pool, dried off and went to a chaise lounge next to Horst. "Those guys can really wear a guy out," I said collapsing into the chair.

"They're wonderful. You are truly blessed," he said wistfully.

"Yes, yes I am," I said looking over my brood engaged in their boisterous play. "Never a day goes by when I don't count my blessing that they're my sons."

Horst was quiet for a couple of minutes before he spoke again, "Dad said he thought you were gay. I am. I'm still not out, but it won't be long before I have to tell my dad."

"Really? Why does he have to know if you don't want to tell him?" I asked.

"Because... Because, I'm dying," he said flatly.

"What? What do you mean you're dying?" I asked stunned. It's not every day that someone tells you they are dying.

"For all of my education, I have been incredibly stupid. Maybe I thought I was invincible and it couldn't happen to me, but it did. I have AIDS. Not just infected with HIV, but full blown AIDS," He said, his voice trailing off until I could barely hear the last.

"Horst, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say." I took his thin hand in mine and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I don't know much about it but I've heard there are some new drugs that they are using to help prevent the progression of the disease. AZT comes to mind. I'm sure that you know a lot more about the treatments than I do."

"Yes, I'm taking a cocktail of medicines. They are helping a little, but they don't always work for everyone. Unfortunately, I'm one of those. I suppose you wonder why I'm telling you this, right?" He asked.

"I am curious, I must admit," I answered.

"How does dad react to you? He thinks you're gay. Does he express any negative feelings toward you?"

"I have never detected any if he does harbor them towards me."

"I'm afraid to tell him first that I'm gay and second that I have AIDS," Horst said burying his face in his hands.

"Horst, I think your dad loves you very much. He'll probably be shocked when you inform him you're gay. It might take him a while to adjust to it. He might even be angry for a while. He'll probably blame himself for not being there for you when you were growing up because of being in the Air Force. I think I know him well enough to know that he will be devastated when he learns of your AIDS.

"When do you plan to tell him?"

"I don't know. Every time I think I've worked up the courage to tell him I chicken out. Now with dad and Hildy's wedding approaching, it just doesn't seem appropriate to do or say anything that might upset things."

"I see your point," I said. "I guess the timing is up to you. I don't think there will ever be a 'good' time to tell him. If you want my advice, and I know you haven't asked for it, I'd tell him as soon as possible."

"I suppose. I'll need to think about it, though," he mumbled.

"Well, if I might make a suggestion. Tell both Hildy and him together. Hildy will be a tower of strength for both of you. Now, I had better get the grill started or the boys will be threatening to eat the chicken raw."

I was able to hold their appetites in check by giving them some vegetable sticks to snack on until the chicken was done. I don't know why, but chicken fixed outside on a grill always tastes so much better than when fixed inside on a stove. The boys certainly seemed to enjoy it and so did Horst.

After supper, I made sure that the boys had their homework done since tomorrow was a school day. As each one finished they came to me and sat on my lap while I checked it over. Even Joel did this although he was getting a little big. I still enjoyed when he did. It probably won't be long before he starts to exert his independence and won't want to sit on my lap.

Later I fixed ice cream sundaes for everyone before sending them off to shower and get ready for bed. Even though TJ and Joel now had separate bedrooms, they still took their showers together. Joel still felt very protective of his little brother.

As I finished tucking the boys into bed and returned to the family room where Horst was sitting, I could see Manfred and Hildy driving up the driveway.

"Crane, will you stay with me while I tell my dad?" he asked, his eyes begging me to stay.

"This is a very personal matter, Horst. Do you really want a virtual stranger present?"

"Yes, I need all the support I can get to keep my courage up. Even though you know I have AIDS, your attitude toward me hasn't changed. You haven't shunned me like many people would," he said.

"You're still a human being who needs support, not some pariah. I'm certainly no expert on AIDS, but from what I've heard, neither my family nor I are in danger of being infected by you. I do think it would be best if news of your condition was not shared with the boys. They might not understand and more than likely one of them would probably tell someone. I presume that you're not comfortable with many people knowing of your condition," I said just as Hildy and Manfred walked in the back door.

"You're right," he said. "Hi, dad. How did the meeting with the pastor go?"

"Just great, son, we worked out some of the logistics of the proceedings. Pastor Rollins was a great help. It's been a long time since either Hildy or I have been through a wedding ceremony. Your mom and I were married 32 years ago last July. Did you enjoy yourself while we were gone?" Manfred asked.

"Yeah, I had a great time watching the boys. It amazes me how they can put away so much food," Horst said.

I could tell that he was beginning to get nervous. "Does anyone want coffee? It's decaf. I made it less than an hour ago so it should still be fresh. Hildy, would you come help me?" I asked.

When Hildy and I got to the kitchen, I whispered to her, "Horst is going to need your support. Please don't react to what he's going to tell his father."

Hildy gave me a strange look but shook her head in acknowledgement.

"Here we go," Hildy said as she set the tray with the coffee cups down on the end table.

I followed and placed the coffee pot on the tray. Hildy began pouring the four cups while the rest of us watched. She handed Manfred and me a cup, then turned to Horst and inquired how he took his. When he indicated that he drank his coffee black she handed him his cup.

"Dad... I... Ah... That is, I have something that I need to tell you," Horst started. "I don't really know how to begin. This is very hard for me. I've never wanted to disappoint you..."

"You never have, son," Manfred said. "I'm very proud of you and what you've accomplished."

"Thanks, dad, I hope you feel the same way when I tell you... I'm gay."

There was silence in the room for what seemed like forever. In reality, it was less than ten seconds before Manfred spoke, "I wondered when you would decide to tell me. Do you think I didn't know you well enough to guess. Your mother and I had talked about the possibility before she died. She loved you. I love you and that's not going to change. You're still my son. You're the same person who has brought joy to my heart for almost thirty years."

Manfred stood up and walked over to his son, reached down, lifted him up and gave him a hug. Tears flowed down both his and Horst's cheeks. They stood like that for nearly a minute before Manfred pulled Horst down on the couch beside him.

"Thanks, dad, I was so afraid to tell you. I thought I was disappointing you. But... There's something else that I have to tell you. It's even harder. I'm going to... to die. Not right now, but probably within eighteen months."

"Oh, my God," Manfred said the blood draining from his face. "But why? That can't be."

"I'm afraid it's true. I did some really stupid things and now I'm going to pay for my stupidity. You see, dad, I have AIDS. There's no cure and the meds that I'm taking are not working very well."

"No! No! No! It just can't be," Manfred cried, throwing his arms around his son and drawing him close.

"Please, dad, there's nothing to be done. I've reconciled myself to my fate. I can't say that it is a pleasant thing to contemplate one's own death. I'm leaving my position at the university at the end of the semester and going on disability leave. I've made arrangements with an AIDS hospice in Chicago to take me when I can no longer care for myself."

"No, you'll come live with me. I can take care of you," Manfred said.

"No, dad, I want it this way. My friends are all in Chicago. I would only be in the way here and besides the hospice can make my last days as comfortable as possible. My partner is there to help, also."


"Frank, my roommate as you know him. He is also my partner, my lover, my husband."

"Well, if I can't look after you, at least you'll have someone there who cares for you. I hope you won't mind if I come to see you often?"

"No, dad, you're welcome to come visit anytime. I'd like that," Horst said reaching for a tissue to wipe his tears.

All this time neither Hildy nor I had said anything. I watched her face for any indication of what was going on in her mind. She never changed expressions, but a tear did trickle down her cheek.

"Come, son, we need to talk," Manfred said as he got up from the couch. Walking over to Hildy, leaned down and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I'll see you tomorrow evening. If you need me before that you can beep me."

Hildy stood up and went to Horst where she wrapped her arms around him and guided his head to her shoulder. She held him for a long time not saying anything. As she released him from her embrace, she gave him a kiss on the cheek and then led him toward the door with her arm still around him.

I stayed in the house while Hildy said goodbye to them. When she walked back in the front door, the tears were streaming down her cheeks. I went to her and held her in my arms just letting her sob. After awhile she pulled away, took a handkerchief from her pocket, dried her eyes and blew her nose.

"Thanks, Crane, I feel so helpless," she said. "This is going to take some getting used to. I think Horst was more scared of telling his dad that he is gay than he is of his own death."

"Yes, I'm sure he was. He loves his dad very much and didn't want him to be disappointed in him," I said.

Sleep was elusive when I went to bed. I couldn't put the events of the day out of my mind. The alarm was an unwelcome intruder when it went off early Monday morning. I showered, dressed and headed for the kitchen to get started on the boys' breakfast. Hildy was sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee when I entered the kitchen.

"I couldn't sleep," she said answering my unasked question. "I thought I might as well fix the boys' breakfast since it is too early to do any of the things I have planned for the day."

"Okay, but I want you to promise that you'll focus on what you need to do first and let us fend for ourselves. We'll manage," I said.

"I know you will. It's just hard for me to admit it to myself," she said and took my hand as I passed by to pour myself a cup of coffee.

Rousting the boys out of bed, getting their breakfasts eaten, rushing to get them dressed for school and down to the road to be picked up by the van was the usual circus. I sometimes wonder how we get it all done. A quick group hug as the van drives up, a wave goodbye, and my angels are gone for the day.

When I got to the foundation's office, Darcie was there talking on the phone. She had a scowl on her face as she listened to whoever was on the other end.

"I'll get back to you," she said as she hung up the phone.

"What's up?" I asked.

"I think we have a problem with one of the recipients of our help," she said as she sat down in my office. "Remember Bruce Collinsworthy? Everything looked good when we did the preliminary investigation. We originally thought that he would only need help to pay the legal fees to adopt the eight year-old boy he met in Big Brothers. As you know, we ended up authorizing a monthly stipend as well.

"That was Jack on the phone. He has some more information to give us. He's bringing it right over. He should be here in about twenty minutes."