Right Back Where We Started, in this excerpt from Joseph F. Kelly's novel. Ex-coma guy Bobby Darling has a lot of catching up to do, to understand what went wrong. But Anthony avoids directly addressing the most the difficult subject of all: what became of all of their friends?
The list of names and years tumbles out with only a few interruptions from Bobby. Usually just a "Wow," or "Huh," or a "Is that right?" But sometimes, just a couple words from Bobby suffice to confirm he knows whom I'm referring to. Often I need to confirm for him whether more recent information has provided a clue to their gay or not gay status. Bobby is more animated than I've seen him in a very, very long time.
John Wayne, Alfred Hitchcock, David Janssen, Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers, Mae West, William Holden, Natalie Wood, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Fonda, Grace Kelly, Paul Lynde, Jack Webb, William Demarest, Carolyn Jones, Richard Basehart, Richard Burton, Marvin Gaye, James Mason, Yul Brynner, Rock Hudson ...
I hesitate for a moment there and am about to talk about Rock, but I keep charging on listing the names and listening to Bobby's memories.
Phil Silvers, Orson Welles, Desi Arnaz, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Ted Knight, Donna Reed, Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger, Jackie Gleason, Lorne Greene, Liberace, Lee Marvin, Andy Gibb ...
Bobby stops short before commenting. He has been in a really great mood during this recitation. But something just hit him. I don't know what. As I proceed through more of the names, Bobby doesn't say anything. He seems to be stuck, with his eyes staring past me out the window. I continue with the names without any comments from Bobby.
Jim Backus, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Alan Hale, Rex Harrison, Jim Henson, Mary Martin, Barbara Stanwyck, Bert Convy, Redd Foxx, George Gobel, Nancy Kulp, Michael Landon, Fred MacMurray, Freddie Mercury ...
Bobby looks me in the eyes when I say Freddie Mercury. But he doesn't stop me. Maybe it's so oddly close to Fred MacMurray? I don't know.
Danny Thomas, Anthony Perkins, Robert Reed, Dick York ...
I stop there and ask Bobby if he's okay. I was sure he would make a comment about Darrin on Bewitched, and ask me to recall which Darrin came first, Dick York or Dick Sargent. But I'm almost glad he doesn't stop me given the other names I just read, Tony Perkins and Robert Reed, and how they died. So I continue.
Bill Bixby, Raymond Burr, Fred Gwynne, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Frank Zappa ...
This is driving me nuts. "Bobby? Aren't you going to comment at all on these names?"
He just shakes his head slightly.
"Should I continue on?"
"Yes," he says.
Burt Lancaster, George Peppard, Cesar Romero, Dick Sargent ...
I stop and comment, "That's two Darrins down." But no reply from Bobby, who sits back in his chair and gazes out the window again.
Telly Savalas, Dinah Shore, Jerry Garcia, Gale Gordon, Burl Ives, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Montgomery ...
"There goes Samantha," I say. "That's it for the Bewitched cast. Though I'm not sure about the fellow who played Larry Tate."
Still no change of Bobby's dour mood.
Morey Amsterdam, Ted Bessell, George Burns, Gene Kelly, McLean Stevenson, Tiny Tim, John Denver, Brian Keith, Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Red Skelton, Jimmy Stewart ...
"That pretty much brings us up to date," I say. "Sinatra died this past May. But that's all the names I have collected."
Still no response from Bobby.
"Of all the names," I say. "The one that bothers me the most is Ted Bessell. You remember him? He was Marlo Thomas' boyfriend on That Girl. And he also showed up as a boyfriend of Mary Tyler Moore in the last season of her show. I do not recall him dying. I must have completely put that out of my mind. That still surprises me when I see that name. I can't believe he's dead. What name surprises you the most?"
"Where are your records?" Bobby asks.
"Your records. Your albums? Your music."
"Oh. I'm sorry. I misunderstood you. We have CDs. Compact discs. I replaced some of my old albums with CDs. Much easier to store..."
"Where are they?"
We get up from our chairs and head into my bedroom where I show Bobby to my stereo and CD collection.
"Can I look through these?" he asks me.
"Yes, of course."
"Can you show me how to use it?"
I demonstrate how to open and insert and close the CD tray with the remote control and how to shift through the songs. I have a 100-CD changer, so that allows me to load up the player with multi-discs. I show Bobby how to use it.
"Thanks. I can manage," Bobby says as he intently moves his fingers and his eyes over the CD cases, examining the names of the artists and the titles.
"Do you need any help? Anything you have in mind especially?"
Okay. So I leave him there. In my bedroom. I go to the kitchen to fix us some lunch. It's not very long. Maybe ten minutes. That's when I hear the sounds and the words come streaming out of the room...
"For so long. You and me been finding each other for so long. And the feeling that I feel for you is more than strong, girl. Take it from me. If you give a little more than you're asking for your love will turn the key."
"You got me looking at that heaven in your eyes. I was chasing your direction. I was telling you no lies. And I was loving you. When the words are said, baby, I lose my head. And in a world of people, there's only you and I. There ain't nothing come between us in the end."
He replays the CD over and over, picking out his favorite songs and replaying them. Learning the words of songs he probably never heard before -- those that came out after he went into his big sleep. But perhaps he can recall hearing them played. At the hospital, or at the hospice. I can't stand to be away from Bobby anymore, so I intrude into the room. My room. He is crying, and he is singing at the same time, holding the CD case and rocking back and forth on the floor, the back of his head beating against the bed. He sees me, but he doesn't seem ashamed.
"What the hell happened to him?" Bobby cries. "He had only just made it big. And his brothers were so popular and famous, but HIS songs were Number One. He was so young. What could have happened to him?"
"I think it was too much cocaine, Bobby."
"Oh Jeez. What the fuck? What happened to him?"
"He had those first few hits, and they were huge. Some of the biggest hits ever. Then he really faded out in the '80s. Had some publicity when he dated Victoria Principal -- you might not remember her -- she played Pam on Dallas. But his real lady was the white powder. That got to be really huge in the '80s nationwide. Much bigger than when you were around. You missed that. I think that's what really killed him."
"I missed so much," Bobby cries.
I sit down beside him on the floor. I know he doesn't want to hold my hand, but I put it out there, next to his, on the off chance that he might take it with his hand, and squeeze it. I want to tell him more. I'm dying to tell him more. But I can't do it. Not in his condition.
"Andy Fucking Gibb," Bobby says. "Of all the people in the world, and all the time that I missed...why the hell is that?"
I think about what to say. Here's what I come up with.
"He's the one who was fresh in your mind, I suppose," I say softly. "He's the one around your age, your time. You both had just come into your lives. And he was beautiful."
And so were you, I want to say to Bobby. But I don't say it.
"I lost my life," Bobby says, "I was so happy, and ready to take it all on. I had so many friends. I threw everything away. Now, I'm old as shit. My body doesn't work. I've done nothing in my life. And where are all my friends?"
"Huh? Where are they, Anthony? Where did they go? Did they all move? Did they just abandon me? Why haven't you mentioned any of them?"
I can't even talk.
"What? Why aren't you answering me?" Bobby screams, as much as he can possibly scream.
I get up from the floor and stand over Bobby. I reach out my hands to lift him up. He won't take my hands.
"Get up," I say.
He still refuses.
"Get up. I'll help you up. And I'll tell you what's happened."
"Enough bullshit?" he says.
Yes. Enough bullshit. And he takes my hand. He almost pulls me down with him, but I pull his ass up off the floor and I support him around his waist.
I've let too much time go on now and kept the most significant information from him beyond all hope of getting him to ever trust me again. He's going to be so upset that I wasted so much of his time telling him about George Gobel and Ted Bessell and Bert Convy and people like that. People only I could possibly care about.
We sit down for lunch and I tell him what really happened to all of our friends. All of his friends. Action, Skylar, Little Stevie, Gustavo, Hunter, Cesar. Marco. And Rock Hudson. Liberace. Tony Perkins. Robert Reed. Rudolf Nureyev. Freddie Mercury. And about half this whole city.
After it's over Bobby goes back to his bedroom and closes the door. I clean up and put away the dishes. We had talked into the evening and into the night. It was almost the next morning by the time I could get to sleep. And though I listened, I couldn't hear a sound from my old bedroom -- the room next to mine.
Joseph F. Kelly is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina, where he has worked as an advocate for groundbreaking HIV/AIDS policies and legislation. This is an excerpt from his novel Right Back Where We Started, published in 2003 and available from Amazon.com.