Pairings/Characters: Joanne (DeSoto) Anderson, Roy/Johnny, Hank/Louise, Evelyn DeSoto, Gerry Elbridge, Joe Carson, Ruth Gage
Genres: Angst, Drama
Warnings: Major character deaths
Summary: Joanne may no longer be Roy’s wife, but she still dreads the day when the official Fire Department car pulls up in front of her house with the news that every firefighter’s family fears.
Date Of Completion: July 15, 2010
Date Of Posting: July 16, 2010
Disclaimer: I don’t own ‘em, Universal does, more’s the pity.
Word Count: 3840
Feedback welcome and appreciated.
Fear to tread.
I surveyed my neat-as-a-pin, ultra-modern living room with satisfaction as I came up from the basement. Decorated in shades of avocado and peach, it contained Danish Modern furniture and a state-of-the-art television and stereo. . The sunburst clock over the fireplace was the latest design. The bay window overlooked a wide, green front lawn bordered by maple and oak trees in this upscale neighborhood.
The weekly cleaning service had been here yesterday, and I’d just finished my last load of laundry for the day, so it was time to treat myself. I turned on the TV on my way to the kitchen to get a snack. The $10,000 Pyramid would be on in a few minutes, and it was nice way to relax while enjoying some coffee and a blueberry muffin.
The kitchen was big and sunny, and I put on a pot of coffee. The muffins were freshly-baked from yesterday. I was enjoying my leisure time with the kids still in school and the committees and boards I planned to be on not starting up until the fall. I had a whole summer to play Lady of the Manor, and interview prospective housekeepers. The bulk of the cleaning would be done by the service, leaving light day-to-day chores, so the housekeeper would be chiefly a cook and nanny for my kids.
It was a wonderful luxury, having enough money to consider hiring a housekeeper. Back when I’d been married to Roy, it was always tight in the budget. Firemen didn’t make much money, and they were expected to put their lives on the line more often than their families would like. Our old house was about half the size of this one.
As I cut the muffin in half and buttered it while the coffee percolated, I knew those were two of the reasons he and I had split up after eight years of marriage and two kids. Finances and the fear made a good combination.
But then, we’d been drifting apart for the past few years. Maybe even earlier than that. And part of me must have known, deep down, that Roy was falling in love with his partner.
When the coffee was ready I poured out a cup. I’d been incredibly lucky to have found a man like Brad, who’d swept me off my feet after we’d met at a party. He loved my kids and they loved him, not without some resistance at first, but we’d gotten through it. They were naturally loyal to Roy.
And their Uncle Johnny.
I smiled to myself. This decade was seeing a lot of social change, and the Women’s Liberation Movement was making big news, which concerned me for obvious reasons. The other big movement, Gay Lib, had never interested me that much. I thought it was pretty radical and out there, and I didn’t know any homosexuals. Or so I’d thought.
Now I follow everything I can about it. I know the Gay Pride parades are wild and show off the flamboyant gays, but there are plenty of them working steady, reliable jobs and quietly living their lives…like Roy and Johnny.
I brought the coffee and muffin into the living room and settled down on the couch in front of the TV. I wasn’t shocked when Roy told me that he was in love with his partner. Surprised, not shocked. I think part of me already knew. And Roy assured me that he’d never acted on his feelings until our marriage was over. I believed him. My Roy wasn’t a liar.
It was probably easier to take since I’d been friends with Johnny for years. His engaging, exuberant behavior was always welcome, and he cared deeply about me and the kids in addition to Roy. He’d been part of the family even before he and Roy had become lovers. I knew Johnny, and I knew that he’d be good to Roy, just as Roy would be good to him.
I was proud, actually, that Roy let me in on his secret. He trusted me, and how many exes can say that about each other?
I sipped my coffee, watching the end credits roll to Password. I was really happy for Roy. He’d found love with Johnny, just as I’d done with Brad, and our lives had worked out for the better.
I had a new set of friends and social circle, but couldn’t help but miss the old sorority of firefighters’ wives. I’d spent eight years in that sorority and liked the feeling of belonging and support. And I really wasn’t completely cut off. Just last month there had been a funeral for one of the men from 36s and I’d been called by Louise Stanley to help out. I was more than happy to do it. I was touched that she’d called. After all, I was no longer a firefighter’s wife, but I knew the drill and they respected me for the time I’d spent with them.
The blueberry muffin was good, if I said so myself. The blueberries were just the right amount of tart, and the light dusting of sugar on top helped sweeten things. Roy had always loved homemade muffins.
Of course no one but me knew about Roy and Johnny’s relationship. Or at least, no one else ever spoke of it. I had my suspicions about the men of Station 51. Some of them probably knew, and were keeping it quiet. Well, they’d never hear Roy’s secret from me.
“Breaking news! A fire at an abandoned hotel in the older area of downtown Los Angeles is raging. Several fire trucks are already on the scene.”
My heart jumped. I tried to read the numbers on the trucks but they were too far away from the camera. Maybe 51 wasn’t involved at all. Plenty of other stations out there.
Of course I was concerned about Roy. I still loved the big lug! Not in the way of a wife for a husband anymore, but he was a dear friend, and so was Johnny. I didn’t want anything to happen to them or the other men of A-Shift, or of any other station, either.
The TV reporter was a black man in a brown suit with wide lapels and a wide multicolored tie over a white shirt. He wore muttonchop sideburns and a full mustache. His expression was professionally solemn as he talked.
“The firefighters are doing a sweep of the building, as homeless people often camp out in these old, abandoned structures.” The reporter flinched slightly as a huge explosion shook the camera. Cinders and sparks fell from the geyser of flames at the top of the hotel. I gripped the arm of the couch. “More stations are being called out. This appears to be a long haul ahead for the firemen.”
My other hand clenched into a fist as I watched the black smoke billowing out of the building. The old sick feeling took hold in my stomach. What if Roy was in that inferno? And Johnny? Or were they relatively safe treating victims outside the building? And even if they were, the other men of 51 would be in there.
I took a shaky sip of coffee. I’d fooled myself into believing that once I’d divorced Roy, I wouldn’t have to worry anymore, or at least to this extent. Amazing what the mind does when it wants to deny the truth.
I kept my eyes on the screen, straining to see if a captain was Hank Stanley or not. Maybe 51 was called but it wasn’t A-Shift.
Images from the firefighter’s funeral I’d attended last month swam before my eyes. The funerals were very well-coordinated with the Fire Department traditions mingling with the deceased’s religious practices. Men showed up in their dress uniforms, somber and quiet, knowing that someday they could be in that casket after a fire or rescue gone wrong. The police and fire departments were set up as nearly paramilitary organizations with their ranks and codes and traditions. The Brotherhood would come together for a fallen firefighter, no matter what.
And would they do so for Roy and Johnny if they knew they were sleeping together?
I shook my head. This was stupid. Roy and Johnny were fine! They probably weren’t even at the fire.
“The fire is currently raging through the upper half of the hotel. The last explosion collapsed the top floors, and three firefighters are missing.”
My nerves screamed, but I forced myself to calmly take a sip of coffee. Firefighters were missing all the time during fires, especially big ones. They got turned around in smoke-filled corridors or became groggy if they’d been flung against a wall during an explosion or their handi-talkie cut out. Usually they got back into contact or their comrades found them.
These firefighters would be found, too.
Reports continued to filter out but no one knew the names of the missing men. They wouldn’t release those names during the course of a fire, and if they were…well, the families would be notified first. So I wouldn’t find out who was missing anymore than the general public would.
Besides, you’re not Roy’s wife anymore. They won’t automatically notify you. But then, he’s the father of my children. Shouldn’t they?
Shouting men ran behind the reporter, dragging hoses and strapping on fresh air tanks. Despite the appearance of chaos, I knew that things were well-coordinated. The captains were keeping in touch with each other and the men were keeping in touch with the captains. There would be mix-ups and lost communications but considering the scope of the emergency, they would do a fine job.
“We will return with updates throughout the morning.”
The $10,000 Pyramid was shown already in progress and I leaned back on the couch, exhausted. Maybe it was a good thing that the fire coverage had ended for now. My nerves were all in a knot. And I still had no idea if the boys were on the scene or not.
I stared at the TV screen but didn’t absorb a single minute of the game show, eating and drinking mechanically. There were no further updates.
I kept the TV on as I went into the kitchen to rinse out my mug and plate. The Dating Game came on and I worked at the dining room table, updating minutes for the last PTA meeting. I was secretary this year.
Just as it was getting close to lunchtime and I wondered if I could eat at all, the reporter’s voice was back on the screen.
“The fire is essentially contained. One of the three missing firefighters was found alive but injured and is being taken to Rampart General Hospital. Two firefighters are reported dead, but no names will be released until their families have been notified.”
Johnny never spoke about his family except for an Aunt Ruth who lived up the coast in Oregon. His mother was dead and his father was a subject best left alone, according to Roy.
This was silly! Just because two firefighters were dead didn’t mean it was Roy and Johnny! I ached for the two men’s families but had to believe that my friends were safe. I wouldn’t get any notification, anyway. I was Roy’s ex-wife. But his children would need to know. They’d go to Evelyn’s house. Roy’s mother was his next-of-kin now first on the list.
Everything was going to be just fine. I really should make some lunch and quit worrying. Roy and Johnny have come through more fires than I care to count. They’re just fine.
It was then that the sleek black sedan pulled up outside my house and the man in a Fire Department dress uniform got out from behind the wheel, another man dressed the same coming out from the passenger side.
Oh, no, oh, no, please God, no!
The TV was showing a soap opera and I numbly watched as the two men strode up the walkway and the driver rang the doorbell.
Please, no, God.
I shut off the TV and walked woodenly toward the door and opened it. “Yes?” I asked, amazingly calm.
“May we come in, Mrs. DeSoto?”
My vision swam for a moment. I didn’t bother to correct him. Using my former married name…I knew why he was here.
They both had their hats in hand. The driver was an older man of about fifty, with brown hair and eyes, a bit stocky but still in good shape. How many of these visits had he made in his career? The younger man was sandy-haired, slender, and a trifle nervous. Rookie, probably.
“I’m Captain Elbridge and this is Lieutenant Carson,” said the driver. I nodded numbly. “Ma’am…”
“Just tell me, Captain.”
He nodded. “Mrs. DeSoto, Roy didn’t make it out of the hotel fire downtown today.” His voice was gentle but steady.
“I…” Taking a deep breath, I finished. “Thank you for telling me, Captain.”
He nodded slowly. “Of course the Department will be at your disposal for the arrangements, ma’am.”
“Yes…I expect I’ll be getting a call from Louise Stanley soon.”
“You’ve notified Evelyn DeSoto?”
“Someone is there right now.”
I nodded. Evelyn would be the primary contact with the Fire Department. I would defer to her wishes. I no longer had any rights to push anything for Roy’s funeral.
“Would you like to sit down?” Elbridge asked.
I shook my head. I felt strangely calm and no longer lightheaded.
For a minute I stared out the bay window, then looked at Elbridge again. “What about Johnny Gage?” He looked a bit puzzled. “Roy’s partner? Is he all right?” A tiny flicker of hope burned in my breast.
Elbridge’s eyes flickered. “Sorry, ma’am. John Gage was found with your ex-husband.”
Well, not much of a surprise there, eh, boys?
I nodded slowly as the tiny flicker went out. “Thank you, Captain, Lieutenant. I appreciate you coming to tell me.”
They both nodded and Elbridge asked, “Do you need anything, ma’am?”
I shook my head. I saw them out and watched them walk back to their car.
Oh, Johnny, not you, too.
All I could see in my mind’s eye was Roy, smiling and happy, pulling Johnny into a kiss. I’d been privileged to see their love for each other expressed physically, and it had been a pleasure. Two delicious men kissing? What wasn’t to like?
The phone rang in the kitchen. I didn’t remember walking toward it. “Hello?”
It was Evelyn’s anguished voice.
“I’m so sorry, Evelyn.”
Tears were in her voice but she was calm. Roy’s mother had always been a strong woman. “We…can you come over tomorrow morning? We need to make arrangements.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you want me to come over when you tell Chris and Jenny?”
My stomach lurched. The kids! “Yes, please.”
“I’ll be right there.”
I hung up the phone, staring out the kitchen window. It rang again. “Hello?”
“Joanne, it’s Louise. I’m so sorry.”
“I called Evelyn. We’ll be meeting at her house tomorrow for the arrangements.”
“I know. I’ll be there.”
“He was the best, Jo. Johnny, too.”
After I hung up, I went back to the living room and sat down on the couch, waiting for Evelyn so that I wouldn’t be alone when I told my kids that their father and favorite uncle were gone.
Funerals really are for then living and not the dead. It’s an old cliché, but then, that’s why they’re clichés, because they’re often true. I was grateful to be involved in the planning of Roy’s funeral. It was Johnny’s funeral, too. He had no family to speak of except his Aunt Ruth, who had called me. She was coming down to L.A. but said she was perfectly fine with joint arrangements.
“I…I know you must have a family plot back in Montana you want Johnny buried in, Ms. Gage.”
“Ruth, please. And Johnny’s mother isn’t buried in Montana, but back home in Vermont. His father…he never cared much about Johnny except as a punching bag.” Ruth’s voice abruptly cut off. “The only family Johnny’s had for years is yours down there."
“Then…I think we should bury him with Roy.”
So it was a double funeral, and a shared headstone. Unusual, but it was known that Johnny had little family left, and Roy was divorced now. I’d be buried in Brad’s family plot, and so would the children unless they married and moved elsewhere. Roy would be buried next to his father, Johnny right next to him. Someday Evelyn would join them beside her husband.
It was the closest they’d get to recognition as a married couple, even though they weren’t allowed marriage and not many of us knew how much they loved each other.
The church service had been beautiful, simple but elegant, and all Roy and Johnny’s Fire Department comrades were there. The men of A-Shift of Station 51 (Hank, Chet, Marco, and Mike) had the places of honor after the family, which consisted of me, Chris, Jenny, Evelyn, and Ruth. Some cousins, aunts, and uncles of Roy’s had flown in, and old friends had shown up. Johnny had just Ruth and a few old friends from the reservation.
The pallbearers were the men from 51, split up between the two caskets, and interspersed with other firefighters. I recognized Craig Brice and Bob Bellingham, 51’s C-Shift’s paramedics.
The graveside service was muted and rang with the rifle salutes of the honor guard, the reports of the rifles echoing across the cemetery. The Reverend’s voice was almost droning as he spoke words meant to comfort, and an elderly Indian shaman from Johnny’s reservation had come, speaking in his native tongue for a few lines, then gently performing a short ritual with sistrum and eyes who had seen too much.
The headstone was simple, with the firefighter symbol on it, and Roy and Johnny’s names. ‘Beloved Partner And Friend’ was right for both of them. No one questioned this arrangement. They all understood about partners. I’d wanted the word to be included on the stone. Very few knew all the meanings of that word for Roy and Johnny.
“They were found together, Jo. They were holding on to each other when the roof and the upper floors collapsed on top of them. It’s the way they would have wanted it, I think.”
I remembered Hank Stanley’s words from yesterday. He had come to make a personal visit, as befit the Captain of his men, and their friends as well. I could see in his eyes that he knew about them. He was weary and grieving but knew that neither one would have wanted to be the lone survivor. It did seem fitting this way.
I couldn’t help but remember Roy’s excitement when Johnny was going to be awarded a citation for exceptional bravery in the performance of his duties, and Johnny shy and proud of his partner’s joy.
They’d always been close, so close, even before becoming lovers: a hand on a shoulder, a crooked grin, a pat on the back. Neither had minded the other getting into his personal space. They’d spent a lot of off-duty time together despite working all their shifts together.
The more I thought about it, the more I knew neither one of them would have wanted to be that lone survivor.
The folded-up flag from Roy’s coffin was given to Evelyn by a fresh-faced young firefighter in crisp dress uniform. My children would inherit it after she was gone. Johnny’s flag was given to Ruth, who gravely accepted it.
My son and daughter were pillars of strength. They’d both cried at the news. I had yet to cry. Maybe I never would. I felt so damned calm. Brad was beside me, lending his strength.
Hank had advised against viewing the bodies. The caskets were closed. I knew what that meant and agreed. I wanted to remember Roy and Johnny as their handsome, smiling selves, not as…
I pushed away those thoughts as the honor guard fired again, birds flying up from the trees. It was a beautiful day.
A small statue of a weary firefighter giving oxygen to his equally-weary partner was resting atop the headstone. His hand rested on his exhausted colleague’s shoulder.* It had been placed there by the men of 51.
After the service Ruth said quietly, “I’ll be sending this flag to the reservation. They will honor it there.”
I agreed. Johnny had been proud of his half-Indian heritage and would have liked that, I think.
I dug into the earth with my small spade. It was good, rich earth, and the flowers I was planting would take root. A cool breeze wafted over the cemetery.
Two small stone angels knelt at either end of the headstone. They were mirror images of each other, praying as their wings were folded. The firefighters’ statue was still there, beautifully handpainted and detailed from turnout coat to the smudges on each man’s face. The one bending down and giving oxygen to his kneeling partner was blond and blue-eyed, the other firefighter dark-haired and brown-eyed.
The angels had been my idea. The Fire Department had paid for the headstone, and I remembered teasing Roy and Johnny one day about being guardian angels in their role of firefighters.
“That’s right, Jo, cantcha just see the wings on our backs?” Johnny winked while Roy rolled his eyes but smiled.
“If Junior has a halo, I’ll eat my helmet.” Roy’s expression was pure affection when he looked at his lover. “’Course, he’s more of a fallen angel, anyway.”
“You oughtta know, Pally,” Johnny smirked as his eyes sparkled.
As I worked, tears ran down my face, the first time I’d cried since last month’s terrible day. I dug convulsively, deeper and deeper until I let the sobs come, washing over me, all my grief and pain welling up as I saw my boys’ smiling faces.
The day was sunny and cool, a rare gem for smoggy Los Angeles. At least the cemetery was far enough away from the city to enjoy clean air. The birds were sweetly trilling in the trees, signaling their enjoyment of the day, too. One flew out to swoop across the cobalt-blue sky, fat, white clouds forming a cottony backdrop.
Finally, I shakily wiped my eyes and started planting, pausing as I felt the breeze brush my cheeks, like a featherlight kiss. Or two? I looked up at the little statue and smiled, returning to my planting.
*The description of the firefighters' statue comes from the statue that resides at St. Charles Borremeo Catholic Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, honoring Thomas Spencer, a parishioner and one of the six Worcester firefighters who lost his life in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire on December 3, 1999.