Of all the animals we meet in Beautiful Animal, the story of Arlen Woods is one of my favorites but it was also the hardest to write and go back to. His chapter still haunts me. Especially when I open my wallet, but in a beautiful way. I thought I’d share Arlen’s chapter with you because he’s the kind of romantic hero we often forget about and just one of the many beautiful clients we meet as Darby follows Channing.
Featuring: “Thanks for the Memory” by Bob Hope
Channing didn’t throw himself into Arlen Woods’ arms as soon as he opened the door and there wasn’t the immediate, familiar intimacy —like a lover coming back to bed— that Darby was coming to expect with Channing and his clients. Arlen was a very small, elderly man and he was frail and bent and Darby didn’t hide his confusion when Channing introduced him to the older man. Darby’s eyes were wide and blinking and his brows shot up his forehead but Arlen didn’t seem to care or notice as he shuffled through the living room.
Channing drove them to a modest two-story colonial home almost an hour outside of the city. He parked in the driveway and he was absurdly out of place but he slid his hand in his pocket and whistled softly as he walked up the path and climbed the porch steps. An envelope was clothes pinned to the mailbox and Channing unclipped it and tucked it into his coat pocket before softly tapping on the door.
“Arlen?” He called as he pushed it open and leaned inside then nodded when the older man turned off the television and rose from his recliner. He needed a cane and Darby’s mouth opened and closed as he debated asking Channing and Arlen if they were completely sure this was appropriate. Then, he saw the hospital bed in the dining room and he raised his Leica as his feet carried him past the sofa. She was so, so tiny and her eyes were so far away. Her mouth was open and slack and there was a shiny spot of saliva at the corner as she dreamed. There was nothing to her, her body was jagged lumps beneath a faded quilt.
“That’s my Rosamund,” Arlen rasped and Darby turned to find him leaning on his cane and holding onto the door. The dining room table was pushed against the wall to make room for the bed and Arlen’s hand shook as he pointed at it. “She’s there,” he said and urged Darby to look at one of the framed pictures among the pill bottles on the table.
“This is her?” Darby asked. His voice wavered and he cleared his throat softly as he picked up one of the frames. Darby’s eyes stung and his nose burned as an energetic and dapper Arlen and his young bride posed on the porch of the house they were standing in. “Well, she’s stunning,” Darby said as he touched the glass. Rosamund was gorgeous with her victory rolls and polka-dot dress.
“She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed,” Arlen said. He was wearing a wool cardigan over his pajamas and his hair was still wet from his bath. Darby hummed thoughtfully as he picked up another picture of Rosamund. She was seated on the edge of a stage and she was laughing.
“If you had to pick just one…” Darby said then whistled appreciatively.
“She was in the chorus and I played the piano and they almost fired me because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the music. I asked her out every day for a month but she kept telling me she didn’t date musicians. So, I finally broke down and swore I’d never touch a piano again if she’d let me take her to the movies and maybe hold her hand.”
“That’s some Excalibur level shit, Arlen,” Darby said in awe and he heard Channing’s rumbling chuckle as he hovered behind Arlen. “What did she say?”
“She said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard and that I could pick her up at 7:00 p.m.,” Arlen recalled and Darby gasped as he turned to the bed.
“You just knocked him clean off his feet, didn’t you?” He asked her. She didn’t blink or move but he could see her now. He saw the laughing girl on the stage and had to clench his jaw and breathed very carefully so Arlen wouldn’t catch on behind him. Darby waited until he could trust his voice then smiled as he turned. “Is it ok if I take some pictures in here? I won’t take any of her face or your pictures…”
“Take pictures of her. She loved to have her picture taken and I know she’s hoping you will,” Arlen told him, knocking Darby clean off his feet. He nodded jerkily as he turned and his hands were shaking and tears rolled down his cheeks as he wound the film.
“Our tea should be just about ready,” Channing said softly and his hands hovered around Arlen protectively. He helped lead Arlen away and Darby set his hand on the bed and breathed through another tremor of sadness. Darby’s head fell to the side as he stepped closer to Rosamund and carefully brushed her hair away from her face. It was fine and white and fluttered softly with the mist from the humidifier on the bedside table. Darby curled it around her ear and used a tissue to wipe her lip then straightened the collar of her nightgown. The quilt was pulled up to her chest and he gave the edge a careful tug so there weren’t any wrinkles.
“There,” he whispered then held up the camera. “You look lovely, Rosamund.” The flash popped and he watched through the lens for any response but she was still. Darby watched her pupils and pressed the shutter button but there was nothing and it hurt in his chest. He almost touched the back of her hand but her skin was like crepe paper and he was afraid it would tear so he took a picture of the tiny wrinkles and the smudgy purple stains then the jagged lumps in the quilt. Darby focused on the roses on the other side of the bow window then looked at the pictures of Rosamund on the table and noted the roses. He had a feeling she was living in the dining room to make her care easier for Arlen and because of the roses. A single cut rose stood in a drinking glass on the bedside table and Darby smiled. “How about one for Arlen?” He asked as he tapped the water off the stem and broke it so he could slip the end behind her ear. He did his best to mimic a victory roll with her hair but it was too limp and thin so he settled for more of a swoop. He stepped back and considered then raised the camera and took the shot. “I won’t tell Arlen so it’ll be a surprise,” he said then turned when he heard a few soft notes from a piano. Darby followed it into the living room and around the stairs and past the kitchen. He found a small den and Arlen and Channing were at the piano with their tea cups.
“I thought you didn’t like Bob Hope,” Channing said and his fingers crawled over the keys and playfully hopped over Arlen’s so he could hit a higher key with his pinkie. Arlen shook his head as he gave him a teasing shove with his elbow.
“You know I hated George Burns. He stole a cab from me. He called me ‘kid’ and threw a nickel at me like I wanted to shine his shoes and then he stole my damn cab. I missed a job interview so I had to go into the Navy,” Arlen complained. Darby hung along the wall and moved in so he could get their tea cups and their hands on the keys. They talked and laughed in hushed tones and a bit of a song would drift from the piano every now and then. Channing was rapt as he sat next to Arlen and listened to his memories. He set his elbow on the piano and propped up his chin and Darby envied Arlen for a moment. He was the sole focus of Channing’s undivided attention and anyone would believe that he was utterly smitten and Arlen was the most fascinating man on the planet.
“I met Bob Hope when I was in the Navy,” Arlen said and Channing nodded.
“It was one of his USO tours and you got to meet him and he pissed you off,” he recalled. His eyes sparkled and his lips pulled at the corner as he watched Arlen. Channing gave every client his undivided attention, to the exclusion of everything else in the room, but he was a tamer, more soothing seductive with Arlen.
“They needed a piano player and I got volunteered and I was so damn excited and ready but he just ran his mouth and did his bit and he never even needed me. I was ready and praying that he’d tell me to play ‘Thanks for the Memory’ but I just sat there like a dummy for twenty minutes,” Arlen muttered. Channing shook his head and clicked his teeth.
“Absolutely unforgivable,” he said then tipped his head toward Arlen. “Would you play it for me?” He asked but Arlen shook his head.
“I don’t think my fingers or my voice are up to it,” he said.
“Then I’ll play for you,” Channing decided. Arlen clasped his hands together in delight then sat back so Channing could have the keyboard. The keys tinkled and Channing leaned toward Arlen. “Thanks for the memory of rainy afternoons, swingy Harlem tunes…”
“Motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes,” Arlen attempted but it was a faint rasp so Channing kissed him softly.
“How lovely it was,” Channing crooned smoothly then touched his forehead to Arlen’s. “Thanks for the memory.” He laughed softly and pecked at Arlen’s lips. Darby held onto the camera and held still because he didn’t want to interrupt them with the flash. He found it was hard to watch Channing go back in time with Arlen so he distracted himself by staring at the dust motes as they caught in the setting sun as it filtered in through the blinds and the pulled-out sofa bed. The bed was made and there were two pillows but the one by the end table with the pill bottles, Kleenex and another quietly whirring humidifier had a round divot in the middle while the other pillow was propped and waiting with a perfectly smooth pillowcase.
“I think I’d like to lay down for a bit,” Arlen told Channing, pulling Darby back to the piano. Channing laughed tenderly as he kissed his cheek.
“I think I would too.” He took a quick sip of his tea then swung his legs around the bench and stood. He gave the lapels of his coat a dashing tug then smoothed his sleeve before he offered Arlen his arm and helped him to his feet. Channing took Arlen’s tea cup then patiently strolled with him to the sofa bed. He helped him lower and sit then set Arlen’s cup on his end table. Channing dropped a kiss on Arlen’s forehead then shrugged out of his coat as he turned to Darby. “Not too many pictures of this, all right?” Channing said quietly as he draped his coat on the piano and Darby nodded as he backed away. Darby leaned against the wall by the door and braced himself as Channing eased off Arlen’s cardigan. He folded it and set it on the coffee table at the foot of the sofa bed then stood in front of Arlen as he slowly pulled off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt.
Darby took one picture. Arlen’s hands rested in his lap and his eyes were full and glowed as he stared up at Channing and watched him undress. Darby took a picture of Arlen as he went back in time and adored Channing with a younger man’s heart and eyes.
Channing took his time removing his shirt and trousers and set them next to the cardigan on the coffee table. It wasn’t a sultry strip-tease or particularly sensual. He was just a shockingly handsome man slowly undressing but the rise and fall of Arlen’s chest became more rapid as Channing stepped close. Arlen was old and frail again as Channing supported his arms so they could slide around his body and hold him. Then, Arlen shut his eyes and hummed drowsily and he was young as he rubbed his cheek against Channing’s stomach and breathed him in. Arlen kissed around his navel and nuzzled his semi-hard cock then sat back so Channing could help him to his pillow. Channing went around the bed and eased onto the quilt, facing Arlen, and scooted close, until their noses were touching. He took Arlen’s hand and guided it to his lips and kissed his fingers.
“You’d better not be thinking about the shoes,” Channing said and Arlen laughed as he cradled his face and kissed him. It was clearly an inside joke and Darby wanted to catch it with his camera but he knew it would be too intimate and hurt in the darkroom. He knew the whole roll would hurt but he made himself watch and suspend the moment with his eyes so it would hang in his head.
Channing guided Arlen’s hands to his erection and they murmured and teased each other until it was hard and straining. Channing waited until they were both restless and impatient then slid his hand into the front of Arlen’s pajama pants. Darby understood that this was how Arlen remembered sex with men. It was the hands in pants and hushed laughs and kisses of a close quarters rendezvous in a secluded corner of a battleship or the backseat of a car. It probably wasn’t as breathless and urgent as Arlen remembered but his breath turned into frantic hisses as he came and he gasped and giggled as Channing’s cum spilled over his fingers.
Then, Arlen was too tired to be young and he was heavier and drowsy as Channing discreetly cleaned the mess in his pajama pants then lovingly tucked the quilt around him. He took his time and sat on the edge of the bed as he dressed and Channing rambled quietly about baseball as Arlen drifted off to sleep. A nurse was coming in, just as they left.
“How’s your father feeling tonight?” She asked Channing and he grinned easily as he held the door for her.
“He’s sleeping in the den,” he said and she nodded and made small talk as she took off her coat and went to check on Rosamund. Channing wasn’t relaxed and he didn’t whistle as he walked to the car and Darby felt heavy as he lowered into the passenger seat.
“How?” Darby’s voice cracked and he had to turn his head away as the pressure built in his chest. He knew what the sob would sound like if he released it and Darby did his best to hold the door shut. He knew what he was afraid of and why it hurt but he mentally pressed both of his hands against the door and pushed back as hard as he could.
“His son found me,” Channing said and Darby’s head swung around.
“His son?” He wished he hadn’t asked and he knew Channing was struggling with his code and his grief as the muscle in his jaw twitched and his nostrils flared.
“Rosamund and Arlen made a pact,” he whispered and there was a pause as his chest shook. Channing checked the rear-view mirror and changed lanes and his cheeks puffed out before he continued. “I think most couples make a similar pact, in the event that something should happen to one of them. Rosamund knew it was taking her and she had a very honest talk with her son. He said…” Channing’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. “He said the only thing she was afraid of was leaving Arlen alone. She knew Arlen wouldn’t be able to hold up his end of the pact but she didn’t want him to be lonely. So, she told her son that if Arlen couldn’t date again, to do what he could to help him find some kind of comfort. Arlen’s son agreed but he didn’t bring it up or even think about it until he started to get scared. He saw Arlen slipping away from him too as his grief became steady and unrelenting. It’s all around him as he waits for the love of his life to die the slowest death imaginable.”
“But why did he pick you? Why a man?”
“He let Arlen pick. He gave him two numbers and told his father that it didn’t matter to him, as long as Arlen found something that helped.” His voice caught again and Darby nodded in agreement and used his sleeve to wipe his cheek.
“He chose a man because he didn’t want to replace Rosamund?” He guessed but Channing sighed.
“I think he chose me because he could connect to the young man who went into the Navy when he was nineteen, before he came back and lost his heart to Rosamund. He can keep her as the core of his emotional and sexual self and still find pleasure by connecting with his past and dwelling there for a bit. I think it helps him, feeling young again. He’s not the fading hopeless man I met, when I arrived for our first appointment,” he said and Darby nodded again. He didn’t take the pictures but his photographer’s eye catalogued the wet hair, the fresh pajamas, the crisp pillowcase and the tea cups that were definitely the “good china”. Arlen prepared for their date and it would have been the highlight of his week.
“What about Rosamund? Why didn’t they prepare for that?” Darby asked and Channing held up his hand.
“I don’t know and I’ve left it alone. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d cope with watching the man I love slowly die.” His hand remained in the air as he looked at Darby and their gazes clung for a moment before Channing looked back at the windshield. “I don’t know what the hell I’d do if I was in his shoes so I just do whatever I can to help. And I hope that she’s exactly where Arlen thinks she is, and that she’s young and waiting for him to join her,” he said then reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope then handed it to Darby. It was light and flat and Darby’s fingers were shaking as he looked inside.
“There’s only twenty dollars, Channing.”
“I know,” he whispered and Darby grabbed his hand and they cried for much of the drive back to the city.