A Holiday Story
By Pat Henshaw
In the immortal words of Professor Harold Hill, we’ve got trouble with a capital T right here in River City. Okay, not River City, but in Stoney Falls, an equally small town in the Rocky mountains of Colorado. And our trouble has nothing to do with pool.
Instead of a pool-playing, band instrument-selling, fast-talking flim-flam man, our trouble stemmed from the stream of gay software and app developers moving into the area and, as some of the old timers put it, taking over. As the Town Fathers saw it, a radical new element of liberals moving into town during the past year had been changing our peaceful, historic, God-fearing, family-values community into a hotbed of trouble and discord.
First the newcomers rallied to vote and elected a gay sheriff to the county, and then this same group of radicals shunned any established local business whose owners made homophobic jokes or slurs, even if they were made in good fun. It had gotten so bad that merely making a few anti-gay remarks in public got businesses black-balled by the new money crowd.
Their latest crime came in ousting the hell-fire and damnation regime of the First United Church pastor in favor of a lesbian.
My boyfriend Josh and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic to see the changes taking place. While some of the other changes impacted on our lives, when Reverend Cynthia Nighthorse, not only a woman but a Native American, was voted in, we didn’t think we’d be affected much. We’re both teachers at Stoney Falls High School, not church goers.
We didn’t count on my mother and her fondness for sticking her nose in our business. Mother loved both me and Josh. There was no question about that even though what she really wanted was for us to get married, not just buy a house together.
But when we took the jobs—me as English instructor and drama coach, him as math teacher and football coach—we hadn’t been prepared to come out as boyfriends. We liked the community and our jobs and didn’t want to push the envelope far enough to lose them. We’d both grown up in the town and wanted to stay put. With the purchase of the house, we had even more incentive not to rock the boat.
As we got closer to Christmas, I longed to talk to him about our relationship and find out what he was thinking. With finals on us as well as the winter play and the football championships, however, we had little time to see each other coming and going. Tonight we’d be hosting a special dinner. Then maybe after that we’d be able to take a breath, sit down, and decide who we are and where we want to go from here.
My mother loved our family’s Christmas Eve tradition of inviting those who would be spending the evening alone to eat dinner with us. The new reverend would be our guest this year.
Mom had been outraged when she found out the old establishment parishioners were hosting a sit-down dinner with the former pastor after he gave his last service in Stoney Falls. The two gray-haired deacons hosting the small affair had snubbed the new pastor and her girlfriend by saying that since this would be an evening to relive Reverend Marcus Lemay’s triumphs in Stoney Falls, they knew she’d wouldn’t be able to keep up with the conversation. They wanted to spare her embarrassment and boredom.
My mother was livid. The Sunday before Christmas Eve she called to inform me of her latest project.
“Quinn, Reverend Cynthia Nighthorse is coming to dinner at your house on Christmas Eve,” she announced.
“Uh, mom, since Josh and I are hosting, wouldn’t it have been better if we’d invited her?”
“Why? You haven’t had time what with the play and all. Oh, by the way, tell Josh that the Tigers were cheated. You should have won. Oh, yes, and Maggie down at Landon’s Market said your production of The King and I was the best she’s seen in years. Even Denver didn’t do it better. Now what was I talking about?”
“You’d invited someone to dinner?”
“Oh, yes. I just think it’s best if I keep up the guest list for Christmas Eve.”
“Guest list? What guest list?” Our family tradition was to sit down for a formal meal on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we invited guests, sometimes not. There was never a guest list per se. But she was right that I had had stacks of high school English composition term papers to grade not to mention the semester exams and Josh had too. “We’ve never had a guest list before.”
“Really? I wonder why not. Well, we do this year.”
“So who’s on this guest list?” I could tell from her tone there was no point in arguing.
“Let’s see. The Reverend, of course. Oh, and by the way, she’s donating chairs and tables for the meal. Josh is still making his turkey-fu, isn’t he?”
Big, tall, getting pudgy Josh with his hands like ham hocks loved to cook. He enjoyed the adventure of plunging into a new recipe and seeing what wild and crazy edible concoctions he could put together.
This year he’d decided on fixing something he called “Four Calling Birds” or turducken-hen. It consisted of a hard-boiled plover egg stuffed into a game hen, stuffed into a chicken, which was then stuffed into a duck, and the whole thing stuffed into a turkey. Today he was deboning the birds with a lot of loud swearing.
I wondered if the main course would be something we’d all want to eat, but mom was thrilled. We’d definitely have enough food for many more than the three of us.
“Yes, Josh’s getting the turducken-hen ready as we speak,” I reassured her. “So how many do you have on your guest list? Just the four of us?”
“Oh, honey, not really. I also invited the two lovely ladies who run the nursery. You know, the one where we bought the flocked tree a couple of years ago. And I think the pastor invited Peter, the man who plays guitar and banjo at the town’s frontier saloon. You remember him?” Before I could answer, she added, “Oh, yes, and Peter said he was bringing two women who live in the old hotel downtown. I think that’s all.”
She sounded so happy and confident that her guest list would be fine with me and Josh that I didn’t have the heart to yell at her. Considering that this week we’d moved into the farmhouse after having the kitchen remodeled and only had an apartment-sized dining table and four chairs, a futon couch, and no other places to sit, it was a good thing the new pastor had offered the tables and chairs.
“Oh, yes! Before I forget. They’re all bringing food too. So I think that’s all settled. Right?”
What could I say? I was relieved that the necessities were covered. Besides, Mom was a force of nature. As a single mother raising a son who’d disappointed his father by being born gay, she took charge and no prisoners. My father had been given his marching orders after my announcement and his rejection of me. Mom had given me a kiss and a hug, and life had gone on. Could I tell her the Reverend and the other guests weren’t welcome to Christmas Eve dinner? Nope. I couldn’t.
I waited until a break in the turkey-fu preparations to tell Josh about the added guests. As usual with a sudden change of plans, he was delighted. For someone whose parents had been killed in a car crash on a tiny mountain road, he was amazingly resilient and took change well.
“Great!” He was looking down at the four deboned birds, his hands a mess of bird fat and bits and pieces of entrails. “At least we won’t be eating this thing for the rest of our lives. You said they’re bringing chairs and food?”
“Yeah. Is that okay?”
“Perfect. Making this turkey thing is taking a lot more time than I planned. This way I can cut back on the other stuff I was going to prepare.” He looked up at me and smiled his thousand watt jock smile, the same one he gave the crowd when we were at Stoney Falls High School and he scored a touchdown. “By the way, I ran into your mom and the new pastor downtown the other day. She’s nice. I think you’ll like her. Now aren’t you glad we had the floors redone?”
We talked about the renovations for a few minutes, and how we were going to have to do some serious furniture shopping after Christmas. We’d been best friends since high school. I knew him better than anyone in the world, even my mother, except for one small, niggling detail. I didn’t know if we were really close friends with benefits or actual lovers. We’d never talked about our feelings. Josh wasn’t the type to get overly emotional, and I was reluctant to push it.
When we bought the house together, I’d thought the discussion about how we felt and whether we wanted to formalize our relationship would follow. It didn’t.
I was of two minds about telling Josh I loved him. I didn’t want to make trouble and force him to say anything I didn’t want to hear. If I said, “I love you and want to get married” and he didn’t love me that way, I’d be devastated. Every time I’d decided on a deadline, a firm date on which I was going to say something, I’d backed down and reconsidered. It was time I took a stand.
The morning of Christmas Eve dawned cold and crisp with a glimmering layer of new snow covering the old snow. The temperature hovered in the teens, so when Josh jumped out of bed ready to conquer the turducken-hen, I told him I’d stay out of his way and promptly pulled up the comforter and went back to sleep. Since Josh had told me the turkey-fu would take about seven hours to cook, I knew I had lots of time to rest.
When I got up, showered, and came downstairs, Josh looked exhausted, the turkey having given him a fight for its life.
“I put it in about an hour ago,” he said, slouching over the kitchen worktable. “We’re right on schedule to eat around six. When are you going to get the tables and chairs?”
He gave a huge yawn as I moved behind him and gave him a little backrub.
“Don’t,” he protested. “I’ll just fall asleep.”
“I know. I think you have a couple of hours for a nap before you start the other stuff you’re cooking. Remember, they’re bringing food too.”
He gave a huge sigh. “Yeah, but we don’t know what they’re bringing.”
“Why don’t you go upstairs and take a nap? I’ll go over to the rectory and pick up the tables and chairs, okay? I’ll ask what they’re bringing while I’m there.”
I could tell by the way his eyelids drooped that it was a plan.
I called the pastor, and she said to come right over. She said she was watching her predecessor, the Reverend Marcus, carry off as much as he could from the rectory. I would have expected her to be angry, but she sounded as if someone had told her the greatest joke in the world. I guess his petty attitude was funny in a way.
When I said I didn’t want to have to talk to the guy, she told me he was leaving in a few minutes and wouldn’t be back until after Christmas to pick up the last of his things. She laughed as she told me he was giving himself time to figure out where to put the rest of stuff he hadn’t already made off with. How she could be so tolerant of the self-righteous, homophobic phony was beyond me.
As I drove the six miles to the rectory, I thought again about Josh and me. Mother contended that no matter how big and brawny he was, Josh was really just a happy housewife in men’s clothing. She warned me that if I didn’t marry him soon, he’d find another man or, God-forbid, a woman, who would sweep him off his feet. What she said scared me. But still, I wasn’t sure if he would marry me if I asked.
Nevertheless, I had decided to bite the bullet on New Year’s Eve, and would find out once and for all how he felt. Worse came to worst, I’d be broken-hearted and looking for a high school English job somewhere far, far away where I could live a sad, lonely life trying to get over him.
I shook off my melodramatic thoughts and laughed as I drove my truck onto the driveway between the church and the rectory.
The First Union Church looked like the quintessential small town place of worship, with white clapboard sides and an appropriately tall crucifix-topped steeple with a bell that could be heard from miles around. The rectory stood modestly next to it like a frontier bride in a dusty old photo.
The rotund, smiling woman who met me at the door reeked of good will and happiness.
“Quinn? Can I call you Quinn? I’m Cynthia Nighthorse. You can call me Cynthia.”
She stuck out her hand, but I couldn’t move. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Peace and contentment rolled off of her and clouded around me.
She looked down at her outstretched hand then at me. As I went for her hand, she stretched out her arms and pulled me into a hug. If I didn’t already have a wonderful mother, I would have wanted this woman to adopt me. No wonder Josh liked her.
I thanked her for loaning us the tables and chairs, and reminded her what time we expected her and her guests at the farmhouse for dinner. While she told me what food she was bringing, we piled the tables and chairs into the truck. As I was about to leave, she stopped me.
“Do you have time for a chat?”
I quickly called Josh, who as usual was surprised I’d check in with him. He was the stay-out-late and explain-when-you-get-home type. I was the call-if-you’re-going-to-be-late person. It was one of those little adjustments we’d have to make now that we were in our own house and not going back and forth between apartments.
As I followed Cynthia into a back room of the rectory, I wondered what she wanted to talk about. If it was to get me to go to worship services, she was talking to the wrong guy. Organized religion and I had parted ways years ago. She and my mother seemed to be thick as thieves. So maybe the two of them had cooked something up. I didn’t want any part of what they were plotting, did I?
“I’m sorry Janet isn’t here to meet you. She’s a nurse in emergency and has to work tonight.” We got to her office and she gestured to one of the overstuffed chairs. “Oh, I should have asked if you wanted something to drink. Coffee perhaps?”
“No, I’m good.” Now I was even more wary. Offering drinks signaled the prelude to getting me involved in something at the church.
“You’re gay, right?” she asked as she seated herself across the coffee table and not the desk from me.
I sighed. What have you signed me up for now, Mom?
“Yes.” I left it there.
She nodded, then looked down at her hands. “May I ask you a personal question?” At my nod, she asked, “Did anyone ever talk to you about being gay?”
Oh, no. I couldn’t believe it. Not from her. Was she about to give me the come-to-Jesus talk? The quotes from the Bible? The self-righteousness of the clergy? Hadn’t we just bonded in some strange way? How could a lesbian pretend to talk someone out of being gay?
I started to rise. I had too much to do today for this.
“No, please. I need to know.”
I was now on my feet. I could get to Target before it closed and buy the damn card tables and chairs. We didn’t need her. I was shocked that Josh and my Mom thought this woman was good and that I’d been duped by her too.
“Oh, dear, maybe I phrased my question badly?” She put her hand on my arm and squeezed. “What I meant was, before you came out, did anyone at school talk to you about things like condoms and lube and safe sex? Anyone at all?”
What? I stopped and turned to her. “Why do you want to know? What difference does it make now?”
She held onto me like I was a lifesaver.
She sighed. “I’m guessing you weren’t very informed when you realized who you are. I want to start an LGBTQ group and a PFLAG chapter through the church to help area kids when they realize they’re gay. I was hoping I could talk you into being an advisor for one or both groups and help me find others to get the groups organized.”
What? It took me a moment to realize what she was asking. It was time for me to come out publicly. A sense of relief came first, followed by excitement. Damn my Mom. She knew exactly where to strike for me to follow her agenda. Hell, yes, I’d help put a group together through the school. Suddenly, I was ready to make as much trouble as my mother did in Stoney Falls.
When we sat down and she explained her ideas and asked if I knew anyone else in Stoney Falls who might help, I started spewing names of the other guys who’d come out. I was more than ready to join their ranks.
When I told her about each man, she was delighted. “Your mother said you’d be an asset, and she was right.”
Since she only wanted six people on the organizing committee, herself, Josh, and me included, I started telling her more about each person and even offered to introduce her to them next week. She was taking notes as I talked, the excitement building between us.
We’d forgotten all about the day and time when my phone rang.
“Where are you?” Fortunately, Josh never got angry or excessively worried, but he sounded worried now.
“At the rectory, talking to Cynthia. Why?”
He started laughing so hard that I had to smile. What had I done? We’d been talking about something important.
When he got himself together, he asked, “Did you forget what day this is?”
Oh, no. Sometimes I lose track of the hours and days. No wonder he was laughing.
“Oh, shit. Sorry. I’ll be back in a few minutes. The tables and chairs are already loaded. Sorry. Sorry.”
Now I was all but running to the front door with Cynthia following as best she could. I turned and she almost ran into me.
“Yes, thank you. I’d love to be on your committee. See you later tonight. I’ve got to run.”
“Sorry.” I said to Josh and gave him a kiss as I walked in carrying a couple of the chairs. “The time got away from me.”
Josh being Josh, he laughed. The turkey-fu had evidently gone better than he expected.
“Just like you said, the new pastor is a real troublemaker. Guess what she’s planning to do?” I didn’t give him time to answer but kept chattering. I stopped when he took the chairs from me, leaned them against the wall, and turned me around.
“Keep going, Quinn. You can talk while we unload the truck. I’m listening.”
By the time we got everything set up, we’d agreed that we’d both be on Cynthia’s LGBT committee. My mother who’d arrived with her two guests was nodding and listening.
“I knew I could count on both of you.” She turned to the two women next to her. “You remember Beth and Sandy. I think you said you had some gardening questions for them.”
While I talked to her nursery friends about plants and what we could do with the yard in the spring, I could hear Mom and Josh in the background discussing the turkey-fu and how much longer it should cook.
“Thank you for inviting us,” Cynthia gushed as she wiped her feet on the doormat. She gestured behind her. “You know Peter? And these are Mandy and Trisha.”
The women were tall, slender, absolutely gorgeous, and made up a little garishly with bouffant hairdos and false eyelashes. They walked in holding onto each other and daintily said their hellos. Then I learned why Peter didn’t talk much when he was on stage at the bar where Josh and I heard him play.
“Pl-pl-pleased to me-me-meet you,” he said swaying from foot to foot.
He looked so shy and uncomfortable, I just wanted to wrap him in a great big hug.
Cynthia jumped in then and clapped her hands. “Okay, we have food in the car that needs to be reheated. What else can we do?”
Suddenly, everyone was moving—the women and Peter back outside to unload the car. Peter, I noticed, also brought in guitar and banjo cases. I took that to mean he was going to play for us and couldn’t wait. Mom and Josh took off to the kitchen to supervise the incoming dishes, and I was left standing in the living room with Cynthia.
The massive turkey hogging the oven space hampered the reheating of some of the food, so most of us ended up in the living room on folding chairs sitting around a couple of upended packing boxes with a cheese and crackers tray spread out on top of them.
Mother took the reins of the party discussion, aiming her first question to Mandy.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around town. Are you new?”
Mandy’s eyes turned defiant. “Yes, Tricia and I are going to start a beauty salon.”
Mother perked up. “Really? Where?”
“The bar next to the hotel is closing,” Tricia all but whispered. “We bought it.” She looked around and found Peter. “With help.”
“Wonderful!” Mom shifted toward the women in excitement. “When do you open?” She took out her cell phone. “What’s the number? I’ll call for an appointment on Monday. Both of you have gorgeous hair. Can you make mine shine like yours?”
And so the evening went. Mandy and Tricia were adopted by my mother who talked hair. Cynthia, Josh, and I talked about her ideas in setting up a GLBTQ club at the high school and who we could rope in as the leader of the PFLAG group. And Peter sat quietly by himself. I worried about him until the end of the meal.
Dinner proved to be a rousing success. Josh outdid himself with his “Four Calling Birds,” even though it fell apart when he tried to transfer it from roasting pan to serving platter. Everyone loved it especially Mom who started fawning over Josh for his creativity. She was clearly in love with him now and jokingly told me she had her eyes on him as her next husband.
After dinner ended and before the dessert was served, Mom rose to make her yearly toast. “To family, friends, and other troublemakers. May this be the year we all make more progress and more trouble. I’m hoping to recruit my Quinn and Josh into the inner circle of trouble.” We all laughed and drank.
Then we went around the table telling everyone what we were thankful for. This was our family tradition, and Mom was adamant about continuing it this year.
Mandy and Tricia said they were thankful for each other and the new hair salon. Cynthia thanked God that her new appointment was in such a friendly town. Peter played an old English holiday tune first on the guitar and then on the banjo, expressing his thanks for music and his ability to play without having to speak.
Mom embarrassed me by doing her usual, “I’m thankful for having the world’s best son without whom I’d be a sad, lonely old woman rotting away in a huge house surrounded by thousands of cats.” She gave me a hug and a kiss to everyone’s “awww” and my pained “Mother!”
Then it was Josh’s turn.
“I’m thankful for having met Quinn and for moving in here with him. I don’t tell him I love him enough. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I said it to him.”
My heart had stopped. What was he saying?
“I’m hoping that he agrees to be a rebel with me on January first.” Then he knelt down on one knee like an old-fashioned suitor. “Will you marry me?”
I was so surprised I couldn’t catch my breath.
Suddenly my mother was all over him. “Yes! Yes! He says yes.” She was hugging and kissing him, knocking him on his ass in her excitement.
Cynthia had to pull her off him, so that I could answer. First, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.
“Yes, of course, I’ll marry you.”
He gave me a kiss that made my mother gasp “Oh, my!” and then sigh.
“What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for love,” I announced after we broke apart. “For my mother, and for a husband who will always be my best friend.”
Like I said before, we got trouble in Stoney Falls. I was happy to be one of the first advisors to the high school’s LGBT club. And I was proud to be half of the first gay couple married by a lesbian minister in the historic First Union Church.
Pat Henshaw, born and raised in Nebraska, has lived on the U S’s three coasts, in Texas, Virginia, and now California. Before she retired, she held a number of jobs, including theatrical costumer, newspaper features reporter and movie reviewer, librarian, junior college English instructor, and publicist. She also loves to travel and has visited Canada, Mexico, Europe, Egypt, and Central America as well as almost all fifty US states.
Now retired, she enjoys reading and writing as well as visiting her older daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren on the East Coast and playing havoc with her younger daughter’s life in NorCal.
She wishes you happy holidays and a wonderful new year.
You can hear this story read by Vance Bastion at the WROTE podcast.
Follow the links on this website to find out about Pat’s other works.
Remember: Every day is a good day for romance!