A/N: This is a story about the Johnson clan. It takes place immediately after Brenda leaves the LAPD and flies to Atlanta to visit her father. Even though Fritz does not appear in this story I hope you'll enjoy it. And, of course, nothing encourages me as much as your feedback.
Brenda had been in Atlanta visiting her father for four days. She was really enjoying Bobby and Clay, Jr. and their families too. She and her daddy had been to both of their houses for dinner. Last night it was Amy's and Clay, Jr.'s turn to host her and Daddy. In a strange way she enjoyed dinner with them most of all because it was apparent that Amy still hadn't mastered the culinary arts. So Brenda felt that they shared a sisterhood of sorts. Although no one in the family was starving, the possibility was a running family joke. But even though no one laughed more than Amy, Brenda didn't join in the teasing, She understood that, for a traditional southern woman like Amy, being a good cook was of supreme importance. And she gave credit to Clay, Jr. and their children. They endured her cooking without too much complaining.
"At least Fritzy is willin' to live on take-out," Brenda thought, grateful that he had never teased her about her cooking skills. Of course, not teasing her might have been an ultimate act of self-preservation. He probably knew that teasing her would get him a tongue-lashing and the challenge that HE do some cooking, especially on the nights when she was working late.
Brenda's musings were interrupted by the ringing phone. It rang four times without her father picking up. Brenda looked out the window and saw him puttering around in the garage so she answered. It was the youngest of her three older brothers, Jimmy, calling from New York City.
Brenda grinned at her brother's childhood nickname for her. Jimmy was the only one who called her that. When Brenda was born he was unable to make the b-r sound so he called her Bindi and the nickname stuck. "Hey, big brother. What's happenin'?"
"I'm flying down for the weekend," Jimmy said.
"Great! What time are you arrivin'? Do you want me to pick you up? Is Frank comin' with you?"
"Always the interrogator, aren't you, Bindi? 6:00 tonight, no and no," Jimmy laughed.
Brenda grinned and was about to reply when she heard the back door open. "You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. Hold on. Daddy just walked in." And she told her father that Jimmy was on the phone and quickly said "I can't wait to see you again, Jimmy. Here's Daddy," and handed the phone to her father.
As father and son spoke, she thought how warm her father's tone was when he spoke to one of his children. He was still grieving the loss of his wife and he clearly loved and depended on the support of his children.
When Clay hung up the phone Brenda asked "Did Jimmy say why he was comin' down? I didn't get a chance to ask him."
"No, he just said he was comin' for the weekend."
"I'll put sheets on his bed when I'm finished here."
"Why don't we have a cookout tomorrow night?" Clay suggested.
"That's a good idea. I'll get some chicken splits tomorrow. Oh, and some of that good potato salad and slaw from the deli too."
"Oh, no you won't," Clay retorted. "This little family get together calls for my special ribs. But the potato salad and the slaw are good ideas. You'll need to bake some biscuits and a couple of pies. And we can open some of your mama's blackberry preserves. This is a special occasion."
"Daddy, you don't want to eat any pie that I could bake. I can handle a cake mix, though," Brenda allowed.
"No. Then why don't you make a banana puddin' instead? I know you can handle one of those. And I'll call Mary and ask if she'd be willin' to make a pecan pie," Clay suggested, picking up the phone and dialing Mary's number.
Mary Carson lived across the street and was known throughout Atlanta for her pecan pies. Willie Ray had been her closest friend so she was always looking for ways to help Clay.
After he received the promise of two pecan pies tomorrow afternoon, Brenda broached the subject which had previously irritated Clay. "Daddy, I know you don't want anyone in the house but I think you really need to call that woman Mary recommended. You need someone to clean and cook for you."
"Brenda Leigh, I've already told you I don't want a stranger in this house."
"Because you've done so well cookin' and cleanin' since Mama's funeral?" Brenda challenged him.
Clay hadn't done either one. After the church ladies' casseroles were gone he'd eaten fast food and TV dinners. And he did have to admit that the place was a real mess when Brenda Leigh arrived. She'd spent two days cleaning up after him.
"Daddy, I'm goin' home next week and I'll be startin' a new job so it'll be a long time before I can get back here. Amy and Joyce both work and Charlie is away at school. Just who is gonna clean and cook? You? You've got to be reasonable. This place was a total shambles when I got here. Do you want to live in a mess all the time?"
Surprising Brenda, Clay replied, "I know. I know. It was bad. I need someone. I just hate the thought of someone comin' in here and doin' for me. It'd be admittin' that someone else can do what Willie Ray did."
"Oh, Daddy. No one is tryin' to take Mama's place. But you need help and once or twice a week would probably be enough for you to get by."
Clay's only reply was a deep sigh.
While Brenda made the banana pudding, she divided her thoughts between how best to encourage Clay to accept a part time housekeeper and anticipating Fritz's nightly call. They spoke on the phone at least twice a day. Fritz called her every morning and when he got home from work. He also called her during his lunch hour if he was eating alone but he had spent the day in a San Diego courtroom so he hadn't been able to call since his long commute this morning. She relied on his phone calls and missing one disrupted her emotional equilibrium.
When the banana pudding was in the refrigerator cooling, Brenda went up to her room to make sure her laptop was charged so she and Fritz could skype. She then put sheets on her brother's bed. Again, the ringing phone interrupted her thoughts. Since Clay was back out in the garage, Brenda picked it up on the second ring. It was Joyce. Brenda told her that Jimmy was flying in tonight so Joyce said that she would bring dinner over. It was agreed that Joyce would call Amy and Clay, Jr. so they could come too.
Later, Brenda and Clay heard a car pull into the driveway. In a minute there were hugs all around as the brother closest in age to Brenda and the one she felt the greatest connection to arrived. Soon her other brothers and their families arrived and Joyce immediately got the spaghetti pot to boiling. Due to time constraints she had resorted to buying frozen meatballs but she made up for it by using her homemade spaghetti sauce and freshly baked Italian bread.
While Joyce was getting the spaghetti underway, Brenda busied herself making the salad and Amy set the table, all the while chattering happily away about their children, neighbors and sharing assorted local gossip. The four men were gathered in the living room talking sports and politics while the kids rambled around the neat Johnson yard. It was a wonderful evening and Brenda ended the day by skyping with Fritz, telling him about the happy relaxed family dinner they had enjoyed.
The next day, after breakfast, Clay headed out to the barber shop and to pick up the cookout supplies. He asked Jimmy to go with him but he made an excuse to stay behind, which Brenda found odd. She thought he was coming to spend some more time with Clay. Since it was Saturday, Clay, Jr. and Bobby arrived mid-morning and immediately indulged in their favorite free time activity. They stuck their heads under the hood of Clay, Jr.'s pickup truck.
Despite Clay's veto, Brenda wanted a red velvet cake so she quickly mixed one up. Just as she took the cake pans from the oven, Brenda saw Jimmy, who cared nothing for anything automotive, approach his older brothers. After a few minutes she saw two heads come out from under the truck and stare at their younger brother. She couldn't see Bobby's expression but she saw his body stiffen. Clay, Jr. looked furious and she could tell that he was shouting at Jimmy. They all spoke for another minute then Clay, Jr. threw his rag down on the driveway and disappeared into the garage. Bobby followed him leaving Jimmy standing outside alone.
"Somethin' just happened, and it's not good," Brenda said to herself as she took off her mother's apron and headed for the door. Walking toward her brothers who had all reassembled in the driveway, Brenda asked "Hey, guys. What's up?"
Bobby dropped his gaze to the pavement. Clay, Jr., looking as angry as before, said "Ask Jimmy" and turned back to his truck.
Jimmy turned to Brenda and said, "Bindi, let's you and I go for a walk."
After they were out of earshot Brenda asked, "Ok, Jimmy. What's goin' on?"
Jimmy stared at the trees across the street and his jaw twitched. Brenda waited for him to speak. Finally he stopped walking, looked at her, and said quietly "Bindi, I'm gay." He was totally unprepared for his sister's reaction.
Brenda threw her arms around him and said, "Thank you! Thank you, Jimmy."
He stared at her. "Thank you for what? Bindi, did you hear what I just told you?"
"Yes, I heard you. You don't know how long I've waited for this. Thank you for finally trusting me enough to tell me."
Jimmy couldn't believe what he was hearing. "How long have you known?"
"I began suspectin' that you were gay when I went to Georgetown," she replied. "But since you never said anythin' I didn't think I should say anythin' either."
"What made you suspect that I'm gay?" he replied, totally intrigued by her perception.
"I met my first gays at Georgetown and one of the guys was so much like you. I'd always thought all gay men were limp-wristed, lisping and simpering," she explained, "But he wasn't like that at all. This guy was very much like you: interested in sports, body building, and a real political wonk." Jimmy chuckled at this and then Brenda continued, "As a matter of fact, everything about him was like you except for his accent."
Jimmy whistled softly and said "I expected Clay, Jr.'s and Bobby's reaction. I certainly did not expect yours. Does Fritz know?"
"Fritzy asked me once if you were gay. I told him that I thought so but that you had never said anything. He's ok with it, Jimmy."
"What made him suspect I was gay?"
"Daddy and Mama came out to LA just before Christmas to tell us about his cancer. I wasn't in the room but Daddy apparently said somethin' to Fritz about you and Frank livin' in New York and sharin' a bedroom. So he asked me about it." Brenda stood still and looked him in the eye. "Jimmy, you're my brother. I love you. Nothin' is gonna change that."
"I hope that Bobby and Clay, Jr. will come to feel that way too."
"What did they say to you?"
"Bobby is confused. He just said that he didn't understand. Clay, Jr. exploded. He said that I couldn't possibly be a 'sodomite' and went into the garage."
Brenda saw the tears welling up in Jimmy's eyes and hugged him. "They'll come around. I know it. They love you as much as I do."
"Bobby might," Jimmy replied, "But I'm not sure about Clay, Jr. If he comes around it'll take a long time. But, Bindi, I can't wait any longer."
"Wait for what?"
"I came down here to tell you all this weekend. I would love to have their support but I can't wait any longer. I have to tell Daddy this weekend too."
"Wait for what?" Brenda repeated.
"The laws in New York State have changed. Gay marriage is now legal and Frank and I want to get married."
"Ohhh." Brenda was beginning to understand.
"Bindi, you know that Frank and I have been together for seven years now. We love each other very much. But there's a huge difference in living together and being married. We want that legal, out of the closet commitment to each other. We want marriage. Just like you all have."
"I completely understand that. I would not want to go back to just livin' with Fritz. Bein' married is so much better. Have you made plans? Have you set a date?"
"Not yet. We've had lots of conversations about it but nothing is set in stone yet. One thing we did kind of set in stone is that we want Frank's brother to be our Best Man."
"So Frank's family knows he's gay, then?"
"Yes. Frank has been out of the closet since college. And they're very supportive. They're real advocates for gay rights issues. As a matter of fact Frank's mom even circulated petitions trying to persuade the New York State legislature to pass the gay marriage bill.
"There's one more thing we discussed, Bindi. We agreed that if you were ok with us getting married that we would ask you to be our Matron of Honor. If not, we'll ask a friend of ours to stand up for us."
Brenda stopped and turned to her brother. Her eyes were misty. "Oh, Jimmy. I'd be honored to stand up for you."
Jimmy embraced her. "Thank you. You don't know how much this means to us."
"But you have to set a date that gives me enough time to ask my boss for the time off. I'm gonna be the new kid on the block at work, you know."
"We will set a date as soon as I get home. I promise. I'm almost 48. That's middle aged, Bindi. And Frank is four years older than I am. We've waited as long as we're going to wait," Jimmy explained. "You know, I thought if we were all going to be together last Christmas I'd have told you all then. But I had to work and Daddy was diagnosed with his cancer. And then he just wasn't recovering like we'd hoped. Then Mama died. There just hasn't been the right time," he continued.
"Did you tell Bobby and Clay, Jr. that you're gettin' married?"
"I didn't have the chance. Clay, Jr. exploded and then you came out of the house."
"Well, there's no time to waste, I guess. Tell them now and I'll back you up."
So they turned and walked back to where Bobby and Clay, Jr. were still standing.
"Well, Brenda, did he tell you?" Bobby asked.
"Yes, he did," Brenda replied.
"And?" Clay, Jr. sought her reaction.
"I'm happy for him."
"WHAT? You're happy that he's gay?" Clay, Jr. couldn't believe his ears.
"I'm happy that he's finally free to be who he has always been. And I'm happy that he finally was able to tell us," Brenda explained. "Look, Jimmy is the same person he's always been. He hasn't changed. He's still our brother. He needs to tell Daddy and he needs us to support him. So, what do you say? Will you support him?"
Bobby shook his head, "I don't know, Brenda. I need some time to get used to this."
"I'm not asking you to be happy about me being gay. But I'm asking you to accept me for who I am. Who I've always been. And to help me tell Daddy." Jimmy was pleading with his brothers.
"I know how upsettin' this is for everybody. But we can't reject him now just because he loves another man," Brenda said. "Jimmy is still our brother and he deserves our support. Bobby, can you say that to help Daddy? Clay, Jr., can you help Daddy?"
Bobby looked at her and then at Jimmy, and finally shook his head yes.
Clay, Jr. said "Jimmy is still my brother. But I don't think I can say any more than that. I just hate this whole situation. It's wrong. Morally wrong."
Jimmy spoke softly. "Clay, Jr., I know this is hard for you. And you know it's gonna be even harder on Daddy. But there's nothin' any of us can do to change the situation. Daddy is gonna need your help,"
"But why does it have to be this weekend?" Bobby asked.
"Because Frank and I are going to get married and everyone needs as much time as possible to get used to the idea."
Bobby and Clay, Jr. looked stunned. Brenda finally broke the silence. "I wish we all had more time. But we don't. Please help Daddy. Clay, Jr., you, more than anyone, know how much he's gonna need our help and support. Please help him to accept this."
"I don't know how much help I can be, Brenda. I'm sorry." Clay, Jr. looked like he might cry.
"Well, I guess all we can ask is that you try. It's ok to say that you don't like it. It's ok to say that you don't understand it. But, please, can you say that Jimmy is still your brother and that, even though you don't understand it and don't like it, you still love your brother? Can you say that much?"
"All I can say right now is that I won't say anythin' against Jimmy. Beyond that, no. I can't promise anythin'," Clay, Jr. said.
Bobby asked "Are you gonna tell Daddy you're gettin' married?"
Brenda intercepted that one and said, "Let's just take one step at a time, shall we?"
"Well, here he comes. Let's do it," Jimmy said.
"Into the Valley of Death," said Bobby as the four siblings walked up to their daddy's car, grabbed grocery bags, and headed into the house.
When the groceries were all put away Jimmy asked, "Daddy, can I speak to you in the living room?"
"Certainly, son," Clay replied and all five of them trooped into the living room and took their seats. Clay looked at his four children and instantly knew something bad was coming. "What is it? What's wrong?" he asked apprehensively.
"Daddy, nothing is wrong exactly," Brenda replied. "Jimmy just has something to tell you is all."
"Well," Jimmy started, his mouth going dry and his palms going wet. "You know, Daddy, that I've always been different from Bobby and Clay, Jr. You've said it yourself. I've never been interested in cars or engines. And I've never really been into the dating scene." He saw the confusion on his father's face and swallowed hard.
"Each of my children is different," Clay said. "You all got different personalities."
"True," Jimmy continued, "But I think I'm the most different one of us all. And there's a reason for that." He stopped, took a deep breath, looked his father in the eye and said, "Daddy, I'm gay."
"Clay just stared at his youngest son, his face frozen. Then his confusion turned to fury. He struggled to his feet. "NO! YOU'RE NOT!"
Jimmy, now thoroughly flushed and with his voice cracking, almost whispered, "Yes, Daddy. I am. I'm gay."
"I WILL NOT HAVE A GAY SON!" Clay bellowed and stomped out of the house.
Brenda, Jimmy, Clay, Jr., and Bobby sat there unsure how to proceed. Finally Bobby spoke. "I think we'd better just let him be."
They continued to sit for awhile and debated what to do next. Finally Bobby said, "I think I need to call Joyce and warn her that tonight's cookout might not be much fun."
Clay, Jr. nodded in agreement and pulled out his cell phone to call Amy and warn her of the same thing. Both women took the news better than their husbands had, much to Brenda's and Jimmy's relief. Finally Clay, Jr. said "Let me go talk to Daddy," and he got up from the table and went out to the garage to find his father.
Clay saw him coming and said, "Don't come in here and tell me you're all right with this."
"No, I'm not all right with it, Daddy. You know I'm not. But I can't do anythin' about it."
"How could this happen? What could have happened to him?" Clay was tormented.
"I don't think anythin' happened to him, Daddy. He says he's been that way as long as he remembers. He says he always did like playin' Brenda's girl games with her better than Cowboys and Indians and GI Joe with Bobby and me."
"But I thought that was just because you boys were older and didn't want to bother with a little kid so the only one he had to play with was Brenda."
"I don't know, Daddy. I guess he's always been that-a-way," Clay Jr. replied, unable to bring himself to use the word gay. "But, Daddy, we've got another problem. Everyone is gonna be here tonight expectin' a cookout and you've got to get those ribs goin'. If you can't do it, let Brenda know and she can cook them." Clay, Jr. knew that threatening to let Brenda take over cooking Clay's famous ribs would divert his father's attention for a little while.
"No, I'll do it. It'll give me somethin' to do besides thinkin' about the mess my family is in," Clay responded. So Clay and his namesake hauled out the grill, cleaned it, and fired it up before going into the kitchen. Clay immediately began putting his special dry rub on the ribs. One by one the other Johnson boys joined them in the kitchen and, trying to ignore the elephant in the room, they all worked on the manly endeavor of the Johnson family cookout while Brenda went across the street to pick up the pies.
After the initial preparations were completed and the ribs were cooking, everyone went out to sit at the patio table so they could monitor the ribs' progress. Finally Clay asked Jimmy the question that had been haunting him. "Did anyone ever hurt you? Is that why you turned gay?"
"No, Daddy. No one ever touched me and no one ever hurt me. And I didn't turn gay. I've been gay my entire life. I just couldn't admit it to anyone."
"Do you know what this would do to your mother if she were alive?" Clay asked as if shaming Jimmy might make a difference.
"Daddy, I'm sure she knew. She never came out and said so but she was especially kind to Frank and even had a conversation with him once about what it must be like to be gay. You know, not very much escaped Mama," Jimmy reminded him.
Clay nodded and lowered his head. When he raised it, they all saw that he was crying. "I just can't accept this. There's just no way I can accept this. I suppose next you'll be tellin' me that you and that Frank are gonna get married," he said in disgust.
Everyone was quiet for a minute and then Jimmy replied "Yes, Daddy, we are."
Clay started to cry again and turned to get up from his chair but stopped and sat back down when Brenda said, "Daddy, I know how hard this is for you. My heart is breakin' for both you and Jimmy right now. Daddy, he loves you so much." Brenda's voice cracked with emotion but she took Jimmy's hand and continued. "We can't change anything except how we handle this. That's the only thing we can control. He's still my brother and I love him. I refuse to let this change the way I feel about him."
Bobby looked around the table and said, "I love Jimmy too. As unhappy as I am about this situation he's still my brother too," and Brenda took his hand.
Clay, Jr. then said, "Everyone here knows how I feel. I really hate this. It's hard for me to think that anythin' could be worse. But Jimmy is still my brother." Brenda looked at him and motioned toward Jimmy and Bobby so Clay, Jr. took their hands.
Brenda then turned to her father and said, "See, Daddy? We've formed a family circle around our love for Jimmy. You're the only one not included. Do you want to be the only one outside the family circle? Do you want to be all alone?"
Everyone watched for Clay's reaction. Finally he looked at Jimmy and said, "I hate this even more than Clay, Jr. does. And I won't pretend to understand how this could have happened. But you are still my son and I love you." Then, with tears streaming down his face, he took Brenda's and Bobby's hands and joined the circle.