If houses could talk, the three-story Victorian on Guenther Street would have been a vivid storyteller. Built in the old King William District of San Antonio by Otto Graschel, wealthy son of a German immigrant, the old house had seen a lot of history. Otto had built it to accommodate his growing family and rich life style. While they didnt entertain often, Christmas was their shining hour and the house was considered one of the most beautiful in a town just beginning to wash the dust of a thousand cattle drives from the streets.
The front porch, which ran the width of the house, was lined with wooden planters filled with geraniums and rosemary. Rose bushes and iris filled the flower beds which outlined the yard. The back yard led to the bank of the San Antonio River and a small boat house. After Sunday services at the local Lutheran Church the family would take wicker baskets filled with delicacies and enjoy a leisurely boat ride up the river, the oldest boys assuming the duty of rowing.
Summer begins in south central Texas while most of the country is buried under layers of snow and ice, and ends just before Thanksgiving. During the first half of the Twentieth Century the quiet of early Monday mornings in the King William District was interrupted by the gentle whir of hand-pushed lawnmowers as young Mexican boys, children of household servants, tended to the meticulous landscapes of the wealthy while their mothers hung laundry to dry. The German matriarchs, clinging to tradition, rolled up the sleeves of their dresses and hauled feather mattresses to upstairs windows where they were aired weekly. It was a tradition ingrained into them as if it were a religion. Their homes were immaculate, their children properly behaved, their position in the community rigidly maintained.
These early wealthy pillars of the community became doctors, bank presidents, and politicians. Their wives set up endowments for the arts, established museums and galleries, and kept an eye on the citys orphanages.
* * *
It used to snow here in the winter, Dieter Graschel told Wolfgang as he scratched the old boys ear one November afternoon. I remember Grandpa telling me how he used to have snowball fights with his brothers when they were boys.
Dieter had always hated his name. Hed been teased about it endlessly as a child and many a young boy went home from school with a black eye after singing a little ditty made up by one of the school bullies, rhyming Dieter with slang for penis. He was the perfect example of good Germanic stock, large boned, with blonde hair and deep blue eyes. His quick temper as a youth was something his mother taught him to control, but he still got his point across that anyone who called him anything but Deet was asking for a major whipping.
The old Labrador really didnt care about snow in San Antonio or what Deet was called. He eased himself from the couch and lumbered to the fireplace. Taking a piece of the neatly stacked firewood in his mouth, he carried it to Deet and dropped it on his friends foot.
Okay, okay, I can take a hint, Deet laughed as he got up and added a few pieces of firewood to the fire. If Wolfgang was asking for more heat it meant the weather was going to turn really cold, probably the first true winter front of the season. Deet trusted Wolfgang more than he trusted any of the weather channels. The dog was twenty years old, a treat Deet had given into the day he got his first paycheck from his first job. It meant a small fortune spent for pick of the litter of a pair of AKC registered championship Labs, but Wolf had proven himself worth the expense. Now getting on the couch was difficult for the joints had become arthritic. Deet decided it was time to turn on the central heat his parents had installed when they turned the old Graschel house into a Bed and Breakfast. It seemed a terrible waste of money to heat the place anymore since the sole occupants were now Deet and Wolf, but he was determined to make his companion as comfortable as possible for what might be the final winter of Wolfs life.
Deet had just finished lighting the pilot light on the furnace when the telephone rang. He let it go to his answering machine since he was tired of pushy telemarketers who wouldnt let go of their sales pitches, aunts calling asking if he could be at their home on Sunday to meet a lovely young lady youll just fall in love with, and friends who had never really been friends asking if they could meet for lunch. Lunch hell, they heard through the grapevine that hed come into a great deal of money and wanted part of it.
Mr. Graschel, the voice said, This is Herbert Milhauser of Freeman, Freeman, and Birch, attorneys in Indianapolis, Indiana. I need to speak with you on an urgent matter. Please call me at 555-3333 as soon as possible.
Deet was, to say the least, extremely curious at the terse message. The phone number was local so he checked the telephone directory. Sure enough, there was a listing for Freeman, Freeman, and Birch. His own attorney, Manuel Fuentes, had told him once that big law firms across the country were buying up small, local firms because it looked good on the corporate letterhead if they appeared to be national.
I dont like it, Manuel had told him as they walked away from the courtroom where a jury had awarded Deet a tremendous amount of money after a delivery driver for a local brewery ignored a stop sign and sent his parents, Eric and Dot Graschel to their Maker. Corporate America seems hell bound to take away everything the little guy ever worked for. Ill burn my office and sell my soul to the devil before I ever give up my law firm. Ill never get rich and Consuela will probably divorce me because Im never at home, but a man has to do what a man has to do.
Deet almost choked when he heard Manuel say hed never get rich because his percentage of the settlement was enough to buy a home in the Dominion and concentrate on pro bono work for the rest of his life.
Deet listened to the message from Milhauser twice and then called Manuel. He wasnt about to talk to a lawyer without his own lawyer. He had enough money to pay Manuel seven hundred an hour, interest earned on investments.
Manuel dropped by a little after ten that night. I called Milhauser, he said as he tossed his black leather jacket on the back of a cushioned chair and plopped himself down on the overstuffed couch. Bring me a Corona and get two for yourself. Youre going to need them.
Deet took two beers from his refrigerator and joined Manuel. His lawyer, his friend through high school in San Antonio and college in Austin, didnt look like he was putting in eighteen hours a day working. At forty-two, Manuel looked twenty-five.
Break it to me gently, Deet said.
Your kids in town, Manuel said. I hate to tell you this, but Annie died about a year ago, intestate. I guess she never thought shed have to worry about the boy. Most people dont think about the unexpected heart attack or mugging or beer truck, he added. She thought Marcie would get custody. But Marcie couldnt handle Annies death and she turned into a boozer and Eric, did you know she named him after your Dad? ended up in Protective Services in Castleton, a suburb of Indianapolis. Annies brother Warren, you remember him dont you? a real bastard, offered to take the boy. And voila! Another child is sent into a terrible situation. The principal at his school called the police when Eric didnt show up at school for a week and Warren didnt call to say if the boy was sick or whatever. When the cops got to the house they found him chained to a bed. Im afraid Warren did some horrible things to the kid. Eric might have to testify against him later, but it takes forever to schedule trial dates.
Manuel finished his beer and went to get another one while Deet absorbed the information. He got one for his friend because he knew one wouldnt dull the pain.
Annie listed you as the father on Erics birth certificate, he said as he returned to the couch. You should have been contacted immediately when they took him from Marcie. One more badge of dishonor for Protective Services in this country. Fortunately, the judge the case was assigned to has problems with government agencies and assigned independent council to Eric. Thats where Freeman, Freeman, and Birch come in. Its their job to look out for his interests and do some pro bono work, which makes them look really good. Youre his biological and legal father. They did a complete investigation on you and decided that Eric needs to be in your custody.
Deet quickly downed the second Corona. Hed met Annie at a Gay Pride event in New Orleans eighteen years earlier. Annie was out, he wasnt. One didnt come out of the closet in San Antonio at the time. Deet didnt know how his parents would react and then AIDS hit the country like a messenger from Hell and he knew hed have to remain in his own little corner of the world for the rest of his life, terrified and virginal. Annie was a petite little brunette with green eyes and not at all afraid to tell the entire world to take a flying leap if it had problems with the fact that she was in love with her high school sweetheart, Marcie McElroy. Their friendship grew as the years passed and they stayed in touch with each other. When Annie and Marcie decided they wanted a child of their own, Deet agreed to be the sperm donor. He knew the child existed, but Marcie didnt want Annie to let him know when it was born, the sex, or have any contact at all. Deet respected Marcies decision at the time.
Now he wasnt sure that had been wise, but the young seldom are. And now his and Annies child was in trouble and needed him. His child, his son. Thats what the birth certificate Manuel handed him said, along with the Indiana judges request for Freeman, Freeman, and Birch to locate the father and determine if he would be a fit parent for the boy. If not, Eric would go into foster care and Deet would have to pay years of child support for a child he had never been allowed to have contact with. He swallowed a third Corona and looked questioningly at Manuel. What do you think?
I think you should go to bed. Were meeting Milhauser and Eric tomorrow morning at nine in the dining room at the Menger Hotel. I convinced Milhauser that youre an eccentric bachelor, content to putter around this big old house with your dog and your millions. If the subject of your sexual preference doesnt come up, I wont mention it. I know youre not a pedophile, Deet. And youve never been active in the gay scene. Hell, theres probably only two people in town who know youre gay and theyre both sitting here getting drunk on Mexican beer. The kids going to be skittish; hes been through a lot in the last year. I think youre his best hope, though. Hes going to need a lot of counseling and youve got money to fritter away. And hes going to need a lot of love. I know you. Youve got a world of love in you and no one to give it to.
Deet spent the night on the couch, Wolfgang sleeping at his feet. He showered, shaved, and dressed carefully the next morning. Breakfast was something he didnt want to think about. The six-pack of Corona that was supposed to last six nights had disappeared and he had a headache. Things were happening so fast that he wasnt sure what to do or how to react. He carefully considered how to dress, considering that his lifelong friend and attorney had described him as eccentric. He decided on faded 501s, a pale green button-down shirt, and tan jacket. Like all Texan stereotypes, his feet were clad in cowboy boots alligator, bought in Nuevo Laredo.
He met Manuel in front of the Menger at eight forty-five and they entered the historic hotel together: tall blonde and short Hispanic. They were seated in the luxurious dining room and were quietly sipping coffee, which Deet desperately needed, when a dark haired man approached them with a fourteen year old boy who was an absolute carbon copy of Deet at the same age.
Eric - lost, confused, and living at the edge of complete desperation had no idea what to expect except that his court appointed lawyer had said to trust him. Yeah, right! Thats what hed heard from his uncle right before hed been chained and raped over and over again and from the Protective Service worker whod put him in his uncles home. Eric didnt trust adults at all any more. But hed been taught to be polite and greeted the two strange men with a firm handshake. He knew one was his dad and the other his dads lawyer. And he wondered, not for the first time, why hed never seen or heard from his father and why hed been left in the clutches of a man who beat and raped him.
The meeting was uncomfortable at the beginning because Eric was afraid to make eye contact with anyone. Six months of abusive domination had taught him to fear the look that told him he was about to be used again.
Do you like dogs? Deet finally asked the son hed never seen before. I have a Labrador Retriever named Wolfgang, but hes getting old and if you decide you want to take a chance living with me I could get you a puppy.
Could I have a puppy and a bicycle? Eric asked with all the uncertainty of a fourteen year old whose world had gone through unspeakable changes.
Sure, what kind? was Deets response. Ive got a mountain bike and there are some cool places to bike, but youll have to wear protective gear. I almost broke my fool neck a month ago on a trail I didnt know very well. I was black and blue for weeks.
What else do you do? Eric asked.
Deet thought hard before he answered. I dont do as much now as I used to, but I like to go to a place north of Fredericksburg, thats a nice German town not far from here, and rock climb. Enchanted Rock can be dangerous but its fun to climb if youre careful. Theres a Sea World and Six Flags here. Feeding the dolphins at Sea World is fun and I hear the rides at Six Flags are cool. He was hard pressed to seek the proper words for a teenager. The Japanese Gardens are beautiful when we dont have a drought. I used to like going to Brackenridge Park and ride the horses, but they stopped the horse rides a long time ago. Now I go to a friends ranch out past Bandera. Its a dude ranch for rich city boys who want to play cowboy but John and his wife Danielle dont think of me as a city boy. Im thinking of buying a horse for myself and having them board him for me, then I can go riding anytime I want. Weve got a nice riverwalk downtown, only a couple of blocks from this hotel and the barge ride is nice. And I have season tickets to our local basketball team, the Spurs.
But Im a Pacers fan! Eric blurted.
Well, I guess I can pull for the Pacers except when they face the Spurs. Would you like to meet any of the team? Deet, continuing his familys tradition of investing time and labor into the less fortunate, contributed a hefty portion of his money as advised by Manuels brother Carlos, his CPA to the school established by one of the retired Spurs players. I think I can get you an autograph or two.
They gauged each other slowly the man who didnt know his son and the boy who didnt trust anyone.
For sure I can get autographs? Eric asked.
For sure you can, Deet responded. Hed met one of two of the players on the team and knew that big men had big hearts.
But Ill still be for the Pacers.
Tell you what, Eric. When they face each other in the playoff well drink root beer and eat pretzels and scream at the officials when they make bad calls. Ill get four tickets and well run back and forth, from one side of the SBC Center to the other, pulling for which team is behind. Fair enough?
Fair, Eric finally said after pondering the compromise. Can I have a pony?
Would you like to pick out your own? Deet asked and was astonished when the boy suddenly left his seat and threw himself into his arms. Daddy? Can I call you that?
Herbert Milhauser figured he had just met the conditions laid down by the Indiana judge. The boy was willing to accept the father he had never known. Graschel had money coming out his ears, spoke of things fathers did with their sons, and didnt have a wife in the way who would ask questions about infidelities. If Graschel ever decided to marry, the son would already be in the picture. But Milhauser didnt think that would ever be a question because he recognized his own brother in the man who had fathered the unfortunate boy. If Aaron hadnt been in a committed relationship Herbert would have been more than happy to direct him toward Dieter Graschel. He checked his watch, asked if there was time to check out the house on Guenther Street, and was already planning his report to Indianapolis advising that all conditions had been met and Eric would be well placed with his biological father.