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Dignity : Gabriel Lampert
Jimmy showed up out of nowhere one day at the firehouse. The town had a volunteer force at the time -- this must've been 1950 -- and we'd just set about getting up a regulation fire department, and he came for the job. He was quiet but all of us volunteers knew he was the real thing.

My dad had just died, and I was taking over his plumbing business. I'd almost quit the force but I wanted to see it start off right. Jimmy'd come to New Mexico to get away from the rain in Seattle.

I asked Jimmy home for dinner, so he wouldn't feel so much a stranger. You know how it is when you're new in a small town. And Jimmy being so quiet and all, I figured it might could be even harder to tough it out that first year or two.

My wife liked him, and the kids thought he was something grand. He was tall and skinny. The kind some women like to mother. And he was polite. If Juanita cooked something a little special, he'd be sure to notice it, and tell her how much he enjoyed it. Sometimes when he was leaving he would say, "Muchísimas gracias, señora," and he didn't sound half bad doing it. Nita was always tickled by it -- you can guess how much Spanish she heard in this white-ass town. Jimmy must have learned Spanish as a kid in Texas, and he loved to show it off.

One afternoon, it was summertime, I came back from a job and found Jimmy's pickup out front. I had just been to fix a toilet; it belonged to one of the big shots in town, though I used to wonder how big anyone could be in a town the size of ours. He was big enough, though. He was one of those folks who resented having me come out to fix their plumbing, like they didn't want anyone to know they even needed a toilet, much less that a toilet of theirs wouldn't function just perfect all the time.

Anyway, I went around to the back porch to clean up before going into the house, and Jimmy was in the kitchen talking to Nita. I didn't actually see Nita, but I could hear the water running through the pipes that came out from the sink, and Jimmy was sideways to the window facing where the sink was, so I figured she was maybe washing vegetables.

Jimmy was telling a joke about two people, and he was really pretty much taken with it. He'd step to one side to be the one man, and then he'd step to the other side to be the other; he was waving his arms a lot, too.

"This Mexican guy from Juarez is working in El Paso for the day, and he needs to get a new pair of socks, so he goes into one of the downtown stores during his lunch hour. But just because it was lunch hour, only one of the salesmen was there, a big old Anglo guy, oh, say, from Lubbock or somewhere.

"Well, he sidles up to the salesman and asks him, 'Un par de medias, por favor.'

"The Texan says, 'Say what?'

"And they went round and round for maybe ten minutes, neither one making any sense of the other. Finally, the Mexican sees where they've got the socks, so he runs over to that aisle, picks out a pair, and comes running back with a big grin on his face, and he says, '¡Eso sí que es!'

"So the Texan guy says, 'Well, if you could spell it, how come you couldn't say it?'"

Nita began to howl, like she couldn't laugh hard enough. Jimmy was quiet at first but, once he saw Nita laughing, he got this big smile on his face. He looked real pleased with himself.

I never felt jealous when I saw them together. Now, sometimes, I wonder if that wasn't a clue. I mean, when you see some man being friendly with your wife and you don't get jealous, doesn't that tell you something?

Jimmy was careful about things. Never said much that anyone could disagree with. He was like that at work, too, never argued with anyone. The only thing he spoke up about was the firefighting business. He knew how things had ought to be done, and he kept hammering away at us until we did them exactly that way. The guys didn't like it at first, but after awhile we could see that he knew his stuff, so we listened to what he had to say. I suppose that means that I listened, and then the rest of the guys did. Back then I had a good reputation around town, I guess. Anyway, people would pay attention to what I said. I never even thought about it until they stopped, which was right after Jimmy died. But that comes later on in the story.

Nita used to ask him if he wanted her to introduce him to some nice girls. He always just said no, real polite, but in a way to where you didn't ask any questions why not. He said he got around a little bit now and then. She stopped worrying, after a while. And he did seem to be getting around. If he wasn't on call for a weekend, like as not he'd get into that rattly old truck of his and hightail it out of here. I figured he'd be going to El Paso, maybe Juarez. Anyway, somewhere he could get what he needed.

That was the way he was about most things: didn't say much, but he seemed to do whatever it was he needed to do. Like I said, he never did argue any, so we never heard much of his ideas on politics. I guess, most folks figured he didn't have any politics, but I knew better. One time while he was visiting with us, we were all watching the news on TV. The kids were in bed. The news was all about that senator that was causing such a big ruckus back then, McCarthy; he was trying to find Communists everywhere. Every day, there was some new announcement where they called some actor a pinko. Or some public official. My dad had been saying all along that this guy was going to be trouble. I didn't believe him; my dad was always worrying about something like that. Him having that thick Polish accent and all. Not that he was any Communist! He hated them worse than anybody. He kept saying, "Trouble. Nothing but trouble, that man."

So Jimmy and Nita and me were watching the news, and this man had gone and done something new, accused someone else, I don't rightly recall. I looked over at Jimmy and asked him, "Well, it's pretty safe for you, anyway, Mr. Irish Doyle. At least, you're not saddled with a name no one can pronounce." Like Mayevsky.

He said back at me, "Don't even joke about that man, Cas. He's trouble for everyone." I told him what my dad had said, and he just nodded his head and pointed his finger at me, like he was saying, "Now, see, what did I tell you?"

It wasn't always him visiting us at home. Sometimes I would drive down to his room over the dry goods store. If it was night and his light was on, I'd call him from the street, and he'd come down. Maybe we'd talk, drink a few, maybe at the bar. Sometimes we'd go out to the desert if there was a good lightning show in the distance. The desert was one of our favorites, actually. We could ramble on most of the evening, mostly about nothing at all.

One night, it wasn't too many days after he told that joke to Nita, he came by real late, about eleven, and tried to get us both, me and Nita, to drive up the river away from the city lights. He said there was a meteor shower going on, and we shouldn't miss it. He even wanted to set up a pallet in the pickup so we wouldn't have to worry about the children. I was all for it, but Nita didn't want to. Finally, she told me to go on.

We went about ten miles north of town, and pulled over by the river. Jimmy pulled a folding chair from the truck, and set it up for me, and then he put down the tailgate and sprawled out in the back. I didn't know what to look for, but Jimmy said to just relax and I'd see them. It was a few minutes before I saw one, and then I saw two close together after that. It got Jimmy all excited to see them, and he even whooped and yelled a few times.

"See how bright they are? And look at the stars! You never see them this bright on the coast -- if you see them at all! And do you see that shadowy trail of light across the sky? That's the Milky Way. You could live your whole life in Seattle and never see it."

I laughed. "I've lived most of my whole life out here, and I've never seen it."

"Well, anyway, I'm never going to live where you can't see the sky. And I've never seen it any better than right here. These stars are so close, you could -- Oh! Look!"

But I was already looking. That one was really bright, streaking halfway across the sky and then fading out. I started to feel a little of Jimmy's enthusiasm, and I laughed again, at myself and him both. I suddenly felt like a kid playing hookey. He could do that to you.

His family was originally from West Texas somewhere but he didn't say much more. And I knew better than to ask. My dad had brought me out here when I was ten, after my mother died, and I learned pretty quick not to pry.

Nita didn't mind it if I spent time with Jimmy. The only other people I knew in town were "drunken loudmouths," the way she put it. I think she was glad I wasn't going anywhere I could get into a fight. There were enough of them around, that's for sure. And Jimmy not looking down on her, well I appreciated that, too. Honestly, I think the only respect Nita ever got in town was when I was right there with her.

I'm remembering a time now when I know I should have caught on to him. One Saturday night, Nita and me had this awful fight, not physical, you know, but plenty nasty even so. I don't even know what it was we were fighting about, but I stormed out, got into my pickup, and drove over to Jimmy's place. He was off work that day, but he had to be on the next morning, so he hadn't left town. His light was on, so I called up to him, but he didn't come down. That was kind of strange, I thought, so I ran around back and up the back steps and knocked on the door. He still didn't answer, so I knocked some more.

Finally, he came to the door. He was dressed in just his jeans, and it looked like he'd had a hard time getting them on. I could smell cigarettes, and I knew that Jimmy didn't smoke. That's when I finally figured out what was going on. Jimmy was entertaining, and here I was barging in on him. I must have blushed bright red, because then he knew that I knew.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy, I'll come back some other time."

"It's okay, Cas," he said. "I should have turned the light off."

We both said goodbye but, as he was closing the door, I saw a pair of boots, really fine boots, "real reptile," as we used to say. I thought, well, maybe Jimmy does know how to dress up. Of course, now I know they were probably someone else's boots. I suppose I should have guessed it, but I didn't. If it hadn't been for the fire, I might have never known.

The fire. It was in early January of '52. This family at the end of town were with their oldest -- a daughter -- in the hospital up in El Paso. Tonsils, I think. The house caught while they were gone, probably the heater, it was pretty old. It wasn't my shift, but I was over to the firehouse visiting with the guys when the call came in. It sounded like they could use all the hands they could get hold of, so I went.

There wasn't much we could do for the house. Jimmy wanted to know who-all lived there. No one was sure, but we knew there were some kids. Jimmy found an open door on the side of the house, and then we didn't see him till he came out the front door with the boys. Two of them, nine and five. The nine-year-old was pretty much in shock, couldn't answer any questions. The younger boy was in Jimmy's arms, fingers digging in. Jimmy asked him, "Who else lives here?"

"Mommy and Daddy."

"Are they inside?"

The boy shook his head no.

"Who else? Does anyone else live here?"


"Do you know where Rusty is?" Jimmy was asking as quiet and easy as he could. The boy shook his head no. "Is he inside?" The boy couldn't seem to make up his mind; he was pretty much out of sorts.

Jimmy pried the boy out of his arms, and gave him to me, and then he took off again. I didn't get to see much, because I was wrestling with the little boy -- he wanted Jimmy, and it was all I could do to keep him quiet. That's the last I saw of Jimmy. Alive, anyway. We found his body later on. And Rusty? Rusty was the girl in El Paso, the kid's sister.

There's about four or five hours there that I don't remember too much of. We all had plenty to do, getting the kids taken care of, finding the parents. Someone tried to locate Jimmy's next of kin, but they didn't get very far, I know that much. We took his body to the undertaker, and then I went home. Nita was crying; the word must have spread pretty quick. I guess I don't know if I was crying or not, but I hugged her real close and I felt better for it. She was all mixed up, so happy to see me alive, and sad about Jimmy, sad for me, too. Our little ones didn't know what to make of all of it. Nita said something to them, and it seemed to calm them down a bit. Around then I went to bed, it must've been afternoon. I heard the telephone ring a couple times, but Nita answered it.

When I got up, it was dark already. Nita was gone to the church to pray; she had taken the kids. I found the note and some dinner cooked for me. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, so I ate it right down. She came back about the time I was finishing up. The church was going to have a Rosary the next day, and the city was thinking of taking care of the burial, since none of Jimmy's family had been found. They were making one last try, though; some folks from the town were in his room looking to see if they could dig up any letters from home. The family whose house had burned down were staying with neighbors.

I didn't say much, so she sat down and held my hand for awhile. To tell the truth, I was still sort of stunned, so there wasn't much I could say. I stayed up a little while watching the TV, and then we went to bed.

Next day, the Intelligencer ran this big story on the fire and Jimmy. It turned out that those phone calls I had heard had been from the paper, wanting to talk to me about Jimmy. Thank God, Juanita knew better than to let them at me, because there was nothing I could have said that would have made sense. The story was too dolled up for my taste: What Jimmy did was amazing enough all by itself, and it didn't need any glorifying to be done to it.

The paper also ran a story about the city council paying for the funeral and buying his plot. And the editorial had that Scripture quote, "Greater love hath no man than him who would lay down his life for his neighbor." True enough, I thought.

Nita and me went to the Rosary. The church was packed. The family whose kids he saved were there, even though they weren't Catholics. I saw the wife pointing me out to her husband, and he came over to me, to say something to me. But he didn't know what to say. He said thank you a few times, and, "I'm so sorry about him dying." I shook his hand. The other firemen were there, and he went around to all of them.

Late that night, when we were back home, I was just beginning to notice that Jimmy was really gone, when we heard people knocking at our front door. We didn't have any idea who might be wanting to see us. It was some of the city council people, and a few of the "civic" women. I let them in, and called to Nita, but one of the councilmen, the man whose toilet I had fixed that summer, said, "You might not want her to see this."

By this time, we were all in the parlor, and Nita was getting everyone to sit down, but the councilman wouldn't. They showed me what they had in their hands, and it was about half a dozen magazines. I had never seen them before. There were some called Physique and such, and one by the "Athletic Model Guild."

The councilman said, "We found these in Mr. Doyle's room. Maybe you can tell us something about them."

"I've never seen them before," I said, so he handed me one, the Athletic Model Guild one. It was full of pictures of young men with hardly anything on, and what they did have on was nothing I'd ever seen before, at least not on anyone I knew. One guy had on a helmet that looked like it came from ancient Rome, and this big imitation sword in his hand. Another one had nothing on but a g-string. I never knew men wore them. The men were all posed in peculiar positions, like statues. What was the strangest of all was that the magazine cost maybe ten dollars. And those pictures, well, I would have laughed out loud if all those folks weren't looking so serious in such a professional way.

"Pretty strange, I guess," is all that I said.

"It's more than strange, Mr. Casimir Mayevsky," said the councilman, with a touch too much emphasis on my name. Some of the other folks must have thought that was going too far, because I could see them shifting around in their boots. But he wasn't about to quit. "This man was a sodomite. If you think I'm going to let the city pay for this man's funeral, you'd better think something different. What I find 'pretty strange' is that you don't seem to know anything about it."

"Well, I didn't." I looked at Nita then, to make sure she knew that I meant it.

"I suppose we'll have to believe you," he said, but what he meant was that he thought I was lying. Then one of the women stood up, so he started for the door, the whole bunch of them following after.

By now, I was a little angry. I said, "You mean to say you're going to forget he saved those kids' lives because of some crazy books he had? Why, you don't even know if he actually did anything!" But just then I remembered about the lizard boots and the smoke.

None of them said a word. They all left, and I followed them out to the porch and watched while they left. Did they all think that? Nita came up and hugged me and kissed me but, in bed later on, she asked, "Cas, tell me, de veras, truly, did you know?"

"Truly, Nita, I didn't know. I didn't know about any of this. My God, Nita, I don't know what to think now. He saved two kids' lives, he died, and they want to bring him back and hang him. And, you know, I thought I knew him, and now I don't know that, either."

"But didn't you ever have any idea?"

So I told her about the boots, and how I had figured him to be with a woman. It seemed to reassure her that I was just plain dumb and not queer.

As we were trying to get back to sleep, both of us itchy as you can be, she asked me, "What makes people that way?"

"Hell if I know," I told her. "One minute you think they're decent folks, and the next they're trying to hang you from the nearest tree."

Nita laughed, but it was more a sigh. "No, honey, I meant Jimmy."

"Hell if I know that, neither." I couldn't think to laugh about it, but it felt a lot lighter there in the bedroom, and we fell asleep in each other's arms.

That councilman had a half-interest in the Intelligencer, so you can guess whose opinion got to be plastered all over the front page the next morning. They actually said it was a good thing that Jimmy had died. Otherwise, he might have spread his perversion around, and poisoned our kids. That's what they said.

Jimmy got a funeral, of course, though there wasn't a funeral mass. And the parents of the two kids paid for the plot. They hadn't much reason left to stay in town, though, so they were gone pretty soon after. And I guess that's why there was no headstone.

There's another reason, of course: Me. I could have gotten a stone for him, but I didn't. I didn't go to the funeral, either. I was wanting to go, but Nita kept telling me how it might not look good if I did. I told her I didn't care how it looked. I was still Jimmy's friend, and a friend still owes you that much. Especially when everyone else is against you.

Nita was crying by then. "Yes. I know, Cas. It's terrible what they're doing. He doesn't deserve this. But he's dead! You can't bring him back, and you can't change their minds."

"Even so..." I began, but Nita played her high card.

"What about your sons? Don't you care what they're going to have to go through when they go to school? Everyone's going to make fun of them, because their father is a fruit."

"But I'm not!"

"But that's what they'll think if you go."

So, I didn't go. I felt ashamed, you know, but I still didn't go. In fact, Juanita was right. The only ones who did go were the family with the two kids he saved and the councilman, and he went to check on who was there. A couple weeks later, I sneaked out there one night. I actually waited until it was a dark night, no moon, so no one could see me walking out to the cemetery and looking for the grave. The only way I could find it was it was the only one still fresh.

It was all by itself. I should have brought flowers, of course, but I forgot. I had nothing to put on the grave, and I couldn't think of anything to say. What could I tell him? I'm sorry I didn't have enough spine to be there when it counted? So I just hung around for awhile and walked back home.

Now, you might think that this story could end here, but it doesn't. It seemed to take forever for people to shut up about Jimmy. I kept hearing snide remarks behind my back.

But it wasn't just Jimmy that they were aiming at. Some of the time it was me. The men at the firehouse wouldn't hardly even speak to me anymore, so I stopped hanging around. One time, while we were in town grocery shopping, we passed by one of my drinking buddies from before, one of the ones Nita called a drunken loudmouth. He was sitting on the plaza with some of the others. When we came up, he stood and took off his hat and said, real solemn, "Sorry to hear about your husband, ma'am." And then he said it to me, too, "Sorry to hear about your husband, ma'am."

Nita tried to stop me, "¡Déjalo, es loco!"   But it was too late. I punched him out, and then we were into it. I can't say as I came out of it any better than he did, but it did feel good to answer back just once. And word got around, so I didn't have to hear any more of that stuff. Not that it wasn't being said, mind you, but at least it wasn't being said around me.

That wasn't all of it, though. There were the 'upright citizens' of the town, too. They didn't say anything directly, but they stopped calling me to do their plumbing. I didn't worry too much on that score, because I was the only plumber in town, and there's just so long you can go on without fixing what has to be fixed. Sooner or later, they had to call me, and if it was later you can bet it was a lot more expensive. The councilman called in a plumber all the way from El Paso, but that didn't catch on; he didn't really want to come down here, and he charged a hell of a lot for it.

Some gave up the fight then. But a few still felt they had some score to settle with me, like I had actually done something to them. A few of them wouldn't pay me for my work. That had never happened before, except if a family couldn't afford to pay me. This was something a lot different, so I finally went to the police, to see what I had to do, just to get them to talk to my customers, to get them to pay. The chief listened, and then the very first thing he asked me was, "Well, did you know anything about him and that trash he had?"

I said I didn't, and I didn't even mention the boots. He must have believed me, so he allowed as how he might talk to some of them. And the wind-up was that they did all pay up, and after that things pretty much quietened down. Nita went back to her family ten years ago and the kids have both gone off to college and made something of themselves.

So that's how it was when the Dignity people showed up, this past week. They knew about the story somehow, and they wanted to find his grave, to give him a proper headstone. I heard about it from one of the younger men in town, he couldn't have been more than ten when Jimmy died. He was laughing his ass off over it when he called me. He told me that this group from Tucson were looking for Jimmy's grave; they were all Catholics and they called themselves Dignity.

"Dignity! Next thing you know they'll make him a saint! Well, anyway, I thought you'd like to know, they'll probably be pestering you sometime soon. I expect you know better than to be too chummy with them."

"What?" I replied. "What do you mean?"

"Well, Mister M, there's still folks who think you and Mr. Doyle were a little more than friendly."

I wasn't ever going to be rid of that, was I? Here it was, twenty-five years later, Nita over in Silver City taking care of her folks, my kids already leading their own lives back East. But that little shit had to bring it up one more time. I was just about to finally give him a piece of my mind, but he hung up before I could say any more.

The Dignity group did come by, not more than an hour later. From over by Tucson. They never even knew Jimmy to start with, but here they were. It was me they came after, because no one else in town knew where the plot was anymore. I almost missed it myself. I should have spotted it right off, but somehow I couldn't locate him to save my life. That's when I saw the tree. It hadn't been but a sapling the last time I'd come, and now here it was right in front of the grave.

So I showed them, and then I left. It seemed kind of private then, even though I was the one had known Jimmy. "James Doyle" is what it says on the stone. "Jim" is how he used to introduce himself. We were buddies, friends, and that's it. No more, no less. And he's dead, twenty-five years dead. And now there was a stone so you could see that he lived and he died. Amen. I'd wondered at first whether Dignity might be a high-handed sort of name, but I thought of Jimmy just then, and that bastard who'd just called me, and I decided that Jimmy could stand a little dignity after all. Even so, I hardly said much to them, just showed them where the spot was. Maybe I really was afraid, or maybe there was just too much to say and I didn't know how to say it. But I did what I had to.

After they went, I got to thinking about Jimmy, and about my not going to his funeral. It hadn't saved me any trouble with the town, and it made me ashamed. Finally, I went to see the priest, yesterday, Saturday. He wasn't the same priest as buried Jimmy; in fact, he didn't know me at all. It had been years since I'd last been to the church, but the confessional was still there; that much hadn't changed. I still knew the confession. It was embarrassing to tell him how many years it had been since my last confession. I went on and told him about Jimmy, and my not being there when he was laid to rest. I asked him if that was a sin.

He said he didn't think so, and then he asked me the same old question; by now it had gotten curdled in my stomach. I told him, no, we were friends, and then he went and asked me about all the other sins I'd committed since then. I guess they do add up over the years, but none so bad as that one. He gave me a penance to do. But he never caught on to the fact that I still didn't feel easy, not at all. So I actually had to come out and ask him if it would be all right if I paid a visit to the grave. I guess he must have just shrugged his shoulders, because I couldn't hardly make out what he said.

So, that's what I did, Sunday, today. I went during Church. I wanted to be alone, but the Dignity group were all there, having some kind of service of their own. Mostly it was pretty solemn, but a few of the men were carrying on, especially this one young Spanish guy -- he would've probably called himself a Mexican or a Chicano, he had that feisty look. I was surprised that they let him go on the way he did, but it didn't seem to bother them any.

I had to wait in my car for maybe a half hour for them to get done; I wanted this to be between me and Jimmy. When they finally were all packed away in their cars, I came out and walked over to the grave. I stood there a little bit, and then I said, out loud, "Jimmy, they say God forgives me for not coming to your funeral. I guess I knew that all along, though. That's not the hard part, Jimmy. The hard part is wondering whether you forgive me."

Right then, I felt this hand on my arm. All over again, I was afraid, and I hated myself for it even right then, and I turned around quick to see who had overheard me. It was that Mexican kid I had seen with the Dignity fellows, no more than twenty, with a bouquet of flowers for the grave. I was so glad it wasn't someone from town that heard me, but at the same time I was somehow scared anyway.

I shook his hand off. I felt really angry that this little squirt had been listening in to what I was saying. But he was very respectful.

"I didn't mean to eavesdrop," he said. "I'm really sorry." He put the flowers on the grave. "Is there anything I can do?" He was a short kid, but he was pretty well built. If he'd wanted to, he could've looked just like anyone else, if he didn't dress so flashy and carry on the way he did.

"There's not much you can do, kid," I said. "What's done is done."

"You mean, about not going to the funeral."

"Yes," I said. I must have been whispering very low, because he took a step closer.

"I think he's already forgiven you. He understands."

"How do you know!" I said. Who was he to say that?

"Come on, man, give it a rest. He knew what it was like all his life. I know; I used to be just like that before I came out. Whenever I was in public I'd try to be so proper. And I'd never be caught talking to any of those 'queers.'"

He was right. I mean, Jimmy hadn't ever said anything to me the whole time I'd known him. Still and all, I wasn't very happy about having been such a coward. I couldn't see how anything could make that right. I said, "Thank you," but I knew he was looking right through me.

"You know," he said, "Saint Peter pretended he didn't know Jesus. Three times."

"Yes, I know that," I answered. So what, I thought.

"He didn't go to Hell, you know."

I tried to figure out if he was serious, but his face didn't look any different.

"So maybe it's okay. Maybe you're not going to Hell, either."

It could have been something Jimmy would've said! It was like he knew all the stuff I had wanted to say all those years and even the stuff I didn't know how to say. I laughed at him, and he laughed back. I pulled him in to me, and held him in my arms. I hadn't touched anyone in so many years, and I hadn't ever cried for Jimmy before at all. But I did then, and if there was anyone out there from town, I truly didn't care.


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