Illustration by Stacy Reece
Illustration by Stacy Reece

Little Boys Hiding in Closets

An excerpt from “No Son of Mine,” author Jonathan Corcoran’s memoir of growing up gay—and disowned—in Appalachia

Excerpted from Jonathan Corcoran’s No Son of Mine, which will be published on April 1, 2024 by the University Press of Kentucky. Copyright 2024, Jonathan Corcoran.

February 2020

It’s the before-times. I’m not yet teaching English Composition with a camera from my couch; my husband isn’t yet conducting therapy sessions from the bedroom. These things will come soon enough, but for now, we’re unbothered. We’re taking a walk through our neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s February and we’re trying to stay warm, and I keep making him stop to touch the fabric of my coat—it’s a soft, brown wool that soaks up every last bit of the winter sun. Touch it, touch it, I say, and he obliges each time. We’ve been taking versions of this walk for the last fifteen years.

We walk and we chat and we point at the fancy apartments that we’ll never afford. Though it feels like no time has passed, we’ve been out for a couple of miles and our legs grow tired, so we turn to go home. We find ourselves approaching the too-expensive Key Food on Seventh Avenue, and Sam, my husband, has the thought that he wants to buy some ingredients for dinner. We hate the place—the prices, the poor quality of the produce—but it’s there and we’re almost back to our apartment; why would we head two avenues over to save five bucks?

We huddle just off the avenue, near the loading dock of the grocery store. Sam is relaying his list of ingredients—orzo, hot peppers, mint, fennel—when my sister Jackie calls. She never calls. We speak once or twice a year.

I should take this, I tell him. It’ll only be a minute and I’ll meet him inside. Would he mind? And of course he doesn’t care, because he does most of the shopping and the cooking, and I do the cleaning and the dishes. We’ve had a clear division of labor for the better part of a decade.

I lean against the brick wall of the store, between the loading dock and the fresh flower stall. Across the street is an old church. This is Park Slope, so adjacent to the loading dock is a row of well-preserved brownstones.

“Hello, sister,” I say.

Jackie lives in a trailer just outside of the town where we both grew up, back in our mountainous corner of rural West Virginia. There’s a creek that runs behind her trailer, like there’s a creek behind our childhood home. The creek behind her trailer sometimes runs orange from acid mine runoff, and the one behind our old house turns cloudy when a neighbor drains their washing machine straight into the water.

What she says comes out so fast. She says, Hi, Mom’s in the hospital, she’s in the psych ward, locked up. Teresa, our other sister, drove her there.

“The psych ward? What is this about Teresa?”

Hallucinations, she says. A breakdown. She’s seen children in the closet. Your closet, Jackie says. Little boys from the neighborhood. Mom called Teresa at work and said, “Tell them to come out and stop playing tricks on me!”

She’s speaking too quickly. I can’t make any sense of it.

Hallucinations, she says. A breakdown. She’s seen children in the closet. Your closet, Jackie says. Little boys from the neighborhood. Mom called Teresa at work and said, “Tell them to come out and stop playing tricks on me!”

Inside the grocery store, Sam is buying salad greens and orzo and little red peppers. Outside, I am holding a cell phone too firmly against my ear.

Jackie says, Mom called Teresa at work, and then Mom drove herself to the gambling parlor where Teresa worked, and Mom just kept insisting it was true, that the boys were there, and she wouldn’t listen to anybody. Teresa had to get her boss to cover for her. She had to leave her job for the day, leave behind her customers who’d come to play video slots and keno. Her boss told her to go, that he’d been through something similar. When I first hear that word, similar, I can’t understand what Jackie is trying to say to me, what Teresa’s boss was implying.

I will understand soon enough. That same day, or maybe in a day or two, Jackie will get on the phone with the specialist. Dementia, the doctor will tell her. Maybe Alzheimer’s, but likely Lewy body dementia. The symptoms of Lewy body dementia can appear suddenly, often with a hallucination—visions of things that aren’t really there—like little boys hiding in the closet of your only son’s childhood bedroom. What I’ll learn is that you can never really know what’s going on with the brain, that things like dementia are nearly impossible to diagnose 100 percent accurately—not until the patient has died, until a skull is cut open.

I am shaking when Sam comes out with provisions for our dinner, though a part of me wants to laugh. My mother is locked up in the psych ward in the very same hospital where I was born. And after everything we’ve gone through, all the screaming and crying and cursing, the years-long silences—apology after apology for the devil inside her—where does she go, what does she see? Little boys hiding in closets.

The creek behind Jonathan Corcoran's childhood home in West Virginia
The creek behind Jonathan Corcoran's childhood home in West Virginia

March 2020

We’re taking a walk to Greenwood Cemetery. The month is now March, and this is my answer to the buzzing chaos. In fact, taking walks is about the only thing that reminds me that my body is still affected by gravity, that I’m not going to float off into the sky.

The walk from our apartment to the entrance gates of Greenwood takes about forty-five minutes. This is the furthest we’ve walked since it happened. The we is my husband and myself, Sam and me. What happened—the it—is debatable. That’s what we’re talking about on this walk, what we’ve been talking about nonstop for a month straight, and really, what we’ve been talking about for the entirety of our relationship, when fifteen years ago my mother uttered a phrase that changed my life.

What we’re talking about is her dementia, of course, but the line goes backward and forward. What we’re talking about happened fifteen years ago, and what we’re talking about is happening now. What we’re talking about is her body and her mind, is a cascading series of events that, remarkably, considering the time in which we live, has almost nothing to do with Covid. But Covid is, of course, another thing that we’re talking about on this walk. It’s here, in New York. We know almost nothing about it. We have no treatments. The hospitals are overflowing, there are trucks full of refrigerated bodies lining nearby blocks, and I spend my days—when I’m not walking—counting ambulance sirens. Six minutes, I decide. There’s a siren every six minutes.

We’re walking to Greenwood Cemetery to find gravity and, though I haven’t admitted this yet, to find silence. Greenwood, with its 600,000 bodies, is the quietest place I’ve found in the city.

I’m digging my fingers into Sam’s arms. It’s like when we fly. I can’t get over my fear that every bump of turbulence is the one, no matter how many statistics I read, no matter how faithfully I do what the behavioral psychologists say, which is, of all things, to firmly press one’s rear into the airplane seat. Pretend you’re in a car, they say. Feel the bumps. So I make sure that Sam and I sit together when we fly, because my fears haven’t yet overridden my desire to travel. I shove my rear into the narrow seat, and I dig my fingers so hard into Sam’s skin that he spends all of our vacations with bruised biceps.

I’m not there, that place that was once my home, and I haven’t been there for a long time. We argue, and Jackie wins. My mother will not go to a nursing home. She will live with Jackie in a trailer by the rusty-orange creek.

We arrive at the cemetery, and we tilt our heads up to spot the parakeets. It’s an unusual sight—a colony of bright, tropical green birds here in the middle of Brooklyn, the twigs of their enormous, communal nest spilling from every odd window of the arched, gothic towers of the cemetery entrance. Monk parakeets. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Some people claim they originated from a broken crate at JFK airport. Others say they were merely pets released to the wild.

I say to Sam, “Do you remember the Bernstein concert?”

And he says, “Of course.”

It was 2018, two years earlier. We’d walked into the cemetery—through the arches, past the squawking parakeets—and there was a youth orchestra playing the score to West Side Story.

We’d sat down on the lawn then, and I’d become transfixed by the jerkiness of the rhythms—how alive Bernstein seemed to me, even with the syncopation of the timpani beats and the horn blows echoing off the two-hundred-year-old mausoleums, even as I glanced at a backdrop of a thousand, thousand tombstones—including one, somewhere just out of sight, engraved with his name. It was his birthday celebration. He would have been 100.

Today the cemetery is quiet. This is what I’m looking for, an escape from the death and dying outside—the ambulance sirens, the bodies in the trucks, the newscasters who warn of apocalypse. Her.

When my mother was sent to the psych ward, they ran tests. They found other things, dangerous things that she had known about but ignored. The aneurysm in her stomach had gotten so large that it could just burst. The blocked arteries in her neck and leg would cause strokes. It was surgery or death, the doctor said. Maybe not tomorrow, he’d said, but these things will kill her. And so we convinced her, my sisters and I, through the fog clouding her mind, that surgery was what she needed.

And so here we are: she is recuperating at the hospital; the surgeries have gone well. But there’s a new rub. The doctor says she can never live alone again. Jackie and I have been fighting over this point. Teresa, the oldest sibling, has stayed mostly neutral. What am I to say, 400 miles away in Brooklyn? Where have I been for the past fifteen years to suddenly assert my opinion? Jackie, the middle child, does not make these points, but they’re implied. She needs proper care, I say. Jackie says it’s cruel, the idea of putting her in a home with strangers. I’m not there, that place that was once my home, and I haven’t been there for a long time. We argue, and Jackie wins. My mother will not go to a nursing home. She will live with Jackie in a trailer by the rusty-orange creek.

I’m walking through the cemetery with my husband, distracting myself with improbable parakeets and memories of Leonard Bernstein. We walk and talk and I squeeze Sam’s arm, and I’m afraid that if I stop moving—if I stop too long to look at the tombstones, if I stop to ponder the decaying bodies underneath the grass—I’ll have to admit the truth.

Her body is breaking down. Her mind is failing. Clogged arteries. Holes in her stomach. Holes in her brain. What could have been, that’s over. What we are now—that’s as good as it’s going to get. It might even get worse. The time to work on our relationship is nearing the end, I want to say, but in reality the time to work on our relationship is up.

We have to keep moving.

Section break curlicue

We come home from our walk, and I release Sam’s arm. I don’t check his skin for bruises. We are tired, out of breath. Our building is on a busy corner of Flatbush Avenue. It sits on a triangular lot, like a miniature Brooklyn Flatiron. We march up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. Our windows face south across a small, triangular courtyard. We have a view of painted white bricks.

There are two great things about the little apartment—the first is the cheap rent, and the second is that despite the brick-wall view, the windows face south and we’re on the top floor, which means the apartment is surprisingly bright—so bright that I’ve kept alive a calamondin orange tree, a stick of a thing that has nonetheless fruited a handful of tiny oranges. An orange tree in Brooklyn! I tell anyone who will listen.

We’re sitting on the couch, and my mind is racing. The ambulances are whirring down Vanderbilt, down Flatbush. I’m afraid to read the news, but I do so anyway. My mother is in a hospital bed recovering from surgery. One day she’s there, and one day she doesn’t even know the day of the week. I’m looking for the right word—is her memory fragile? Is it already broken? The doctor says these things can progress in days or decades. He doesn’t specify what he means by things.

I wonder if she remembers what we’ve been through: if she remembers when it first happened, if she remembers all the years we spent in silence. I count the breaks, the years when I no longer had a mother. Her golden child afflicted with that thing—she could barely say it. She had to spit to get the word out of her mouth.

There’s a danger to sitting on the couch during times like these. I’m floating, floating away, back there to what it felt like. To be a boy, a young man, suddenly alone. To be cast out of the lives of the ones I loved.

How many years did she cry alone in the darkness?

There’s a danger to sitting on the couch during times like these. I’m floating, floating away, back there to what it felt like. To be a boy, a young man, suddenly alone. To be cast out of the lives of the ones I loved. And I recognize this fact is important, this word in particular—that if I were the one with holes growing inside my head, I’d need to remember that there was love—there was always so much love. For the first twenty years, I was her golden child, and she was my mother, and that all this happened in spite of love.

I count the years of silence. I close my eyes. I see the holes in her gray matter—the dementia creeping forward.

Ambulances whir. A plague descends.

I’d always known what would happen, and yet I’d almost willed her to say it.

I’m on the couch. I search frantically for Sam, but he’s right there, in the bedroom.

I call for him to come sit with me. I pat the couch cushion. I beckon.

I need you, I don’t say.

I run a hand through his thick, dark hair, my fingers forcing the worry lines on his forehead to appear.

There it is again—the gravity I need.

Section break curlicue

We’ve only been home for a few hours. My body starts aching first. Sam’s begins to ache only minutes later. We pace the floor, afraid to admit what’s happening. We wake in the middle of the night burning with the first signs of fever. My skin is on fire. My bones are screaming, as if they’re being ground through the wheel of a mill. We have pinching headaches. Sam loses his smell and taste. I’ll lose mine a few days later.

Sam has a cough, and before long, we can barely walk the short space from our bed to the bathroom. The news says the city’s hospitals are far, far beyond capacity, to only come in an extreme emergency. Elective procedures have been canceled. There are no beds. There is no room left in the morgue. There are bodies in freezer trucks just down the block. There are hardly any Covid tests, and certainly none for us. No one knows exactly how the disease progresses. Our family doctor sees us by video, our drooping faces against the off-white walls of our rental. She says to monitor our symptoms, to take painkillers, vitamin C, and zinc.

There are no painkillers left on Amazon or at the local pharmacies. We aren’t allowed to leave our apartment; we can’t risk infecting anyone. We have enough acetaminophen for eight days. We hope that will be enough. We know almost nothing about this disease. Our bodies are burning, and we hope that we won’t die.

On Saturday, one day into our illness, Teresa texts me to tell me that our mother has recovered enough from her surgery to be sent home, a word that now means Jackie’s trailer. On the morning of Monday, March 31, 2020, on the fourth day of our illness, after so much sweating and writhing, we wake, and it seems we might be turning a corner. I am sitting upright on the couch when Teresa calls me to tell me that our mother has died sometime in the middle of the night. Teresa says she is on her way to Jackie’s trailer to see the body. What I hear is that Jackie saw her and started to scream. What I hear is that when Jackie calmed down, she noticed that our mother was sitting in a chair with her eyes tilted up toward the ceiling. She was in heaven with Dad now, Jackie or Teresa or both of them will tell me.

I know that to survive, we must sometimes compartmentalize. We must set aside things to process later, when we have the health and distance. We must prioritize the things that keep us living and breathing.

Jackie will tell me that she threw out the chair, that she couldn’t stand to look at it, that she couldn’t imagine sitting in it ever again.

Section break curlicue

Here is what I feel that morning: I am not, in fact, better. The news of her death is like throwing gasoline onto my skin. My body is burning, inside and out. The sickness and her death burn me and pulverize me. Covid is a bone crusher; that’s what I’ll tell people.

I hang up the phone. There will be more phone conversations later, but I’ll remember less of these. Sam and I remove our clothes and step naked and fevered into a lukewarm shower. We hold each other, and I am deadly serious when I speak to him. I say, “We can cry for twenty-four hours. After that, we have to put this away.” I am afraid that my grief will spiral. I know that grief has a physical effect. We are on the cusp of recovery or relapse. This disease is novel, unpredictable. I have suffered enough. I have seen what this kind of sadness can do. I do not want to die.

I put to use the lessons I have learned from my turbulent relationship with my mother. I know that to survive, we must sometimes compartmentalize. We must set aside things to process later, when we have the health and distance. We must prioritize the things that keep us living and breathing. The danger in this is the risk of forgetting. But sometimes forgetting is not a danger at all.

We stand in our naked embrace in that tight shower with our skin on fire and the cool water pouring down over us. I hold Sam and look out the cracked bathroom window to the bright white bricks. As we hold each other, as the water pours from the showerhead, as the spring air blows through the window and rinses our skin, I say to Sam something that I have meant more than anything else I have ever said to him. I say, “I need you to live.”

Author Profile

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the forthcoming memoir, No Son of Mine (April 2024), which was awarded a Kirkus Star. His story collection, The Rope Swingwas named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. His essays and stories have been published and anthologized widely, including in Still: The Journal, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia, Best Gay Stories, and the Oxford University Press textbook, How Writing Works. He received a bachelor's degree in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Jonathan teaches writing at New York University and in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He was born and raised in Elkins, West Virginia, and currently lives in Brooklyn.

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