Monday, December 2, 2013

Straightening Up short story by Jeffrey Ricker

For most people the holidays mean family, togetherness, and focusing on the things that matter most in life. For Greg in Straightening Up, a short story by Jeffrey Ricker, it means taking the artwork off the walls, putting away photographs, and sleeping single, because this Christmas his partner Michael's mother is coming to visit. Things would be easier if Michael would finally come out to her, but until he gets the guts to do that, it's up to Greg to do some straightening up. A holiday short story.

Straightening Up
Untreed Reads Publishing (2012)

“No, it’s okay, really. There’s plenty of room here. So why isn’t Dad coming…? Oh, well, if he
has to, he has to. What’s your flight number?”

Greg peered over the top of the newspaper. Michael clutched the phone between his ear and
shoulder while he wrote something on a notepad; all the while, he made a point of avoiding
eye contact. He had stopped writing now and was idly drawing circles. Michael rolled his eyes.

“Okay, I’ll be there. No, I won’t forget... Okay... Me too, Mom. Bye.”

Greg folded the newspaper and tossed it onto the coffee table. Michael continued to stare at
the pad, tapped it with the pen.

“When does she get here?” Greg asked.

“This Tuesday.”

“Tuesday? She could have given us a little notice.”

Michael looked up, finally. “You agreed you wouldn’t make a big deal about this.”

“I didn’t think I was going to have to do this every time she comes to visit. Aren’t you ever
going to tell her that we’re friends in that special way?”

“Very funny.”

“It didn’t kill your dad.” Michael’s father had guessed, actually, and it amazed Greg that
Michael’s mother hadn’t.

“No, but she still expects grandchildren—try explaining that one to her.”

“Lovely.” Greg grabbed his coffee cup and headed to the kitchen.

It was snowing again. Christmas lights glowed in some of the windows across the alley. Greg
was staring at them when Michael came up behind him and put his arms around Greg’s
waist. He rested his chin on Greg’s shoulder.

“How come your dad’s not coming with her?” Greg asked.

“He’s got a meeting in New York on the 27th. He’s spending Christmas with my Uncle Ed in

“And we get your mom,” Greg muttered, pouring himself another cup.

“I thought you liked my mother.”

“I do like your mother.” She was sweet, but not so much that it was embarrassing. She tried
to make Greg call her “Mom,” though he was only comfortable calling her Mrs. R. “I don’t 
like not being able to lay a hand on her little boy for—how long is she going to be here?”

“Until the 30th.”

“I might explode.” Greg turned from the counter, crossed his arms, and glared at a point on
Michael’s forehead. Michael kissed him.

“I’m not that easily bribed.”

Michael shrugged and reached for the zipper of Greg’s jeans.

“Jeez! Don’t be so crass.” Greg picked up his cup, stepped around Michael, and retreated to
the living room.

“Do you have to make this so difficult?” Michael flopped onto the sofa next to Greg, who
was pretending to be interested in the business section of the Post.

“You know what would make things easier? If you told her the truth.”

“You mean like it made things easier with your parents?”

Greg narrowed his eyes. “That was low.” Greg’s parents had not reacted as well as he’d
hoped. They were still talking to him, but he could almost hear them cringe over the phone
whenever he mentioned Michael’s name. They’d never met him and probably never would; it
was one of many reasons Greg was glad they lived several hundred miles away.

“I’m sorry.” Michael took his hand. “Just do this for me, okay?”

Greg kept his gaze fixed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average for all of three seconds. “You
sleep on the couch this time. I’ll take the guest bedroom. It’s supposed to be mine, anyway.”
Michael kissed him roughly on the side of the head. “Bless you, light of my life. I promise
I’ll make it up to you.”

“There just better be something really good for me under the Christmas tree.”


The first things Michael put away were photographs. Not all of them, just the ones they were
in together—the vacation they took camping in Washington (try and explain why there was
only one sleeping bag clearly visible in the tent), the Halloween party (Michael was Caesar, 
Greg was Mark Antony—though he’d threatened to go as Cleopatra), and a couple more that
Michael thought might border on the obscene.

Next was artwork. Down came Herb Ritts and Keith Haring, up went Ansel Adams—not to
say Greg didn’t like Ansel, but it was the principle.

The bookshelves also got a thorough going over. Out went the books by Edmund White,
Armistead Maupin—even, among others, Howards End by E.M. Forster. Greg pointed out 
the only suggestive thing about the book was its title, and Maurice, which was far more 
blatant, was still on the shelf. Michael took that too.

Gina, Greg’s best friend from college, called this bizarre ritual “straightening up.” If it was
possible, she looked on it with even less humor than Greg.

“I don’t believe you,” she told Michael over coffee after dinner on Monday. “Your mother
comes in for a week and suddenly you’re this neurotic house cleaner. Are you going to toss 
Greg in a box too while you’re at it?”

“I get put in the closet,” Greg said. He thought it was clever, but Michael gripped his coffee
cup tighter, and his eyebrows dipped down toward his nose.

“Besides,” she went on, “how can you possibly think your mother doesn’t know already? 
For crying out loud, it’s not like either of you is all that subtle.”

“Oh, thank you very much,” Greg said in feigned indignation. Neither Michael nor Gina 
seemed to notice.

“That’s not fair,” Michael said. “It’s not like I enjoy doing this.”

“I’ll tell you who it’s not fair to.” She lumped spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her
coffee. “Greg shouldn’t have to put up with this.”

“Gina—” Greg began, but Michael cut him off.

“I think that’s between him and me, actually,” he said. “I’m not forcing him to do anything.”

That stopped Greg in mid-gulp. “Excuse me?”

Michael looked at him with surprise. “I’m not making you do this.”

“Really? What would you have done if I’d said no?”

Michael looked baffled, as if that thought hadn’t occurred to him before. For a while, the
three of them drank coffee in silence.


Michael went alone to pick up his mother. They arrived home around 8:15 in the evening.
Mrs. R breezed in, followed by Michael, who wore the expression of someone waiting for a
grenade to explode. She shook off the light dusting of snow that clung to the shoulders of 
her green wool coat, and came over to give Greg a hug and a peck on the cheek. Her lips
were frosty; the cold sharpened the scent of rose in her perfume. She smiled.

“Have you gotten taller?” she asked. Greg helped her out of her coat.

“I don’t think so. I’ve been the same height since I was eighteen.”

“Well, if you’re lucky, everything else will stay the same as when you were eighteen.” She
set one of her suitcases on the ottoman in front of the corner chair. Sitting down, she undid
the latches and flipped the lid open. “Has my son been behaving himself as a decent 

A decent roommate, and remarkably limber, Greg thought, but resisted the temptation to
say it. “When he’s not getting on my case about leaving dirty dishes in the sink.”

She cocked an eyebrow in Michael’s direction as he came in with three cups of coffee. “He’s
a fine one to talk. He used to drink straight from the milk carton when he was a kid.”

“What do you mean ‘used to’?”

She peered over her glasses at her son. “I can see I’m going to have to have a word with him.
Ah, here we go.” She withdrew several small wrapped parcels from the suitcase. “Time for

She tossed one of the boxes to Greg and one to Michael. Greg’s was a fountain pen with a
black marble casing and a gold nib.

“That’s because you probably don’t write to your parents often enough, if you’re anything
like Michael,” she said. As Greg thanked her, Michael opened his—a green marble ballpoint

“That’s because I know you don’t write often enough,” she said.

Matching presents, Greg thought. How quaint. Either she knew or he’d been unofficially


While Mrs. R helped Michael make up the living room sofa, Greg washed out coffee cups in
the kitchen. He listened above the running water to their conversation, his ears perking
when she said his name.

“I hope it’s not because I’m here,” she said.

“I don’t think so.” The snap of a sheet punctuated his sentence. “I think he was counting on
being with his family this Christmas. He just couldn’t get time off from work.”

“Well, hopefully we can make it up to him.” There was a pause. “I thought you said they
were out of the country.”

“Well, they are. They offered to buy him a ticket to London as a Christmas present, but he
couldn’t get off work for long enough to really do it right, you know? So, he decided just to 
stay here.”

What a save, Greg thought. Michael was getting far too good at covering up one lie with

“That’s too bad,” Michael’s mom said. “I’d love to go to London. I still remember the first
time I went. It was before I met your dad—”

“I know, Mom,” Michael said, his tone indicating just how many times he’d heard that story.

“Hey, humor your old mother,” she said. “You sure you’ll be all right out here? We could
always switch. Your legs are definitely going to hang over the edge.”

“Mom,” he said, “I’ll be fine. And you’re not old.”

Greg turned off the tap and, wiping his hands on a towel, walked into the living room. “He’s
used to the sofa. Half the time I come home and he’s asleep on it with the TV still going.”

“Just like his father.” She sat down and fluffed a pillow. “You’re turning in too?”

“Yeah, I’ve got to go to work in the morning. Some of us couldn’t get the whole week off
before Christmas. It’s good to see you, Mrs. R.”

“You too, dear.” Greg leaned down and she kissed his cheek.

Greg looked at Michael as he straightened up. Michael’s expression was unreadable; Greg
tried not to make an accusation out of his own.

“‘Night,” Greg said, padded off to the guest bedroom and shut the door.


For two hours, Greg alternated between staring at the clock and staring at the ceiling. The
bed in the guest room was small and bulged in the middle. It was like balancing on the back 
of a camel. From the other bedroom, he could hear Michael’s mother breathing. She didn’t 
snore exactly—she was far too nice for that, and the sound she made was far more delicate.
She seemed to sigh dreamily with each breath that drifted through the half-open door. He got
up and went out to the living room.

Michael sounded like someone playing bagpipes with their feet—Greg hadn’t noticed the
snoring the first week they’d spent together. Neither of them slept much then. When they 
finally moved in together, the first night Greg was jolted awake—it sounded like a 
transmission grinding gears in Michael’s throat. His doctor suggested a different pillow, 
which actually did the trick.

Sprawled across the sofa, though, Michael slipped back into it easily. It was amazing the
neighbors didn’t complain. Greg got a glass of milk and sat on the floor, leaned against the
sofa, and watched music videos with the sound turned off.

After a while Greg noticed the snoring had stopped and then felt Michael’s fingers crawl
through his hair. “Can’t sleep?” he asked groggily.

“Not with you out here sawing down the Redwood National Forest,” Greg replied. He knew
he sounded testy, but he was tired and figured he was entitled.

“Sorry.” Michael lowered his voice to a whisper, as if suddenly realizing they were not alone
in the apartment. From the bedroom his mother sighed languidly, oblivious. “That bed really
sucks, huh?”

Greg took a gulp of milk and passed Michael the glass. “Not as much as this couch.”

He drained the glass and set it on the coffee table. “Maybe it’s time to get some new

“Time for something,” Greg said, and closed his eyes. He felt foolish sitting there. He started
to get up. “I should try to get to sleep.”

Michael put his hand on Greg’s shoulder. “What’s your hurry?”

“I have to go to work tomorrow.”

“That’s hours from now.” Greg felt Michael’s fingers brush across his chest. When the ear
nibbling started, Greg lifted Michael’s arm away and got up.

“Your mom is in the other room.”


“What if she wakes up?”

Michael propped himself up on his elbows and stared at Greg. “Why are you being so

“If you don’t know the answer to that question already, why don’t you sleep on it and see if
you can figure it out?” Greg tried to whisper, but it came out more like a hiss. “Good night.”
Greg crawled back under the covers and half-hoped Michael would follow him. He was
ready to forgive him if Michael would make even a small step. The blue-gray flicker of the TV
from under the door went out, and a few moments later the buzz saw of Michael’s snoring 
began. For the next hour until he fell asleep, Greg perched on the camel’s back, listening to 
Michael snoring on one side and Mrs. R sighing on the other.


Gina met Greg for lunch the next day. Greg waited for her, a cup of coffee on his left, a
grilled veggie on rye at his right, and an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights in front of him.

She sat across from him. “Am I in time to save you from yourself?”

“I think I may be a lost cause,” he said, and started tapping the pack. She snatched it and
dropped it into her purse.

“His mom’s that bad?”

“His mom’s wonderful. At this point, I’m starting to like her more than I like him.”

“Ouch.” She slid the pack back to Greg’s side of the table. The waitress brought her
sandwich, and as she dug in, Greg unwrapped the cigarettes and patted one from the pack.
“You do realize you can’t smoke indoors anymore, right?” she asked through a mouthful of

He sneered at her but put the cigarette away. “Bite me.”

“How tempting. Tell me, if you’re this bad after the first day, how the hell are you going to
last a whole week?”

“I have no idea, but if you hear about a Christmas Day double homicide, you’ll know I

“Then I’d better give you this.” She tossed him a keychain. “If you want to come over and
I’m not there, just let yourself in. But remember, smoke anywhere except the balcony and I’ll
be sticking you on top of the tree.”


Greg came home to find Mrs. R. setting the table. She looked up and smiled. “Just in time.
Dinner’s almost ready.”

The aroma from the kitchen smelled warm and hearty. “Thanks, Mrs. R. You didn’t have to

She dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. “Michael’s done a lot of the work. He’s
learned to be pretty handy in the kitchen, I see.”

“You have no idea. So, what’s for dinner?”

“Beef tenderloin, Michael’s favorite. I’ve also made a salad and asparagus, and I brought a
peach pie from home. I won’t tell you how much trouble TSA gave me about that. Hope
you’re hungry.”

“Yeah…. I guess Michael didn’t tell you I’m a vegetarian?”

She paused with a fork in hand; her shoulders sagged. “No, he didn’t. I would have made
something different if he had.”

“It’s okay.”

“The hell it is.” Greg couldn’t remember if he’d ever heard Michael’s mother cuss before.
“Were you a vegetarian the last time I was here? I could swear we went out for seafood.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mrs. R.” Greg kept his head down and looked at the place settings. He
couldn’t believe he felt like crying over beef tenderloin.

She shook her head. “I feel like an idiot. Michael took me to the store, for Pete’s sake. He
could have said something.”

“Well, maybe he was looking forward to some meat.”

For a moment, Mrs. R locked eyes with Greg, then raised an eyebrow, her mouth slowly
curling into a smirk before her expression hardened again.

“That’s no excuse.” Michael came in with a stack of cloth napkins and placemats from the
linen closet, and she turned to glare at him over her glasses. “Michael, why didn’t you tell me
Greg was a vegetarian?”

“Huh?” Michael had a way of feigning ignorance when he couldn’t bluff his way out of
something. “I guess I forgot.”

“Well, you’re just going to have to wait for dinner, kiddo,” his mother said. “I’m going to put
on some pasta.”

Before Michael could protest, his mother swept into the kitchen, leaving Michael and Greg
standing on opposite ends of the table.

“You can’t bear to tell her the least thing about me, can you?” Greg asked.

“What does that mean?”

Greg didn’t answer. Instead, he turned and walked away from the table, again wishing
Michael would follow him. To his surprise, Michael appeared in the doorway to the guest
bedroom as Greg pulled a bag from the top shelf of the closet.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked, his voice low. He glanced toward the open door.

Greg tossed the bag onto the bed and began pulling t-shirts and underwear from the dresser.

“What does it look like, genius?” He didn’t bother to lower his voice.

“She’s only going to be here until the 30th.”

“Yeah. And that makes one of us.”

Michael stepped back a little. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting? It’s only a couple more

“What about next Christmas? And the one after that?”

“Can’t we deal with this later? Please?”

“Later,” he said. “When does ‘later’get here, exactly?”

Michael didn’t answer. He followed Greg into the bathroom, where Greg cleared off his shelf
in the medicine cabinet—even after they’d moved in together, they still kept separate tubes 
of toothpaste, shaving cream, razors. When Greg turned around, Michael was blocking the

“You’d better get back to the table and start thinking up another excuse,” Greg said, and
eased past him, but not before Michael laid a hand on his forearm.

“Greg, please.”

Finally, ages too late, Michael realized he wasn’t bluffing. Greg shook his head and made for
the front door.

“Greg?” Michael’s mother stood in the kitchen doorway, potholders still on her hands.
“Where are you going at this time of night?”

He half-sighed, half-groaned. This was almost as bad as walking out on his own mother. He
leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. R.”

“Michael?” Mrs. R turned toward the dining room. Michael stood in the doorway looking

“Mom, don’t butt in,” he said.

“Hey, you don’t talk to me like that.” She looked back at Greg. “Did you two have a fight?”

“It’s not like that—” her son began.

“Oh, don’t give me this crap.” She shucked the potholders and pointed one at Michael’s 
nose. “Your mother’s not stupid, you know.”

Michael paled. “Mom—”

“I have to go, Mrs. R,” Greg finally said. He was halfway out the door.

“Wait.” Michael’s mother set her potholders on the hall table and took a scarf from the coat
tree. She had to stand on her toes to get it around his neck. When she was done she placed 
her hand on the side of his face and gave him a look of uncomprehending concern he figured
must be taught in all the motherhood manuals. Pulling the door shut, he heard her say, 
“Michael, we need to talk.”


Gina set an ashtray and a full glass in front of Greg. He held it up to the light, wondering
what it actually was.

“It’s Wild Turkey, not a science project,” she said. “Drink.”

He tossed it down and nearly choked on the burn. She patted his back until his spluttering
subsided. His choking turned to laughter, but once he got some air, he started to cry. He 
managed to pull himself together before Gina could pull him into an embrace.

“Sorry, I’m OK,” he said, then repeated it, to see if it was true. He reached for his pack and,
figuring the ban on smoking had been temporarily rescinded, lit up. “I still can’t believe I did it.”

“Me neither.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Try not to sound so overjoyed. I know you never liked him.”

“I wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret, was I?” She stroked his back in a lazy circle as if he
were a colicky child. Softly, she asked, “Is it for good?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe after his mother’s gone he’ll be able to see what I’m talking
about, but I’m not going to pretend for his benefit anymore.” Greg looked up and noticed her
smirk. “What?”

“I just can’t imagine you pretending to be straight convincingly. Unless she’s got really bad

“Hey, I can act. I took drama in high school.”

“Every day of your life is drama class, honey.”

He stubbed out his cigarette. “You’re really mean, you know that?”

“Years of practice.” She picked up his glass. “Want another?”

“Please. I haven’t suffered enough tonight.”

As she got up, the doorbell rang. She ignored it and cruised into the kitchen.

“I’ll let you answer that,” she said. “We probably know who’s coming to beg for

“He’ll have to do more than beg this time,” he said.

Even though he knew Gina would be right, Greg opened the door, stared at Michael in his
snow boots and overcoat, and thought, I’m not going to cry again.

“Can I come in?”

Greg stepped to the side. “What are you doing here? And how did you get here?” They had
only one car between them, and Greg had taken it. The title was in his name anyway, so he
figured he was, well, entitled.

“I took a cab,” Michael said, just as Gina emerged from the kitchen with Greg’s refilled
glass. She and Michael looked at each other in silence.

“Sorry to barge in,” Michael said.

Gina shrugged. Michael glanced at the glass in her hand. She seemed to think about it a
moment, then handed it to him before heading back into the kitchen.

Greg was damned if he’d be the first to talk. They sat on opposite sides of the coffee table,
Michael turning his glass slowly in his hands. Gina emerged from the kitchen with another 
glass of Wild Turkey and the bottle. She placed them on the coffee table without saying a 
word and headed to her bedroom.

The silence got huge. Greg could have sworn he heard the lights twinkling on Gina’s
Christmas tree. Just when he thought he’d crack and start babbling, Michael blurted out, 
“I’m sorry.”

Greg belted the rest of his drink. Only a little burn this time. He set the glass down and
refilled it. “Let me guess. Your dad spilled the beans, didn’t he?”

Michael managed a laugh and nodded. “She said she was amazed he thought he could keep
secret from her. Now that I think about it, she always knew what we were getting her for
her birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day. There was no surprising her. She knew everything.”

“Clearly.” Greg poured himself another measure, considered slugging it back too, but instead
took a sip. “So when did your dad tell her?”

“The week after we moved in together. He caved faster than you can say cohabitation.” He
laughed. “Actually, she didn’t give him much choice. She just asked him point-blank how 
long we’d been seeing each other. She was worried we were jumping in too soon.”

“What tipped her off?”

Michael smirked. “You won’t believe this.”

“What? Come on.”

“Our towels. She figured two ‘friends’”—he made air quotes with his fingers—“moving in
together would have a mishmash of stuff, but ours all matched.”

It wasn’t that funny, but given the mood he was in, Greg started laughing a little, then tried to
take a drink and nearly ended up spewing it over the coffee table. Soon they were both 
laughing, more from relief than anything else. Once they pulled themselves together, 
Michael asked, “Are you going to come home?”

Greg got up and walked over to the window. It was dark out. Gina lived in an old building,
and through the frost on the old, warped panes, the streetlights were fuzzy haloes. He let his
focus on them fade and stared out at nothing, and wondered what had changed.

“So, I told her everything,” Michael said, as if reading Greg’s mind. “Granted, there wasn’t
much she didn’t already know after Dad opened his big mouth.” He paused to take a gulp
from his glass—he didn’t even grimace—and kept going. “And once I was done, I told her
if she didn’t like it, she could get on a plane tomorrow and go home. And then—”

“And then you traipsed through the snow to come here,” Greg finished. “Two feet of snow,
in fact. And—” he glanced out the window again “—getting deeper. A sane person would 
have picked up the phone.”

Michael smiled. “I figured my argument would be more persuasive in person.”

“And what is your argument, exactly?”

Michael stood and flapped his arms once, helplessly. “I don’t know. The cabbie wouldn’t
drive into the neighborhood, so I had to walk five blocks through two feet of snow just to 
come and admit how much I’ve screwed up. Now I’m cold, and I’m wet, and I’m tired, 
and I want you to come home with me. Please.”

Greg glanced back at the window, at the frost, the snow, the glowing lights. It was all so
quiet. He could hear Michael breathing, and the ice in his own glass rattling. “It’s a real 
mess out there. I don’t think either of us should be going out in it, not this late. Why don’t 
we wait until morning and see if they’ve cleared the streets by then? Think your mom can 
handle a night alone in the apartment?”

Michael sighed—maybe from relief, maybe from resignation or exhaustion, Greg wasn’t

“I’ll give her a call.”

While Michael took his phone into the kitchen, Greg knelt in front of the fireplace and tossed
in another log. Michael’s voice was a murmur in the other room. Greg sat on the sofa and 
stared into the flames for a while. He closed his eyes. He didn’t think he’d drifted for that 
long when he felt Michael’s hand on his shoulder.

“Mom thinks it’s a good idea to stay off the road too.” He sat on the floor and leaned back
against the sofa. “She’s glad you’re coming home.”

Greg gestured toward the loveseat. “Why don’t you lie down over there? You’ll be more

Michael shook his head, still staring at the fire. “I’m fine here.”

Neither of them said anything after that. Greg draped one hand over Michael’s shoulder;
Michael covered it with his own and they watched the fire. Greg wasn’t sure which of them
nodded off first; Michael didn’t snore, or if he did, Greg didn’t notice

To purchase on Cyber-Monday, December 2, at half price ($.50), click

1 comment:

Victor J. Banis said...

Ah, what a sweet story - and so Christmas-y. I loved it - but then, charm does seem to be in short supply these days, doesn't it? Very nice, thanks