The address was 113 Greengray Avenue, but to the children of the neighborhood it was called the Hellhouse. Although this label was unjustified and only a product of rumor, there was indeed something eerie about the boxy, gray house. The floors creaked, the walls moaned, and, if one listened very closely on a summer evening, there could be heard a noise akin to cackling in the attic. Or so they said.
Inside the old house lived Maury Montgomery Pitt, known to the children as Old Man Pitty. To them, he was as old as the house itself, but, as they had never bothered to ask him, they could not know that he had not yet seen his fiftieth birthday. It was thought that if one were to touch the right side of 113 Greengray without Old Man Pitty’s knowledge, they would be granted good luck: but the unfortunate child who touched the left side of the house would be promptly cursed to become as demented as the man himself.
Certainly he was something of a hermit: he kept to himself, did not leave his home save for groceries, and spent much of his time reading and drinking copious amounts of scotch. (Shelby White’s mother used to clean for Mr. Pitt on Saturdays, and she’d seen the scotch bottles laying around. “A different brew every day,” she’d disclosed.) The parents of the neighborhood children could not remember a time when he did not live at 113, nor could they remember his appearance at any of the weekly dinner parties (to which all were invited). He was shrouded in mystery and seemed satisfied to remain that way.
Maury Montgomery Pitt (or M. M. Pitt, as inscribed on his aging business cards) was indeed a drunk; there was no doubt about that. His consumption of scotch had risen steadily every year by about three glasses a day. Many evenings, he would curl up with a copy of Oliver Twist (he had never read a word, but every night he intended to), pour himself a glass with ice, and sip away until his capacities were lost. The next morning, he would polish his brown shoes, don a worn sports coat, and continue his attempts to write his latest piece.
A freelance journalist, M. M. Pitt specialized in articles of a scientific nature. His reviews had once been published in the monthly issue of National Geographic, but that was a long, long time ago and nothing so prestigious had carried his work since. His avid readers were never sure what had happened: his writing was very intellectual, yet as quickly as he had risen to fame, he had fallen out of it.
Despite the terror-filled tales spun by the children of the neighborhood, M. M. Pitt was not an ugly man. Years of heavy drinking had left him a little worse for wear: his olive skin was greyer now and the bags under his eyes more pronounced, but their edges still crinkled with the memories of the happiness that once was. His thick hair was not yet tinged with grey, and, though his clothes were pitifully decrepit, he made a good effort to dress well.
Many years ago, when his hair was fuller and his eyes happier, M. M. Pitt (who will henceforth be referred to as Monty, for that is who he was back then) met another man on an expedition to Africa. This man, Albert Haynesworth, was to be his guide on a six-month journey through the Serengeti, in which Monty would photograph the animals he encountered and document his extended trip through desert.
Albert and Monty were as different in appearance as they were similar in taste: Albert’s coffee-colored skin and beautiful South African lilt contrasted Monty’s olive skin and American accent. But the two men shared a deep love for wildlife, philosophy, and chess. They quickly became fast friends, and perhaps something more.
“Monty!” Albert called, raising his binoculars to his eyes. “If you’d care to take a look, there’s a zebra watering at the pool over there.”
Monty joined his friend, his notebook in hand and his eyes wild with excitement. This was the first time in a week that they had encountered any living thing other than the ants that pestered them every step of the way.
They were far enough from the zebra that she could not detect their presence: a mercy, as zebras are not friendly to humans. Silently, they watched as she watered, grazed at the sparse greenery, and then galloped gracefully to her zeal. (Albert had had a field day explaining that a group of zebras is known as a “zeal” to Monty.)
Monty documented the zebra’s every move with his camera, jotting down his observations as he noticed her behavior. What he did not see was that as his eyes flew back and forth over the page, Albert’s fixed intently on his face.
That night, over their usual meal of jerky, dried cranberries, and crackers, they played a game Albert had suggested, in which they would each think of a philosophical question to ask the other. The winner was the creator of the question that stumped his opponent. This was not the first time they had played this game, and every night their light hearted attempts to one-up each other became less subtle.
“I’ll start,” Albert offered, staring into the dying embers of the fire they’d built. “It isn’t really a question, but here it is: describe the color red.”
“What am I, a novice?” Monty laughed, stalling. “All right...red is the anger you feel when you’ve been dealt an injustice. Red is the sound of a dog growling and the scene of a bar fight. Red is the music of emotion. My turn.”
Grinning, Albert countered, “Impressive! I’m not sure I could have done that myself.”
“Then again, you’re an explorer and I’m a journalist. We each have our gifts.”
Their eyes met.
“My turn,” Monty repeated, after a moment. “Here’s the question: why?”
Without missing a beat, Albert replied, “Why not?”
“Damn it!” Monty laughed. “I was sure that would stump you.”
“No chance, my friend,” Albert replied. “I’m too simple for that.”
The silence that followed was not uncomfortable, but exhausted. They were only a month into their journey, and both men were growing weary of the endless sand and scorching heat. They turned in early that night and every night following, and so did not play their game for another six weeks. At that point, the trip was less than halfway over, and more often than not, their days were spent in tired silence. Their gear grew lighter as they consumed their rations, but as their bodies grew weaker, it felt heavier every day.
And yet, although they talked continually less and less, conserving their energy for the journey, it seemed that every day, something more grew between them. Perhaps it was a spark, perhaps not. But often, there was a hint of a something; in a quick glance, or an encouraging remark, or one’s outstretched hand to help the other up a particularly steep bank.
One morning, both men were so exhausted that they unwittingly slept in late and did not awake until the sun had burned them thoroughly. They walked for only a few hours that day, as it seemed especially hot and their sunburns made any motion painful.
That evening, Monty said, “I’m not ready to sleep. Are you?”
“No, I think this sunburn will make any rest impossible,” Albert answered, glancing woefully at his scorched skin. “It’s been awhile since we’ve played our game.”
“It has. I’ll start.” Monty had missed their nightly discussions; often, the thoughts in his head became too much to handle, and he needed someone to share them with. “Hmmm...what is the true definition of family?”
Albert thought for a moment. “Family is a commitment, a choice. It isn’t a right. Although you’re born into one family, you’re foolish to expect that your natural family will support you every step of the way. It is not your right, to have someone who will love you and support you. You create your own family, and you become family to the people you love.”
“That was shockingly profound!” Monty exclaimed, after a brief period of thought. “I’ll accept it. Your turn.”
“What is love?” Albert asked, not meeting Monty’s eyes.
This time, the silence was unbearable: it was full of truths and lies and questions and answers and darkness and light. They both knew that their futures, entwined or not, would be summed up in Monty’s response. The discomfort was only in the anticipation.
Monty swallowed hard, twisted his fingers. Finally, his eyes rose to meet Albert’s. His voice shook a little as he responded, “You.”
Albert’s face lit up, and the joy in his eyes was purer and sweeter than anything Monty had ever seen before. He laughed. “When National Geographic interviewed me to be your guide, they didn’t tell me to expect this. They didn’t warn me that I’d fall in love with you.”
Monty reached out and took his friend’s hand. Nothing more needed to be said.
That evening, they slept side by side and hand in hand, each waking up periodically to ensure that the other was still there, as if they were afraid that it had all been a dream.
They moved slowly for the next few weeks, treasuring every moment together. Although they grew more fatigued with each passing day, they spent all of their energy on their conversations. During the days, they asked and answered questions, and during the nights they slept tangled in each other's arms.
One day, as they observed a herd of wildebeest grazing, Monty said, “I’d be neglecting some of my duty as a journalist if I didn’t ask you about your favorite book.”
Albert laughed. “You won’t like it. It isn’t anything like the neoliberal, revolutionary literature you read.”
“I’m sure I’ll like it! Tell me.”
“I’ll tell you the story first, then. When I was a boy, I had eight siblings, and our parents had only a little money to sustain our family. Our birthdays were celebrated with an extra plate of food, or a day at work with our father. But for my thirteenth birthday, my parents scraped up enough money to buy me a leather-bound copy of Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least fifty times. It’s become something of a talisman, and I bring it with me wherever I go. In fact, it’s in my bag right now.”
Monty smiled. “I’ve never read any Dickens, so I can’t say whether I like it or not. But it’s a sweet story, Albert.”
“I suppose.” Albert took a swig from his water canteen and asked, “What’s your favorite book?”
“I don’t think it’ll be any surprise to you that I don’t have one. I can’t seem to pick.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the rare breezes.
“Albert?” Monty asked, clearing his throat. “What’ll happen--to us--when this trip is over?”
“Well...what can happen? What do you want to happen?”
“I didn’t want to ask you like this...but will you move back to New York with me? You can learn the countryside and give tours, like you do here. In a few years, I’ll get a job at a newspaper in New England and we can move to a small town and stay there. Together. We’ll be so happy, Albert.” Monty’s eyes filled with tears: he had never dared to dream that his life now with Albert could be forever.
“Monty...I want to say yes. Believe me, I’d die to say yes. But I can’t.”
“Why?” Monty demanded, shocked.
“What would my family say? I can’t just pack up and leave to move to New York. South Africa is far enough away as it is. And I couldn’t leave with a journalist they’ve never met, and I’ve only known a few months. And I certainly can’t tell them that the journalist is a man. What would they say? I wouldn’t be able to speak to them again. Monty, I love you. But Africa is my home, now and forever. I’ve spent my adult life learning the Serengeti, falling in love with it. I can’t leave now.”
Clearing his throat, Monty replied, “I’m sure you’ll understand if I cut our trip short.” Tears streaked through the dust on his face.
“Of course,” Albert responded, taking his hand.
The next week, Monty flew back to New York, all the while convincing himself that the memories he had made in the Serengeti were only good. They’d exchanged gifts before saying their goodbyes: Monty had given Albert a roll of film with several photographs of the two of them, a small glimpse into their happiness together. And Albert had parted with his cherished good-luck charm, pressing Oliver Twist into Monty’s hands and saying, “It’s always been with me, and I hope now it will stay with you so you’ll remember.”
For a few months, Monty suppressed his grief by writing the piece about his trip through the Serengeti, until one day, his editor, Mr. Kimball, called him into his big, dark office, claiming it was very important.
“Come in, Monty, and please close the door.”
“Thank you, Mr. Kimball. Is something wrong?” Monty asked, a little nervous.
“Actually, there may be. I was reviewing your film from your trip to Africa and I stumbled across something a bit odd. I imagine you and your guide became very...close...over the course of your trip.”
Monty blushed. “He was the only human face I saw for a period of four months, so I suppose so.”
“I see. Well, I noticed that one of the rolls of footage was dedicated solely to pictures of your guide. Anyway, several of the photographs show him in a state of undress; clothed enough to be proper but not enough to be modest. But then again, you know this: you took the photos. And it does not take a wild imagination to guess what went on over the course of the trip.”
“Mr. Kimball,” Monty interrupted, his face bright red, but Kimball quickly jumped in.
“No, Monty, let me finish. We pride ourselves here at National Geographic for being a journal that anyone of reasonable scientific curiosity can enjoy. The journalists on staff are diverse and unique, each in their own way. But there are some things that cannot be forgiven.”
“I’m not quite sure what you’re saying, Mr. Kimball.”
“Then let me be a bit clearer, Monty. It’s 1964. Many people are liberal about these things. But many others would consider your...inclination...a disease, and they are right. It’s deplorable. Frankly, I am a bit disgusted, even talking about it.”
“Are you saying that I no longer have a job here?”
“I’m afraid so,” Mr. Kimball replied. “I won’t tell anyone about the photographs (for their sakes, not for yours) and I’ll destroy the film. Once you have finished writing the Serengeti piece, you may clear out your desk and return your camera.”
Monty stood up, his eyes averted and his head down.
“I am sure you understand why I cannot, in good faith, provide you with a reference. While your work is outstanding, I cannot condone the behavior that I have discovered. Shut the door on your way out, if you wouldn’t mind.”
And with those words, Monty lost everything. He moved to Rockport, a small town on the coast of Massachusetts, and bought a house he’d dreamed of owning with Albert. He advertised himself as a freelance journalist, and was successful for several years, until his employers noticed his lack of enthusiasm. From then on, he lived off of his savings, drowning his despair in scotch.
One afternoon in May, Monty stopped to check the mailbox on his way home from his weekly grocery trip. Nothing greeted him except a few bills and flyers, and a rather heavy envelope from a law firm in South Africa.
He raced inside, carefully slit the envelope open, hoping. A letter fell out.
“Dear Mr. Pitt,
I am sorry to inform you that your friend Mr. Albert Haynesworth has died of a venomous snake bite. However, in his last will and testament, a letter and a photograph were left in your name. Mr. Haynesworth did not leave an address for you, but we located your business card and were able to send it.
Mr. Wendell Park.”
His hands shook as he reached into the envelope, searching for Albert’s letter and the closure he hoped would accompany it. Tears leapt to his eyes when he found it, reading aloud:
I hope you are treating my book with the respect it deserves!
In all seriousness, I hope you are treating my book with the respect it deserves.
I never went a day without thinking of you, wishing you were here with me. I loved you.
I still do. Perhaps even more now.
You once asked me what the true meaning of family was. I told you that it was not a right, but a choice, that you created your own family.
You were my family, Monty. I only knew you a short time, but you were everything I ever had or wanted. I only hope that you felt the same way.
You may remember that, in exchange for my book, you gave me a few photographs of our time together. I am giving you my favorite, the one you took on the night you first told me you loved me. I look at it when I miss you. Which is always, every day.
I hope you are happy, and that you always were.
Treat my book with the respect it deserves!
I hope you remember, forever and always.
You don’t believe in God, so I will pray especially hard, for both of us, that I’ll see you again, somewhere, someday.
Monty gripped the photograph, tears blurring his vision. Though it was small, the memories instantly came flooding back, and for the first time in years, he allowed them to. In the picture, the only light came from the embers of the dying fire. He had set up his tripod so that they could both be in the photo, so that they could document their firmly clasped hands and shining eyes. Albert’s smile lit up the night, and happiness radiated from their faces in waves.
I never deserved to have you as my family, Monty thought, and I’m so lucky that I did.
That night, Monty poured a glass of scotch, curled up in his armchair, opened Oliver Twist, and began to read. He could hear the neighborhood children playing tag down the lane: to them, it was just like any other evening, but to him, it was everything.