Robin and Melinda shared a fondness for antique shops, though maybe the moods that drew them there weren’t conducive to harmony. For Melinda a visit to a good antique shop often occasioned a fit of exquisite, all-consuming melancholy. Robin felt something similar, but his blues were soothed by an appreciation for the things themselves, particularly gadgets, tools and toys. He aspired, in some unimaginably distant retirement, to build a huge, minutely-detailed model train setup. Melinda was a bit more invested in the search; she was furniture-shopping for a mansion, despite the fact that she would rather imagine such a place than actually live in it.
The summer after my junior year in college, I had the best job ever. It wasn’t highly remunerative, but the best jobs never are. Once a week, I chauffeured my friend Robbins Hunter to a nice buffet supper, and then to the antiques auction in Delaware, Ohio. Mr. Hunter was in his seventies when I knew him, and he’d spent the better part of his life paying for the privilege he now enjoyed: being as gay as he damn well pleased. I couldn’t imagine his younger life, and, at 20, I had the good sense not to try. I had no desire to see him in any time but the present: a slow, wry dandy, with a ready sense of humor and a huge store of knowledge about Ohioan artifacts. I’d guess that he had three goals for these Friday-evening excursions. The least important of these was procuring inventory for his shop: box lots for which he would spend only the barest minimum. Next, he was seeking furniture for the 1830s room he was working on, a centerpiece of the Avery-Hunter house, which was astounding. It was a labyrinthine Greek-revival mansion, once a Denison University fraternity house, in those olden times when such places had grandeur. It had degrees of antique shops — the street-level main shop for foolish tourists, and a couple of by-invitation upstairs rooms. In the main house, well-buffered from the touristy outer wing, he had clocks, clocks, clocks: grandfathers, mantles, tables; they were everywhere, all ornate, grandiose, over-the-top; they all needed winding (now and then I’d catch glimpses of his methodical, meditative clock-winding rounds) and they all chimed. The striking of an hour was breathtaking, waves of soft-steel variations on a theme; it seemed orchestrated.
Furnishing the 1830s room was big-game quarry. I was along the night he bagged an exquisite world globe of that period, three feet in diameter, mounted in its original gimbals. There was no way the globe would fit in my car, but no matter; he’d hire a van to fetch it the next day — which brings me to Robbins’s third reason for our outings: showing me off. Everyone at that weekly auction knew Robbins Hunter, had for years. He and his guest were immediately shown to the same front-row seats. I was genuinely and naïvely interested in everything I saw there; I was unmistakably his mentee. And I was young, Good Lord, and lithe — I did not see this at all — and he liked my long hair; he would often stroke it. Yes, I was arm candy.
It really doesn’t matter whether I consciously realized this. On some level I’m sure I did, but it didn’t make any difference at all. If Robbins Hunter was hiring me to be his cute young companion, I felt privileged. He knew I was straight; he’d met my girlfriend. But he asserted a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with me that allowed him to be quite himself, and I think he really, really enjoyed that.
School resumed: my senior year, with all manner of tasks and challenges. I wasn’t coping well (to make a long story short) with the impending reality of adulthood. I had found out that Robbins was sick, but I found a way to put off visiting him until I heard he was in the hospital and I had to go. He had tubes in him; it was some form of cancer and he was very weak. He was annoyed by his inability to receive me in his accustomed style, but he was glad to see me. He saw that I was absorbed in the effort of blaming myself for not visiting, and waved it off. He had some beefcake magazines at his bedside. We talked about this and that. Nobody was winding his clocks.
It seems obvious now that there are elements of Robbins Hunter in both Sean and Odis — or to say it less clumsily, that the experience of Robbins Hunter made me want to know and understand Sean and Odis — but I scarcely thought of Robbins at all when I was writing the story. James Baldwin — who always did his level best to tell the truth, though doing so is always complicated and never certain — wrote a lot about the treachery of memory. I was trying to remember what (if anything) I brought to give him at that hospital visit. Something he wanted: chocolate? Beefcake magazines? Could I have actually gone to a newsstand and purchased gay magazines to give Robbins in the hospital? I almost think I did do that, but I sure can’t be sure. If I were writing a story, it might make for a pretty good scene…