"Useless, Useless" by Jarrod Campbell

The news came over social media that Carlton Monroe died. Tragically. Accidentally. But at least while doing something he always wanted to do. Pretty sure he even once joked that he’d been dying to try deep sea diving. The gods answered his prayers in one messy moment. The paradox was lost on nobody who knew him. Retirement from the military at forty-five with still so much life ahead of him. A wife. Two kids. They watched from the boat as Carlton went under the shimmering blue water in one piece then came out of the ruddy water in chunks. The memorial service resembled a pharaonic sendoff for a life once viewed overall as thriving. Edward Weathers, a civilian co-worker, viewed the sum of Carlton’s life as worthy of respect but not so much adulation. By comparison, Edward wondered what his might be worth in the end.

With that, Edward felt really old. Not falling apart in body or mind, just the interpretation that most of what occupied his thinking happened in the past. Time for me to do something about THAT, he thought. The first step was more like dipping a toe in a puddle. He first became Eddie then settled on Ed. Plain, old Ed. The few people he encountered seemed to be happy for the one less syllable of his company. The new abbreviation meant nothing to anybody he met after his great transformation into Ed. The novel confidence manifested at times when the new Ed appealed to people in bars who couldn’t see the reality of his age advancing across his face in the form of lines, wrinkles and gray hair. Deep pockets to intoxicate certainly helped. More drinks than necessary and effusive compliments tended to seal the deal. Then the inevitable morning after, filled with expectation turning to disappointment then dismay. A lonely shower washed off the smell and outward evidence but inside Ed felt cold in spite of the scalding water turning his skin beet red.

Summer ended with Ed’s more concerted stabs to feel valuable. He needed someone in his life to make him feel important but nobody needed Ed in their life. The time came when more leaves littered the ground than the branches. A chill had yet to maintain its permanence during the day but the evenings hinted at what the following weeks might bring. Out for a walk as the sun began its descent in the west, Ed thought about the fact that he had entered the autumn of his life. More beautiful foliage had fallen and been trampled on several times already while reminiscing. He couldn’t look at anything without feeling old. Dry, crumbling leaves cracked and shuffled along with his feet. The noise and smell carried him back many years since a love of the season remained constant. Usual delight gave way to a feeling more forlorn, wistful about days and times gone by like a morose Romantic poet. The neighborhood stood still, cast in the golden sheen of sunset. But it was fool’s gold. A bitter gust of wind whipped to remind him what nipped at that beauty’s heels.

Ed preferred to move about in silence so he took great care in avoiding the dusting of dead leaves on the sidewalks leading to his apartment. Easier said than done, considering the multitude blanketing the concrete. Motion on a balcony across the street stopped him in his tracks and stole concern from quietness. A boy dressed only in a white t-shirt and black running shorts watered plants too green for the season. He himself appeared too sensitive for the oncoming cold, and even too green for Ed. A perfect view of the boy illuminated by a gentle and glowing outdoor light had its rewards. Vivacity radiated from his face, his skin, his movements. Too much life had yet to break his skin with troubles or hunch his back and shoulders with burden. A lithe body hid just under his clothing. Dark hair crowned a head that saw the world through eyes even darker than the oncoming night. Then the boy went inside and the balcony light went out. Ed followed suit and opened his front door to enter but never turned off his porch light.

Anytime Ed went outside for any reason, casual regard went in the direction of the boy’s apartment and balcony. The blinds stayed closed day and night. No sign of life showed for an insufferable duration. Ed joked to himself that he must’ve seen a ghost but then one night, lights peeked through half-opened Venetian blinds. He took it to mean that the boy had returned from the dead, a sign of spring in the chill of a fall evening.

A miniscule vigil began as Ed hoped to see some other sign of life coming from within the apartment across the street. Nothing happening on either side afforded Ed time to ponder why he obsessed so much over a boy he had only barely seen once. Curious desires conjured many things for this starved imagination: How old was he? Who was he? Why the compulsion to know? Other examinations about personality types, what his voice sounded like, experiences so far, his sexuality, so much possessed his head to keep his gaze fixed on the lit apartment across the street. An answer or two promised to reveal themselves at some point.

“See something interesting over there?” a detached voice asked. The accusatory tone held a hint of jest but to the startled Ed it translated into irritation.

Quick glimpses right and left detected no one. Sweeping looks slowed down the more confused Ed became. Until the voice spoke again.

“Over here,” it said, calling Ed’s attention at last to the source. In the dark, the boy stepped from his expert concealment among the shadows of the trees. “Is there a reason you’re spying on my house?”

“What makes you think I’m spying? I’m standing in the open. You’re the one hiding in the dark watching me. See something interesting yourself?” Ed’s attempted swagger cracked along with his voice. Nerves took full responsibility for the uncharacteristic behavior. The boy offered an apology.

“I’ve noticed you around the neighborhood,” he continued as he approached Ed’s balcony. More of him came into better view.

“I can’t say the same about you,” Ed returned. He instantly regretted the comment. Now proof existed of his espionage. That the boy took notice of, along with Ed’s mortification.

“Noted,” was all he said in return. Following an unbearable silence, he offered his name. “I’m Noah.”

“I’m Ed. Pleased to meet you.”

“Finally, huh?” A coy smile formed on his face as he teased the older man. “So are you gonna come down and talk to me or just stay up there? Don’t be scared. I only bite if I feel threatened. And you don’t scare me so come on down.”

Ed smiled, not really knowing why. His apprehension came from fear of that unknown motive, not from a fear of violence. Noah presented a slighter build than Ed’s. The young physique appeared better suited for offering fantasies instead of pain. Once outside, Ed approached Noah, the diminishing space between them awful with energy. A sense of completion came from nowhere.

Noah extended his hand as a further greeting. “You’re even more handsome up close.” He delivered the sentence with Ed’s hand still in his.

Ed blushed like a schoolboy and thanked Noah for the compliment with a stuttered acceptance. The chill in the air was used as an excuse for the stammer and shaky hands. Noah only smiled back.

Small talk went back and forth but within that limited expanse of time, both learned quite a bit about the other. And the back and forth ended with the expectation that both would learn quite a bit from the other.

“It’s time I get back inside. My window is that one,” Noah said, pointing to the window directly across from Ed’s “I’ll wave goodnight before I go to bed.”

“Okay,” Ed said, not knowing a better response. “It was nice to meet you,” he then said, offering his hand to shake again.

Noah looked down at the goodbye gesture presented then back into the face of its owner. “I’d really rather kiss you, instead.”

The statement’s deliverance came so matter of fact that it took Ed off guard. Noah’s face moved in and stopped Ed’s lips before they could protest. The taste of respective suppers mingled on their tongues while their mouths moved in uncanny unison. A stupid look remained on Ed’s face after Noah pulled away. Noah smiled and delivered a final peck on the older man’s lips.

“Talk to you later,” Noah said over his shoulder before licking his lips. He had already begun walking the few yards home.

Ed cursed himself for not getting his number and almost asked, but glaring at Noah’s ass while he walked away hypnotized him. He was lost to other things. Like staring at the window directly across from his anytime it was dark outside and lights indicated Noah was home, for instance.

For a week Ed saw no sign of Noah. During the day, all the blinds in the windows remained closed and at night no lights signaled an empty house. Which to Ed meant no contact. And since no new information about Noah flowed in, he had to fill in the blanks himself. Whatever he asked himself needed answers from Noah in order to be truly understood. Ed tried anyway. But only a more incomplete picture formed between the intended introduction and where their friendship might go next. Ed realized he was getting ahead of himself. He always did. Instead his concentration turned to remembering to ask Noah for his number next time.

While staring in the mirror Ed asked himself why Noah would find him handsome. Nothing exemplary. Not even anything that he himself as a gay man would grant a doubletake. An assortment of skin care containers dotted the sink and he thanked them for living up to their claims. Regardless, he believed everything about himself could improve. With better exercise, more sleep, and all the other self-preservation routines men his age undertook to regain vitality, Ed knew the possibilities of transformation. Every morning before breakfast he began to bend, pull and mold his body into something more formidable. Blood flowed again with the quick circulation of youth. Soon he might see what Noah did: some handsome man more than twice his age worth kissing.

Then one night, as Ed finished his nightly constitutional and last bout of cardio for the day, a whistle brought the attention he focused on breathing towards the apartment across the street. Noah’s light was on, and the window, open. He leaned out of the frame, beautifully backlit and glowing in the middle of the windowsill. He appeared dramatic and spectacular clad only in his underwear. He motioned Ed closer, his finger extended over his lips.

“Been a while,” Noah said, barely above a whisper.

“Agreed.” Ed replied.

“College and stuff,” Noah offered as an explanation. “Can’t really talk like this now, parents are in a mood. Give me your number? I’m bored.”

Ed laughed and flashed the digits of his phone number with his hands, observing Noah’s request for silence. After a thumbs up from both parties, Ed turned to walk back to his apartment. Before stepping inside, he turned to look again in the direction of his neighbor’s window. To his surprise, Noah still stood bordered in the soft glow of his bedroom light. His gaze remained locked on Ed, who could only quickly walk inside and lock the door. How stupid to be scared of an eighteen-year-old boy, he thought to himself right before his phone buzzed its notice that a message arrived.

What was the best part of your day? the message read.

Ed took a moment to reply, careful not to assume an excessive familiarity. It’s been a shitty day so I’ll say talking to you has been the best part so far.

Heart emojis responded to Ed’s sappy text. That opened the floodgates for more intimacy to develop. As the conversation veered towards a more delicate nature, Ed began to test the limits. He wanted Noah. He understood that now. But he still had no idea why he found someone so young, so compelling. “Stoopid childrens” Ed called Noah and his useless generation at one point, the deliberate misspelling for emphasis. Then came a series of pics, one after the other, a slow strip tease out of his underwaear that showed off the contours and lines of a body with still so much to learn about itself. For instance, the shots displayed how well Noah’s body looked, but he had no idea the authority it commanded. Taut flesh held fast to muscles under construction. Hairless from the waist up, his legs and ass blanketed with dark fur. And when the last picture came through, Ed’s eyes bulged at seeing one of the most perfect cocks he’d ever seen. Ed followed suit and sent his own sequence of shots. He was delighted that Noah found an older body attractive, let alone worthy of praise. Esteem grew as Ed congratulated himself on the workouts and felt his uselessness slacken. Both saved the series of pics for later, and for inspiration.

So close though so far, the rest of Noah’s first semester had to be spent learning remotely from home. All Noah disclosed at first wreaked untruths and new explanations fell through gaping holes in a poorly maintained lie. After only a week of near constant messaging, Ed knew to expect he’d be left in the dark about many things in the boy’s life. Despite living yards apart and an urgent insistence about how Ed rose to a place of prominence thanks to a combination of brains, handsomeness and compassion, any outward displays from the boy had yet to manifest. Ed quickly realized his fate of giving more to their friendship than Noah ever would. But the precociousness of youth only helped Noah get away with so much. Well-timed messages and sexts kept the hook firm in Ed’s cheek.

As Noah began to act out, to both their astonishment, so did Ed. Both needed attention and the other sufficed, proximity playing the bigger part. The boy’s dad stayed away due to work while his mom stayed home but in a haze of pills with vodka. Working the rest of the school year from home meant long hours alone, trapped inside and neglected. Ed related to the feeling of isolation. Though this stemmed from self-seclusion, the effect of loneliness reminded Ed to disparage his own while speculating how it should play out for Noah. So much life ahead of the boy and so much behind the older man. Their little shared experience was unimportant. Many other commonalities and interests made for much to discuss and allowed a comprehension to develop and deepen the friendship between the disparate neighbors. Both benefitted from conversations about their views on life and growing up gay in different generations. Noah finally had an adult to talk to and Ed finally had someone who acted interested in what he had to say. They found in one another exactly what each of them needed.. Ed just needed to keep his expectations low after placing Noah on so high a pedestal.

Personal information was coaxed in a way Ed employed before, even if unintentional. The method worked. He got upset when the boy refused to see him in person, choosing instead to deflect with an insipid meme. Ed already detested the existence of memes, especially when the joke was on him. Another reason to loathe the internet and its bastard offspring, social media. Flippant responses infuriated Ed further until a meltdown occurred, complete with all the trappings of self-righteous indignation. Stoopid childrens Ed ended those arguments thinking. And Noah ended up reduced to what resembled a whelping Spaniel, head low with remorse and eyes full of desperate forgiveness. But then all these passions came flooding back to a lesser degree on a lower tide with Noah’s refusal to make up in person, a kiss the bare minimum asked. To keep the delicate balance, Ed maintained his push at a minimum to keep Noah in his infectious good spirits. And all the reservations the boy’s excuses promoted remained locked away for another time.

Late one night Noah messaged Ed, a picture of him half-naked. Expecting another round of hot pictures and empty promises, he jumped up when instead a request came over to meet Noah outside. Put on clothes, it’s almost winter Ed texted. Within minutes, both of them stood outside under naked tree branches and the harsh glow of a bare overhead streetlight.

“You’re not afraid your family might see?” Ed asked.

“They’re not home. First time both are gone at the same time in months.”

“Then why are we standing outside?” Ed asked with an impish grin.

“Because we have cameras. That’s why I have bags of trash. I’m not allowed out otherwise. I only have a few minutes.”

“Then let’s go inside my house. The owner won’t care.” Ed felt his attempts to seduce were becoming useless.

“Walk with me to the dumpster?” Noah said, a single eyebrow raised. Ed found that affectation irresistible so he complied with what the boy asked.

Trash discarded, Noah grabbed Ed’s hand and hurried them both behind the dumpster. A slash of darkness concealed them from the waist down. The boy smiled before placing both hands on Ed’s shoulders to push him down to his knees. Shrouded in darkness, Ed freed the boy’s dick with expert precision. Never had the appeal and the fervor combined to such astounding effect than when Ed sucked Noah off, as if communicable beauty and youthfulness existed in his uncurdled seed. Within five minutes Ed got his wish and waited the rest of the night until early morning wide awake for proof positive he had been restored.

The expectation of more physical contact withered along with the properties of Noah’s fresh sap. Flimsy excuses piled mile high but blew away with ease. Ed’s previous method of maintaining dialog fared little. Light slipped from his sky. Energy faded to a melodramatic degree as the older man suffered from the consequences of an abrupt exclusion barring him from confidences and the source of his recent exhilaration. Affected, Ed promised himself that everything must be done to stay in Noah’s good graces, in the light of a sun with well over seven million more years than he had left to burn. If only Ed knew the satisfaction of that need reciprocated. No proof still materialized thus far.

Thanksgiving loomed a day away and a bitterness sparked in the gray air of November. Winter nipped at the autumn splendor enough to make Ed stay inside most days. Noah used the excuse as well, but only to echo Ed’s reasons for hibernation. But the boy’s family left their son alone and to his own devices inside the prison of surveillance, mood stabilizers and neglect. But his friend kept him company through text, happy to help and distract despite Noah’s unusually heavy and somber disposition. A threat of anger held impending hostility. Ed was scared enough to mention his discomfort. Noah’s tones and language shifted and turned a sharp right. A new erratic pattern directed the boy’s responses.

Intense jabs at Noah’s parents bruised the conversation until Ed signed off. He understood his frustration but tried to remind Noah that he still lived under his parents’ roof and paid zero dollars in rent. Did that give them the right to incarcerate their son? No. And if he really felt like a prisoner, he could always run away. Or, Noah texted, they could just fucking die already.

An onslaught of texts first thing in the morning had become commonplace so Ed smiled at seeing all the messages from Noah. Thinking the boy slept off whatever was bothering him the night before, the reality of rage seeping from the blue message bubbles confirmed the opposite. Fury-filled sentences waited to be read and sympathetic replies expected. A question followed every vile accusation from the boy. Can you believe they treat me like this? When he repeated his parents’ request that he stay home for Thanksgiving. Why bother having a kid at all? Noah asked after admitting his parents detested having a gay son. So much already to deal with before the sleep was wiped from Ed’s already tired eyes.

Retorts came as the caffeine infiltrated his blood and brain. Easier to think at last, Ed noted a marked difference in the quality of Noah’s messages. The boy had been upset at his parents before but the flagrant frenzy of menace caused concern. Once Ed declared his worry, Noah switched gears and back-pedaled. I’m only kidding, he promised. I’m just angry because I’m tired of being a prisoner in my own home, he assured. And Ed accepted as long as Noah kept his promise to redirect that negative energy into something productive.

An hour plus later saw the completion of Noah’s one-hundred and eighty-degree turnabout. Delight filled the effervescent blue bubbles instead of the previous indignation. When asked what changed his mind, Noah replied with a cagey wisecrack about finally leveling out without help from his medication. The boy always had difficulty convincing him since Ed knew the games of an eighteen-year-old boy starved for attention. Noah won in the end by asking for a ride to his aunt and uncle’s house a half-hour away in Great Falls.

The assurance of proximity to Noah’s literal fountain of youth, knocked reason from Ed’s thought process. Sweet words and even sweeter promises swept enough concern away for him to cave in to the request. Any harm done wouldn’t be on him, Ed concluded at the thought of Noah starting a food fight during turkey dinner. What a laugh.

In person Ed detected a different hazard lurking beneath the surface of Noah’s demeanor from earlier. His hands shook a bit whenever he talked, and an impediment chopped up the fluidity of any sentences he spoke.

“I’m just nervous. I owe you for the ride.” Noah said, placing his jittery hand on Ed’s upper thigh. “I’ve never done this before,” he admitted as he undid Ed’s belt, zipper and fly.

Another fib, Ed thought as the boy expertly withdrew his dick and eventually his substance.

The few minutes between finishing and reaching their destination among the mansions of Great Falls stayed full of conversations about Thanksgiving plans. Ed had none and intended to keep it that way when Noah asked if he wanted to join him. How awkward to show up unannounced as a complete stranger.

“I could tell them you’re coming. They’ve been blowing up my phone since we left.” Noah meant what he said about the extended invitation.

“Why are they doing that?” Ed asked.

“They’re probably worried when I’ll show up. If I show up.” “You told them you were on the way, right?”

“Kinda.”

The two syllables floated in an air of eerie distrust. Ed rolled the window down to clear the atmosphere but that only made the space in the car colder. One minute away, Ed noted to himself after a glimpse at the phone’s GPS.

Parked one house down, Noah thanked Ed for the lift after keeping the man suspended in an insufferable silence. Noah’s goodbye sounded more like a farewell than a “see you later.” Ed agreed to a hug outside of the car with a reluctant tear nearly escaping his eye. Their heights matched so the embrace felt to both like a perfect fit. Something hard poked into Ed’s belly during the tightest part of the embrace. An alarmed look at Noah’s waist provoked him to blame a belt buckle and apologize. Noah said he hated his family’s dedication to dressing for dinner. Then the stutter returned and the trembling took over his hands again.

“Well,” Noah began, “one more kiss goodbye?” Without waiting for permission he grabbed Ed’s face and kissed him long and deep. Care was taken to keep their waists from meeting. “See?” Noah said, “you’re not useless like you think. You’ve truly made my day. Twice.”

The boy smiled demurely and Ed blushed.

“You’re not useless either, even if you’re Stoopid Childrens,” Ed reminded Noah. “Go. I’ll see you later.”

“More than likely,” Noah replied without hesitation.

Ed watched Noah walk to the gate of the house’s long driveway, type a code or speak into a box, then enter the gates.They closed to swallow him up into a world he truly hated. Forlorn, Ed got in his car and drove home. His head filled with all the matters collected since knowing Noah, their subsequent concerns and wistful regret, and dismissed any forthcoming resolutions as insubstantial without input from Noah. An early bedtime for sure.

Unsure of the compulsion, Ed woke up the next day to watch the news. The Black Friday Wal-Mart fights always entertained, this he knew and looked forward to seeing. But the local news only reported on a murder/suicide in an affluent neighborhood in Northern Virginia. Ed recognized the neighborhood and one of the faces flashing across the screen in sickening HD. Breakfast cereal went soggy by the time he had his fill of the morning news.

A knock on his door led to an interview with the police that cleared Ed of any knowledge or involvement of the crime. And at the end of the examination he felt glad his possible fifteen minutes of fame got cut in half by not being more than an unwitting driver in the crime of the holiday season. Ed still had seven and a half minutes left and who knows how many useful years ahead to ruin however he deemed acceptable. Though he would always be grateful to Noah and the juvenile infatuation that developed, doomed but certain to provide an aftershock lasting for years. Ed never stopped thinking of all the promise squandered to render Noah so tremendously useless with just six loud and quick flashes of light.



A word from the author: "Useless, Useless" is a story about how the feelings of powerlessness experienced by a young gay male and an older gay male, and how they intersect to either inspire or ruin.



Jarrod Campbell is an author living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared online and in print. He is currently working on a new collection of stories, a novel, and a play to be performed in 2023.