Plan A: A Kiss at Night
If you do the right thing, even with the wrong attitude, you've still done the right thing
After the first month things weren't so bad. I was earning some money, had a place to live, and the guys I shared the apartment with didn't frighten me anymore. The work was mindless after I got used to it, and it let my mind roam to some future that probably didn't exist for me anymore.
I roomed with four older guys, and we all worked for the same landscaper. We weren't all on the same crew every day, but one of the guys I lived with was usually with me. During the day we cut grass, me doing the trimming while others worked the big mowers. I was only fifteen, not legal, and the owner supposedly didn't know that, because I faked my id, although he may have had some idea. He kept me because I always showed up on time and I was a steady worker. That was unusual enough with his crew, and I made a point of not complaining like a lot of others did.
There were five of us in that apartment. It was rented by Kevin and Arnie McAffrey, brothers, from their mother, who lived downstairs with her boyfriend. Nan, the mother, was a good egg. She was a big woman, and Kevin took after her in that respect, and she had her nose in everyone's business, but not in a malevolent way. I liked her, and spent some time talking to her.
The other guys were Shane and Eli. Eli was from Israel originally, and at eighteen he was the closest to my age. Kevin and Arnie were both somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. Shane was younger than that, but not by much.
It was rough on me when I first got there. My so-called bedroom was the enclosed back porch. It had taken two trips to the dump in a truck borrowed from work, just to get rid of enough trash so I could move around. It had old fashioned jalousie windows to let in air, but it was obvious that nobody had let any air in there for a long time. After a month it was tolerable out there, but the rank mustiness of the air had been too much at first.
Nan had what she called a 'summer house' in the yard, an ancient gazebo really, and I'd slept out there for the first three weeks, except when it rained.
I had been so frightened at first, by the situation, by the town, by the apartment, and by the guys I lived and worked with. Eli was quiet, but a heavy pot smoker, and he was addicted to television. The other guys were all drinkers, and after work they'd buy a six-pack for the ride to the bar, dropping me off on their way, then come back at all hours. They'd come home rowdy and loud, and pretty much crash wherever they felt like.
I'd come into their midst unwanted, except that my money lowered all their rents and left more money for booze. Every one of them intimidated me, but they weren't such bad guys after I got to know them. Shane called me 'Little Dude', not that it made me special. He called Eli 'Little Dude', too, and Kevin he called, 'Big Dude'. Everyone else was just 'Dude'.
The others, once they remembered it, called me Evan, my proper name, and I was starting to fit in. It wasn't what I wanted, but fitting in somewhere was better than fitting in nowhere. The guys appreciated that I pulled my weight at work, they loved that I knew something about cooking, and I'd done a ton of work cleaning up the place. The apartment had been a real sty when I got there, and in my spare time I'd scraped and scoured and polished and deodorized, so that now it was at least less than filthy.
I was saving them - and me - money, by buying groceries with pooled cash, making sandwiches for lunch instead of going to restaurants every day, getting them to buy beer by the case and drink in the yard instead of at bars. They weren't averse to expending a little effort keeping the place cleaner, and we'd settled into a somewhat quieter existence.
I was accepted, and I accepted them. Two months earlier, I would have called guys like that low lifes, but now I knew better. Only Eli had ever really known his father, and he'd died in some war. The others all grew up pretty much on their own, with nothing much to cling to, and they were making the best of it. I couldn't see where they'd ever have anything to show for their lives, but I guess I can't talk now.
I used to be one of the shining boys; 3.7 GPA, athletic, and I possessed some artistic skills. I'd always been healthy, strong, and pretty happy. I was still healthy and strong, still smart, too. I didn't come to this situation easily.
At home, though we weren't wealthy by any means, we were comfortable and, I thought, happy.
My father was an engineer for a big company, and he was an intelligent and thoughtful, though demanding, man. My mother graduated college, too, though she never had a serious job outside of motherhood, which was serious enough, but it didn't pay well. She was working in a lawyer's office now, and she seemed to like it.
I was the third, and the least smart, of four brainy boys born to the Smiley clan. My oldest brother had joined the Air Force, and they were paying for him to go to college in Germany at the University of Heidelburg. My next brother, Alton, was probably home for the summer now, but I couldn't know that. He should have just finished his first year at Tulane.
My younger brother, Bruce, the cause of my current situation, was arguably the brightest of us all. He was a thirteen year old kid, though, and subject to all the normal things that affected kids of that age, and a few things that only affected him. I hate him.
Yes, I was doing alright. I had a roof over my head, food to eat, even some money for a movie once in awhile, though I was seriously saving. I was basically lonely, though. I was friendly with some people; I had Nan to talk to, but I wasn't home.
That dug at me every day, because there were people I missed. The worst part was that I saw my future evaporating right in front of me. I'd found work, shelter, but I couldn't go to school here, there was no way. I loved school, too. I loved to learn, to study.
My future had always seemed pre-ordained to be bright, even easy. I had the smarts, the athleticism, people even said the charisma, to go somewhere someday. Now I was trimming lawns along sidewalks and driveways, living with four rough-and-tumble older men.
I don't know, I didn't mind right then because it was summer. I couldn't go back to school in the fall though, and that fact dwelt on me. I could get that GPA up without biology, I knew I could. Innards creeped me out.
* * * * * * * *
"Hey, Little Dude, what's up?"
I lifted my head from the picnic table in the back yard and tried to smile. "Hi, Shane. Nothing, really, it's just hot inside."
Shane always made this little "hm hm hm" sound, before he spoke, and I found it kind of endearing. He sat beside me, a lit cigarette in his hand as usual. "Fuckin' A right, it's hot."
There, that was settled. It was hot ... really hot, also humid and cloudy, and there wasn't a hint of a breeze. It was a Sunday, usually our only day off unless it rained hard during the week. I had nothing to do, no place to go, even though it was the July 4th weekend. I would have gladly worked a seven-day week just for the distraction it brought, so Shane's company was worth something.
He was a good guy, tall, with straight blond hair that he kept on the long side. He had a short beard and moustache, and watery blue eyes. I smiled over at him, noting that he was glistening with perspiration like I was. "Are you doing anything today?" I asked.
He seemed wistful, looking away when he spoke. "I wanted to go down by the river, maybe have a little picnic. The other dudes are hung over, I can't get an answer out of 'em."
It sounded good to me, "I'll go if you want," I said with some enthusiasm. "Maybe it'll be cooler there."
He smiled, "My thoughts exactly." He bopped my shoulder, "Let's go make those dudes move their asses!"
We got up and slowly made our way to the back stairs. It was too hot to move fast, and the narrow stairwell was even hotter. We were both sweating freely when we reached the kitchen, and my hopes for a picnic faded quickly.
They were hung over every morning, but this was worse than most because of all the extra holiday drinking time.
They were all awake, and that was probably a good thing, but being awake didn't seem to please any of them. Shane and I were greeted by a grunt from Kevin, a nod from Arnie, and indifference from Eli.
I poured myself a coffee from what I'd made earlier, then asked if anyone wanted me to make more. Arnie opened his mouth and pointed his finger towards it, and I took that as a yes.
I drank mine while I made more. The guys smelled pretty ripe, and I think they knew that. Kevin mumbled, "I need a shower."
He made no move to get up until Shane said, "You all need showers. Me'n Little Dude, we're goin' to the river. Hm hm hm, you guys should come along. Just think about it, we could get some hamburgers, some hot dogs, go swimmin' in the nice, cool water." He was funny, stretching out the words hamburger, hot dog, and cool.
Arnie yawned, "Sounds good. Wake me up when I'm ready."
Eli was more lucid. He said, "Count me out. They're playing all the 'Back to the Future' movies today."
Kevin sat up straighter, "Didn't they do that last week?"
Eli thought for awhile, then said, "Oh, yeah," like it was a minor revelation.
I shook my head and checked on the coffee. Shane kept at the guys, though, and by ten we were in Kevin's old '77 Olds headed for the park. We stopped at a supermarket and bought some meat, rolls, and chips.
I'd heard of Patterson Park many times, but I'd never been there. I came from two towns away, and we had our own parks. Patterson was known because it was on the river, and it had a lot of activities that made news; things like concerts and outdoor theater, and it was also famous for the 4th of July fireworks display over the water. It was a college town, too, and there were often rallies at the park for various causes.
The fireworks would be that night if the weather held. The display had been canceled three nights in a row because of thunderstorms, and the parking lot was quite full when we got there.
The main part of the park was a big field, and there were various baseball, soccer and volley ball games going on. I didn't know where I was, so I just followed the guys, laden with one handle of a heavy cooler and a half-full bag of charcoal. They went into a line of trees, then the river was there, with an island maybe a hundred feet away from where we were.
That's where most of the people were, and I could see why the place was popular. It looked pretty, all shady with low trees, picnic tables all around, and a sandy beach. There were two foot-bridges, and we took the Southerly one, then found an empty table and set up.
It was a little cooler on the island, though not a whole lot. The water between the island and shore was very shallow, but the other side of the island had another sandy beach, and that's where the action was. The beach was crowded, and there were lots of people in the water. The roped-off swimming area wasn't very big, but it was big enough to get wet in, and that's where I headed.
The bottom dropped off quickly on that side, and the water wasn't clear, but it was cool and wet, and it felt great. I was a good swimmer, and I reveled in it for probably an hour before my muscles started complaining. The other guys, except for Eli, all swam with me for part of the time, but their hangovers didn't leave them much staying power. When I got back on the beach, I sat on my towel with them, asking, "Where's Eli?"
Arnie pointed, and Eli was sitting at the edge of the water with just his feet getting wet, and watching either the swimmers or the boats going by. I didn't say anything. Just when I laid back on the towel, I got a face full of sand from a football that hit right beside my head. I sat up quickly to spit the sand out of my mouth and frisk it out of my hair
A shadow crossed me, and I looked up to see a kid, younger than me. He said, "Sorry, man, my bad. You okay?"
I nodded, and he asked, "Wanna play? We're just tossing it around."
I decided to, and picked up the ball as I stood. I looked at the kid, who held out his hand and said, "Billy."
We shook, and I said, "Evan."
Billy was half a head shorter than me, but his deep voice led me to believe he wasn't the twelve-year-old he looked like. He had a shape too, broad shoulders, very trim looking. He was just short.
He yelled, "Hey, Huck!" and gestured, and a big black kid hurried towards us, a look of determination on his face. When he got to us, Billy said, "This is Evan. Evan, this is Huck." I could see that Huck was probably my age. He had a baby face and a broad smile, and he shook hands gently.
"Hi, Evan. You play?" he asked.
I nodded, and handed him the ball. Huck looked around, then said, "Let's go on shore. It's pretty crowded here."
I told the guys I was going to toss the football around and, to my surprise, Kevin said, "Football?" He nudged Arnie, "Want to play?"
Arnie grinned. He'd lost a few teeth in bar fights, so it seemed funny to me. Shane came along, and we went back across the bridge, found a piece of ground for ourselves, and started tossing the ball around.
It was good because everyone could throw the ball. Kevin was pretty scary with how hard he could move it. Just throwing and catching got old fast, though, and we soon devised a game where, if you were the person with the ball, you had to run for a touchdown. With the ball, you were fair game for anyone who could tackle you.
Let me tell you, that field wasn't nearly as soft as it looked, and when we finally broke it up we all had bumps, cuts and scratches, me especially. I'd been the subject of a Kevin tackle, caught in a bad position, because the guy couldn't run to save his life. He got lucky getting to me, and his hundred pound weight advantage did me in.
I took too long getting up, because I was winded, not hurt, but a little stunned. I heard Shane saying, "Now look, you went and killed him, Big Dude," which made me snicker, which in turn let them know I was still alive.
Alive for what I didn't know, but a little panting got my breath back, and when Kevin's big hands rolled me over, I found myself looking at his unshaven face. "You okay?" he asked.
"You tell me," I said, feeling my chin. "Pick on somebody your own size."
He smiled, "Stop faking, then. Get up!" and he held a hand down to me.
The game was over with that tackle, and we all walked back across the bridge. We were hot, dusty, and banged up, and we headed to the water to take care of all of that. All of us except Kevin, who said he'd start the fire.
Back in the water, it occurred to me that this was the first fun I'd had since I left home. I tried to enjoy myself while I could, but I was down a little thinking it was just fun with strangers. Still, I didn't have anything immediate to worry about, so I enjoyed my swim, joked around with the guys, and relaxed.
I was out of my element and I knew it, but I was adjusting, and it wouldn't be so bad. The guys I lived with had a streak of fun in them. I was eating, had a roof over my head, fit in okay.
Standing in a river is no place to try to collect your thoughts. My legs suddenly got pulled out from under me. The last thing I saw before I went under was Huck's grinning face, so I figured it was Billy who pulled me down.
It was too muddy to see, so I just surfaced, and sure as hell Billy was standing there laughing. I didn't hesitate, though. I quickly figured they were just two guys being friendly, not a threat. I took a step forward for momentum, and pushed both their chests just hard enough to knock them over backwards, then waited for them to resurface.
Huck came up right away, but Billy was a no-show, then I was back underwater, and I came up laughing. After a month of striving just to put things together, a natural laugh felt really good.
Suddenly, the aromas from many barbecues made me realize I was very hungry, and for the first time in a long time I anticipated a meal that I'd enjoy rather than just eat.
Billy was in my face, "You live in town?"
I said, "Yeah, I just moved here."
Damn, I had to think, but it came up, "Evergreen Street." I barely knew my own street.
"Hey, Huck lives on Evergreen. I'm on the next street ... Pine Tree."
Wow! Neighbors, friends my own age maybe. The day was turning out great, even if the sun never showed its face.
The meal tasted good, though it begged for some extras we didn't have, and the lack of a spatula resulted in some broken hamburgers. We lazed there for a long time after the meal, and for the first time I had something like an intelligent discussion with Kevin and Arnie. I didn't know how to rate those two. They acted dumb, but they weren't, and when they got talking about things they sounded pretty smart, using decent grammar and exhibiting good vocabularies.
The talk never went anywhere, and nobody intended it to, but it covered some ground, from current news to gossip, on to old stories, even political views. I liked that.
I didn't really join in, nor did Eli, until Arnie prodded him, "Eli, don't you ever say anything?"
I could see Eli stiffen, then relax. He muttered, "I have thoughts, but they're worthless."
I took a look at him, seeing a homely young guy who probably nobody would love, and I felt bad. "Come on, Eli. I have thoughts too, and they're usually pointless, but they're never worthless. Try sharing one."
Eli stared at nothing, then he smiled a little and looked at me. "I have a question," he said. "What's a boy like Evan Smiley doing with a bunch of losers like us?"
Arnie said, "Hey, I resemble that remark, and don't go getting personal." He smirked, "Evan is a man of breeding and character, and he never asks questions, so let's us don't either."
Kevin and Shane started talking at once, and Kevin gave up. Shane went on, "Eli, we don't have anythin' to brag about, and whatever brought this little dude here is his business. Let's keep it that way, okay? I don't ask, you don't ask ..."
Kevin butted in, "Right, let's leave it alone." He looked at me hopefully, "Okay, Evan?"
I shrugged and nodded, still nervous because Eli had asked, grateful that the others had quashed the question, and very unsure of why. I suppose they had their own bones to bury. If I had to say something it would probably be another lie, and I was getting used to lying a lot. I lied about my age, of course, and about where I came from, my family, my entire past.
I wasn't accustomed to lying, and I kept things simple so I wouldn't trip over them. My folks were 'gone', I grew up 'not too far from here', I went to 'just a school'. God, I wanted to tell people about me when they asked, but it was too risky. Until Eli right then, the guys I lived with seemed to understand my reticence and left things alone, as did Nan, though she pressed me sometimes.
It sucked having to do that, and it added to my loneliness. Without sharing myself, I felt no right to question other people about anything, and the lack of that normal give-and-take was turning out like a hole in me, a big lack of something I used to be able to touch and I no longer could.
When Eli decided to remain silent, I relaxed until the heat got to me. Then I slipped away, back into the water, where I ran into Billy and Huck again.
We fooled around for awhile, and I found myself liking both of them. Billy was full of it, always trying to get to me with his antics, and Huck was the opposite, kind of reserved, and sometimes embarrassed by Billy, but I could see they were good friends, and I liked being with kids my own age for once.
We knocked around all afternoon; swam, played some more catch with the football, and swam again. When we were catching our breath on beach towels, Huck asked, "So, Evan ... what's the story here? You new in town or something?"
I said, "Yeah," hoping he wouldn't dig very deep. "I've been here about a month."
"Who's those guys you're with? I see them in their trucks, I know what house you live in."
I said, "Just guys I work with. They're okay."
Huck sounded stunned, "You work? Man, you's just a kid like me."
I lied, "I'm sixteen, Huck. I work with them, live with them, can we leave it alone?"
Huck and Billy looked at each other, then back at me. "Sure, man, no problem," Huck smiled. "You quit school?"
Oh God, that question almost made me cry, but the truth was, "Yeah, I guess I did." I tried to change the subject, "So, what's good to do around here?"
Billy was staring at me, and he said evenly, "This park's good. There's not much going on in summer, but the college has some good events during the year, and they don't cost much." His face formed a question, "I don't know you, man. Say what you like, and I'll tell you if we have it."
Holy ...! Intelligence, and right where I didn't expect it. I started to gush, "I love to roller blade, skateboard, anything like that. I love movies, I love live plays, I love music ... any kind. Is there a library? I like sports, too, especially baseball, but basketball, football, hockey, you name it, and I love coffee shops!"
I would have gone on, but Billy held up his hand like a traffic cop, and whistled. "Hold it!" He grinned at Huck, "The man's on overload!" then turned back to me and smirked. "Okay, yes, we can accommodate you." He giggled, and turned his face to Huck, "At least he's not boring."
I laughed for real, for the first time in what seemed forever, a little laugh with a new friend, and I knew we'd be friends. I wasn't boring, and neither were they. We weren't together on everything, not all the sports, but we were on most things, and I started to get excited hearing all the things this town had to offer. Where I came from was a bigger town, but not a lot bigger, and it was a more typical place in that area, the action centered around the mall. Riverton didn't even have a mall, so the downtown was still viable, and they had the college, a university, really, and that brought depth to the place.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, making friends, and when Kevin called that food was ready again, I was hungry enough to leave, but not without promises from Billy and Huck that we'd meet up again soon.
After a dinner of two broken hamburgers with onions, I dozed off, serene until a loud boom woke me up. It was a test sent up by the people putting on the fireworks show, and a few more followed it. I moved down to the beach with the other guys, and probably most of the town, and waited for the start of the show. I watched for Billy or Huck, but never saw them.
The fireworks display was great, over the water like it was, and they tossed up a lot of stuff. The last bang was still in my ears, and people were applauding the show when Kevin said, "We should go."
He was right, but I would have normally stayed for awhile, just to let it soak in. This wasn't then, though, it was now, so I got up and helped carry things back to the car.
The traffic getting out of there was horrendous, and I was asleep in the back seat when we got back to the house. I helped unload the car, and carried my share of things up to the apartment, and as soon as I could get there, I was in bed.
It had been the best day in a long time, and I had some real hope in mind, but I started crying, like always, the moment my head hit the pillow. I was living, getting along with people, but this wasn't my life, it was a soap opera.
I cried every night, and the despair that caused those tears wouldn't leave me. I couldn't be home anymore, and I knew that, and I accepted my fate to a point, but living on a porch, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, wasn't something I could ever be happy with. I was better than what I had, and I knew it. I just couldn't prove it, not to me or anyone else.
Not anymore, not since that day that school let out for the summer.
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