Anything We Want
I nibbled at my breakfast that morning, then went out to wait for the bus.
Nobody had tried to engage me in the house, and the bus to school was the same way. Everyone was sad, and like me, I don’t think anyone on that bus had any way to express that sadness.
At school, they had an assembly, and incredibly, the Jenks family had managed to put together a slide show of Jamie’s short life, and we saw him there on the screen.
Jamie had been cute as a little kid, and when he died probably the only thing that had stayed constant was his unruly blond hair. We saw him go from crawling to stumbling around, and from stumbling around to little league soccer and baseball. We saw him at school, at home, at church, and places we didn’t know. There was no common chord. Those pictures were haunting, though, because the life in that boy was no longer there, yet it was still, and always, in the photos.
I don’t often cry, but Jamie’s death hit me in ways I didn’t expect, and I shed a bucket of tears over the unfairness of it. I wasn’t the only one, either. All the faculty, all the staff, all the students, we all had red eyes.
The school offered counseling, and I abstained because Jamie had real friends, not just admirers. I didn’t want to take up someone else’s time, and I think just sharing the grief helped me.
There were calling hours at the funeral home that night, and I went with my parents and Ally, and we brought Shea Luellen with us because he asked me on the bus. We went early, and still stood in a long line of tearful people. My school friends greeted me quietly when we saw each other. There was nothing to say except hello.
I’d only been to one such thing before in my life when an uncle died. It wasn’t so sad then because he’d been sick with cancer, and people in the family viewed his death as a release.
That wasn’t the case with Jamie Jenks, a boy who involved himself in everything, and had every chance for a great future. I cried again kneeling by the closed casket, and I cried on and off through the night.
I went to the funeral the next day, and cried again as this promising boy was laid into the ground.
My father had stayed with me instead of going north. He stayed both for my benefit, and for the Jenks family.
By the time my father drove off on Saturday, I felt better. Not because he was gone, but the funeral was over, and I had half a new friend in Shea Luellen, who’d gone to the funeral and burial with us.
Dad was off to start a new business, and that would help Elenora and Dana, and I wanted that to happen. Jamie was dead, and there was nothing that would change that.
We had taken Shea to the funeral home for calling hours, and he was pretty stoic there. At the funeral the next day, he cried. Everybody there cried, but it was my mother who pulled Shea to her and comforted him, my mother who gave him one tissue after another, and my mother who steered him back to the car when it was over.
There was a reception after the burial service at the cemetery, and we didn’t want to go, but Shea did. We collectively changed our minds, and I tried to remember where the place was. Once I opened my eyes, it was easy enough to follow the long line of cars headed in one direction.
We ended up at this place called the Corinthian, which is a purpose-built banquet hall. It gets used for weddings and dances, and also for big parties like Jamie’s funeral seemed to be turning into.
When we went inside, the entire facility was for the Jenks function. I’d been there once the year before, when there were several things going on at once, and the one hall we were in seemed vast. Then again, I think the entire town was there to celebrate Jamie’s brief time on Earth, and lots of the Jenks’ friends and relatives from other places were also there.
We ran into Tommy as soon as we came through the door, and he’d been waiting for us. His family had a table already, and were holding places for all of us.
That was a good deal, because I think otherwise we’d have had to scatter. As soon as we sat down, a waitress was there taking drink orders. Our parents ordered wine or cocktails, and the three of us, meaning me, Tom, and Shea, ordered Cokes. The waitress smiled, “I’ll bring a pitcher, how’s that?”
I didn’t know how I should feel there, or how I should react to people. I could see the Jenks family at their table, and they seemed to be jovial, even Mr. Jenks, who had been an eyewitness to his son’s death just a few days before.
The entire place was kind of boisterous. Not like a ballgame, but it seemed cheerful for a funeral. I looked the question to my father, and I know my look confused him, so I traded seats with Shea.
“Why do people look happy?” I asked.
The drinks came right then, and it took a minute to sort them out, and the adults toasted quietly, and my father held his glass out to me, so I clinked it with my own glass.
Dad’s look was pensive more than sad. “I don’t know why, Paul. Well, I do think I know why.” His look softened, and he indicated the Jenks’ table with his free hand. “I think when something this sudden happens, that people with any kind of faith at all find it … I don’t want to say easier … they find it …” He sighed. “There’s no good term. They’re looking at Jamie’s death as an act of God, and not some random accident, Paul. Jamie wasn’t sick, wasn’t cursed, wasn’t anything but an exceptional youngster.”
Dad choked, and got tears in his eyes. “It’s easier to think, to believe, that God took Jamie for some Divine purpose than to have him gone from them because bad brakes were responsible.” He grimaced and wiped his eyes with his napkin. “I think it’s where faith comes from,” he said in a wavering voice. “Otherwise, what’s it all worth?” He looked at me lovingly, “This gives that family something to hold onto, and it’s something powerful.”
A big meal was served, and the food was good. We all ate, and when it seemed apparent that my family and the Timeks were going to linger over coffee, I said, “I need some air. I looked at Tom, “I’m going outside, wanna come?”
Tom looked grateful and started to stand, and Shea asked, “Can I come?”
God, I sat next to the kid all that time and said nothing except to ask for the pepper shaker. I looked at him, small beside me, and smiled. “Sure,” I said, holding my hand out to help him up.
He didn’t need my hand, but he smiled back and got up on his own, groaning slightly after the long sit. Tom stretched and made a moan too, and I said, “You guys need more exercise.”
Tom rolled his eyes, and Shea giggled, which was the first happy sound I’d heard from that kid since they moved in up the hill from us. I looked at him and he still looked way too young to be in high school, but his reputation was as a good student.
I wasn’t the one to push him. Shea’s entire family preferred to stay in the background, and in Vermont that was a wish that was respected everywhere. There was no reason to suspect anything was wrong, or criminal, up on their hill. The property was kept up, they had decent cars, the kids were always clean and well-dressed, not to mention plump and healthy looking. They just led a private life, and while people often speculated, nobody thought much about it.
Except Tommy. The Corinthian had a view down the river valley, and they had a long window wall that took advantage of the view, with a narrow outside deck the length of it, and we ended up walking out there, single-file.
Tom put a hand on Shea’s shoulder and asked, “So, Shea. What’s the deal?” I was behind them, and Shea cringed visibly, then tried to get out from under Tom’s hand.
“Don’t, Tom,” I said evenly.
Tom turned to look at me, “Why? I can’t ask my neighbor a question?”
I said, “Tom, listen. The first question you should ask is if it’s okay to ask something personal. Shea’s not me.”
Tom stopped and turned around, letting Shea walk on by himself, but Shea stopped and turned to look back. Tom looked sad, and said, “I know. I was wrong.” He turned around and called, “Hey! Shea!” and Shea was right there, probably under Tom’s field of view.
I pushed Tommy forward toward Shea and let them deal with it. I walked on another twenty feet or so, where I was out of earshot, and enjoyed the view. It wasn’t pretty at that gray time of year, but it was impressive. I leaned on the railing, then looked up at the gray sky, and back at the view over the town and the river. I was thinking I should be sad over Jamie, but I had lost that awful feeling, at least for the time being. I attributed that to all the ceremony of a funeral, and more to the fact that his family had this party.
I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to work. I’m sure it was worse for the family and Jamie’s real friends than for me, because I barely qualified as an acquaintance. It was still a very low point in my life, and there was no real reason why, except one of the good guys lost.
I was soon joined by Tommy and Shea, and they were both looking comfortable with each other, so I didn’t say anything. Good is good, and we noticed that things were breaking up inside, so we went back to our table. There were still people sitting at a lot of tables, but others were saying goodbye and getting their coats.
As soon as we showed up, my father stood, and the rest of the adults at our table followed suit, and we said our goodbyes. Tom rode with us because his folks planned to shop before going home.
Getting out of the car back at our house, I felt bad for Shea, and said, “I’ll be back. I’m gonna walk home with Shea.”
My family all acknowledged that, and Tommy said, “I’ll come, too.”
Shea shrugged his approval, so we started up their steep driveway. It was sundown, and the Luellen’s impressive house came into view just when the setting sun burst through the clouds. It made the house look beautiful, as well as impressive. The cedar logs picked up the warm light, and the windows reflected the blue and gray sky. It’s a pretty place.
I expected Shea to say goodbye at the door, but he asked us in, then called to his parents that he was home, and with company.
He led us to a small room with a television in it, and the set was on. The room only had some narrow, vertical, windows, and the view out them magnified the steepness of the lot, enough to make me slightly dizzy.
In a moment, the entire family was there to greet us, and it was a very friendly greeting, like if we made it this far we were in. Alternatively, if we made it that far, then maybe we were dinner, but I didn’t get that feeling.
Shea is on the small side, and so is his entire family. I smiled because they looked almost like elves, and with Tommy beside me I felt like a middle-elf or something. They were the wee people of legend, is what entered my mind, but they were all smiles, warm and welcoming.
Shea’s parents listened intently as he recalled the funeral, and how he felt better for going. They sympathized with him, then invited me and Tom to stay as long as we liked.
I said, “I can’t really, not tonight. My dad’s leaving in the morning, and I should be home with him.”
Mr. Luellen smiled and said, “That I understand. You come back whenever you like, both of you.”
Shea walked us to the door and said softly, “Thanks for letting me go with you.”
I smiled and said, “No big deal. See you soon, okay?”
Shea nodded; Tom and I returned his little wave, and we headed down the hill. I nudged Tom and said, “That wasn’t what I expected.”
“What?” he asked.
“The Luellens,” I replied. “I felt real comfortable there, and I thought I wouldn’t.”
“Me, too,” Tom said, and we were silent until he said, “I bet I know what it is.” His tone became conspiratorial, “They’re in the witness protection program!”
I laughed, “Protection from what? Walking, talking carrots? I think they’re just what my dad said, which is private people. That doesn’t mean they can’t be sociable in their own home.”
Tom had raised his glove to bop me on the carrot remark, but didn’t. “You’re right,” he said, tapping my arm as he turned off toward his own house. “You be around later?”
“Sure will,” I said. “See you.”
I was getting cold, so I hurried home and into the kitchen, which was usually the warmest room, but it was empty and voices were coming from the living room, so I peeled off my outer clothes and hung them up, then joined the family. They were sipping wine by the fire, and talking amiably, and they all turned and smiled at me when I came in.
My mother spoke first. “Is Shea alright? He was really broken up earlier.”
I nodded, but before I could say anything Ally said, “He is one little cutester! How old is that boy?”
I shrugged, “Fourteen, I guess. He’s about the smallest kid in school.”
“You were there a while,” Dad said. “Did you meet the family?”
“Meet the family?” Ally asked in astonishment. “My God! Haven’t they lived here as long as you have?”
My father nodded, saying, “They keep to themselves. What can I say?”
Ally looked at me, her mouth agape. I explained, “I went in the house. They seem real nice, and asked me to stay and everything.”
Allly turned to my father, who shrugged and looked annoyed. “I’ve tried to break the ice with them, many times, and so has half this town. They’re just not interested, and they as much as say so.”
I offered, “Tommy thinks they must be in the witness protection program. As soon as we got inside they were real friendly.”
“There you go,” my father said smugly, as if Tommy had said that after a long investigation and not as an idle thought. “They know something they shouldn’t, and the government is shielding them.”
My mother tittered and said, “Don’t be silly. The witness program indeed!” She giggled. “That’s absurd. That boy from today is naïve, not frightened.” Her smile dimmed. “Whatever. I don’t suppose anyone has ever thought to just ask?”
Well, I was guilty, and Dad’s expression matched mine, so my mother said, “I thought not.” She looked at me and said, “Paul, tomorrow you bring Shea here so I can speak with him. Witness program. Jesus!”
We ate light that night, just some fruit and cheese, because lunch was late after the funeral.
Tom called a while later. “I’m going bowling with the guys. Want to come with us?”
“Um, Tom,” I said. “I get blisters from bowling, and you know I suck at it.” I came clean, “I’m tired, anyhow, so I’ll just hang around here.”
Tom sighed and said, “Be a pussy, then,” but he knew I didn’t bowl, and that he only called to be nice.
I sat by the fire in the living room after everyone else disappeared, and picked up the newest National Geographic. I thought I’d read the piece on African Wolves, but I doubt I even finished the reader’s letters. When I woke up, the fire was out, the room had cooled, and I was chilly, so I headed upstairs to my own bed. I never even looked at a clock.
I’m not always lazy, but sometimes I am. I can usually stay up to midnight or so, and still function at school the next day. Other times I’ll go to bed early and want to just stay there. This was a weekend, but I got up on my alarm, because when I pressed the snooze button I could hear my father talking on the phone. I wanted to see him before he left, so I woke up, just like that.
If you count sleeping in the chair, I went to bed early anyhow, probably before nine.
I pulled my jeans on, stepped into my slippers, and padded over to the bathroom, then went down to the kitchen.
Dad was still on the phone, explaining to whoever why he was days late, and he didn’t sound too happy with the person on the other end. “Listen,” he said, “I can be there in about three hours. That place has been on the market for six months, and I’m offering the asking price. I think it’s damn rude of you to get upset over a couple of days, given the circumstances here.” He saw me and rolled his eyes at me, then listened to the phone and those same eyes flared with anger. “Let me tell you something, buddy. Maybe we should put this off, so I can rethink the value of that little building. How would that fit with your plans?” He smirked, listening. “Oh, I know we didn’t close on time, but who ever does? How about I check back in May or June, and determine whether you’ve learned civility or not? Okay? Fine!”
He slapped his phone shut and started counting, “One, two, three ….” He got to nine and the phone rang, and he let it ring, smiling at me. When it stopped ringing, it started again, and he handed it to me.
A really snide male voice said, “Oh, Jesus! Who is this?”
I said meekly, grinning at my father, “It’s just me. Who are you? And why don’t you like me?”
He said angrily, “I am Attorney Oscar Grossman. Let me speak with your father.”
I said, “Sorry, he only takes calls from polite people. Bye.”
I hung up, giggled, and held the phone out to my father. It was ringing a second after I let go, and Dad put it on the table to ring unanswered. “You make the coffee,” he said, and I’ll get breakfast.
We did that, and Ally joined us for breakfast after awhile. Mom didn’t show. The phone had rung periodically, and when we were all done, Dad finally picked it up. Apparently Attorney Oscar Grossman had taken a lesson in civility, because Dad smiled while talking to him, and we saw him off a half-hour later.
That big Audi was there. We’d gone in it to the wake and the funeral, but Ally had my dad drive because he understands sedate. I asked, “Ride?”
Ally grinned and said, “I need my keys,” and three minutes later we were headed up Route 30, then across to Route 100, where Ally cut the big car loose, and woo!
That road is narrow, high-crowned, winding, and full of potholes, but when you get a break and can put the pedal down it’s awesome. That Audi is awesome, too, and probably one of the good things that come with having some money.
Ally loves to drive; that’s one of the things I like about her. Dad tolerates driving, and has a boring Jeep. Mom is worse, and still drives the car her folks had bought her during college, a now-ancient, corroding Toyota with one hubcap left. It probably doesn’t matter that it’s low mileage by now, but she drives it maybe ten miles in a big month, and keeps threatening to get rid of it, because the parking and insurance isn’t worth her keeping it. She’s right, but she keeps it.
Ally gave me a great joyride, and it started to snow before we got back. We stopped at a little diner for a hot chocolate, but had lunch instead because I became hungry walking through the door.
I had a teriyaki chicken salad, and a side of baked beans, once I discerned the beans were the source of the wonderful aroma. Ally ate, too, but I paid no attention to what she ordered.
On the last leg of the ride home, it became clear that she had some beans too, and we were laughing with the windows down when we got back to the house.
There was a note on the hall table saying my mother had gone for a walk, so I went in to start a fire in the living room. My phone rang while I was doing that, and I expected it to be Tommy, but it was my father.
He started with no greeting, “What a horse’s ass that Grossman is. Dammit, he’s only half human.”
“Hi, Dad.” I said gleefully. “Having fun?”
He grunted. “Never do business with a northern lawyer. What a prick.”
I said, again cheerfully, “Oh yeah, I’m fine. How are you?”
Dad caught his breath, then snickered. “Sorry, kid, but that guy is a ball-buster if ever one was born. How’s your day?”
“Ally took me for a ride in the Q7, then we had lunch. So far, so good.”
Dad laughed, “Are your undies still white? I know that car has a huge engine.”
“It’s just right,” I said. “So, do we own a laundry now?”
“Yes, we do, and I have a lot of little things to do, but not until Monday.”
I let out a big bean fart and laughed. Dad asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Well, the paint’s suddenly peeling in here.”
“I don’t want to know,” Dad said. “Dana’s here. Want to say hello?”
I did. “Dana?”
His voice was soft. “Hi. I don’t believe this, you know. It’s like a … I don’t know what it’s like.”
I never thought I’d be excited about a laundry, but hearing Dana sound so much in awe made me feel like him. “So when do you open up?” I asked.
“Not very soon,” he said, still speaking softly. “There’s a lot to do. You’ll come up when we do, though, won’t you?”
“Oh, yeah! Grand openings are a specialty of mine. Well, this will be my first specialty. But I plan on a lot in the future.”
Dana snickered. “You’re a pisser. Your father told us about your friend. I’m really sorry.”
Damn, that made me sad about Jamie again, and I wasn’t ready for it. I choked out, “Thanks. It’s okay.”
Dana hesitated, “I think it’s not okay, Paul. Here, talk to your father. Thanks …”
“Paul?” my father asked. “You okay there?”
I sighed, “Yeah, mostly okay I think.” I shook my head to clear it, which didn’t help. “I wasn’t thinking about Jamie, then Dana reminded me is all.”
Dad said, “Yeah, I can see that happening. Is your mother home?”
“No,” I said. “She took a walk.”
“Oh. Well, listen. You take it easy, and call me if you want to talk.”
“I will,” I said.
“Paul, I know. I know that thinking and hearing about Jamie hurts right now, and it should. Things aren’t always fair, or the way we think they should be. Cry now. In time, when you hear his name, then you’ll smile. Your memories will take over, and you’ll smile for the boy you knew, not for the loss of him.
I was on the verge of tears. “Thanks,” I said. “I hear you. It does hurt, and I’m not sure why. I only knew him; we weren’t really friends.”
Dad was quiet for a long moment before he said, “It will hurt, too, every time something bad happens to a friend. I don’t know if this will help, but it hurts because it should, and you hurt because you’re a real human being.” He lowered his voice and said, “I love you, Paul. You are a real decent person.”
I smiled through my tears. Poor Dana didn’t even know his father, didn’t have his name to share, and I had it all. I was closer to my dad than anyone else I knew was, including Tommy next door, who still had a great relationship with his own father.
Dana was close with his mother when they weren’t arguing, but she was all he had. Their fights must have hurt him ten times worse without a third person there to calm things down. I love my parents, but we do fight about things. I get bratty and go live with the other when I’m mad enough at one of them, and when I’m mad at the two of them, I have Ally to mediate.
I suppose it’s odd, or at least different, that two out of the three people I love most on this planet are lesbian women, but that’s how things worked out for me, and I’m neither unhappy nor ashamed about it. It’s my life, and that’s the way it is. If someone thinks it’s freaky, then let them think it.
I was as mortified as my father when I learned why Mom was leaving him … us, but he let me find understanding with him when he went looking for it, and that was a journey of faith and trust that would put most religions to shame.
Two years after their divorce, my parents still loved each other, and that made the difference for me. My mother had this little sexual bent that messed up the marriage, but they cared as much for each other as they ever did, and I was no accident, either. I’m Paul, named after Paul, as in Simon, not the Apostle. I’m nobody special … yet … but I’m the son of some special people, so my day may come.
Dad was still on the phone, and I asked, “How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed, “Probably a few weeks.”
I asked nervously, “Can I come up next weekend?” I was nervous, because when my father was busy, most times I may as well have been a carpet, so he surprised me.
“Come on up!” Dad said exuberantly. “We’ll ski, we’ll fix washing machines, and we’ll have fun!”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “I should what? Take the bus?”
Dad laughed. “Take the Ally trolley. You’ll be here before you can hang up!” He laughed some more, “Bring your mother and Ally. They can see the place, meet Elenora, and we can all ski one day!”
Meet Elenora. That stuck in my head. Meet Elenora. Why would he say it that way? I didn’t ask. I couldn’t. Dana’s mother was pretty, that was for sure. She was also somewhere about halfway between my age and my father’s. Perfectly legal, I’m sure, but not a situation I liked, at least on the face of it. I couldn’t and wouldn’t say anything, but the thought of my father with Dana’s mother didn’t mesh easily with my view of how things ought to be.
I said, “I’ll see what they say,” thinking I wouldn’t commit right away. I wasn’t sure about the idea. Elenora and Dana were flawed for sure, but they were just the kind of real people Mom would take to. Ally would too, but for her own reasons. Mom liked characters, and Ally liked down-to-earth people, so both of their interest levels would be piqued.
We talked about little things for another minute, then hung up.
My mother hadn’t come back, and Ally was reading in the living room, so I went back to the National Geographic I’d started the night before. I had just found my place and sat back to read when my cell phone rang. It was Jim Mc Naughton, a guy from school who often skied with me.
“Hey Doodler, wanna go to Magic tomorrow?”
“Really? Yeah, I’ll go. Well, I have to ask, but I don’t see why not. Who’s going?”
“Me and my brother. See if Schnoodlemeyer wants to go.”
I was glad. I liked Jim, and we skied at about the same level, so we always had fun. He had nicknames for half the people he knew, and I was Doodler because of one long-ago study hall where I didn’t have anything to study. Instead, I filled up a sheet of paper with shapes and designs, and he watched. I’ve been Doodler since then, but just to Jim. It was better than Schnoodlemeyer, which is what he called Tommy, although the reason for that was obscure to me, because it arose before I showed up in town.
I said, “Mom’s out. I’ll call you when she says it’s okay.”
“Good deal. Don’t forget.”
The phone rang again before I had it back in my pocket. Jim again, “Your mom? Isn’t she like some famous lesbian in New York or something?”
I snickered. “She lives in Boston. She’s staying here ‘cause Dad’s out of town.”
Silence. I could picture Jim licking his lips, scratching his head, and trying to formulate his next barrage of questions, so I helped him out. “You can come over if you want to meet her. Her partner is here with her.” I thought it was funny, and added, “Bring a friend if you like. Bring a bunch of friends. It’ll be fun!”
His voice was suddenly small. “Fun? Um, not today, okay? It’s kinda busy here. I’ll meet her when we pick you up tomorrow.” He found the strength to say heartily, “Be good, amigo!”
I said, “Si,” and we hung up again.
I went back to my magazine, and was halfway through it when Mom came home. She called out, and followed our response into the living room. She was dressed pretty lightly for the cold, but cold didn’t bother her like it did most people. She was peeling her jacket off when she came in the room. She tossed it onto a bench, then pulled off her gloves and hat.
She looked at what she’d just taken off and giggled to herself, and said, “Now I have to put it all back on. Come on, Al, we have to go to the market.”
Ally lifted one eyebrow in amusement, and asked, “Market? Who did you meet in the woods? Are the three bears coming to dinner?”
Mom stuck her tongue out and said, “No, the five Luellens are coming.” She looked at me and said, “Invite the Timeks, and don’t take no for an answer. It’s time to meet your neighbors properly.”
“That’s where you’ve been?” I asked kind of incredulously.
“That’s where I just came from,” she said. Her eyes were full of their usual humor. “I’m pleased to announce that they are not terrorists, nor are they in any witness program, nor did they rob a bank.” She pointed her finger at me and said, “And shame on you and your friend for thinking something is amiss. I’ll speak with your father when I see him.”
With that, she put her jacket back on, pulled on her hat, and had her gloves in her hand by the time Ally got to her feet.
She whirled around to look at me, and her smile was bright.
“Can I go skiing tomorrow? Jim called.”
She said, “Of course you can go skiing. Why else would you choose to live in Vermont? Who is Jim?”
I said, “I’ve told you about Jim. He calls me Doodler, and I ski with him and his brother a lot.”
Mom smiled and nodded, “Of course. Jim is the boy with a brother, and … why is it, again, that he calls you Doodler?”
I asked, “What are you cooking? Give it to me in English so Tommy will understand.”
That stumped her, and she looked at the ceiling before turning back to me. “Tell them we will have meat, or possibly fowl, some form of starch, vegetables, and a sweet for dessert. And wine. We will find divine wines to go with.”
I grinned, “Then, go forth and find things! I shall call Schnoodlemeyer.”
My mother gave me a look that I ignored, and I made drama when I picked up my magazine and buried my nose in it.
I heard my mother asking Ally in the next room who the Schnoodlemeyers were, and it gave me a grin. When they left, I walked over to Tommy’s.
His mother let me in, and she still held concern about Jamie, and my reaction to the funeral. I assured her that I was okay. Mrs. Timek is a wonderful woman, all warm and caring, so I don’t think a lot about it when she worries over me. That’s just the way she is.
She turned to yell to Tommy that I was there, and I caught her. “I’m here to ask you all over to dinner.” I darkened my stare, “The Luellens will be there.” I toyed with the thought of adding that my mother was in town buying heart meat, but it was the wrong audience. Instead I smiled, “Mom’s here with Ally, and they feel like partying. Can you come?”
Mrs. Timek looked at me blankly while it sank in, then smiled. “Won’t that be fun? Of course we’ll come over. Should I bring something?”
”Nuh-uh, I said. If there’s one thing I can promise, Mom and Ally will have it covered.”
Tom’s mother looked at me appraisingly and said gently, “You’re in tune with the times, Paul. I don’t know how many other kids are as open-minded as you, and I really applaud your acceptance of things being the way they are.” She smiled, then kissed my cheek. “You are a real sweetheart.”
I kind of wished I had a fart built up right then, but I’d used them all up. All I could do was smile, and head to Tom’s room at the end of the hall.
His door was closed, which was an uh-oh in itself, and there was no television or music that I could hear, so I knocked.
Good. He was engaged in above-board activities, and when I opened the door, Tommy’s room was draped with maps, an open atlas, and his computer featured a map of Nigeria.
Tom looked up when I came in, and said, “Sorry. I have this thing due Monday. What’s up?”
I looked at his pile of notes and asked, “Almost finished? Jim Mc Naughton’s going to Magic tomorrow, and he asked us along.”
Tom looked helplessly at all his work, then sighed, “You know, when someone dies, they might ought to extend due dates.” He shook his head, “I can’t man. I’ll do good to finish as it is.”
I nodded my understanding. “Well, next week come up north with us! We’ll ski a day, maybe both.”
Tom smiled, “Sounds like a plan. Have fun tomorrow, but let me get back to this. I’ll be typing for the next twenty hours, and that’s if I’m lucky.”
“There’s one more thing. Mom invited the Luellens down for dinner, and I think you’re coming too. Your family is coming, anyhow.”
Tom seemed surprised, but he just nodded and picked up a textbook, so I left him to his work and left.
I had some time alone, and I had some energy that needed burning but no place to use it up. Tom was studying, and I didn’t want to help him with his homework, so I started walking along the road. That wasn’t a brilliant idea, because the day had warmed enough to turn the frozen crud on the pavement into slush, and the first car that went by gave me a good sloshing. I moved closer to the side, and the next vehicle to go by was a big dualie, and I was splashed right up to my face. I turned and beat feet back to our driveway. When I turned to the house, I was surprised by Shea Luellen, who was walking away from our door.
Our eyes met. He smiled, and I returned it, saying “Hi, Shea! What’s up?”
He shrugged, “I just came over to see if you were home. It’s been a boring day.”
I nodded, “I agree. Come on in.” I turned my side to him so he could see the mud on me, and said, “It’s not even safe on the road.”
We used the side door to the house like everyone else in Vermont. The house actually has a pretty neat looking front entrance, but there is no good way to get there in the winter, and there is no point anyhow. It puts you in this hall between the living room, the den, and where the stairs go up, which is a pretty useless place to be. The side door leads into a much more practical alcove between the kitchen and the dining room, with a coat closet on the left and a lavatory on the right.
The best entrance is the back door, which we use when coming in from the driveway. It’s right there where it belongs, and leads into the laundry room, which has a tile floor where we don’t have to worry about wet or mud. It has a row of hooks right inside the door to hang coats on, and that’s where I keep the jackets I wear most often. It has other things like key hooks, several closets, one that we use as a pantry, one for the vacuum and brooms and the like. The washer and dryer are there, of course, and the freezer, and enough cabinets and drawers to hold all our junk that doesn’t seem to belong anywhere else. It’s a bright room, paneled in knotty pine, with a big window on the south side, a regular window on the north, and a windowed door to the outside.
The way Shea and I came in called for removal of shoes before we made any forward progress. We were wearing just socks on our feet when I led Shea into the kitchen to forage for snacks and drinks. I cut up some cheddar and salami, found a box of crackers, and we sat at the kitchen table to nibble. And talk.
“Your folks met my mother?” I asked to break the ice.
Shea looked at me, then away, and when he looked back he had a mischievous grin on his face. “Your mother met us, that’s for sure. She’s some tough lady, Paul.”
Oh, no. Oh, no! “She didn’t hurt anyone, did she?” I asked, fearing the worse.
Shea’s grin brightened. “I said she met us, that’s all. She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
I leaned toward him, “You’re saying?”
“I’m saying that it took your mother to get my parents to tell their story.” He held a hand up to keep me from responding, and he smiled kindly, “I know my parents feel better now that someone knows what’s going on with us, and I sure do.” He lowered his voice, “We hear the rumors about us, and they’re so far from the truth that it’s funny sometimes.” His look soured, “It still hurts, Paul. The stories hurt all of us.”
I stared, expecting some kind of epiphany, but it wasn’t forthcoming. I finally sat back in my chair and asked, “Your story? Am I still supposed to guess? At this late date?”
Shea’s expression changed, and I could tell he didn’t want to be the one to tell me. I said, “It’s okay. I’ll learn tonight, right?”
He looked relieved and nodded.
I asked, “It’s that bad?”
“No, not bad. It’s stupid really, but I’m too used to not saying.” He gave me a hopeful look and said, “Just wait, okay? We’re not cranking out meth up there.”
I looked at Shea, who still didn’t look his age even after I spent some time with him. And the fact that the Luellens didn’t have a big meth lab up on their hill dispelled at least one rumor, and set most of my fears to rest. I’d already decided the Luellens weren’t a threat, but my curiosity still burned. I let Shea have his way, though, and changed the subject.
“Where’d you get the name Shea?”
Shea squeezed his eyes shut and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘mother fucker’ before he looked at me. “Shea’s my middle name, my mother’s maiden name. If you want to know my first name, just shoot me now, or maybe I’ll shoot you.”
I laughed out loud, which made Shea snicker, and I didn’t press it. Not for a whole minute, when I said, “Shea, listen. You have to tell me one or the other, okay? I mean, either the big family secret, or your real name. Otherwise I’ll go crazy, and that won’t be pretty no matter how you look at it.”
Shea glowered at me and called me a prick. “You’re evil, too. If you ever repeat this, I swear …”
I was laughing inside. “It’s that bad?”
“Worse,” Shea said. “Promise you won’t say?”
I nodded in solemnity.
“Clancy,” Shea whispered. “Clancy!” He frowned and his face reddened. “Is that the worst, or what?”
I know I blushed too, and tried my best to hold back my laugh, but that was pointless. I wheezed out a high-pitched noise, then just laughed. I didn’t think Clancy was a horrible name, but I found it hilarious that Shea was so embarrassed by it. I was torn between agreeing with him, and telling him it wasn’t so bad, but my nature is to go with the bad.
“Clancy? Jesus, they must hate you. My folks, too. Know what my middle name is?”
Shea’s eyes were wide, and he shook his head no. “Allison. Allison! That’s a girl’s name, right? But it’s my mother’s family name, so I’m Paul A Dunn, and I’ve been teased forever just about being Paula Dunn. If people knew about the Allison, I’d be dead meat.”
Shea gave me a contemplative look, then he smiled, and the smile turned into a little laugh. “That’s funny. What’s with parents and all the freaking weird names? If I ever have kids, I’ll name the boys Jack and the girls Jill” He grinned, “Then, when I send them up the hill to fetch water, nobody on Earth will be confused.”
I smiled at Shea, somewhat surprised by his sense of humor. Still, it’s my nature to challenge. “You know, around here I think most people would send their kids down the hill to fetch their water. I understand your point, because to go down the hill for water would mess up the whole rhyme. I’ll probably name my kids Porky and Goofy, just to see how they grow into their names.”
Shea digested that, apparently didn’t find it funny, and changed the subject.
“Where do you go when you’re not here? I see you taking off weekends, and sometimes for weeks.”
“We have a ski house up north,” I explained. We go there most weekends in the winter.”
“I want to ski,” Shea said. “I don’t have anyone to go with.”
“Do you know how?” I asked.
Shea shook his head, “No, I never went. It just looks so neat!”
“I’m going with some guys tomorrow,” I said. “You know Jim Mc Naughton, don’t you?”
Shea nodded, and I said, “Well, his brother is driving. You never went before?”
“No,” Shea said.
“They have deals for beginners. You get skis, tickets, and a lesson for pretty cheap. You can do that when we get there, then come skiing with us.”
“It’s that easy?” Shea asked.
“Depends on you,” I said. “If you hate it, you can sit in the lodge.” I saw his look and said, “That’s not a punishment, Shea. They have big fireplaces and food, and lots of people sit in there.”
“I don’t think I’ll hate it,” Shea said hopefully.
I sat beside him and said, “I’ll ski with you after the lesson. Don’t worry, okay? I only started a few years ago, and I love it. I don’t mind time on the easy hills.”
Shea asked, “How much?” and we ended up on the mountain’s website. Eighty-five dollars, which sounded like a lot to me, so I called the area. I was switched to the program area, and they said that just for me, they could do it for sixty-five, and I made a reservation.
Of course, Shea didn’t even know if he’d be allowed to go yet, and I convinced him to wait until his parents were full of food and wine before asking. If it was a matter of money, I’d pay his way, but the Luellens seemed to have their own.
He did call home to ask if he could hang out with me until dinner, and got permission. We were in my room, and I asked if he had a computer, which he did.
“My life is on my computer,” he said somewhat sadly. “That’s where my friends live now … my old friends.” He took a deep breath and sighed loudly, “God, I miss them. It’s hard being a computer friend, not seeing anyone for real anymore.”
I looked at Shea, then asked, “Why’s it like that? I …” I let the thought die, thinking I knew where my business ended and Shea’s began.
Shea hung his head and mumbled, “It’s not me. It’s not!”
“What, then?” I asked, trying not to press.
Shea looked at me and said, “If my parents tell you, that’s good. If they don’t, it’s not my place.”
I understood, and changed the subject. “You were good friends with Jaimie?” I asked.
Shea closed his eyes. “No, not real good friends. Jamie stood by me twice when some guys started poking fun at my family. He didn’t have to, but he did. He hardly knew me, but he stood up. It just hurt when he died in such a stupid accident.” Shea looked at me grimly. “It really doesn’t seem right that such a nice kid should go like that.”
I couldn’t find a smile in me, so I looked at the wall instead of Shea. “You know, that’s what I feel. I knew who Jamie was, and we talked a few times about nothing, but he had this thing.” I searched my mind for a word, and it popped up. “Charisma! That’s what Jamie had.” Then I found a smile and turned it to Shea, and he returned it. “Jamie was all over everything, wasn’t he? I mean, he didn’t miss anything, and I never heard him say anything bad about anyone.”
Shea nodded distantly and didn’t say anything for a while. Then he looked at me and said, “Yeah, charisma. Jamie had it all working. That’s what made him special.”
Shea’s wording surprised me, and it made me smile at him. “How old are you?” I asked.
His brow furrowed, “Fourteen, why?”
I shrugged, “Just wondered.” I changed the subject, “Anyhow, maybe now would be the better time to ask about skiing tomorrow. You want to call home, or ask in person?”
Shea looked at me. “I’ll call. I need what? A hundred?”
I nodded, and handed Shea a cordless phone, then went to the bathroom to give him privacy. When I came back he said gleefully, “I can go!”
I grinned and tapped his shoulder. “That’s great, Shea. I think you’ll like it.” If you can stand on your own two feet, I thought.
Skiing as a way to get around is pretty easy, and it’s very enjoyable when you have to deal with snow anyhow. Skiing is also a neat way to challenge yourself, especially if you’re not too athletic otherwise. I thought I skied well, at least until I met Dana, but there’s always someone better at everything. Dana was an extreme case. I was mid-pack with the people I usually skied with, but the pack members were all excellent skiers, so that was a good place for me. We’d try any hill, and generally look good going down.
I took risks, but not ones I thought I couldn’t handle. I’d only really scared myself once, when I fell on some ice and was sliding out of control toward the woods, but I finally got my edges down and avoided disaster.
Shea asked, “Will you ski with me after the lesson? I think I need to learn everything.”
I grinned, “You probably do. Hold on, let me find a ski map.”
I looked in the desk, knowing I didn’t have one for Magic, but ski maps are pretty much the same, and I pulled one out from Okemo because it was there.
I spent the next twenty minutes explaining to Shea how to read a ski map, and he picked it up easily enough.
“Just follow the green circles,” I said, referring to the trail marking system. Green circles mean easy or beginner trails. Blue squares indicate intermediate, or more difficult, terrain, and black diamonds are for good, experienced skiers. Double diamonds are for the fearless.
Of course, the marking system is all relative to the resort you’re at, so a double diamond trail on a large hill might be truly death-defying, with rocks, cliffs, giant moguls and the like. At a smaller hill, it might mean it was the steepest, narrowest trail they had, and it went through the woods.
While we were talking, the phone rang and I ran to pick it up.
It was my father again, and he was in a good mood. “We’re moving right along here, Paulie,” he said.
“That’s great, Dad,” I replied. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re a nitpicker. Is your mother there?”
“No,” I said. “She went to the grocery store, because the Luellens
are coming for dinner.”
I thought it was mean to put it that way, so I added, “I think they want to have friends now. Shea’s here, and he’s going skiing with me tomorrow.”
Dad paused before he asked, “The Luellens?” He laughed, “Jesus! Leave it to your mother!”
I said, “Exactly. I told her we weren’t really friendly, and now I think it’s fixed.”
Dad wheezed, “Fixed! I love it!” He snickered for a while, then said, “Paul, if you don’t realize by now that your mother is the most ditzy, amazing woman on Earth …”
I laughed. “I know it. Believe me, I know.”
I had the proof. Shea Luellen was waiting for me to hang up, but he was smiling like a pig caught in a doughnut maker. He was right there in our house, and that came after two years of non-communication between our families. It was them, not us, who were reclusive, but that wasn’t the case anymore. No. The Luellens would finally meet the Dunns on our own turf. Mom and Ally would feed them well. They’d offer every kind of booze known to man, too, and wine. There would be lots of wine: red, white, pink, maybe other colors. If the Luellens turned out to be teetotalers, my mother and Ally would still have some with the Timeks.
I hung up with my father, and the phone rang again almost immediately. I answered it.
“Hi, Paul. This is Laura Luellen. Is your mother there?”
“No,” I said, and let my voice go squeaky. “Buk-bawk! Nobody here but us chickens.”
She chuckled, “Alright. I was calling to ask if there’s anything we can bring tonight.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “I don’t think so, ma’am. My mother piles it on pretty high for company.”
She asked, “Perhaps some wine, then?”
“She’s getting wine, too. Just come on down and enjoy. You don’t have to bring anything.”
“How very kind,” she said. “Thank you, hon. I’ll see you when we get there, but have your mom call if there’s anything at all she needs.”
After I hung up, Shea followed me into the other room, and chose my father’s recliner to relax in. God, he looked small in that chair. I’m not big myself, but I think I was Shea’s size when I was twelve. I was finding it hard to think of him as my peer, and I knew I’d have to get over that. I would, too. I got over Tommy being a foot taller than me, and I was catching up, so I’d get over Shea being so small. It’s not like he was out of proportion or anything, just littler, and it made me feel protective where I shouldn’t.
Shea had picked up a magazine and was flipping the pages, and I went back to my National Geographic, and we just sat there quietly until I heard the throaty sound of Ally’s car in the driveway. “They’re back,” I told Shea when I stood up. I hurried to the back door, and quickly pulled on a pair of boots, which I didn’t bother to lace up. I didn’t put a coat on either, before I ran out to help.
Ally had backed up close to the door anyhow, and was just opening the tailgate when I came out. “I’ll help,” I announced, and she turned to smile.
She touched me when I reached her and said, “You can do it all, little brother. This girl needs the bathroom now!” She hurried inside, and I told my mother to go ahead, that I’d get the groceries in.
I took two bags, and by then Shea was coming out, and it only took a minute to bring everything in. Mom’s everything included an unopened case of Petit Sirah, and that hinted at lamb for dinner. That would be fine with me, because I like lamb a lot.
We left the food in the kitchen and went to my room, where I turned the television on. I explained to Shea that downstairs would be dangerous for us during the time it took for Mom to cook and for Ally to straighten the place out. I still had mud on my pants, so I left Shea to watch television while I took a quick shower and put on clean clothes.
I had honestly not thought about Shea being in my room when I came back from my shower. I just got out clean underwear and socks, and put them on, then found a shirt and pants in my closet, and I didn’t realize he was there until I was putting a belt on.
Shea was grinning. “You’re pretty shameless, you know that?”
I’m sure I blushed, but not a lot. “You don’t get dressed?” I asked, and it sounded lame as the words fled my mouth, so I added, “Get a good show?”
Shea was in a dim corner of the room, so I don’t know if he blushed himself, but he said, “Well, I got a show! Just don’t quit your day job!”
That struck me funny, and I laughed. I walked toward Shea pointing my finger as threateningly as I could point, and that made him laugh, so by the time I got there we were both giggling. I sat on the bed facing Shea and giggled some more, and when I could talk I said, “You’re okay, Shea.” I smirked at him, “May I call you Robert? Everything I say rhymes with Shea. See? It just happened again, and I’m not really in favor of rhymes, so I’ll call you Robert anyhow.”
Shea laughed. “What? Nothing rhymes with Robert?”
I snickered, “Nothing that comes to mind.” I looked across at him, “I could probably rhyme Robert if I thought long enough. I know I could rhyme Clancy, but Shea? Jesus, it’s too easy! How was your day, Shea? What’s your pay, Shea? What do you say, Shea?” I wiggled my eyebrows and added, “You need a lay, Shea!”
He was laughing deeply and almost silently, and after I gave up watching him, he said, “You’ve got some gall, Paul. Let’s go down the hall, Paul. Up against the wall, Paul!”
I laughed, and I looked at Shea to see him laughing too, and that’s the moment I realized we’d be friends. I could tell from his look that he knew it, too, so I said, “Hey, Shea.”
“That’s all, Paul,” he replied, and we both smiled.
Tommy took an enforced break from his homework to come with his parents that night, and the Luellens showed up within minutes of the Timeks, so suddenly the house was loud and full of people. My mother was going around offering hot appetizers while Ally took drink orders, and people were all trying to talk over one another, so it was just the party atmosphere my mother created so well.
Mr. Timek and Mr. Luellen were deep in conversation, and they would occasionally blast out a laugh. Their wives were huddling, too, and you might think they were old friends. Tommy and Shea were talking to each other while I sat on the floor with the little Luellens.
Catherine was nine. She was chubby, cute and friendly, and very bright. Liam was seven, and kind of the opposite of his sister. He was quiet and reserved, and seemed almost afraid of me. Still, there was intelligence there. He wouldn’t exactly talk to me, yet he’d answer direct questions flatly, and with no hint of deception.
When my mother called us to the table, I noticed that Liam loosened up when he sat beside his father. Then he smiled enough to brighten our country dining room, and he was chatty at the table. I guessed that it was me who frightened him, or just new people.
The meal was rack of lamb, served three up on a plate, with mashed potatoes and a green bean and carrot casserole that was out of this world. The lamb was crusted black on the outside with garlic and pepper, but was a red-rare on the inside, and insanely wonderful.
Ally opened the first bottle of wine, but it was my job after that, and I opened three more. So much for the Luellens being teetotalers.
The adults were well oiled when Mr. Luellen, whose name was Greg, tinkled his glass with a spoon. His eyes were glossy with humor, and probably wine. “I … um. Well, I think this is like a gay coming-out announcement must be.”
He looked around the table, then started. “I was born in New Jersey, grew up in New Jersey, went to school and college there, and I never really thought I’d want to leave. We had good jobs. Friends and family all lived nearby, and we were doing well.”
He glowered suddenly, and turned it all around the table. “Then we won some money. A lot of money. We hit the Powerball for two-hundred-forty million dollars! Just us! It’s not divided any way.”
His eyes fell, “Well, that’s not true. That money has divided us from our friends, and to some extent from our families.” He grimaced, “It separated me from where I grew up. Let me tell you the story.”
Mr. Luellen was not the greatest storyteller, but their story was the truth, and spellbinding on its own.
They won that money, and were immediately quite rich. The lottery paid out over twenty years, so they got a check for half of the twelve million for the first year. Taxes took the rest.
Then it set in on the Luellens. All their relatives, all their friends, their neighbors, people they didn’t know, people they didn’t want to know, everyone wanted in on that money.
“It got to where we couldn’t bear it,” Mr. Luellen said. “Endless phone calls, our mailbox stuffed every day. It was making us all crazy. Even the kids in Liam’s kindergarten were asking favors.”
His look hardened, “Don’t think we’re cheap or hard people, because that’s not the case at all.” He leaned forward a bit. “We planned from the first to help people, to share with our families, to …” Mr. Luellen took a drink of wine and said, “Long story short, it was our friends and our family who drove us out of Jersey, and it was them who caused us to seek refuge on a hillside in Vermont.”
He smiled a good one. “I think we’re free from them now, and free to make new friends.”
Mr. Timek held out his hand across the table and said, “Welcome, new friend.”
There was a lot of that with the adults, and I led the kids into the living room, where I turned on the television, and stuck the Spiderman movie in the DVD player. Tommy stood there until I noticed him, and said “I’m going home to work some more.” He smiled, “Have a good time tomorrow, hear?”
“Thanks, Tom,” I said, and he said goodnight to the other kids, then to the adults in the dining room. I stood at the door with his coat and hat, and held them out to him.
“Don’t forget next week,” I told him while he pulled his coat on. “I’ll see if Jim and his brother want to come, too.”
Tom lifted his eyebrows. “Have they seen your house yet?”
I said, “Yeah, why?”
He grinned, “They’ll come. You gonna ski Killington?”
I shrugged, “I didn’t ask. Most likely Killington, but Dad likes to ski other areas, too.”
Tom nodded. “Anywhere’s good, I guess. See you Monday.”
After he left, I went back to look at Spiderman. I liked the movie, I really did, but I wished things would just break up so I could go to bed politely.
And they did. Mr. Luellen came in and said, “Okay, kids, let’s get going.”
They protested loudly that the movie was just getting good, and I almost fell over getting it out of the player and in its jacket so they could take it with them.
Their father said, “That’s very nice of you, Paul.”
I smiled. Yeah, nice.