The Third Good Thing
When we left to go back to Brattleboro, Tommy wanted to drive the Audi and I didn’t object. I was tired, and I got to sit in back with Lisa. Shea was talkative for a while, but it just tapered off, and the motion and drone of the car had us drowsy before we reached the Interstate.
If nothing else ever happened in my life, at least I got to sleep with Lisa Mongillo. She conked out first, her head against my arm, and I didn’t move to hold her or anything. We were just barely touching, but I put my cheek against her hair and it seemed like the most erotic thing we ever did. Lisa always smelled good to me, and I realized that scent was coming from her hair, or through it anyhow. I dozed off inhaling that aroma, and was soon sound asleep.
The ride was without incident. Tom was a pretty smooth driver, and I suppose he didn’t encounter any crazies along the way. As usual, we all stirred when we reached the Brattleboro exit and the change in speed became apparent. Ally had Tom go through town to the Dunkin Donuts so we could all get a dose of caffeine and sugar, and it was a welcome break. I got a plain doughnut so I could actually dunk it, and a black coffee. Everyone got what they wanted and we ate inside. Dan and Jim had followed us, so we got a few booths and came back to life with the coffee and the sugar rush from the doughnuts. We were there for about half an hour, and the first ten minutes were pretty quiet, but we came alive soon enough. We talked about Dana’s party, the food, the band, and the people we met. We were a happy bunch when we left to go home. Ally chose a dozen doughnuts for the house, and Dan also bought a box to take home.
Ally drove from there and stopped to drop Lisa off. I pulled her bag from the back and walked her to the door, knowing I didn’t have but a minute or two. I said, “One of these days we’ll go home together to our own house, and I think I’ll keep you there.”
She laughed, “I’ll be a rich bitch?”
I laughed, “You’ll never be a bitch and you’ll never be rich. I’m actually kind of penniless if you didn’t know. I thought I’d work up in Stockton this summer and earn something, but that didn’t happen. I’m still on allowance, and if you think twenty bucks a week is rich then I’m loaded for sure.”
Lisa hugged me and giggled, “You’re so silly. I get an allowance too, you know, so between us we’ll have fifty-five dollars a week. I’m sure we can live on that.”
Laughing, I said, “For about two hours. Never mind. They’re waiting and I have to go, and I need a kiss first.”
That I got, and when Lisa went in I hurried to the car. Ally looked over her shoulder and said, “That was quick.”
“You told us to be quick.”
She laughed. “I meant sometime before Tuesday.”
I grumbled, “Maybe next time you can be more specific.”
She chortled, “Next time.”
When we got home and hauled everything into the house, I stayed in my room. It was a very warm day and I had both of my bedroom windows open, which gave me a nice soft breeze. I sat at my computer to check email, and the breeze made me sleepy so I stretched out on the bed and dozed off. When I woke up needing to use the bathroom the room was pitch black and it was four-ten in the morning by the clock. The light blanket from the end of the bed was covering me and I wondered if I’d done that. I hurried to the bathroom and decided afterwards that I was still tired, so I went back to bed. This time I emptied my pockets, took my sandals off, put the phone in its charger, and slept until nine, when Mom came in to ask if I was alright. It must have been around five that afternoon when I first plopped down on the bed, so I’d slept for around sixteen hours.
I felt great, too. I showered up, put on clean clothes, and went downstairs for breakfast, as hungry as a bear. Mom and Ally were out in the garden, and I cooked for myself. I ate three doughnuts while I fried about a half-pound of bacon, and another one when I put the eggs in the pan and pushed the toaster lever down. I don’t always do well with fried eggs, but they cooperated that morning. The toast popped up when it was just golden, which is the way I like it, so Mom had remembered for once that not everyone likes cinders with their eggs.
I put it all on a plate, got a glass and the carton of orange juice, and sat down to a wonderful meal. I hadn’t even thought about coffee until I had the plate clean, so I took a cup of the cold stuff in the coffee maker and nuked it until it was hot. I looked at the doughnuts and there weren’t any plain ones, but there was one with just cinnamon on it, so I took that for dunking. After the coffee and doughnut I felt good. I sat back for a minute when, without warning, I burped so loudly that it made me laugh. When I felt another coming on I cried, “Earthquake! Evacuate now!” and let it go.
It was no louder than the first … that would be humanly impossible … but it was longer and actually hurt a little. I waited a little while, but nothing else was forthcoming other than a few little urps.
I cleaned up the table and the stove, put things in the dishwasher and washed the doughnut stickiness from my hands.
I had no plans, so I called Lisa to see if she was free, but her mother answered and explained that she and Aldo were learning how to get metal accents to bond to tiles, and it would be a long lesson.
I walked over to Tom’s, and he was still sleeping. I thought about some fishing, but realized that I was sixteen now and needed a license, and I didn’t know where to get one. Gary would be working and Aldo was learning how to make tiles, so I tried Roger’s house. Luckily, he was there and answered himself.
“Hey, Rog. It’s Paul.”
“Oh, hi. What’s up?”
“I want a fishing license. What’s the deal with those?”
He said, “You’re not eighteen, right?”
“No, sixteen. You were at my party, remember?”
“I remember the party, just not what it was for. Birthday, huh?”
“Well, you need a license. They were eight dollars in April when I got mine.”
“Where do I get one?”
“They sell them at Sam’s down on Main Street.”
“What do I need to get one?”
“Eight dollars. I might be wrong; you better bring nine or ten.”
“There’s no test or anything?”
Roger laughed, “For a fishing license? What are they gonna do, bring you down to the river to catch a fish illegally so they know you can do it? Then they’d fine you at the same time and still sell you a license.”
I laughed at his irony and asked, “Are you doing anything today? Why don’t you come over?”
“I can’t. I have to cut the lawn, weed the garden, pick everything that’s ripe, and my dad is on my case to wash windows. You saw our house. Every window here has sixteen panes, two sides each, plus the storm glass. I’ve been doing a room a day, and it goes really slow.”
I said, “You have my sympathy. Where’s a good place to find a fly rod and the things I need?”
Roger was quiet for a moment. “If you want new, Sam’s has good stuff. The guys there can make sure you have what you need. If you want some flies, I can give you some, but get a book and a basic fly tying kit. I found my pole on Craigslist and got it cheap.”
I asked, “What about Orvis?”
His voice got loud. “Jesus, Orvis? Forget them. Their cheap rods are like two hundred bucks, and they go up to two thousand. That’s a place for guys with more money than brains.”
Not wanting to self-identify as that, I said, “Thanks. You saved me a trip. What should I spend for just the rod and reel?”
Roger said, “I wouldn’t spend much. Don’t go for a forty dollar kit, but you can find something decent for sixty, seventy bucks. Give me ten bucks and you can have my old pole. You already caught a fish on that one.”
“Really?” I asked. “I should do that.”
Roger snickered, “You know it works. Tell me if you want it, and I’ll oil it up and make sure everything’s tight.”
“I want it. When can I come by?”
“You tell me. I’ll be here.”
I said, “I’ll be there in about half an hour.”
I liked Roger. Of all the Vermont kids I’d met, he was the one who was happy with his lot, even though his lot wasn’t much. He was modern in some ways, like being Internet savvy, but he was content with farming. He had the dry, unsmiling wit that so many older Vermonters have. He’d smile his greetings, smile even brighter at my departure, and he could get me in stitches while his face suggested he was recollecting the Periodic Table of the Elements during a coma.
Tommy’s father is like that, and Lisa’s father to an extent, except the Italian in him causes a lot of laughter. Taciturno is a word in Italian, but it’s rarely understood outside of Florence, where there are many scholars and poets.
I took some money from my room, shoved it in my pocket and went outside to tell Mom I was going to Roger’s house for awhile.
She didn’t remember him, of course, but made believe she did. “Oh, Roger; how nice. Do say hello for me.”
Ally just shook her head and smiled. I got my bike out of the garage and took off up the road. It was hotter than I expected, and I broke a sweat before I was out of the yard. I don’t complain about the weather often, and I’ll never complain about a hot day in Vermont because they’re so rare. It was hot, though, and I was soaked by the time I slid into Roger’s yard.
He was in the side yard cutting the grass and didn’t see me until he turned around, and then he mowed right past me until he reached the house, where he turned the engine off. He was as sweaty as me, and smiled as he wiped sweat from his eye with his shoulder. “It’s hot, huh?”
I said, “Sure is. I might just sit in the river instead of fishing.”
Roger said, “There are some deep holes, you know. One’s over where Shea had his party. There’s no place to dive, but it’s about nine feet. The next bridge up you can dive from. The bank’s there and it’s hard to get out. You want my pole, or do you want to look at it first?”
I grinned, “That sounds pretty suggestive, Roger.”
He looked at me and said, “Yup, I guess it did. If you’re interested in that kind of thing I can give you some names, not that I’m sure of anything.”
I was trying not to laugh out loud, and Roger said, “Let’s get in the shade. Your face is all red and you look like you might faint.”
I couldn’t contain it and burst out laughing, but followed Roger to the porch, where the rod and reel were laid out and looking almost new.
“This is a good pole. You read Harry Potter? Your fly rod is like a wand. If you can work together, you’ll catch fish. If you can’t it’s just a stick, and what it cost don’t matter.”
I said, “I got a fish on my first real cast, and it wasn’t a good cast.”
Roger nodded, “This is your pole, then. You’re compatible.”
I picked up the fishing pole, looked at the reel, and said, “Okay,” even though I didn’t feel all that compatible with it. I did catch a fish with it, so maybe it had a thing for me. I followed Roger inside the house and he showed me his flies, which were pinned to a corkboard on his bedroom wall. He picked out some that he’d made more than one of. A few of them were pretty, and some were intricate, so I asked, “How long does it take to make these?”
Roger shrugged, “I don’t know. Some take a minute or two and some can take a half hour. I make ‘em in the winter during football games.”
I thought about that and asked, “Did you ever do anything weird to a fly when a game got exciting?”
He said, “You do all kinds of weird things tying flies. I use dryer lint, dust bunnies, pieces of a sweater that moths got at … almost anything.” He pointed to the flies in the baggie that he’d given me. Look at these things. The real fancy ones aren’t going to catch a fish because they don’t resemble anything in nature. They’re only nice to look at, and you can be a little proud of your tackle box. It’s the black and gray ones that catch fish, and a tiny strip of Mylar helps sometimes.” He pointed at a fly pinned to his board, “This guy here; it’s a pinfeather from a bird’s nest tied onto a hook, and a few winds of black thread at this end for a head. That’s all you need on a nice day. If a fish goes by and sees it he he’ll automatically try to eat it.” He pointed out a nearly identical fly with a bit of Mylar. That’s good when it’s cloudy or raining, or anytime in white water.”
I learned a lot from Roger while I was there, but he got edgy about taking such a long break, so I left. I had everything but a tackle box, having taken the rod and reel, the flies he gave me, and giving him another twenty bucks for a pair of waders that he’d outgrown. All I needed was a license and I’d be ready to fish.
I stopped at my house where Mom made me a sandwich while I washed up and changed into a clean tee. I really should have taken a shower, but I didn’t. I swallowed my sandwich and about a quart of milk, and headed into town for a fishing license.
Roger had been right. All they wanted was my name, age and address, along with eight dollars. I asked about a tackle box and told the guy fly fishing when he asked.
He seemed surprised. “Beginner?”
“Yeah, rank beginner,” I said.
“You’ve already tried it, yes?”
I said, “A few times, and I love it. I just got a rod and reel from a friend, and he gave me a bunch of flies. I need a tackle box and a fly-tying toolkit, and I don’t know what else.”
The man said, “Well, I can set you up. I don’t suppose you want to spend a lot?”
“No. For now I’m just trying it out. I live right on the West River, though, and I go to Stockton a lot and the Tweed is right there.”
He said, “Have you caught anything on a fly rod yet?”
I grinned, “Yeah, on my very first cast by myself. It was a brown trout, just over a pound.”
“Very good! Where in the river?”
“Whatever town is across from Newfane. I stayed near the bridge and my friends went down to faster water. I was just practicing casting, really, and I really screwed one up where it almost caught on a log. When it hit, this fish jumped on it. I didn’t even know it was a fish at first. I was mad that I didn’t get the fly where I wanted, and I thought it caught on something.”
He laughed, “Brownies are smart fish. They like to hide in places like under logs. That’s a good size for a river fish. Welcome to the world of fly fishing!”
“A river fish?” I asked.
He nodded, “They live in lakes, too, and get a lot bigger. They can run ten or fifteen pounds, and sometimes you hear about one that’s nineteen or twenty pounds.”
“Really?” I was astounded.
He chuckled, “You’re not likely to bring in a twenty pound fish on a fly rod. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
His name was Chris, and he didn’t pressure me into anything. The opposite was true, actually. He steered me away from things that looked fancy, and led me to things that would do the same job for a lot less. I left with less than a hundred dollars worth of stuff – a plastic tackle box, a basic fly-tying kit, an extra spool of fly line, a filleting knife he said would last my lifetime if I looked after it, and miscellaneous tools and supplies, plus a video on fly tying.
The tackle box had a nice weight to it when I left the store, and I was almost home when I realized that Chris might have read one of Dad’s books, or at least part of one, where Dad wrote about earning long-term customers rather than making single big sales.
Back home, I took my fishing pole and the baggie of flies across the street and down to the river where I practiced casting with just a tiny little stick at the end of my line. The sky was mostly blue, the sun was bright and warm, so it wasn’t good fishing weather. Still, there was no wind to speak of, and when I found I could get my line into at least the vicinity I had in mind I undid the stick and tied a fly on, swirled it over my head and landed it where I intended. There was a giant boom behind me, and by the time I turned around I realized it was thunder The sky behind me was blackening rapidly. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm and started reeling my line in as fast as I could, so of course a fish bit the stupid thing. Stupid fish! It’s a thunderstorm. I reeled it onto the ground, snapped the tackle box shut, and ran up the hill. I had to wait for cars and trucks to go by and then ran across and up to the house. I was at the door when the first drops of rain fell, and felt somewhat confused when I wasn’t able to simply step inside.
I realized it was the fish, caught on a stone and still flapping, so I ran out in the rain to get it. It was still hooked and attached to the pole, and I brought the whole mess inside and into the kitchen. I can’t say I felt sorry for that fish, but I didn’t want it to just drop dead either, so I filled one side of the sink with water and put it in there, still hooked on the line. The fish was still very alive, splashing water all over the place while it struggled. Outside it was like night, with lightning flashing, thunder booming, and rain pouring down.
That was okay. Summer afternoon thunderstorms could be pretty violent in Vermont, but they didn’t last long. I called Roger to ask how to get the fish off the hook other than just yanking it. The hook was just through the lip, really, but the barb part was in its mouth.
He sounded amused. “You want to save it? What kind of fish?”
I looked in the sink, “I don’t know. It’s little, like maybe ten inches long, kind of brown, a bit of green.”
“That’s a brook trout. They’re good eating. What you want to do is put your thumb in its mouth with your thumbnail down, like on its tongue. Put the rest of your hand on its head and just snap backwards. That’ll break his neck and you can clean it.”
When I was too appalled to say anything, Roger finally said, “If you need to get the hook out you have to cut the barb off. Do it inside his mouth and hold on to the pointy part. If the fish swallows that it’ll die anyhow.”
I said, “I can’t do that. I won’t.”
The amusement came back into Roger’s voice, “I think you’re not a big, bad fisherman after all. That’s okay, more for me, but I’d sure like your luck.”
I said, “Since you’re a good guy, I’ll give you some. You can have your pole and boots and flies back, and all the crap I bought at Sam’s.” Before he could say anything I added, “I’m naming this fish Roger after you, and just so you know, he’ll be back in the river as soon as the rain stops.”
There was a silence before Roger said, “You’re a dick, you know that?”
“I’ve heard that before, so I’m aware. I’ll bring your things back tomorrow, and you can have what I bought today. Keep the money, too. That was a good-faith deal and I won’t back out.”
Roger teased, “You told me you love seafood.”
I said, “You’re right. I do, but I don’t go murdering it before I eat. I eat meat, too, and I know where it comes from”
“Paul, keep your equipment. Lots of people fish for the fun of it, and do what they call catch and release.”
“What’s that?” I asked stupidly.
Roger said patiently, “It’s what it sounds like. You catch a fish for the thrill of it, and then you let it go.” With more humor in his voice, “Most people don’t bring them home to their kitchen sink first, but if your Roger only has a hook through his lip, he’ll probably be fine. At least you can take a picture of him. I know you can get hooks just for catch and release. Look on the Internet, or go back down to Sam’s and ask.”
I asked, “You don’t want your things back?”
“I’m happy with the money. You take care of that fish. Keep him in water and get him back in the river as soon as you can.”
I found a pair of wire cutters, and they wouldn’t cut that hook, not with the strength in my hand. If I tried both hands, the barbed end would probably go down his throat and kill him anyhow.
“What?” came from the living room.
“I could use your help,” I said.
Ally showed up in a few seconds, and was confronted by my fishing pole leaning precariously against the refrigerator, the string in the sink, and Roger. Roger the brook trout. He had calmed down, at least, and seemed to be looking for flies atop our well water.
Ally muttered, “It never ends, does it? What do you want me to do?”
I showed her, and took the barb part of the hook that was in Roger’s mouth between two fingers while he fought against me. Ally, using both hands, snapped the hook in half with the wire cutter. Roger was a free man … trout.
The lightning and thunder had passed for the most part, so I waited for the rain to let up before I put Roger in a big cooking pot full of water and took him back to the river. When I tipped him out of the pot, he stayed there, one side up, and I thought he might have died after all, but he wiggled after a moment, and then he swam away.
I stood there after he disappeared and said, “Bye little fish. Have a good life.”
I trudged back home wondering about my own ethics. I like meat, particularly lamb and veal, and both are the meat from babies. I like seafood too: especially mollusks, yet shellfish have all kinds of protections on them, particularly about taking them too young.
I sometimes don’t know what I’m thinking about, or why I’m thinking it. It’s like a swirl in my head that makes no sense. It sorts out sometime afterward usually, but some thoughts are still sorting, and eating certain things is one of them.
All beings have to eat, and in the animal kingdom, which includes bugs, we tend to eat each other and plants. Some people claim that even plants are sentient beings. I actually can’t even argue that, even though I never saw any kind of plant give so much as a hi-de-ho to a neighboring plant, much less a critter other than bees and ants.
If you don’t know this, bees are how plants have sex, and I don’t see where anyone gets any pleasure from it. The bees fly away home, unfulfilled, the papa plants wilt, and the mama plants spread their seeds and then drop dead. There’s no real comparison in human terms.
It was still dripping rain when I got home, and Gary Andrews showed up just when I crested the hill. That got me out of my pensive state, and I was happy to see Gary. He hadn’t seen me, and I called out, “Hey, right here,” and when I reached him I bopped his shoulder. “How’s it going?”
He said, “Pretty good. I was just up the road when we got rained out.”
I grinned, “You’re making the big bucks now, I hear. Come on in.”
We went inside and to the kitchen. Gary sat at the table while I pulled some salami and cheese from the refrigerator, and a box of Ritz from the snack drawer. I went back to the refrigerator and looked in the door. “What to drink? I see Sprite, some root beer, grape.” I looked over at Gary, “We always have water.”
He said, “Water’s good. You don’t have to feed me. I came to ask you something.”
“I don’t like to eat alone,” I said. “What’s up?”
Gary sliced off a hunk of cheese and took a bite. “When we were all up in Stockton that weekend, your father said something about a … a program or a group or some organization that would give loans or something to kids who won’t be going to college. Do you remember that?”
I nodded. “I remember. I think it’s something like scholarships, but to specialty schools.”
Gary asked, “Do you know anything about that? Like how someone would contact them?”
Oh, boy. “I don’t think it’s all set up yet, Gary. It will be pretty soon I think.”
Gary’s face fell. “Oh.”
I said, “It shouldn’t be long, maybe even by fall. Is this for you?”
Gary shook his head and said, “My brother. He quit school to help out on the farm, but now he found an ad for a technical school where he could learn to be a surveyor. He did get his GED. He’s real good at math, and he loves maps and geography. He’s really itchin’ to go, but there’s no way we can pay for it.”
“Where’s the school?”
“It’s up outside of Burlington. That’s no problem because we have relatives up there he can stay with. There’s just no money.”
I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you the address of a guy your brother can write a letter to, and say I told him to write. He should write down details about the school, how much it costs, all that. He should tell about himself, too, like age, how far he went in high school, why he dropped out, when he got the GED. Just facts, though, not opinions or anything. You want to write this down?”
Gary nodded, and I said, “Come on upstairs. I’ll find the address.”
I knew the building Bernie Sutton lived in, but not the exact address. I was kind of glad that Gary asked about this, because the whole plan had been put on the back burner when everything happened in Stockton. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Bernie had spent time putting things in place.
We went into Dad’s office, and I immediately opened both windows. It was hot and stuffy, and clearly hadn’t gotten any fresh air in a long time. I searched Dad’s desk for his address book, but it wasn’t there. He’d probably brought it up to Stockton where he spent most of his time.
I turned his computer on, and while it was booting up I told Gary what I knew about some of the things in the room that interested him. I had to really think to remember Dad’s password. He used a so-called hardened one because there was private information on his computer, and the password was really cryptic. I remembered it, though, and as soon as it was accepted I was asked to change it. Dad had a scheme for that too, so I knew what the new one should be, and Dad would know it when he couldn’t log in the next time.
I was less sure about Outlook, but I eventually found the contacts list and about ten entries for Bernie Sutton, and wrote his home address and phone number on a legal pad. I turned it to Gary and handed him the pencil, and he wrote down what his brother should say about himself and the school he was interested in. While he was doing that, my mother came down the hall, looked in, and practically went orgasmic when she realized it was Gary with his back to her.
“Oh, you dear boy,” she cried as she hugged him around his shoulders, causing his face to go tomato-red. “I’m so pleased that you rescued my garden,” she told him for probably the ninth time. “And the stonework is more beautiful by the day.”
Gary said, weakly, “I’m glad you like it. I did my best.”
My mother looked like she was going to go on and on. “Mom!” I whined. “We’re trying to work here.”
She stood up and said, “Of course you are. I’m sorry for interrupting. Al and I are going to town for a little bit,” and she left us alone.
Gary said, “You’re going to hear about that later.”
I shrugged. “Maybe, but probably not. She was embarrassing you, and I think she figured that out.” I looked at the legal pad and said, “Let’s get back to this.”
When we finished Gary used our phone to call Mr. Jenks, and learned that the crew had knocked off for the day, so he was free until morning. He called home for a ride and was told it would be awhile. We went back down to the kitchen and got into our salami, cheese and crackers a bit more energetically than earlier. We had just been there a few minutes when Shea rapped the glass on the back door, and came in.
I told him there was grape soda in the refrigerator, so he took a can out and sat with us. We keep grape soda around just for Shea because it’s his favorite.
When he sat down, finished a cracker with salami and cheese on it, and licked his lips, he said, “We’re going on vacation next month.”
He said it so matter-of-factly that I wondered if he liked the idea. “You don’t sound too excited about it.”
“I am and I’m not. We’re going up to Old Orchard, then to Boothbay, and out to Acadia.”
Gary asked, “What’s wrong with that?”
Shea said, “Nothing. I want to go, but the day I get back Cheri’s going to New Brunswick for their vacation. I won’t see her all month.”
I smiled despite Shea’s dismal expression. He’s small for his age, a ‘wee one’ in his father’s words, but Cheri is too, and together they looked like a pair of twelve-year-olds who had somehow shot forward into high school. They weren’t, though. Shea would be fifteen in a few months, and Cheri was his age now, although I didn’t know her birthday. That wasn’t the point. Shea wouldn’t see his first girlfriend for a month, and that would distress anyone.
I thought about what I could say, but Gary spoke up first. “I think if it’s serious a month won’t matter.”
I said, “Gary’s right. You could meet a girl on vacation just like Cheri could meet a boy. What are the chances? Even if you do, or she does, so what? You’re not going to meet somebody from here that you don’t already know. It’ll be over before it starts.”
Shea was funny. He leaned forward until his chin was on the table. He groaned and said, “Still …”
Gary laughed silently and I grinned at him. Shea said, “It’s not funny.” He must have sensed our heightened humor, because he hadn’t looked up once, and he added, “It’s not!”
I said, “Well, if it isn’t until next month then spend a lot of time with her this month. That’s about the best you can do.”
Gary asked, “Can you ask her to go to Maine with you?”
Shea, his chin still planted on the table, said, “Ha-ha. There’s not a chance.”
I agreed with Shea at first, but after I thought for a second I asked, “Why not? Think about it. She could share a room with Catherine, and you could share with Liam. You could both baby sit a few nights, take them on the rides at Old Orchard, watch them on the beach. You know, give your parents time to relax, maybe go out on their own a couple of nights. They might go for it.”
Shea stared at me, and finally lifted his head off the table. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he cracked a smile. “Dan told me you could sell ice to Eskimos. I have to talk to Cheri to see what she thinks her parents will say.” He shrugged, “It’ll probably be no, but it’s worth a try. I gotta go. I’ll probably see you later.”
I said, “Good luck,” and smiled at Gary when Shea rushed out the back door. “It probably won’t work, but he’ll have a day of hope instead of misery.”
Gary snickered, “I can just picture asking my folks that. Dad would laugh and tell me not to be stupid, but I think my mother would measure my wrists and ankles for chains.”
“That bad?” I asked.
“I don’t know, maybe not, but every time I go to see Joan I get a lecture on manners, proper behavior, and the evils of lust.” He grinned, “Can you believe it? I go to Joan’s and her father just tells us to have fun.”
“And her mother?”
Gary said, “I don’t think she likes me very much. I mean, she’s nice and everything, but she’s always staring at me. I wouldn’t mind that, but she looks at me like she’s trying to figure out which pocket I have my gun in.”
I laughed, “Danger man, Gary. I told you. That’s probably why Joan likes you. She thinks you’ll take her places most guys wouldn’t dare to go”
Gary seemed embarrassed and said, “Cut it out. I told Joan about that, and she thought it was funny. It’s not why she likes me.”
I looked at Gary, “She told you why?”
“Yeah, she did.”
When he didn’t say anything else I asked, “You’re not telling?”
Gary said, “It’s not really your business, is it? I don’t ask you why Lisa likes you, and you shouldn’t ask me. Did Lisa ever say why she likes you?”
“Not really,” I mumbled. “I mean, little bits come out and I put them together so I can be more of what she likes.” I raised my hands and said, “Okay, you’re right. Let’s drop it.”
Gary sat back and nodded, and then his smile came out. “I could tell you why I like her.”
I said, “Maybe we shouldn’t go there. If I had to tell you why I like Lisa after you told my why you like Joan, we’ll be in these same chairs three days from now.”
Gary chuckled, “Yeah. There’s lots of reasons, huh?”
“Lots,” I agreed. “Maybe we should double some night. What do you and Joan usually do?”
“We do different things. If we can get a ride to town we go for an ice cream, maybe just walk around. If there’s something we want to see at the Latchis we’ll go there. Sometimes we shoot baskets in her driveway, or just watch the TV. We mostly just talk, whatever else we’re doing.”
“Talk is what you call it?” I asked.
Gary grinned, “It’s talk, that’s all.” He shot me a sly look, “Sometimes it’s hard to get a word out for awhile.”
I grinned back, “That’s my kind of conversation.”
I changed the subject. “Did you ever do anything with that physical therapy?”
Gary grimaced and said, “I went a few times, and I mostly do the exercises on my own now. I check in every three weeks.”
I was curious, and asked, “What was that thing you went to down by Springfield like?”
“You mean the first time? That was like an exam. It was more like a movie really. They asked a lot of questions, did a brain scan with an MRI machine, another thing of my body with a CT scan. You ever see one of those things? It’s pretty wild.”
“I’ve only heard of them,” I said.
Gary said, “That’s why I said it’s like a movie. This big white machine, all kinds of blinking lights and weird noises … it’s like being in a science fiction movie. After all that they gave me a regular physical. I had to piss in a cup and all that, and then the doctor wanted me to do this and that, like walk, run, jump, touch my toes and everything. After that I think I had every blood test they know how to do. When I told my father they took nineteen vials, he made me eat some liver.”
I laughed out loud at that. “He made you eat liver because they took too much blood? That’s funny. I think liver gives you gout, not blood.”
Gary chuckled, “It gave me the shits. I was up half the night.”
I laughed, starting with a big wheeze, and Gary followed my lead. When we finally calmed down a bit, we got back into the crackers with cheese and salami. I asked Gary if the therapy was helping and he said, “It does when I think about it. I mean, when I remember to think about it. I can walk okay if I plan every step I take, and if I do that all the time it should become my normal walk.” He smiled sadly, “That’s hard to do. I have to think about other things, too, like where I’m walking to, and why I’m going there. I probably need a whole year of just walking to get it where it’s automatic.”
“And thinking about every single step?” I asked.
Gary said, “It’s a weird condition. If I had enough energy I’d just run everywhere I go, but people would think I was weird because I always run instead of because I don’t walk right.”
I mumbled, almost to myself, “Gary’s dilemma,” and he heard me. I saw that he’d heard, and he looked hurt. I said, “Oh, you know I didn’t mean anything. I meant by dilemma that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You can run everywhere, or you can walk and have to consider every step. That’s what a dilemma is, kind of a lose-lose situation.”
Gary said, stiffly, “I know what it is.”
“You’re not really in one now, are you? You found out you have friends even before you took walking lessons. I mean, look at you! You’re not Gary Andrews anymore; you’re Gary Slick, the baddest guy in Brattleboro, and you’re going around hand-in-hand with one of the sexiest girls. You have skills, a job where you make more than anyone else on break … I don’t know, but I don’t think you’ll hear teasing or mean remarks ever again, not in school, anyhow.”
Gary started a smile and it turned into a non-smile. He looked at me and said, “I hope you’re right.”
I put my elbows on the table and my chin on my left hand. “There will always be Freshmen. They just need to learn right from wrong, no?”
Gary grinned, “Yes. They need that.”
A car horn honked and Gary went to the window, “It’s my sister. I’ll see you.”
“Sure, the next time it rains.” I walked to the door with him, and when he started out I said, “Call me.”
Gary ran off, saying, “I will.”
I went up to my room and turned the computer on, toying with the idea of a nap. I felt more worn out than sleepy, though, and waited for the machine to get going. Before it did, the twenty-nine dollar replacement for my fancy-ass iPhone went off, and it showed the caller as ‘Danp’. It took me a few seconds to remember making that entry, and when it came to me I opened the phone excitedly.
“Percy? Percival Paynter? Now Dan Paynter, right? How’s it going?”
“Thanks for remembering that I’m Dan now. If you can forget Percy and Percival I’ll mention you in my will.”
I laughed, “What does mention mean? You’re going to leave me a few million or you’re going to include a note that I remembered to forget?”
Dan laughed. “I forgot how quick you can be. The latter is more like it. You need our money like a hole in the head.”
I asked, “Where are you now? There’s been so much going on since we got back from Florida that I hardly know what day it is.”
Percy … Dan said, “I’m at the lake house in Traverse City right now. Tell me what it’s like in Brattleboro. You were always from the big city, and we live in Clarkston. Village is way too kind to describe it there; hole is more like it.”
I smiled, which he couldn’t see. “Brattleboro’s not big either, but I like it here. I take the bus to school. I have friends … and a girlfriend. That’s Lisa. Lisa Mongillo if you believe that: Italian.”
“Irish and Italian can mix?” Dan sounded astonished.
I laughed, “Jesus, I’m from Boston! We mix there like whiskey and gasoline … and before you say anything rude, it does mix. It just doesn’t taste very good.”
Dan laughed, “You sure haven’t changed.”
“I have so,” I said. “I’m bigger for one thing, though maybe a touch less than you. I have a girlfriend, a lot of friends. You were my only friend at Bareass. Those other snots—I’ll never waste my time on them. It’s not like that here. Most people want to be friends. I think I’m different in bigger ways too, but I’ll get into that when we’re face to face.”
“No more angry Paul Dunn?”
That stopped me. “You thought I was angry?”
“Well … yeah. You were pretty uptight, at least the last few years. Even the bigger guys were scared of you.”
I asked, “You’re not kidding?”
“Hell no! Sorry, I wasn’t in great shape myself then, but you went around with this, I don’t know, attitude, like ‘Say one more word and this cue stick is going right through your eye.”
“Thad bad?” I asked.
“The word was to stay away from you. The guys with any brains liked you enough.”
I asked, “Both of them?”
“Hey, I liked you.”
”I was including you. There was a third?”
Dan said, “Yeah, me, Lenny Feldman, and you guess the third one.”
I didn’t have to guess long. “Gord Faris!” I smiled to myself. We had called ourselves the fearsome four, but that was far from the truth when we started there as eight-year-olds. At that age, we were four to a room, wondering what we’d done wrong to be sent there. It was clear to not only us, but to everyone starting there that this ‘wonderful opportunity’ was a way for our families to abandon us. Yes, they paid our way, and we had pocket money that allowed us to take the bus to a movie or something, but everyone I knew there felt as abandoned as I did. I felt unwanted and unloved, and sometimes cried about it.
I always swore I wouldn’t cry about it again, but with four in a dorm room someone else would. I usually joined in, not to share their misery, but to express my own in some kind of company.
I remembered my old roommates. Len Feldman was a Jewish kid. He was from New York, and his father did something on Broadway; he owned a theater I think, or a theater building. Gordy Faris came from somewhere in the Middle East, an oil-rich kid. He was friendly enough, but about as timid a person as I’ve ever met. Len was friendly and outgoing and knew a lot of jokes. Gord never initiated anything, but he was observant and studious, and he had a quiet sense of humor. A lot of things about the U.S. struck him as funny.
Together we were the brain trust of the eight-year-olds. School came easy to all of us, and by dint of that we had more free time than most other kids. We could all finish our homework as fast as we could write, even Gord, whose handwriting in English was nearly as tidy as his Arabic calligraphy. We usually ended up with a few free hours between homework and dinner, and had the common areas of campus largely to ourselves. If the weather was nice, we’d shoot baskets, kick a ball around, play tennis, or just run the track. When the weather was bad we did pretty much the same things inside, except the tennis became pool, or ‘pocket billiards’ as the school liked to call it.
None of us liked it there, and Len was the first to get out after just a year. His family had applied too late to a school in New York to get him in, but he got in the next year. Gord stayed another year, when he was sent to a school in England as part of his family’s goal of a worldly education.
Percy and I lasted two more years as roommates, but when my parents divorced the whole Barents thing became too much for me. I wanted out, and I got into these great arguments with my father, me screaming and him trying to stay calm and positive. If he hadn’t finally relented and let me quit I’d probably be dead or behind bars. I’d take the bus to town and stick my thumb out; that’s what I’d do. Certain that my parents hated me more than I ever thought, I wasn’t worried about the consequences. If a cop picked me up, I’d never say who I was or where I came from, and I’d run away when they brought me wherever they took kids. If I got picked up by some pervert I’d get away easily enough.
The possibilities seemed endless and the consequences minor.
Still, I was elated when Dad agreed to let me leave Barents at the end of the year.
Percy wasn’t happy about it at all, and I felt bad when I told him I wouldn’t be back after that summer. We really were each other’s only friend in that place, and his reaction was filled with sorrow, fear, and anger toward me. We managed to get over that hump, and swore to stay in touch, but the last day of school we went off in different directions, and never did make any contact after that. I don’t know if he tried, but I didn’t, even though I thought about it fairly often.
It was just coincidence that we met each other a few years later at an airport in Florida. He was flying in and I was leaving, and there wasn’t a lot of time for conversation. That’s where I learned that he didn’t go back to Barents after I left. Dan had grown a lot. He’d been smaller than me at school, and now had at least an inch on me, and his shoulders were wide, his features more adult-looking.
Now that we were talking to each other, we had a lot to say. We took turns. Dan was in a different private school in a neighboring town, but as a day student. He said the courses and instructors were first-rate, and he didn’t have to deal with all the after-hours crap that drove us crazy at Barents. He skied, too, but it was more often cross-country than downhill, and he belonged to a local club that got together for ski-touring a few times a week when there was good snow. In the summer, his family had the lake house in Traverse City, and he spent most of his vacation there on and in the water. He had his own speedboat and loved water skiing. He went on vacations with his parents, and we were both surprised to learn that we’d been to many of the same places around the world.
I told him about my life in Brattleboro and Stockton. I told him about Dad’s kidnapping because it had been kept out of the news. He hadn’t yet connected Stockton to the murders there, but he’d heard about them, of course, as any sentient person would have. He was shocked, and doubly so when I told him about Russ Glover and my weeks in Boston. He talked about his friends and girlfriends, and I talked about my own friends. I got Dan laughing hysterically when I told him about some of the pranks Tommy and I had pulled off, and he had his own funny stories. He sounded really jealous of our upcoming trip to the Andes. He could pay his own way, and I invited him to join us.
Dan said, “I don’t think so. It sounds like you guys ski downhill on a whole different level than me. You can come out here anytime and stay at the lake house. We’ll have a ball.”
“Maybe next year, Dan. This summer is kind of hosed already.”
We talked on and on, for nearly an hour and a half, until some of his friends showed up to do whatever they had planned.
I was really pleased by the call, and felt like we were friends again, or still friends despite the long time between contacts. At least he was Dan instead of Percy now, so I could admit to knowing him voluntarily, although I never doubted that we’d been friends at Barents, like mutual lifelines to sanity. We’d both been scornful of the superiority the other kids felt toward the ‘under classes’, and we both damn well hated the school’s reinforcement of it. The ‘old money’ kids, the ones whose fortunes came from grandfathers or other ancestors far removed from modern times were the worst. Nobody living had earned or contributed a dime to their pile, yet they scorned the very people their companies employed to build and maintain those fortunes.
Dan’s great grandfather started their business, and it went through some evolutions before they settled on making upholstered parts for the auto industry: things like floor mats, door panels, roof and trunk liners, and probably a lot of other things. His grandfather, father, uncles, and older brother worked their way up. They each started out with after-school jobs sweeping floors, cleaning toilets and windows, and gradually learned to work on the lines and learn what went into making the products. When they were in college they worked in departments from receiving materials in to shipping out truckloads of finished pieces. Only after college were they promoted to low-level management jobs, from which they made their ways up slowly.
That family experience was quite unique at Barents. Most of the kids there could tell you what industry their family’s fortune was made in, but precious few could tell a single story about it. They just didn’t know how a ‘lumber baron’ made such a fortune, except that he must have cut down a lot of trees. The singular purpose of their schooling at Barents was to learn how to protect principal so they and future generations could continue to live well from safe investments.
There were not a lot of likeable kids in that school, and even most of the ‘new money’ people, who I thought should be more like me, took to their snot lessons far too enthusiastically. I could have said snob lessons, but snots and snobs are the same people at Barents, and the words are interchangeable.
I liked what Ally had said, and she was right that it would be foolish for me to fake being poor because I wasn’t, and never had been. The idea of a low-budget tramp around the world appealed to me, though. You can probably find a limousine and driver to take you around wherever you are in the world, but even the smart money takes the bus or the subway on local jaunts, a train or plane when distances are great enough.
I could have thought about things a lot longer, but a horse galloped up the stairs and burst into my room. It was a sweating, panting horse with red hair, and he cried, “My passport came!”
Tom held it out to me, and I opened it to look at his picture. His was actually pretty good, where I had yet to get a favorable passport photo. I always look worried in them, and I do worry when they’re taken. It’s my hair, and you can’t wear anything like a hat in a passport photo. It might be a good thing. My face is like a lot of others, but only Dad, his father, and my uncles have hair like mine, so there’s no mistaking my identity when you have both me and my photo in front of you.
I handed Tom’s passport back to him and asked, “Are you packed up yet?”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure what to bring, or how much money or anything.”
The truth was that I didn’t either. My ski clothes should still fit me, and Dad had suggested that we rent equipment when we got to Chile. Dana needed all new things, including clothes, and they had been looking around the ski shops on the mountain when they found time. None of them carried racing equipment except by special order, so he was getting things like a parka, pants, hats, gloves and goggles. Rental equipment would probably be a step up for him, and he could always try something different.
Tom asked, “What do rentals cost there?”
I said, “I don’t know, but they’re included in the trip so don’t worry.” I grinned at him, “All you have to pay for are your booze and whores, and penicillin if you catch anything. Dad’s Catholic, you know.” While Tom’s face did contortions as he digested that, I added, “Oh, you have to buy your own postcards, too.”
Tom had a dark face that he could put on for moments like that, and he turned it to me. “Remind me, will you? Booze, whores, penicillin and postcards are all I have to pay for?”
I shrugged and smiled, “Or not.”
He pointed at his own chest, “It’s up to me? Do you really think there’ll be whores there? What’s the drinking age?”
“Tom, there are whores everywhere, but only idiots mess with them. I don’t think you want to bring some special gift home to Bridgette. As for drinking, I think they’d serve us in a hotel or at a ski area. Hector might hurt us for even asking, though.”
Tom winced, “I forgot about Hector. I have to be a choirboy?”
I said, “Hector’s not bad. I mean, we had wine in Florida, but he was just there then, not really in charge. I don’t know how he’ll be. Why do you want to drink?”
Tom looked down and said, “I don’t really want to. It’s just … away from home on my own … I feel kind of obligated to do something illicit.”
“You’re right,” I said. “This is serious. Oh, I know! Let’s steal the ashtrays from the room.”
“Oh, yeah. Let’s just get wild, why don’t we?”
I looked at Tom, “What have you ever stolen? Those ashtrays cost somebody money, you know, and they’re getting to be like artifacts. There’s probably a black market for ashtrays these days.”
Tom looked exasperated and said, “Just tell me how much money I need to bring.”
“Tom, it doesn’t matter. Bring a couple hundred if you want, but you’ll come home with most of it. I’ll have a credit card with my name on it, but it’s Dad’s account. I probably won’t even have to use that. I’m sure Hector will have a way to pay for everything.”
Tommy looked at me seriously for a moment, and seemed a little bit surprised. “Jesus, you don’t even know, do you?”
“Know what?” I asked, a split second before I understood what he meant.
I let him go on with it, knowing what he would say. Tom was kind. “Most people … more than most people, don’t know what it’s like to have a mountain of money behind them.” He closed his eyes for a second before he looked at me. “I’m not being critical. You don’t show it often, and most kids in school think you’re just another kid like them except maybe a little more well off. I would have never guessed until your father was kidnaped, and I got an idea of how rich you really are. Even after that, you lived with your allowance, and when you were broke, you were broke like everyone else. I mean, a few of us knew you had that place up in Stockton, but not really how you got it or anything.”
I asked, “So what is it that I don’t know?”
“It’s what you just said. You have a credit card with money behind it, but Hector will have a way to pay for everything. You have your own security company, and Hector works for them. Don’t take me wrong; I think Hector is everything you said, and a great guy. That’s not my point. What if I want to pay for something? We’re not exactly poor people, and my parents will want me to pay for at least something, and I want to do that myself. I can pay for some meals; maybe buy the lift tickets a couple of times.” Tom looked right at me, his eyes wide … “I don’t know, I’m really glad to be going, but don’t shut me out. I want to have fun, too, but I want to contribute at least something.”
My mouth was ready to argue, but my brain took control just in time. I smiled at Tom and said, “You’re a good friend, you know that? If you want to pay your way, it’s fine with me, but don’t go spending a whole bunch. Save it for Bridgette and for college, and everything else. Dad’s not sending you with us for my sake; it’s a thank-you for sticking with me and the Glovers in Boston. You didn’t really have a stake in that, but you were there just the same.”
Tom grinned, “Did I ever show you the check your dad gave me?”
I could only imagine. “No, and please don’t tell me. I got a check too, you know, but you weren’t told what to do with yours.”
“Was too,” Tom argued. “I got two hundred bucks, and the rest is in my college account.”
I rolled my eyes, “Not to be touched? Same with me, except the whole check went into that account.”
Tom finally relaxed and grinned, “It must really suck to be super rich.”
That made me think, and I replied, “It kind of does, at least lately. Being rich got Dad kidnaped and hurt. Now we have this security around us … well you have it too, and they’re great people, but who else has to live with that? Presidents and kings for sure, but we’re regular people except for that money.” I looked up, “There are advantages, Tom, for sure. I get denied some things, but only because Dad is the boss; it’s never over the cost of something, just the practicality.
“The money can do good things, too. Look at what Dad did for Russ and his family when he was hurt. That was over the top, and I bet it was at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars before Russ was back home.”
I looked at Tom and said, “I guess the money can do a lot of good, and that’s what I want to see. Want to hear my ideas? And you can come up with some too.”
Tom nodded, and we spent most of the next hour talking about how to unload a lot of dollars into things where we could see the results, and not just dumping it into some major charity that pays its executives way too much. After I got his vow that he’d cut his own heart out before telling anyone, I told him what we were already planning for funding non-college education in the trades. Like the few other people who knew of it, he thought it was great, and laughed at the simplicity of it. I don’t know how much I liked that laugh since it was my idea, but it was simple, in concept at least. I was pretty sure that Bernie would complicate it
He had already thrown a curve. If the schools are not accredited, the money would be taxable to the recipient, although if it constituted their only income they probably wouldn’t owe taxes on it anyhow. He was still researching the Vermont laws, and learning what other states might do if a Vermont student went to a school in Massachusetts or New York. Vermont has high taxes, and Bernie was trying to learn if a Vermont student in an out-of-state school would have to pay both states’ taxes on the money. There was also the possibility that direct payments to the schools might negate tax obligations for the students, but he thought that was probably a non-starter.
It didn’t really matter to me; it was a problem for Bernie to sort out.
While Tom and I were talking about other things I heard Mom and Ally come in downstairs, and they were laughing about something. I couldn’t guess because I didn’t know where they’d gone to. I was about to go down and ask what was up when Lisa called.
I told Tom, “It’s Lisa,” before I opened the phone. He nodded and disappeared from my room. I opened the phone and said, “Hi. How was your lesson?”
She didn’t sound happy when she said, “Hot and horrible. How was your day?”
I snickered at her reply and said, “Not bad, I said. Are you too tired to do something?”
She sighed, “I really am. I’ve been on my feet in that friggin’ furnace heat all day. I just want to take a shower, eat something, and lie down.”
I suggested, “I could come over and give you a nice, cool sponge bath.”
She sighed a different sigh and said, “Oh that sounds really nice. It does, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Has my father ever shown you his Bowie knife?”
I gulped, “No, but he mentioned it once.”
“So you know about the … um, incident?”
It was my turn to sigh. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“And you still love me?”
“I do. I like your dad, too. He wouldn’t really slice me up, would he?”
Lisa paused before she said, “He likes you too; he really does. I’m not sure what he’d do. Probably nothing if he didn’t think you were forcing me. I can ask him if you want.”
“No! Don’t do that! Don’t ask him anything; I don’t think that’s how it’s done, especially not near that inferno in your garage.”
Lisa’s little laugh was so merry that it tickled my ear. “Don’t be silly. Daddy would never incinerate you, and you wouldn’t fit in there to begin with.”
I said, “I’ll fit if I’m in parts.”
“Stop worrying. If a sponge bath ever happens it won’t be like you’re forcing it on me.”
“Do you mean that?” I asked.
Lisa made a sound like a reverse gasp, like she was sucking in air. “I guess. Yes. I mean no. Well, I think I’d like that, but only you and me there, not in public or anything. And not in this house.”
When I thought she wouldn’t go on, she said, “Tell me you love me, Paul, and let me go clean up.”
“I love you.”
“I didn’t say recite it; I meant tell me for real.”
I said, “I do love you Lisa. It’s for real. I’d sing it to you if I could carry a tune, but I’d give you the wrong idea if I even tried.”
She made a throaty sound and said “Tell me again.”
Then she cracked up and snickered, giggled and laughed for a long time. “You! You’re so impossible, but that’s why this girl loves you so much. I really have to go now.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
Lisa said in a soft voice, “No, that’s not all of it. I love you, Paul, I really and sincerely do. I want to be with you someday, but we’re too young. Don’t forget that kidney punch, okay?”
“Hmm,” I said. “Don’t you forget it, either.”
Lisa giggled, “I’m probably worse than you, but I won’t forget.”
After we hung up, I went downstairs thinking dinner should be about ready and heard Mom and Ally making noises outside. When I went out, they were setting up new patio furniture on the new patio. Ally saw me, but Mom had her back turned. When I asked, “Need any help?” she jumped.
She turned around, the beginnings of a dark glare on her face, but then she decided I could be useful. “Yes. Tom is in the barn, or garage, or whatever you call that shed. He went to get the gas grill. He’s been there quite a while, so why don’t you help him?”
“Okay,” I said, and headed for the garage. I didn’t want to scare Tom, too, so I whistled when I came close, and went in through the side door. It was hotter than Hades in there. Tom had all the lights on but hadn’t opened the overhead door, so I did that first.
It’s incredible how much stuff got shoved into that little building when seasons changed. Tom looked like he’d been in a sauna with his clothes on, and he said slowly, like one word at a time, “You have too much stuff. I’ve been in here for twenty minutes and I still can’t get at that grill. It’s all the way in the back.”
I shook my head and said, “Go outside to cool off. If we had a pool I’d say jump in it, but there’s a pretty decent river across the street.”
Tom came toward me, and his clothes were literally saturated with sweat. “I don’t need a river, I’m wet enough. What I need is a breeze. Is there a nice one of those across the street?”
I said, “I don’t know, but there’s a ceiling fan over your head. Pull the chain on that.”
Tom clearly thought I was kidding, and didn’t look up. “Don’t pull my chain. I’m going out in the shade till I stop sweating.”
“Get a big glass of ice water on your way. I can move everything. I’ll call you when I need help with the grill. It has wheels, but it’s not easy to push on the grass.”
Tom nodded and slumped out. Tom was a great friend, but I had an advantage over him that wasn’t carried on a pile of money. I grew up in a city, and I learned at an early age to always survey my surroundings, both to see what was available in any particular location, and to measure my risks. It wasn’t anything really conscious, but things change in cities. Once-nice neighborhoods can become troublesome while former slum areas get gentrified in a hurry.
I turned the ceiling fan on and began sorting things and moving them until I had a clear path to the grill. With the fan going and the doors open, there was still a lot of heat to dissipate, so I was sweating myself, but I rolled the grill to the edge of the concrete floor under the overhead door and went back for the propane tank. By the weight of it I could tell it was full, or nearly so, and I put it in position under the grill and went to see if Tom was cool enough to help me move it across the yard.
The furniture setup looked done, and the Audi was gone. So was Tom, apparently. I went inside to get some water, and there was a note on the refrigerator door saying Mom and Ally had gone to get some food, and that we’d christen the new deck later. It also said that Tom had gone home to change.
I drank my water, and then strong-armed the grill over to near the patio. I didn’t know where it was supposed to end up, so I left it on the lawn and went inside for another glass of water and a shower. After all I’d done that day, it took a lot of scrubbing to get clean. It felt great to dry off, and better still when I put clean clothes on.
I went outside with a fresh glass of water, and Tom was sitting at a table with a contented look on his face. I paid attention to the new furniture, and it looked nice. There were four chairs at each table, and other chairs, side tables and lounges scattered around. Everything was this light beige color with deep green canvas for the seat cushions and umbrellas. The umbrellas looked neat because they were made of wood, or more likely bamboo, and the spines protruded past the end of the canvas and had little wooden balls on the ends. The umbrellas lent a kind of Asian look to everything, and I liked it.
I only noticed that the table-tops were glass when I sat down next to Tom and my glass clinked when I put it down. “You okay?” I asked.
Tom nodded. “I never know when you’re kidding, so I figure you usually are. But you’re the one who always tells me to pay attention to where I am, and I try. It’s just not habit yet. You left the garage doors open, the lights on, and the fan running. I turned off the lights, but left everything open and the fan on before things in there start to melt.”
I said, “I’ll close it up later. I think the last time it was open was the day Dad was kidnaped and I went in there for bikes for me and Dana. Before that it was probably last fall.”
Tom said, “Maybe you should leave it open for a few days. It’s really musty in there.”
I said, “You see that grill? Do you see a good spot for it on this patio, or should I just leave it on the lawn?”
Tom looked around and pointed at the corner of the patio just to the left of the path to the garden. “Maybe there.”
I thought that was perfect. We hefted the grill up, and I connected the propane tank. Before even trying it, I went inside for a new battery for the ignition, and everything seemed to work fine. All we needed were Mom, Ally, and something to cook. We sat for probably another twenty minutes talking about nothing, and I tried Ally’s cell phone. She has Bluetooth in the car, but didn’t answer. That wasn’t unusual; cellular coverage in Vermont can be pretty spotty. I was about to try again about ten minutes later, when Ally called me.
“We’re on our way, kid. We just left Keene, so give us twenty minutes. I hope you found the grill, because we have some really fine looking steaks.”
I said, “I tested it and it’s fine. See you when you get here.” I looked at Tom and said, “Steaks tonight.”
Tom and I sat there on idle, only talking occasionally until Ally and Mom pulled in. Gary had assured Ally that she could drive over the new stone path that led to the garden, so she pulled around to the back door, and came back to satisfy herself that the path was still in fine shape. We proceeded to unload a lot more than groceries, and some of the boxes were really heavy. I knew better than to ask more than where we should put them.
My mother said, “Oh, anywhere that’s out of the way. I’m going to open them right away.” She looked at Ally and said, “Al, can you find those steaks and give them to Paul. He knows how to grill them, and we can get the rest ready.” She looked back at me and said, “I’ll tell you when to put the steaks on. You know how we like them.”
Ally found the package of steaks, which were wrapped in white butcher’s paper. She put a platter on a tray, the wrapped steaks on the platter, and added salt and pepper shakers. She held the tray out to me. I took it and led Tom out through the side door, where I stopped at a little closet and tapped it with my elbow. I said, “The barbecue tools are in there. Can you bring out the wire brush and the fork? That’s all I need.”
There are a lot of good things to say about summer, and one of them is that you can get outside even with both hands full. The inside door was open, and the screen door has a little handle that you push on the inside, a regular knob on the outside. I just used my elbow again, and I was out. I put the tray on the table, turned all the grill burners to high and closed the lid.
Tom came out with the tools and asked, “Are these the right ones?” I looked, nodded, and then unwrapped the package of steaks.
When I looked at them, I looked back at the wrapper. In what looked like crayon the butcher had written ‘6.3 prime NYS bls’. I looked back at the steaks and my mouth filled with drool. I noticed Tom staring with me. We were looking at six point three pounds of USDA Prime grade boneless New York Strip steaks, each a good two inches thick. Tom breathed, “Holy shit,” very slowly.
I said, “We eat tonight, kid. I bet there’s not much else”. I put my money on sliced tomatoes and fried onions, nothing else. Mom could even fake dessert and offer something like pie and ice cream when she didn’t have any. Everyone would just hold their tummies and say they’re too full, and they’d be telling the truth.
I checked the grill thermometer, which was almost to 500F. That’s the last reading, but I like to peg the needle. Mom and Ally both like their steaks rare, but I like mine charred on the outside and almost raw on the inside. That’s black-and-blue, or Pittsburgh style. Tom had learned to like it that way, too, and I’d learned the trick to getting everyone’s the way they liked. When Mom called out to put the steaks on, I took two and put them fat-side down in the middle of two burners, and the fire immediately flared up around them from the melting fat. I closed the lid and waited about a minute. When I opened it again they were getting black. I flipped them for another minute, and when I opened the lid they were almost on fire, so I took them off the grill and turned off two burners. I left the lid up so the grill would cool down, and after a minute put Mom and Ally’s steaks over the flame, and ours on the upper rack over where there was no more flame. I put them on their sides, so there was a satisfying sizzle from the hot grill and sprinkled salt and pepper on them.
While I was cooking, Mom came out to set the table, and it was apparent that the heavy boxes came from a pottery shop. She had plates that almost matched the furniture – tan with a dark green trim, and green napkins with a wide tan border. There were new glasses, too, crinkly glass with green rims.
I realized that I was staring and not cooking, and quickly flipped all the steaks. I was looking at four cooked sides, so removed them to the platter and turned the grill off.
I grinned at Tom when Ally came out carrying a plate of sliced tomatoes with oil, either parsley or basil, and grated cheese on them, and a big dish of sautéed onions. Ally sat next to Tom, and since Tom was the guest I took his plate and plunked a steak on it, then served Mom and Ally and sat down myself.
The steaks came out perfect, the tomatoes were perfectly ripe, and the sautéed sweet onions were the perfect accompaniment. I got through everything on my plate, and took the last tomato slice when no one else did. Ally’s plate was like mine … empty and greasy. Tom had cut off some of the outer fat from his steak, but he polished off the rest, and Mom only ate about a third of hers, which I’d expected. We’d have stroganoff or steak sandwiches the next day.
We’d all shared a bottle of a decent red wine from Australia, and I was seriously stuffed with that steak. I looked over at Tom, and he seemed ready for bed.
Mom was picking up dishes, and I asked, “Where did you find all these things?”
She smiled, “Oh, here and there. I like the colors, don’t you?”
That was a typical Mom answer and I left it alone, only admitting that I did like the colors. I stood up to help with the cleanup, but Ally said, “No, no. We’ll take care of this. You men can sit out here and belch or go watch a football game on the television.”
Tommy obliged with a belch that seemed to come from the heart, and said, “They have football in the fall. This is summer, and there’s baseball in it.”
I rolled my eyes and grinned. We weren’t best friends for no reason.