A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 4

Alton surprised everyone by deciding that a few days in Florida at my parents' expense sounded better than earning some tips at the restaurant where he worked. Aaron was coming to my house, but only for the night on Saturday. I spent Friday night with Chris at his house so I wouldn't be in the way at home. I had a game on Saturday and needed rest, and I was all too familiar with my own family's packing routines.

I'll still admit to being a little envious of them because I wasn't going. Tampa was on the Gulf side of Florida and I hadn't been there, but the pictures were enticing. They'd chosen a waterfront place in Clearwater Beach to stay at, and it seemed too amazing for words. It wasn't a motel, but a regular resort, and there were many pools and restaurants, a tiki bar, a sandy beach across the road, and the back was on the water too. I looked at the web site after they made reservations, and I had the flickering of hope that maybe Matt would decide to stay there and become a beach bum. The thought was kind of appealing. He'd be happy that way, and I wouldn't have to face him.

Friday in school was only interesting because in a few classes, like algebra, they collected our books. For those of us with related math classes the next year, they gave us our new books, and I got mine for calculus. I was intrigued by it, because so far calculus was just a word to me. My other option had been trig, and I thought I already understood triangles. This may sound amusing, but limits were new to me and I wanted to understand them in a mathematical sense, so I chose calculus. I hoped it would help when my father said something like, "Don't push your luck."

The only other thing I had to do that was important to me, was to pay the last installment for our class outing. That would take place the following Friday, and it was at a nearby river resort. In a way, it was a means of paying forty bucks to skip a day of school. Then again, with paddle boats, canoes, inner tubes and a river, there was the potential for some fun. Food was 'unlimited' and I had no idea what they meant when they came up with that term. There were about five hundred kids in my class, and most would go to the outing. Give or take a few, we were all sixteen. Do you see where I'm going here? A term like unlimited food is a euphemism at best, given the participants. For how many of us? Chris and I could paddle away a dozen hot dogs each. Don't even think about volley ball; that would be good for another dozen, or six cheeseburgers. You have all these sports available there, so let's leave the idea of unlimited food somewhere else. Maybe it's possible on a cruise ship full of blue hairs, but five hundred active Sophomores? Not! It's not possible!

After school, I went with Chris to the skate park to have some fun. For the first few minutes we actually had the place to ourselves. We took those minutes to work on looking good, not new tricks. We'd both seen a film in music called 'The T.A.M.I. Awards'. The film itself was like an ancient collection of music videos, but they were actually filmed performances. The thing that got us was the opening, where a couple of guys were using skateboards as a means of transportation instead of just for fun. The two guys were probably about our age, or a little older. They had style, though, and it wasn't show-off style at all. They were going down hilly streets and sidewalks, possibly in San Francisco. There was an elegance to their form that we were trying to achieve, and it was a simple elegance. Well, that's probably a dumb thing to say. All things that are truly elegant are also simple.

Chris skis on snow, too, and it took him to notice the basis of the technique. "Ev! It's their knees! Watch ... lookit! It's just like skiing! Come home with me and I'll show you!"

When we got to his house after school he turned the television on to MTV, and we danced. Chris showed me how to roll my knees together, and that motion would cause skis or a skateboard to turn gracefully. Handsomely. Beautifully!

Chris was better than me on a board or skis, and he always would be. We both learned that technique, though, and I could only hope and pray that I did it with half the grace of my best friend. We boarded between our houses sometimes, but most of the time our skating was comprised of these static, almost staccato, routines of tricks in a row. Who would have thought that back when our parents were still babies, they did it better?

The skate park started to fill up, and we went back to our normal skating routines. We could impress, Chris more than me, but we stood basically unchallenged. Chris could do those back flips, after all.

After the park, we went to Chris' house and goofed off until his parents came home. They had their own plans, which they were in a hurry to get to, so they left money with us and took off.

Chris and I decided to eat right, and we drove to this place called 'Frontier Steak House' out on the edge of town. The place was kind of hokey, with a stucco exterior made up to look like some faux western saloon.

It was a big place, and popular with families. Part of that, I think, was that they didn't serve alcohol. There wasn't a whole lot on the menu, either. Steak about nine ways, pork chops, grilled fish or chicken breast, and hamburgers. Their claim to fame wasn't their meat, anyhow, though they gave you pretty good food. The place was famous for their salad bar, and rightfully so. I'd never seen another one with so many things, and it included soup, too, and all the shrimp you wanted. The whole restaurant was set up for minimum service. You ordered your meat as soon as you walked in, paid for it, then they handed you a tray with napkins and silverware, and a big number, which was the number of your order.

I carried the tray to an empty booth and commented on the number to Chris. "We're one-one-eight, and I think that's the number we'll win by tomorrow; eleven to eight." Chris shrugged when I indicated the booth, and we both headed to the salad bar after I put the tray down.

I loaded up on Caesar greens, garlic slivers, onions and big, fat croutons. There was a bowl of fresh-grated Parmesan, which I helped myself to, then a layer of bacon bits, and I topped it off with a sparing amount of their super-zingy Caesar dressing. I wasn't done yet. I filled another bowl with cucumber slices, tomato wedges, sliced peppers and mushrooms, chick peas, thin carrot strips, chunks of celery, five different kinds of olives and a chunk of feta cheese. I filled a little bowl with popcorn shrimp that I wouldn't have to peel, and I put some cocktail sauce on them. Soup was easy because it was Friday and they had seafood chowder, which was the real specialty of that place. It was wonderful; a clear broth chock full of clams, mussels, scallops and white fish, along with bits of onions and carrots. It always had a faint peppery flavor, and I think whatever salt was in it came straight from the sea. A couple of hunks of good bread and I was ready.

My tray was heavy when I set it down, and I dug right into the food. I started on the soup first so I could have it hot, and it was wonderful like it always was. I was well into it when Chris sat down, and he had an even more impressive array of goodies than I did. I gave him a look and he grinned, "Everything looks good. You can have my chicken when it comes."

I snickered, "Okay, if you eat mine."

Chris put a giant fork full of salad into his wide-open mouth, so I finished my soup while he chomped on that. He was into his own soup when I attacked my salad, and for awhile our conversation consisted of a few pleasurable grunts. When our chicken came, we slowed down. I wasn't hungry any more really, but the meat looked good and I picked at it.

Chris, out of the blue, said, "I was thinking I'd go see Ron tomorrow."

"Ron?" I asked, pretty sure I knew who he meant.

"Yean, Mastracchio." He smirked, "He's the first person I know that got shot."

"Yes," I said dryly, "but if you get to know his friends, he sure won't be the last."

Chris stared at me, "You're hard, Evan. Real hard."

"Sorry," I mumbled, though I wasn't sorry at all.

"I just think I should stop over, Ev. I need to feel better about taking up his cause, and I don't really know the kid."

I chewed a piece of bread while I looked at Chris. "You know, I had kind of that feeling. I kept saying I was helping even though I didn't like Ron, and my father called me on it. Now I don't say that anymore." I forked a piece of chicken and held it up, only shoving it in my mouth when I realized it might look like I planned to use it as an example. "I don't know, Chris. Ron did his bad things, and they caught up with him. It's not anything that really affected me, so I don't know what to think about it. All those gambling charges, they're all felonies, man! What's that about? So Ron sold squares on football pools, so what? Wasn't it just as illegal for us to buy those squares? I mean, get real! Ron wasn't pocketing the money from that. This has gone like, way beyond the bizarre!"

Chris stared at me, then a smile tugged at his mouth. "I agree, Ev. I don't know about this prostitution thing. It sounds like he was giving rides to girls, not selling them. I mean, it's hard to think that he was doing things himself, but that's what they're saying." He leaned closer to me and said, "That's why I want to go over there. I have to know more before I even know what to think."

I put my fork down and sat back, done for good with the meal, but not with Chris. I burped and said, "Pardon me!" Chris was there, and he was serious for once. I admired that about him.

His parents were activists on a whole lot of issues, but mostly the environment, so he was used to how it worked. He'd told me earlier that it was easy to get involved in things you really believed in, but still possible to be involved even when your opinion wasn't strong.

I knew he didn't harbor fond feelings for Ron Mastracchio any more than I did, but I did have opinions. "Chris," I said. "They're fucking over Ron, and that's wrong all by itself. The reason I care is they tried the same thing with Lee! It's the thing, not the person, at least with me."

Chris smiled his 'go ahead'.

"I'm serious," I said. "They are fucking up the laws, and it's us who'll pay the price. Look at this 'zero tolerance' crap in school. Who's that supposed to help? And," I shook my head vehemently, "Who exactly gets helped when they try some kid as a so-called adult?" I put up both hands and said, "I know, I know. There are times when it's appropriate, but it fits the crime, Chris! That wasn't the case with Lee, and it's not the case here. Especially here!" I felt exasperated, "Lee was at the scene of violent crimes, so give them a 'maybe' in his case. Still, anybody with any sense would look at him and see a kid, not some vicious criminal. He got bagged by his whole life, and by his own father in the end."

Chris said, "You're preaching to the choir here, Ev. I know, and I agree."

I said quickly, "Listen to yourself now, Chris. Lee is somebody we like. I don't get the feeling that you like Ron any more than I do, so it's all about context now. He didn't hurt anybody, didn't shoot up any houses! He's the guy that got fucked! He's the guy that got shot! The adults are all walking away with hundred dollar fines! Where is it, Chris?"

Chris toyed with his food, and he actually nibbled on some while he looked at me. He started to say something, then stopped and started again. "Ev, I know somewhere inside me that you're right. I need to get my arms around it. Are you saying I can defend Mastracchio's cause without defending Ron himself?"

I nodded, "Being a jerk shouldn't get him life in prison, Chris. This whole thing is lost in space somewhere. It's unreal."

Chris nodded and asked, "Are you going for dessert?"

I laughed, "But of course! Did you see those strawberries up there?"

I wasn't hungry, but we went to get dessert anyhow, and I asked the waiter to bring us both coffees. When we sat down again we both had bowls of strawberries with blueberries and raspberries mixed in. They weren't exactly in season yet, and Chris sprinkled his with sugar. I ate mine the way they were, and they were good tart like that.

We both relaxed, and didn't bring up anything important again until Chris said, "We'll probably sit the bench tomorrow, you know."

I did know. Chris had started in his position in all but four games, and I'd started except for seven. There were seniors who played our positions, and juniors too. They would start the playoff games and, given the opportunity, the championships. That wasn't something for me and Chris to feel bad about, because it was just the way things were. Our upperclassmen weren't slugs to begin with. I guess it was plain class on their part that let them watch me and Chris start game after game. It was about who could win more during the season, but after those games were done, the starting positions went to the guys who earned the privilege with time invested over the years.

I knew it going in, and I knew that I could have been winging my way to Florida the next day to have fun on the beach. I could have gone, could have made the case that my brother was coming back from the war and I had to be there. It wouldn't have been arguable. There were already two potential starters. I was just Evan the sophomore. I stayed behind hoping that I'd get to play, but I was a member of the team and I belonged where I belonged. Matt was coming home, perhaps to stay. The playoffs were there only as long as we kept winning games. The first series was best-of-five, and the games were being played in all the counties. They'd be immediately followed by another best-of-five series to determine division champions, and it would all end up at a single 'finals' game where the State championship team would be determined. That team would go to regional, another best-of-five series, and it went on and on. Two lucky teams would ultimately vie for the National title. That's where everyone's dreams were, but they were like my own dream of hitting the biggest home run ever seen at Yankee Stadium.

We had paid in advance, so we left some money for our waiter. I was stuffed full of food but it felt good inside me. Chris bumped into me and draped his arm heavily across my shoulder. "Oh man, carry me, Evan! I ate too much! I ate too fast! I think I'm gonna explode!"

I snickered, "Wow! Maybe I can sell you to some terrorist organization then. You can explode and I'll get paid for it."

"Sick," Chris grunted.

Back at his house, we settled into their family room for the night. It was the biggest room in their house, and kind of segmented because of that.

We sat in the entertainment area, where a big hi-definition television hung from the inside wall. All the other electronics were in a cabinet beside it, with a smoked glass front that only let the glow from all the components escape. Part of the room was for traditional entertaining, with a small wet bar and comfy furniture groupings. Around a partition from that area was a den, only it wasn't a separate room. One wall was glass to the outside. Opposite that was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase that substituted for a wall, and the wall at the end had a nice fireplace built in.

Where we were had this gigantic sofa shaped like an L. The sections at each end reclined like chairs, and there was no way you could just sit on the rest of it unless you were NBA material. The seat cushions, front to back, were about three feet, and there were giant, soft cushions at your back. It was no place for sitting in the traditional sense, but it was perfect for sprawling out, and that's what we did. It was warm, but Chris had blankets at the ready for when we decided to sleep. He turned on the television and started flipping channels, which I knew he hated doing. He handed me the remote and started looking through videos, finally asking, "Ever hear of this one, Ev? 'Wonder Boys' with Michael Douglas?"

"Oh man, I love that movie!" I said. That was the truth, because it's my favorite kind of movie; quiet, intelligent, and funny as all get out. Chris put the DVD in and pressed the 'play' button. He settled in next to me and we let the thing run, watching the previews and all.

Chris suddenly had his face in my field of view, and it was full of mischief. "Ev! Before this starts, I think you should realize that it's been a long time since ... um ... well, you know! Since we did anything."

I smiled, hoping it was a nice, serene smile. "You're right," I said gently. "You're more than right, actually, now that I think of it. We never did anything. It was always me doing the doing and you doing the receiving. I think that if you want more, then you have to pay me back."

Boy, did that pull the blinds down in Chris' eyes! He stared at me kind of stupidly, then said, "Okay, hold on. Don't go anywhere."

He jumped up and looked around the bar, then he ran upstairs. When he came down he was tapping a calculator with a determined look on his face. In his case, that means the tip of his tongue was in the corner of his mouth.

"Jeez!" he muttered. "Damn! Let me re-figure this." He tapped more, then tossed the calculator onto the sofa and looked at me. "Damn, Ev! Even at fifty-cents a pop I seem to owe you sixty grand! I can't afford you, so let me ask this: Do you think Aaron would be my boyfriend?"

I swear, I laughed through the first half of the movie. Michael Douglas was in his pink bathrobe before I could get my attention back on the show, and Chris was sitting beside me, yoga-like, watching the movie.

I poked his rib and he jumped. "You are a sick puppy, Chris! Fifty cents a pop?"

He giggled, "Well, you must be worth something."

That did it! Chris was slicker than me, and slinkier than me in a lot of ways, but I could murder him in my sleep, so watch out when I'm awake! I dove on him, pushing him down into the cushions, and I put my nose right up against his. "You are dead, Chris," I said slowly. "I want that sixty thousand, and I want it right now. I'll give you fifty cents a pop! Wait'll you see my summer rates! And anyhow, I want to get paid back in kind, so make a pretty little 'O' with those lips, and get ready for the thrill of your life!"

Chris laughed, sputtered, and got spit on my face, and that made me start laughing enough that he could push me away. I ended up on the floor, where I said, "If you want Aaron, you'll have to speak to him yourself. You better be convincing, too, because that boy loves me!"

Chris sleazed his way off the sofa and sat beside me. "You keep Aaron, Evie." He snickered, "You're all the man I can handle anyhow. I need a girl, and one that puts out!"

I said, "You're telling the wrong guy, Chris. I don't do girls."

He sighed, "Yeah, I know. My problem is I always make these intellectual attachments. All I ever do with girls is talk to them."

"Like Nancy?" I asked.

Chris sighed, "Yeah. I mean, talk about a waste! Nan has the best bod in town, and all we do is discuss things! And I like it. There's something seriously wrong with me, Ev."

I smiled, and hoped he couldn't see me. "Chris," I said. "Try talking dirty. Talk about sex. I don't know; wear tight pants or something! I got it, I got it! Go watch the moon some night. That's it! Cuddle up with that moon out there, then see what happens!" I elbowed him, "Nancy likes you, I know she does."

Chris was quiet, then he snickered, "I can see it now: 'Dear Evan, help for the lovelorn!' You're right, and you have to stop being right." His voice dropped, "I like Nancy and I know she likes me. We just need to cut out the heavy conversations, just one time. I don't know how to get there, but I'll figure it out."

I chuckled, "I'll give you a shortcut, a freebee. Make plans to do something romantic. Say it's going to be romantic. Then plan it. Go with the idea of being romantic in mind, and don't change the subject."

Chris got comfortable, propping himself up against the front of the sofa. "You're good, Ev. You know that, I guess. How many A's did you get?"

"All," I giggled. "At least they better be all."

"Like three point niners?" Chris suggested.

I poked his rib, eliciting a squeal. "I'll give you three point nine! How about three point ten?"

Chris gave up. "What ever, Ev! I need to be romantic. Is there any romance in this show, or should I find something else?"

I shrugged, "You're going to find your romance inside yourself, Chris, not in some movie. You can't even get moves from a film, because if they're any good, then every girl on earth has seen the show anyhow. Can't you just get closer when you talk?"

Chris turned his head to me and asked, "Like we are?"

I paid attention, and we were tight against each other like we usually were. "Yes," I said. "Just like this. I know it makes me horny, and I'm sure you're horny because of me, so the same thing should work with Nancy Johnson. Just don't call her Evan by mistake."

Chris gave me a mighty shove and I went flying sideways. He growled, "Go ahead, make fun of me! You do not make me horny! Well, um, let me restate that: you know how to make me horny, at least that's my recollection. If you want to refresh my memory, well then ..."

I climbed up on the sofa and sprawled out. "Go to bed, Chris. We have a game tomorrow, and I want to be awake for it."

"It's ten o'clock, Ev!"

"Good night, Chris."

He chuckled, "Night, Mommy."

* * * * * * * *

We lost the next day, and big time, like in eleven to two. Rrrrrrrr! Coach started our best pitcher, Hugo Gordon, but he had his worst day ever. Coach pulled him in the first inning, but the other team already had five runs, and the bases were loaded with no outs. We finally got them out, but we were down by seven runs before we ever put a batter to the plate.

There are days like that, and you don't want to be having them during the playoffs. I never played. It wasn't our infield that was having problems, so there was no reason to put me in. I might have been called in if we ever had anyone on base, but we'd been remarkably weak hitting, too. Our two runs came in the fifth on a walk and a home run. That rallied us to make more noise, and at least we weren't shut out. It was one of those games the team never got into playing right.

When it was over we heard the other team celebrating. Coach didn't say much, and he didn't seem to be angry at anyone. A horrible game like that was firmly in the 'shit happens' category.

Nobody blamed Hugo. The game was probably his swan song, anyhow, and he was the main reason we were in the playoffs to begin with. He was just off with his timing, and it hurt us early on. It was everyone else who kept us from catching up. There was no one boneheaded play to blame the rout on, just a less-than-stellar effort all around.

I wasn't very worried about it. It was a piss-poor way to start the series, but we were there because we'd played good ball all Spring. We didn't play games on Sundays, but we'd see these guys again on Monday and we'd all be in the mood to kick ass. It would have been nice to win the opener, but in the end it didn't matter which three games we won. We just had to win three.

Chris had driven us to the game, and we went back to his house afterwards so I could pick up my things. He was going to see the Mastracchio family, and Nancy was going with him. Aaron was coming to my house. I had the time to go with Chris, and maybe I should have, but I didn't want to. I'd already done mentally what Chris was going to do. I'd put the idea that I didn't like Ron Mastracchio right out of my head. I didn't know him well enough to not like him. Ron and Mike had always seemed good to me. They were clean-cut kids from a good family, and until recently we'd gotten along fine even if we didn't really run in the same circles. My dislike had arisen when I heard how Ron was treating Lee, and it intensified when I confronted him about it. That was it, really. He spouted off at the mouth and I got angry, and my anger got him going some more. Now I knew a lot more about what was going on with him, and I'd have to be a world-class psychologist to figure it all out.

What I could figure out was that Ron had one major problem, which was gambling addiction, and that led to a lot of behavioral problems, which in turn led to all the trouble he was in. Somehow, him teasing Lee got lost in the bigger picture. My dislike for Ron hadn't magically transformed into me suddenly liking the guy, but I did feel bad for him, and I felt bad for his family. Our situations were very different, but I'd done the same thing Ron did, which was drag my family down into the limelight of public scrutiny. It would eat at me forever that the last night I spent on my own in Riverton, my family was being questioned by a State agency as to the appropriateness of me being returned to them as opposed to disappearing into State care. We'd never spoken of it, but it had to be the most humiliating thing for my parents to have to prove to someone's satisfaction that I could safely come home. Plainly said, they didn't deserve that, and I was the sole cause of it.

That's what I had in common with Ron Mastracchio. And I thought the system was going out of its way to bulldoze him into an early grave. Maybe, maybe there was some reason for the obscene charges against him, but if there was, the DA's office had neglected to mention it publicly. I just felt bad about the whole thing, and more for Ron's family than for him. The word was going around that his family must have known, but I knew from experience that someone my age could keep monumental secrets from the very people he lived with.

After Chris dropped me at home, I took off my uniform and put it in the washer, then took a long shower. I hadn't played, so none of that was necessary. I was a little shell-shocked with the loss, I guess, and the shower felt good.

When I dried off, I had over an hour before the earliest that Aaron might show. I might have stayed naked if it was less time than that, but I put on a bathing suit and went out to wash my car. It wasn't really dirty, but there were water spots and mud spatters here and there, and I liked washing my car. I liked having a car to wash, so I got out a bucket full of soapy water, a sponge and the hose, and went to work. The Integra isn't a big car, and it didn't take long to wash it off. I used a beach towel to get the water off before it spotted. I might have waxed it, but it shone the way it was, and I wasn't sure how often you could safely wax a car anyhow. I went through the interior with the damp beach towel, but there wasn't really anything to clean up.

When I was done, the car sat in the middle of the driveway in full sun. The hood, rear hatch, both doors and the sunroof were open to let fresh air in, and I was one proud papa. I'd seen a similar car with chrome wheels, and I really wanted some of those instead of the stock alloy wheels. I knew what the chrome ones cost though, and they weren't that hot!

I sat on the lawn and looked at the car. There was still something there that went beyond pride, and it went beyond ride. I loved my car, I really did, but there was more than that. It's hard to think about, but with a key and gas money that little beauty could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and anytime. It was like the last restriction on my movement was long gone. I hadn't actually gone anywhere far yet, and I didn't have plans to, but I could! If I decided then and there that I needed to see, say, Plymouth Rock, I could get in that blue car and go there, and I'd arrive in style!

I decided to let the car air out some more. I put some shorts on over my bathing suit, pulled on a tee shirt, and I got my skateboard out for a cruise. I wanted to try being graceful where I had some distance to keep it up, and it worked. I couldn't see me, but I could feel what I was doing and figure out that I looked good. It was fun, too. No tricks, just the wind on me, and what felt like ballet-type movements, just a little wiggle to control my speed.

"Whoa-oh-oh-oh!" I heard just before getting bowled over onto the pavement. I didn't hit my head hard, but my one side hurt because I slid on the road a little after hitting it.

I sat up and looked around. It was Mark Dawson on a lawn across the street, and I looked to see where he could have come from. That was a steep driveway. Mark wasn't moving, but he was crying, so I got up and hurried over to him. "Mark! Are you hurt?" I hesitated to touch him hard, so I just put a finger on his shoulder.

He didn't say anything, so I said, "Mark?"

He moved and giggled, "I thought you were dead. I thought I killed you."

That was funny. "You did," I said. "I'm dead. This is my ghost."

By then, Mr. Beale, who owned that steep driveway, and his son, Danny, were there. "Are you okay?" the father asked.

"What a wreck!" Danny exclaimed.

"You're bleeding," Mr. Beale said, and Mark wasn't, so it had to be me. "Come up to the house, let's get that cleaned up."

I got to my feet and looked around for my board, which was nowhere in sight. Danny saw me and said, "I'll get it!" and he took off running down the hill. Mark was one giant grass stain, but he'd managed to land on something soft, unlike me.

Mark sat to take his skates off, and I followed Mr. Beale up to his garage, then into their family room. He called his wife down, and she took over. "Oh dear! Come upstairs honey, we'll use the kitchen sink."

I followed her, trying to check myself out. I was scraped on my calf and my elbow and shoulder. I seemed to be dripping blood from the vicinity of my ear, and that's where it was. Like all mothers, Mrs. Beale ignored the fact that I was bleeding on her kitchen floor, and she pushed me toward the sink once she emptied it of dishes. She prodded my head over the basin and used a washcloth to clean off my ear, which hurt all to hell. Then soap, which stung, and more washcloth. Then gauze. "Here, hold this right there! Does it hurt?"

"Not now it doesn't."

"Well good, then you're a survivor. You boys should really be more careful on those things. They built that lovely park, you know. You should skate over there where it's safe."

What do you say to something like that? She'd just fixed me up, and I didn't want to argue the merits of artistic skating on the road versus trick skating at the designated park. It wasn't their fault, even thought it was their driveway Mark had stormed out of. I could have been paying more attention, or Mark could have watched where he was going. I just said thanks as graciously as I could, then thanked Mr. Beale when I went out.

Mark was there in his socks, looking contrite, so I smiled at him. "You okay?"

He nodded, "How 'bout you?"

"I'll live. Did Danny find my board?"

Mr Beale said, "He's riding it right now, Evan. He says you have great trucks" He pointed down the hill, "He's down there. You can go get it, or I'll have him bring it to your house."

I started snickering, "Bring it over, I guess. I don't know, some days just weren't meant to go right."

I went home, and instead of going in I sat on our swing. That was a rope swing on the branch of an apple tree in the side yard. The branch was too low to make for a good swing, but it was a nice, shady seat, and I sat there often. I was there when Danny Beale returned my skateboard, and I was there still when Mark stopped to say he was sorry again.

Other than that, I just sat and thought of not much. I didn't want to re-hash the game because I hadn't played in it. I didn't want to think of the Mastracchio family because I already did that. The skating accident just happened. It wasn't the first time I'd gotten banged up, and it probably wouldn't be the last. It was Aaron that I wanted to think about, and thinking just that sent me inside to check the answering machine. There were no calls, so I went back out to wait for him. I closed up my car and sat on the grass beside the driveway. I still liked looking at that car, but whenever I heard someone coming I looked to see who it was.

And it was finally Aaron in that yellow Toyota, headed right my way.

Aaron kind of swooped right in on me, too. He turned into the driveway, and it seemed that he was parked and out of the car in one motion, and he was smiling. Grinning!

"Evan!" he cried when he saw me there. "How was your game?"

Oh Lord. "Um, change of subject, Aar. We got killed!"

"No way!" he said hopefully, but he saw my face and his own fell. "That sucks. Guess what?"

My eyebrows went up. "I got fired!" he said, seeming way happier than the words might suggest.

I just stared, and he said, "I'm not right for the part, and I knew that. I mean, I mean I love the part, and maybe when I'm thirty or something, but I just can't stretch enough."

Aaron saw my chin hit about where my navel is, and he came to me. I hugged him gently and said, "I'm really sorry, Aar."

He said, "Don't be. I'm glad in a way. I was feeling like a fool, and I think it showed. I can play an adult in a school play, but not really out in public."

God, he felt good to me. I mumbled, "You know what? Losers feel just like winners."

"Huh?" Aaron croaked.

"I lost my game, and big time. I got crashed into and my ear's all blue. Loser. You lost your part, and that means you lost your job, so loser." I squeezed him to me, "I still love you, Aaron, and you still feel the same. We're usually winners, so losers feel just the same."

Aaron giggled and said, "Okay ... I think. Heavy thought, Ev. Guess what I brought you?"

I looked at him, and asked, "You brought me something?"

He smirked, "Yup! Guess what?"

I grinned, "I can't imagine."

"Think the ocean!"

I thought out loud. "Water ... sand ... volley ball ... fishing ... uh-oh, fish right? You brought seafood?"

Aaron was smiling broadly and nodding. "Crabs, Ev! Crabs ready for sandwiches. They're not even frozen this time of year!"

I think my jaw dropped. "Crab sandwiches? Oh man, that's perfect!" I smiled, "That's part of why I love you, Aar. You make a bad day good just by being in it!"

He pulled a white bag out of the car that was far to big for two sandwiches. "How many?" I asked.

"I got six crabs," Aaron said. "Chris never got to try one, and I don't care who eats the rest. Maybe we can have two each."

I grinned, "Maybe? Are they any good reheated?"

Aaron shrugged, "I doubt it, but they're excellent cold! I just got the crabs and tartar sauce, and I picked up some rolls. The crabs are all pre-cooked." He gave me a handsome stare, "They're good, Evan. Excellent, wonderful goodness from the sea." He laughed, "I just thought of something: Wanna eat me? I got crabs!"

I don't know sometimes. President Clinton said what me and Aaron did wasn't sex, and maybe it wasn't when we were laughing a lot. That wasn't all the time though, and never the second time. If it still wasn't sex, well hey. I haven't been President yet.

Aaron was in bed with me, and we were sharing a can of lemonade when Chris called.

"Evan, I need help here. I want romantic but I don't know how to put it. I'm supposed to pick Nancy up tonight, and I don't have a clue."

"Never fear," I said, and I whispered to Aaron, "Want some company? It's Chris."

Aaron nodded, so I said to Chris, "Bring her here, man. Promise her exotic goodness from the sea, some r-r-r-r-r-romance at Evan's house."

Chris laughed, "Heh! I think the romance is already in full swing at Evan's house!"

"Always," I said. "Do you remember when we took Lee to see that condom? I mean condo?"

Chris laughed, "I hear you. What should I bring?"

"Red wine, if you can. Otherwise, just don't surprise us."

"I got wine," was the last I heard.

Aaron was itching to show me something on the computer, so we got out of bed and sat in front of it. He told me to look in my email, and there was one from him with a big attachment. He was urging me to, "Open it! Open it!" so I did, and after I got hold of it in my mind I laughed myself to tears. It looked like a newspaper clipping, with a picture and a headline that read, 'D.A. announces new weapon in his War Against Crime'. The picture appeared to show our District Attorney kneeling down, about to plug an electrical cord into a wall outlet. The cord ran to a potty chair that was obviously an electric chair shrunk to size, with a new seat, which was from a baby's potty chair. It was done well enough that it was hard to see the fake, and the expression on the D.A.'s face was one of malevolent delight.

If the picture wasn't funny enough, it was captioned: 'District Attorney Meeks of Mt. Harman demonstrates for reporters what he terms the 'ultimate deterrent', his Electric Potty Chair, or EPC.' There was even the first paragraph of what purported to be an article. It read, 'Mt. Harman District Attorney Melvin Meeks is a deep thinker, and a hard man when he's on the job. His deep thoughts have led him to the conclusion that, and we quote, "I have come under a lot of criticism for prosecuting teenagers, and even younger offenders, as adults. I do hate it when I have to practically beg a jury to put a youngster to death, or put him behind bars for many years, and I resent it too, because it should be so obvious. But I can take the criticism, because I get the little creeps off the streets and into the prisons they belong in. Adult prisons are where they want to be, judging from their adult-style crimes. Everyone knows that a spit ball can take an eye out, or that a plastic straw can be a deadly weapon in the wrong hands. In Mt. Harman, we've decided to become even more pro-active. We know that teenagers are nothing but trouble, so rather than trying futilely to stem teenage crime, we've devised a method that prevents teenagers altogether. This little electric potty chair will take them out at the first sign of trouble."'

It said 'continued' there, but it wasn't. I roared with laughter, and Aaron laughed right along with me. When I could finally talk and see again, I asked, "Is this the only copy? It's beautiful!"

Aaron said, "Not hardly the only one. Justin got it posted on the University web page, and now it's all over the place. People are blogging it, and it's probably on every college page in the country by now."

I thought about it, and if the thing Aaron devised really did spread, it might embarrass the prosecutor enough to at least get off his high horse and cut Mastracchio a break. It might enrage him, too, and cause him to come down even harder. It was on the Internet already, so the whole thing was free from any kind of controls. People would see it, and they would laugh or not, but they'd probably also wonder where Mt. Harman was, and if it's a real place or what.

If it changed anything or not, it was very clever. I forwarded it to everyone I thought might like it, including the school paper and the little group that had formed in defense of Ron. I included a copy to my father, though I doubted he'd check his email in Florida.

Aaron and I talked for the next hour until Chris came. I was dismayed that Aaron was out of the play, but he made it clear that it was the right thing. He would be paid for the time he had invested, and it didn't seem that they were trying to cheap him out. It was good money, and it boiled down to Aaron and that particular part in the play. I didn't know about things like that, but the same company had asked him to try out for Grease in a few weeks. That was some news that Aaron was excited about. A show like Grease was loaded with teenagers, and Aaron thought they might have the opposite problem casting it, because so many players were out of their teens already.

We were proper by the time Chris and Nancy showed up, and Chris winked as he handed me a brown bag with two bottles of wine in it. "Come on in!" I said, and led them to the family room where Aaron was looking through some music cds.

He stood up and cheerfully greeted Chris and Nancy, who sat with him to look at music options while I excused myself to resume making a salad. I brought the wine to the kitchen with me, and was amused by the label. It had no vintner's name and no year of vintage. It simply said, 'Vino Rosso', and in smaller print, 'Palermo'. A fine Italian red, I hoped.

When the salad was ready, I poured four glasses of wine into my folk's best crystal glasses and brought them in on a tray. As I held the tray out I said, "We can eat any time you want. Nothing has to cook."

I put the tray down and sat on the sofa with my glass, and Aaron sat beside me. I looked at him and we clinked glasses, then kissed quickly before taking sips. The wine had a strong flavor, but it wasn't bad at all. Chris held up a disc and asked, "How's Pearl Jam?"

I didn't care and just nodded. He put the disc in the player and stood up, holding his hand down to Nancy. He looked awkward, but it was the right move. They looked around and chose the settee opposite of where I was sitting with Aaron, and when they sat they both moved close. I said, "Aaron brought the food, and I hope you like it as much as I do." I grinned, "I think maybe I won't say exactly what it is right now. It's kind of a Riverton specialty."

Nancy smiled, "Mmm, how intriguing!"

"Just say something when you're hungry," I said. "Meanwhile, tell us how it went at the Mastracchio's."

Chris grimaced, "It's a bad scene, Ev. I am supposed to tell you how grateful they are that you're sticking up for Ron. They're all torn up, though, and there's no end in sight. The DA filed more charges this morning, and now it's crap like lewd and lascivious carriage. It's unreal."

Nancy said, "Ron's a wreck and his folks aren't much better. Poor Michael ... I think he's forcing himself away from everything just so he won't fall apart, too. It's so awful."

I swallowed, "How's Ron look? Can you tell where he got shot?"

Chris looked a little green, "I'll say. Where the bullet went in it looks almost like a sphincter, if you'll pardon the comparison. It's all pulled together like that. It's where it came out that there's a real mess. That's where the big hole was, and it's awful."

Nancy added, "He has all this medical gel on it, and that makes it look twice as bad."

Chris shuddered, "It's hard to believe that he's not all ripped up in there, but he's not. You can tell it hurts, but his voice is normal enough and everything still works. His doctor won't release him yet, and the state hired another doctor to make sure the first one isn't full of it. They both said he's not strong enough for trial yet. There's a hearing next week, and his lawyer's going to ask the judge to stop new charges until they can arraign him on the ones already out there. Otherwise, the DA's just gonna have a field day."

I looked at Chris, and he was as serious as I'd ever seen him. I hesitated, then asked, "So, are you glad you went?"

Chris made a face and exhaled, then he said glumly, "I guess I am. I don't know what I expected ... nothing like that, though. I think I'll be pretty vocal about what's going on, because it's not right in any way I can see."

I thought about showing Chris and Nancy Aaron's fake article, but I didn't want that to be the centerpiece, so I muttered, "Cheer us up, Aaron!"

Aaron gave me a sharp look, then smiled at me before turning it to Chris and Nancy. "I got fired today!" He grinned, "Don't clap, just throw money!"

That got a grin from Chris, who said, "It sounds like you're glad to be fired!"

Aaron shrugged, "It's probably best. Want to hear about it?"

Chris said, "Sure, but while we eat." He smiled into his glass, "This wine is making me hungry."

"Me too," Aaron added.

"Let's go," I said and stood up. I hadn't taken but two steps when the phone rang, and it was my mother calling. They had a fine afternoon, loved the hotel and the beach, and it was starting to rain out. They were getting ready to leave for the airport, which was about an hour's drive from where they were staying, and they'd call later after they picked up Matt. They'd call if it wasn't too late, anyhow.

I told her that we lost our game, which didn't mean much to her, and that we were just getting ready to eat. She knew better than to hold up a meal, so we said goodbye after just a few minutes.

The others had gone on to the kitchen, and we sat down in there instead of using the dining room. It certainly wasn't a formal meal, so it didn't matter. I wasn't even sure how Chris and Nancy would take to eating crabs that still had their shells on.

We started on our salad while Aaron put sandwiches together, and he did nothing to disguise the legs hanging out the sides of the rolls. Chris was trying not to make a face when he saw his sandwich, while Nancy recoiled visibly. It occurred to me that it was time to lead by example, so I picked up a sandwich and made a nice 'mmmmmm' sound before I took a giant bite out of it.

Aaron was right, too. It was delicious cold, maybe even better than hot. Nothing had been refrigerated, so room-temperature is a better description. It was fantastic, and I kept eating. Chris and Nancy took tentative little nibbles, but once they had the flavor of it they just ate the sandwiches right down. Aaron had been liberal with the tartar sauce, which made the sandwiches a little sloppy as well as wonderful. We talked about the food, and Aaron told about losing his part in the play, which he still called getting fired. He was certainly in good cheer about it.

I guess I didn't blame him. He didn't come right out and say it, but I knew him well enough to understand that he was uncomfortable playing a character that was much older than him. He could fake being an adult in a school play where it was expected, but on the legitimate stage he didn't have the real-life experience to expand his character into believability. And Grease was definitely more his style than some period musical. He'd only need a few days in the sun, something slick in his hair, shades, and a pack of smokes rolled up in his tee shirt sleeve to look the part. Of course, with Aaron it might well be a silk tee shirt, but who'd know from a distance?

We left the mess in the kitchen and went back to the family room with the second bottle of wine, and somewhere around two glasses later we all started to feel a little buzzed. I was warm and silly and Aaron was being affectionate. Chris and Nancy still seemed kind of awkward, and I didn't know whether to make light of it or just leave them alone together. I whispered to Aaron, "What's a good love story? One that we have here?"

He bit his lip and thought. "Sleepless in Seattle, oh! French Kiss! That's better."

I stood up and said, "Let's watch a movie. Anybody like Meg Ryan?"

Nancy said, "Ooh, I do!"

Chris smiled and nodded, and I looked through the stack until I found 'French Kiss', which I really liked as far as that kind of movie went.

I put it in, then said to Nancy and Chris, "Switch places with us. You can see better from over here, and we watch this all the time."

Aaron gave me a look, but he stood too. Chris and Nancy walked over and sat together, and there was really plenty of room for all of us. Instead, I started fluffing up cushions and shoving them up close to them. I thought a little cocoon of softness might be nice. The movie started, and I sat with Aaron where Chris and Nancy had just been.

I'd had the silly idea in my head that we'd get them going by example, but I'd no sooner sat down than I thought they'd be better off alone. I stood up with Aaron and mumbled that we were going to clean up the kitchen before the good parts came on, and that we'd be right back. That got nods and waves goodbye from Chris and Nancy, and we left.

"What are you doing, Ev?" Aaron asked, perplexed.

"Just leaving them alone. They have to break the ice one of these days. We may as well clean up out here."

Aaron glowered at me, and I reminded him that we had watched that movie several times. When he started to remind me that we had provided the meal, I just shushed him up. Even cleaning the kitchen can be enjoyable with the right person helping you, and I helped myself to Aaron until the place was spotless.

"Now what?" he asked when we surveyed our handiwork.

"Now let's watch the movie," I said. I took his hand and led him to the door to the family room, and I peeked in. Success! I grinned at Aaron and let him look and smile, then we went in quietly and started making out like Chris and Nancy. It felt good to us, so I had every reason to believe that Chris and Nancy were enjoying themselves just as much.

The phone ringing had the same effect of a bowling ball crashing through the wall. The four of us jumped, and Aaron let out a little shriek of surprise. I didn't remember where I'd left the phone, but the volume of the ringing told me it was close by, and sure enough it was on the carpet right in front of me.

I picked it up and hurried into the next room while I said hello.

It was my mother again, saying they were back at the hotel with Matt. "How is he?" I asked.

"Here, ask him yourself."

"Wait! Did you tell him yet?"

"No we haven't, Evan. This isn't the time, so don't you either."

"Don't worry," I sighed.

The next voice I heard was Matt's, and he sounded wearily happy. "Ev! Mawg Dilligs, man! Mom says you got totaled out in your game today."

I groaned, "That's for sure. How are you? How was the trip?"

"I'm good. I think I could sleep for a week. The trip was okay, just looooong. Twenty hours out of the last forty was in airplanes."

"Oh man, that sucks! When do you get out? When do you get home?"

"As far as I know, I'll be a free man on Monday. I have to report in at MacGill, and I think it's all paperwork from there. Mom's gonna stay down here. Unless I have it all wrong, I'll be home Monday night."

I chuckled, "I have a game on Monday. I guess I'll see you when I do."

Matt said, "Try winning this time. I might be back in time to come watch. Hold on, Dad wants to talk to you."

Aaron was there asking if my brother was okay, and I nodded, then my father came on the line.

He wanted me to pick them up at the airport so he could leave the car there for my mother and Matt. It was fine with me, because I had no plans, so he gave me their flight arrangements. Then he said that he'd talk to Matt the next day and, as he put it, fill him in on what he didn't know.

I would have gotten nervous if Aaron hadn't been there tickling my butt, but he was, so I saved nervous for later. It wasn't long before things broke up. Nancy had a curfew of twelve, and Chris left with her a few minutes before to walk her home. I think we were all suppressing yawns by then, so the timing was right. They left, and walked away slowly, arms around each other's backs. I felt good watching them because they both deserved a good time, even if it never led to anything. Their first make out session had been long and, um ... hearty. Heartfelt. Good one. It sounded good, anyhow, and they were both properly disheveled, just like me and Aaron.

I watched them go until I was pretty sure they weren't going to look back. Aaron was straightening out the family room, which didn't need much. There was a little wine left, but neither of us really wanted it. I poured it out, then worried about getting rid of the bottles. Aaron ended up putting them in a plastic bag, and that inside a paper bag, and we shoved them down into the middle of the trash. Nobody would snoop there, but you couldn't be too careful. I knew of a kid who was bagged for having an unauthorized party at his house by the amount of missing toilet paper. I'd actually kind of stayed away from there since I heard that. There was no evidence of booze or drugs, no damage or mess in the house, no complaints from the neighbors, but the poor kid got caught out because six rolls of toilet paper were used in a two-day weekend. In our house, the only time anyone ever knew how much toilet paper was on hand was when the answer was none.

Aaron and I were both sleepy by then, and we decided to sleep in the family room. It was the first time I'd been alone with Aaron overnight in my own house, but it didn't really seem like a special occasion. Our style together was kind of modest anyhow, and I found that amusing.

When we stretched out on the sofa and I pulled a cover over us, I grinned at Aaron, then touched his nose with my finger. "I was just thinking ..."

"About what?" Aaron asked, always interested.

I giggled, "You know, I think we're pretty highly domesticated. Here we have the place to ourselves. We could be dancing naked in the dining room, blowing the windows out with the stereo. But us? No, no. Not us."

Aaron whispered "I like us just the way we are."

"It's special to you, too?" I asked.

Aaron nodded and I smiled. "I can make it more special, you know. I haff ze power!"

Aaron giggled, "I thought you were tired."

"Not that friggin' tired!"

* * * * * * * *

Aaron hadn't given up on his voice lessons just because he lost his part, so he left right after breakfast on Sunday. It wasn't an early breakfast, but he left before eleven to get there on time. That gave me just over eight hours by myself before I had to be at the airport. It was dark and cloudy outside, not very nice, so I got brought the Sunday paper into the family room and sprawled out with it on the floor. It's part of my geeky side, probably, but I liked to relax with the newspaper, and not just the sports section. I read through the news, the commentary, the travel and book sections before I looked through the sports. The only things I skipped were real estate and cooking, and sometimes they'd have a picture on the food front page that made me read to see what it was.

It was that time of year where Major League baseball was just starting, while hockey and basketball were nearing the ends of their seasons. Truthfully, as much as I liked to play sports, even baseball, the play-by-plays didn't interest me much. I liked reading about the trades, the strategies, the interviews, but all I really wanted to know about most games were the outcomes, and of course anything spectacular that happened.

After I read, I took a stab at the crossword, but I wasn't in the mood. I'd had a total of four cups of coffee and the taste of it was getting sour in my mouth, so I folded the paper up and got dressed to go outside.

It was still gray, and of the sort where it might or might not rain, but it didn't matter much. I got my bike out of the garage, thinking I'd just pedal around the neighborhood to get my circulation going. There wasn't another soul outside, so I kept going out of the neighborhood and down the hill to Merrill's Pond. The city owned it, and there was a little beach there, but the water had been polluted since forever.

It was still pretty to look at, and a few people were out fishing. The main activity was ducks and geese, and even they seemed kind of lackadaisical. There were a couple of kids kicking a ball around in the parking lot, but they were little and I turned my bike away.

I don't know why, but I decided to go to the mall. I didn't often make that choice, but sometimes it seemed like a good place to be. I wasn't a shopper like Aaron, but I didn't mind poking around the stores, and on a day like that I knew I'd run into people I knew.

I pedaled back home, changed clothes again, and was almost out the door when the phone rang. I looked at it, thinking I might not answer, then decided I should. It could be my folks with a change of plans, or almost anything else.

It, to my stunned surprise, was Jerry Brin. After hellos, he asked, "What are you up to, Evan? I think I need to talk to you."

Oh no. "I ... I was just heading out the door. What's up?"

"Where you headed? I can talk on the phone, or if you're just goin' out to hang, I can meet you somewhere."

I shrugged, "I was headed to the mall, not for any real reason. It's just crummy out."

He said, "Okay ... um ... meet me in that circle where the main escalator goes up from the ground floor. Right in the middle."

I wondered, "What's this about, Jerome?" I got brave, "I have a lot on my mind right now, and I'm not really in the mood to talk about religion or being gay."

Jerry was almost silent, only making some sounds like his lips smacking. "Listen, Evan. I thought we had that put away. I'm not bringing it up if you're not, okay?"

I was surprised by his words, but I agreed, "Okay, then."

His voice became earnest, "We need strategy, Evan! We need a team next year, too. Just meet me man, talk to me. I know you have a head that works, so talk to me."

I thought, "Okay. I was just going to the mall for something to do. If you want, you can come here or I can go to your house."

He was quiet for a moment, then said, "Do that then! You come here, Evan. You can see how I live. I know how you live. Here's how to get here."

I wrote down his address, which was kind of downtown, and I headed out to see Jerry. He was on Second Avenue. That didn't put him into the slums, but it was known as a somewhat tough neighborhood, meaning a good place to mind your own business. I actually liked it around there; it was Mt. Harman's one neighborhood with some life left in it. There were some standalone apartment buildings, but most buildings had shops at the street level and people lived in apartments above them. When I found Jerry's number, I parked on the street. The door to his place was up some steps between two shops, and there was a pretty wooden door at the top. Not shabby at all, and I hadn't expected it to be. That part of Mt. Harman was mostly blacks and Hispanics, but not the poorer ones. This was where the middle class who chose to live downtown stayed. It was probably Mt. Harman's closest approximation to a similar neighborhood in Brooklyn, Boston or Baltimore. Gritty at street level, but nice upstairs.

Not sure of what was up, I climbed the steps and rang the bell. Instead of buzzing me in I heard an increasing roar of elephant's feet as Jerry charged down the stairs. He yanked that big door open fast enough that I felt a tug on my hair from the suction, and there he was, in half his Sunday best. Jerry had his 'I just hit a home run' grin on his face, and he wore a snow-white dress shirt, open at the collar, gray suit pants, and sneakers that had to be size thirteen.

He held the grin, and said quietly, "Come on in, man! I'm glad you came."

I smiled and walked into the hallway. There was an elevator on one side of center and stairs on the other, and doors to apartments to both the left and right. It was as simply elegant inside as the outer door, and I smiled in surprise. Jerry caught it and said, "Come on, meet my family."

He turned and bounded up the stairs, and I followed him at his pace. He stopped at the third floor and waited until I was on the landing with him. "This is where I live, Evan. Come on in."

I breathed in and followed him inside. To be honest, the hallway was nicer than the apartment, but the apartment was nice enough.

It had high ceilings for starters, probably ten feet. There were sprinklers up there that weren't too attractive, but I think that was the law. Otherwise, we were in a hallway with floral wallpaper and throw-rugs over a hardwood floor that positively gleamed. I followed Jerry to the far end, where it turned into a living room. Two women, a younger woman, and a girl of about twelve were in there. I had it figured out in my head before the introductions took place, but they were Jerry's mother, grandmother, and his older and younger sisters.

His grandmother, who Jerry called "Miss Ellie" was a heavy woman of maybe seventy, and I hurried over to shake hands when she struggled to stand up. She had a kind face and a nice smile.

The sisters were next. They were Jolanda and Esmerelda, whose name I loved. Jolanda was pretty like a movie star. Ezzy was just cute, but she'd probably grow up to be pretty too.

Then it was his mother's turn, and I'll admit to usually being daunted by my friends' mothers. Not for any reason but fear. I could meet fathers, brothers, sisters and grandparents all day long and think nothing of it, but mothers always seemed to have this second pair of eyes judging me, and it made me uncomfortable.

Not Mrs. Brin. She was a big woman like her mother, but she had one of those smiles that hinted at something personal, like there was a wink in it, only there wasn't. She stood and shook hands with me, and smiled like I was the second coming or something. "Welcome, Evan. Ezzy, get Evan a lemonade. Or a Coke." She eyed me, "Which one, Evan?"

I wanted to decline, but said, "Lemonade, thanks."

Jerry's mother put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Sit and take a load off," and she kind of pressed me down into a fat chair. She peered at me, "Jerome talks about you all the time, boy. Tell me about that. You're number twenty-two, by my recollection."

Jerry moaned, "Ma!"

She said, "Hush, baby. Number twenty-two, Evan. The twenty-second white boy to grace these premises, even with Jerome being scouted by the major leagues. I'm talking twenty two in seventeen years! Why do you think that is?"

I stared, and Jerry stood between us, "Ma! Evan came to talk, not for the third degree." He looked at me and winked, "Ain't that right, Evan? You be here for the jive, not the fat five!" He made the rapper sounds, "Ch-ch-cha Ch-ch-"

His mother rose and smacked the back of his head so hard that I could see the stars! "You want to talk street?" She smacked him again, and Jerry stumbled forward a step looking dizzy, but she gave me the same knowing smile as before. "You talk street on the street! You wanna be a jive boy instead of a baseball star, that's your choice, but you don't make a choice like that in my house!"

She looked at Jerry, who seemed cowed as it was, and added, "You got just enough material from your father to make you dangerous, and you know that. If you can earn a nickel or a dime from your baseball, then you do that, but you won't make a penny trashing the language like you do!"

Jerry seemed amused, which made me feel better. His sister, Jolanda, said, "Easy, mama. Don't tell the boy he can't make money doing a rap, because he sure can!"

Mrs. Brin turned on her and said, "You hush your mouth, too! If my son makes money sellin' dirty words to children, he'll get more than a smack in the head from me! Nossir! That is not the way I raise my children!" She smiled kindly at me, and I was in love. However hard those kids got smacked, they knew exactly where they stood, and I had the feeling that her hand made more noise than it caused damage.

I was still a little uncomfortable, and when Jerry said, "Take a walk, Evan," I was happy to go with him.

I took my can of lemonade, smiled, "Nice to meet you," to his mother. I said, "Thanks for the lemonade," to Esmerelda, who curtsied and grinned at me.

Jerry said, "Let's go, man. It's gettin' dangerous in here! We're safer out on the street with the punks and the dealers." He smirked at his mother, who stuck her tongue out at him.

She warned, "You know who's who out there. Don't you be talkin' to the wrong people!"

Jerry smiled and kissed her cheek, which made his mother smile in satisfaction, then he leaned and did the same to his grandmother, who nodded. "See you, girls!" he said, and I followed him out.

We walked down the stairs more sedately than we'd come up, Jerry a few steps ahead of me. "I like your mother," I said. "She seems neat."

Jerry didn't turn around. "Are you crazy? You see the way she beats on me. I mean, if that's not child abuse I don't know what is!"

There was enough humor in his voice that I didn't take him seriously. "Go on, man! If those hits were real, the back of your head would look like a skillet by now."

He grinned back at me, and when we got to the hallway at the bottom he stopped and smiled broadly. "You're perceptive. I like that. I'm impressed that you even came here. Most white boys, I tell them where I live and they get all fearful. When Mama said twenty-two white boys, she meant different ones, so I don't do so bad. Those are guys who come to where I live because they're my friends. This street's strange to them at first, but it's a good place to be!"

"I always liked it," I said. "It's like the only real city street we have."

We walked outside, and it was still gray, still not raining. There were people out there. On a Sunday afternoon they were either strolling or hanging around, and I'll admit to feeling uneasy at first.

There were groups of black men here and there, and they were mostly dressed in black. They were just talking, though. I got looked at for being out of place, but there was no hint of a threat. My unease went away as fast as it had come on, and I was soon walking briskly beside Jerry, smiling when he greeted someone, and we just talked.

He surprised me when he said, "I think I have you figured out, Smiley. The gay thing, I mean."

I looked at him, "Tell me, then! I don't have anything figured out!"

He chortled out a happy laugh. "I don't mean that way. I mean how I can relate to you." He pointed at a bench at a bus stop, "Let's sit."

We did, and I looked at him expectantly. He grinned again and said, "You're no threat to me, Evan. That's a good point." He shook his head, "You know, I don't know why I worried about it to begin with. There are immediate problems in this neighborhood. Not right here, because this is a main thoroughfare. You walk a block in the wrong direction ... somebody's gonna try and sell you drugs, maybe just pop you off for the heck of it. I guarantee, when the hot weather comes, somebody I know personally will get shot to death right in front of people. People will see that, and they'll shut their mouths. You know why?"

I grimaced, "Fear?"

"A Plus!" Jerry said. "Fear! But listen! Those people who would shoot me as soon as look at me ... they ain't gay. No, they're black like me! And so are the people they shoot! It's not like the days of segregation with the KKK and everything. These are kids I grew up with doin' this nonsense. They don't have my Mama smackin' them in the head when they get out of line. They don't have anything except the street." He turned a mournful face to me, "I like it here, Evan. Understand that, please. But I fear it, too. Not so much for me, but my sisters, my Granny, and especially my mother. Her problem is she doesn't fear it. She steps right in, no matter what it is." He sagged a little, "You know, if it wasn't for them and this area, I wouldn't be talking to scouts. I might make it in baseball and I might not, and I really want to get through college so I'll have something to fall back on. I want the money though, and I want it now so we can move out of here."

I looked at him, "Where would you go?"

He shrugged, "I don't know exactly, but some place like you live. Just a house with a yard, and neighbors what don't own guns."

"I hate to tell you," I said, "but our neighbors have guns, at least some of them do."

Jerry sighed, "Yeah, but when's the last time one of your neighbors shot somebody because he didn't like him very much?"

I smiled at the irony and said, "Not since last fall."

Jerry looked at me and said, "Oh yeah. But that guy's in toothpick heaven now, right?"

I laughed, "That's not f-funny!"

"Then why you laughing?"

"It's still not funny!" I snorted out.

Jerry looked at me and groaned. "I knew it! I thought I had this figured out, and gay white boys were just weird because they're gay. Now you laugh at something and say it's not funny? Man, my re-evaluation bone is in high gear right now."

I laughed harder. "It's you!" I gasped. "You're funny! Your re-evaluation bone? If it was me, I'd drop the bat and go right after Leno's job!"

We both snickered for awhile, then Jerry bopped my shoulder and pointed across the street. "Look there, Evan. Those three guys there, they're gang bangers."

I could see who he meant, and I asked, "How can you tell?"

"I don't know how," he shrugged. "I just know."

The guys he had pointed out were leaning against a brick building on a corner. Some of the other men we'd passed earlier approached from both sides, and the three slipped away before they reached them. "That's how it works for now," Jerry said. "It's Sunday afternoon. For all I know those guys were just out for some air, but that's how it is here. They can breathe on their own street."

"And so can you?" I asked.

He nodded. "Let's walk." We stood and headed down the street, walking slowly. "I ..." Jerry started, "There's more, Evan. I mean, I'm back to talking about you and me. Since I've known you, you're one of the white people who doesn't see me as black."

I said, "I do too!"

Jerry nodded, "I said that wrong. Of course I'm black, and you're not blind. I meant that you don't see me as a black kid who plays baseball. You see me as a player who's black. The same in academics. You don't treat me like a smart black boy, like some second generation monkey who's here to amuse you. No, you see me as whatever you do, but my blackness isn't the first thing on your mind. I don't get that treatment very often, Evan. I don't get it from kids I've known forever. I saw you with my mother, too, and I saw you liking her even through the violence she was raining on my head! You're cool."

I didn't know what to say, but Jerome was making me feel good, and he went on. "You know, I had this thing about gays, and it came from the streets, from home, from church. There was just never anything good said. Then here comes Evan Smiley, and you're everything I thought good about white boys. You don't come with an attitude, you're good at things, and you're smart as a whip!" He bopped my shoulder with exuberance, "Then you're gay!" he said with much too much exuberance for my continued health in that neighborhood. He saw the same looks that I did from the guys we were passing, and he said threateningly, "Did you hear me? You're gonna pay, man!"

That satisfied the people near us, and he whispered, "You know something? I do know how to use my own head sometimes, Evan. I never thought about anyone being gay, and I never thought what I'd do. Now, I don't know. I know you, and you're a guy to respect. What I always thought isn't necessarily right, so now I know something I didn't before. I can have a gay, white friend, and we can walk down the blackest street in town, and I can feel that I'm just walkin' with a friend."

"Freng," I said, really pleased and impressed by Jerry.

Jerry snickered, "Don't start!"

I laughed, "I'm not starting! Black guys say freng, white people say friend!"

Jerry said, "You take that back mo-grinder! I said friend! You said freng!"

We walked along for a bit and I grinned, "I like new frengs."


Continued ...