A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 11

I expected to see more cars at Harlan's, but it seemed to be a small party, at least based on the vehicles in the driveway. I pulled off into a likely spot and we got out, then walked toward the house. Just when I reached for Aaron's hand, I realized that he'd stopped, and he was looking at a bush.

"Look, Ev! It's honeysuckle!" He reached in and pulled off a flower, then gently pulled the petals apart and put it to his tongue. When he looked back at me his face was bliss. "I love this! We used to have it in the yard."

I had heard the name, of course, but had no recollection of ever seeing seen the plant or the flower. I picked my own and said, "Show me what you did." Aaron pulled back the petals and held this little stalk to me, saying I should squeeze it out on my tongue. I did, and I felt Aaron's childish delight with the drop of sweet nectar. I'd had it before, I realized, although I didn't remember where, but I clearly remembered that tiny drop of flavor on my tongue. I reached for another flower just when Aaron did, and we must have had ten each before we stopped.

"That's neat," I said. "Roadside honey, free for the taking."

"I like it too," Aaron said. "It's a weed, really. This here is on an arbor, but if you let it go wild it can choke trees." He tapped my shoulder, "You know what? I like that you like it, but can we disappear for a second? I want to kiss you while we both have this in our mouths."

I grinned, "You're romantic sometimes. I like that." We stepped behind a tall shrub and I faced Aaron, and he had that face on that could make me melt. It was just a hopeful little expression that said, 'A kiss is all it will take', and I most often saw it when Aaron was going somewhere he wasn't too sure about. Aaron knew and loved Harlan and Edie, so it was the people he didn't know that worried him. "Aar, I can't think of anybody Harlan would invite here who would give us a hard time. Don't worry."

He blinked and said, "I'm not worried. Not about that, anyhow."

I looked at him, and he was concerned about something, then it came to me. "Barrett?" I cried, realizing that I'd extolled Barrett's strong points to Aaron for months, and Aaron had yet to meet him. "Aaron, Barrett is definitely a guy I like, but he's absolutely, totally straight. You'll see, he's going to remind you of Justin." I had a wicked thought, then I said, "Barrett will point at you and start singing and dancing. 'Fruit fruity patootie, who's this little cutie? It's AARON!'"

Aaron laughed and looked at me, "He's straight?"

"Well, yeah. He's straight, and he won't really sing that. But I would!" I shrugged, "He's just a guy I like Aaron. It's not a competition, okay?" I leaned and kissed Aaron on the forehead, "I don't know if I like jealous in you. Well, a little is justified ..."

Aaron socked me on the shoulder and laughed, "If your head gets any bigger, it's gonna fall off your neck from its own weight. Just behave, okay? Let's go eat!"

"Are you mocking my modesty?" I asked.

Aaron said dryly, "No, Evan. I'm not mocking your modesty." He snickered, "What I'm doing is trying to find some modesty." He looked in my eyes just before we reached the patio and asked, "Are we a couple here?"

I gulped, "You know we can be." Aaron cringed a bit. "Listen," I said. "We don't know who's here. Let's just go in like anybody would. If it's good then we are too, and if there's a problem then we'll work it out."

I knew Aaron understood, and I wished we could just go to the party like any other couple, but even at Harlan's place it made sense to hold back and not come in dancing. We turned into the patio, which was shielded from the entrance with shrubbery, and the first person we saw was Edie. Edie the huge. Holy cow! I knew she was pregnant, and the last time I'd seen her it showed. Now it was way, way, way beyond obvious, and she might have been carrying triplets, or even a small nation.

She saw us and turned, and the turn almost seemed to be in two separate movements. She was glowing, though, and when she saw it was us she beamed, crying "Evan! Aaron! Oh my God! You're so big!"

If it had been anybody ... anybody other than Edie, I think my response to that would have been improper. It was Edie, though, and I both loved and admired her, so I reached into a different well and said, "Look at you! You're beautiful!"

She was beautiful. She was radiant, and ever so pregnant. I'd seen pregnant women before, but never one that I actually knew. I was kind of excited for Harlan and Edie myself, because I knew how much they wanted to be parents, and how much they looked forward to having this child. He or she would be one lucky kid, I can tell you that much, and it had to be a boy in there, maybe even a sumo dude.

Harlan was there before we got to say much, hand out to shake, and he was obviously as excited as Edie. "Evan!" he said, then "And Aaron! How are you?" He looked at me, "Ready to start work? How's your arm?"

I was so happy to see Harlan. I grinned, "I'm okay, and I am ready!" I softened my tone and said, "I really am glad to be back."

Harlan winked, "And you're all nice and legal this time?"

"Oh, sure," I said, not thinking first. "I have the papers to prove it, too!"

Harlan gave me a dirty look until I caught on that I'd had papers to prove it the year before, too. They were forgeries, but I had them.

Harlan patted my shoulder and said, "Go find that nephew of mine. He's been jumping out of his skin waiting for you."

I didn't even have to move, because Barrett trotted right up from behind Harlan, a smile bright on his face, and we high-fived when he got to me. We both started talking at once, stopped and laughed, then started again. Harlan backed away, and I covered my mouth and pointed at Barrett so he would go first.

He didn't even say anything else to me, but instead addressed Aaron. "Hi, I'm Barrett. You're Aaron, right?"

Aaron held out his hand and they shook, and Aaron said, "Hi, Barrett. Evan's told me a lot about you."

Barrett snickered, "Not as much as he's told me about you. I have all this knowledge, and now I have the face to put with it." He reached into his pants pocket and came up with something that he hid at first, then he dangled a key in front of me briefly.

My eyes went wide and I said, "Let me see!" while grabbing for it, but he pulled his hand back and grinned. "Come on!" I cried, "I didn't even get to see the logo."

Barrett put the hand with the keys behind his back, and Aaron giggled. He said, "I don't think you want to tease Evan about something important like car keys, Barrett." He grinned and shrugged, "Well, I guess you can. You're bigger than me."

"Give me the keys!" I shouted, launching myself at Barrett. I caught him off balance and had to grab at him to keep him from falling flat on his back.

When he had his balance back, he said, "What was that?" then turned and ran off.

I chased after him, eyes wide. "Nobody gets away from Evan Smiley!" I announced, just before tripping on a root and nearly falling on my own face. That took my attention off of Barrett just long enough that I didn't see where he darted off to. Oh boy! "You're gonna get it, Barrett! When I'm done, we'll be making patties out of you and throwin' 'em on the grill!" I looked around, then added, "Barrett burgers! How's that sound?" I stood there listening. "You better listen, Barrett! Key thief!" I listened some more, then despaired, "Where the hell are you?"

Finally I heard a faint snicker from behind a bush. "Oh, you're in trouble man. Now I know where you are, and if you make me come after you, you'll have more to worry about than being a hamburger." He was still snickering, so he was dead meat. I headed towards the sound.

"I'm bigger than you," Barrett's voice said.

"The bigger they are the harder they fall," I replied.

"Well, I can tell you I'm scared!" His voice didn't come from where it should have, so he was on the move.

"Give it up, Barrett," I hissed. Give me that key right now, and I'll personally see to it that you're still breathing in the morning. Otherwise AAAH!" He'd gotten right behind me and tapped my shoulder, except it wasn't Barrett.

It was Aaron there when I turned around, a smug smile on his face, and he was dangling keys. "This what you're looking for? You've gone and frightened Barrett, you know."

I snatched the keys from Aaron and looked at them. Dodge. That's what it said right there on the key: Dodge. A Dodge truck. I had a Dodge truck, and I got all excited. "Where is it?" I cried, and Aaron shrugged, then a hand touched my left ear and I looked that way, and suddenly Barrett appeared on my right. He was smirking, but I'd given a good chase. He was sweaty and had a long scratch on his cheek, though it was superficial.

"Follow me," Barrett said, and he started walking. Aaron caught up with me, then we ended up three abreast until we got to the barn, and when we got inside I think my heart jumped into my throat.

Two trucks, side by side, and not white with green letters. "Blame me, Evan," Barrett said. "I picked everything out, and they only look the same. They're not the same, believe me."

I wasn't really hearing him, because these trucks were about the deepest red I'd ever seen, and mine didn't have big advertising on the side. In somewhat lighter red letters with yellow piping, it only said, 'The Blaine Corporation' near the top of the door. Not even a phone number. I opened that door, and all kinds of lights came on. God, what a beautiful interior! I hopped up into the driver's seat and looked around from my leather perch. It smelled like leather, anyhow. My hand fell automatically to the shifter as Aaron got in the other door. He gasped his approval while I poked the shifter around, then I looked at it because it felt different. It was, too. Six speeds!

Barrett poked his head in through the door on my side, a broad smile on his face. "Yours is a V-8, Evan. Did you notice the six-speed stick?"

"I did, I did! Can we go for a ride right now?"

Barrett said, "I'm coming, too! Lean forward so I can get in back." That was a process, and I had to climb out so he could squeeze onto the little jump seat in back. He groaned, "Next time, four doors."

I turned the key and the engine thrummed to life. I looked at the radio for a long moment, but didn't have a clue, so I said, "Aaron, work the radio."

I felt around for first gear, then looked at the shifter to make sure I was right. I released the brake, eased up on the clutch, and pretty much idled forward out of the barn, then down the driveway past my car and out to the road. Harlan lived on the corner of a road that went between the south end of Riverton and the highway to Mt. Harman. The road directly in front of his house was only paved to his driveway, after which it was gravel down to Benham Falls, just over a mile away. I turned right down the gravel road, thinking I'd try the truck in relative privacy the first time. There were houses along the way, but no other traffic.

Aaron found something on the radio and poked the volume suddenly. I winced, but immediately liked the music. It was a banjo being plucked over rap-sounding drums, and thundering guitars came in just when Aaron turned the volume down. I started to say I liked it, but Barrett called from the back seat, "Keith Urban, man! I love this song! Turn it up, not down!"

Aaron turned it up, then more, then again, until you could almost see the music coming from the speakers. God, it was loud, but not one little bit distorted, and I was getting the idea that Barrett had ordered up that truck to the specifications of a sixteen-year-old with a really big bank account.

I was realizing the truck had oomph at the same time I learned that it had a primo radio. On that road I wouldn't get out of fourth gear, but in fourth I was going forty miles an hour by just about idling. That song was still playing, too, and it was just ending when I got to the stop sign at the end of the road. That's when I decoded some words, and I loved them: "I want to love somebody, love somebody like you!" and the guy singing kept repeating that before it faded into guitar work. Loud guitar work. Loud song. But perfect.

Oh my God! How simple could it be? I didn't know the 'you' in the song, but that sentiment ... 'I want to love somebody like you' ... man, that had to be universal, and the 'you' could be anybody.

When it faded out I turned down the volume and asked, "You both knew that song? It's really nice."

Barrett said from the back, "I'm deaf now, but I like that song, too. Your mind is already off the new truck?"

I snickered, "No, not hardly. I can't get my mind around the new truck, so I asked about a song on the radio. I don't know, I liked that song."

Aaron asked, "Where have you been, Ev? That's been the number one song for like ever now; at least a month."

I shrugged, "Guess I've been busy." I thought about what I was driving, and I really liked the truck, even though I never thought a truck would be something I'd like. Aaron and Chris loved their SUV's and Billy truly adored his old pickup. John Balls liked his van, but, my father liked his 300M, and I know Justin liked his car just the way it was.

I loved my own little Acura. I liked the truck more, though. Maybe for a lot of reasons. The odometer had seventeen miles on it, and by then four of them were mine. The truck felt big and airy where the car was tight, but I liked both feelings. My car didn't have my name on it, but the truck had my employer's name, and that name was a point of pride for me. I liked that name on the door even more because Harlan didn't stick me with the landscaping or construction companies, but with the Blaine Corporation. Right. Like at sixteen I knew I wasn't any top dog. I wasn't, but that I had a company truck to drive at all was mind boggling, and it was brand new! Bought specifically for me to drive.

When Harlan had first said he'd fix me up with a vehicle if I came back, I envisioned an old honker from the back of the lot. Now I had to think all over again about how I fit into that company. Well, I could think about that on company time, but I truly intended to.

Meanwhile I was at the wheel of a ferocious, fire-breathing new truck. When I got to the paved road I turned away from the village and put my foot into it just a little bit. Wow. My Acura was a fast car, but not really fast off the line. It had a little engine that had a big heart to be sure, but not much torque. It would rev right up to eight grand, and the power came on at around six, but it took awhile to get there. The V8 I was driving went zoom right off the line, and when I goosed it at fifty it pushed me right back into the seat, even in fifth gear. I wanted to get the truck out onto the highway, but thought better of going too far afield, so I took a different route back to Harlan's.

Along the way I asked Barrett, "What's different about your truck?"

He said, "I got the Laramie model. It's a V-6 automatic, but it looks just like this one. I didn't think you'd like it because you can't get it with the stick. Plus it was right there on the lot and they had to go find this one. Yours is more heavy-duty, with the tow package, ABS, four-wheel drive, I don't know what all else. Otherwise they're about the same. Same interior, same radio, same wheels, you get the picture."

I was grinning, thinking I'd be spending any idle time I had with the owner's manual until I figured it out. I left it in the driveway at Harlan's. When we got out, I walked around the truck outside in the daylight, and it really was a nice vehicle. That dark-red pearl paint was gorgeous, and the paint job itself was mirror smooth. The truck had chrome wheels and white-lettered tires, and it seemed to be a little bit jacked up, probably from the towing package.

I was stunned that it was my vehicle for the summer, and even more so that Harlan thought enough of me to spend that kind of money.

Aaron was liking the truck too. He liked trucks anyhow, and this was really a nice one. The only thing I wondered about was that color. Like it as I did, it wasn't like any other company colors, not that the colors were very formal. The people in the landscaping group wore uniforms, such as they were. Those were all dark blue with white lettering. The people in the construction end of things wore their own clothes; generally jeans and tee shirts. The small office staff dressed casually in their own clothes. Almost all of the trucks and vans were white with green lettering, save for a few older ones that were green with white lettering. Pearl red didn't fit into the picture, yet the lettering on the new truck was a classy offset red.

I was getting hungry, and I knew I'd figure everything out eventually, so the three of us went to join the party. Barrett headed inside to the bathroom, so Aaron and I hung back for a moment to talk. "Do you like Barrett?" I asked.

Aaron slipped his arm around my back and sighed, "Oh, yeah. You know what I'm starting to think?" I looked at Aaron and shook my head. He said, "He's a nice guy. I mean you just know that. I was ready to be jealous because I know how much you like him, but ... well, I don't get jealous of your friends because you're a nice guy." He shot me a worried look, "I mean in general you're a nice guy. I'm saying this wrong." He looked at me, "I love you, Ev. You're sexy beyond belief, and you're good looking and built and all that, but there's so much more to you. That's why you have friends like Chris and Barrett. They're a lot like you, and you see that in each other."

I looked at Aaron and grinned, "Gee, I thought you were leaving me for Diego."

Aaron's eyes went wide for a second, then he narrowed them at me. "You should get so lucky. Me leave you? For Zorro? I don't think so, Evan."

"Well," I said. "I guess that's cleared up."

"Not right now, anyhow. Maybe next year I'll think about it," Aaron added with a wry smile. I shoved him and he stumbled, then we kept going toward the patio where everyone else was.

* * * * * * * *

After a terrific feed at Harlan's I called Lee to see if they were still going, which they were, and asked if it was alright if Barrett and Edie's niece, Cathy, could come, and of course they could.

Harlan's party had been partly political as it turned out. The mayor and Chief of Police from Riverton were there with their families, and other politicians stopped by, including our state's Republican Senator. I was awestruck, but Harlan was Harlan no matter who he was talking to. He treated those important people just like he treated me and the others who worked for him, and that was the way he treated people in stores and restaurants. It wasn't a false respect; Harlan liked people, and everyone got the same from him, which was kindness and respect.

I'd first met Harlan when I was applying for a job, and he didn't know me at all. Still, he took the time to personally explain things to me, then offered me a job. At that time I had no idea how big his company was, or what an important person he was in the community. If I'd never ventured out into the community I still wouldn't know, because Harlan wouldn't mention it himself. People knew, though. They knew of his success and his generosity, and if you pressed, they knew of his morals and his honesty, too. He was a good guy who earned what he had, and I was only one of many following along behind him.

I wasn't a brown nose, though. What I wanted from Harlan Blaine was to learn from him, to see how he did what he did, how he succeeded at it, and then I'd have knowledge that I could apply to myself. I wanted that. I wanted it in the worst way.

There were still a few hours of daylight left as our little convoy headed to Lee's place. Harlan didn't want my car in his driveway overnight, so Aaron followed me in the Acura, and Barrett followed him. Cathy rode with Barrett.

I thought I'd find the place, but I didn't. I stopped in the village and called Lee again for directions, getting them from his mother. When we got there, they had a little party going full swing. On the way I'd kind of wondered how Lee would take to Cathy. She was his age and I liked her looks, even though she wasn't pretty in any classic sense. She was probably like a young Barbara Streisand. Her nose was kind of prominent. She had gorgeous skin, though, and a nice shape, and really soft looking blond hair. She seemed like a sweet girl, too; bright and with a good sense of humor. It didn't matter anyhow. She'd go to Lee's cookout, then back home with her parents, miles away from Riverton.

Lee was trotting out into the parking lot when we got there, and he showed us where visitors had to park. Then there were introductions before Lee led us to his new home. He walked between me and Aaron, and seemed happy, not to mention impressed with my company truck.

"You look good," I said.

Lee replied, "I feel good. I feel real good, and wait 'til you see my mother." He laughed and walked slower, "It's me and Mom now. Lee and Milly, and we're off to conquer the known world!"

We all laughed at Lee's bravado, and weren't surprised at all when he held back to talk with Cathy. Lee definitely had an eye for girls. He led us up into their unit, going in through the basement garage. As soon as we reached the first level I got an idea of what a nice complex it was. The stairs from the basement led into a little tiled hallway, and from there a turn to the left led into the carpeted living area while the tiles continued to the right and into a surprisingly big kitchen and dining area. There were sliders opened onto a sizeable deck, and there were people everywhere. I knew Lee's mother, and she gave us a warm welcome. They'd eaten already, but there was plenty more, and I don't know which one of us turned greener at the thought of more food after the feast at Harlan's.

Lee's uncle Herb was there with his family, and we were introduced to the family whose house had been blown to pieces by Lee's own father. Herb and his wife were very happy, possibly because they had their beautiful house back to themselves, but more likely because Lee and his mom seemed to delight in their new situation.

I met other people; more family, some friends of the family, and a few of their new neighbors. Two of them were girl neighbors, girls Lee's age, and they were obviously trying to curry favor with him. When he introduced Cathy ice probably would have felt warm in comparison, but when they learned she lived far away and was just visiting, then Lee's easy way with women had them laughing like old friends.

Bruce came down from upstairs, and when he saw me he casually said, "Hi, Ev. Hi, Aaron."

"Hey, Bruce," I smiled. I looked at Barrett and said, "Barrett, this is my brother, Bruce. My little brother, Bruce." Bruce shook with Barrett, then noticed Lee alone with three girls and hastily excused himself.

I was left standing with Aaron and Barrett just looking around the place, and I was a little surprised by how lived-in it already looked. Lee had still been trucking things over from Mt. Harman that morning, yet I didn't see boxes anywhere, and there were knick-knacks on shelves, pictures on the walls, and it would have been easy to believe they'd been there for years.

I was talking to Aaron and Barrett, idly watching Lee and Bruce with the girls, and his mother turned up at my side. She said kindly, "He gets that from his father, you know. Look at him there with three of them, and they are all charmed." She touched my elbow, "Evan, I'd like you to meet someone."

Then I turned, and her other arm was laced with that of a smiling man. He had a receding hairline over a great face, and he looked pretty athletic. I figured I'd take a chance at earning Lee some brownie points and said, "You must be Jeff!" I smiled. "Lee told me a lot about you."

His face sank. "Jeff? No, I'm Bill." He looked at Lee's mother, "Who's Jeff?" In the time it took for my face to take on the appropriate look of horror, he laughed. "Look at you! I'm Jeff, of course I am." He grinned, "I forgot my notes, but Lee talks about you a lot, too. You are Evan, right?"

I stared, and I said, "I are." Then I laughed and stuck out my hand. We shook hands and both laughed, then I introduced Aaron and Barrett. Like a lot of people from the area, Jeff knew Aaron's father and commented on how very much Aaron looked like his dad. Aaron, like all Castles before him, was resigned to the fact that his family had a one-face-fits-all genealogy, and graciously accepted the comment like it was the first time he'd heard it.

Jeff was the nice guy that Lee had told me he was, and he made sure we knew everyone before going off to be a good host with other people.

Lee's mom was the real surprise to me. She was a mess the first time I met her, which was understandable back then. I'd seen her a few times since, and she looked better, like in healthier and happier, each time. Now she was back on her own with just Lee, and I could see that Lee got his buoyancy from his mother. With tragedy and more tragedy behind them, both mother and son were looking forward to the next phase of their lives with a cheerful hopefulness that was really beautiful and touching to see.

I found myself squeezing Aaron's hand when he said, "Ow!"

I giggled when I realized what I'd done, and whispered, "Sorry. I was just um ... checking your pulse." Aaron snickered. Barrett had joined Lee, Bruce, and those very lucky girls. I wondered about them a little, because even Bruce seemed so comfortable with the opposite sex. I was gay, yet I'd always felt an easy kinship with girls growing up, and I still had it. Yet I knew that most straight boys seemed to lose all their cool in the presence of girls they liked. Other guys showed off to the point of idiocy. But there, right in front of me were Barrett and Lee and my own younger brother. They were charming a group of girls with plain old friendliness and good humor. The girls were pretty good looking, so I'm sure the guys had lecherous thoughts, but they sure weren't telegraphing that.

Looking out over the outside balcony, there was a good view off to the distance. The buildings in the complex had a nice, rustic look and steep-pitched rooflines. The hill they were built on was fairly steep, so we could only see the building directly below them from that side. You had to actually look down to see something as mundane as a parking lot. You could lean over the railing and look to the right to see the bridge towers over in Riverton, and they weren't very far away. Aaron and I were there looking around when Lee's uncle, Herb, leaned on the railing beside me.

"Pretty decent, huh?" he asked, then went on to say, "It's interesting to me that you and Lee have become friends. I should be surprised, because the opposite could easily be true, but I'm really not surprised. I've known Lee all along, of course, and he's turned out to be a fine boy." He looked at me and asked, "You see his character, don't you? He's had these hideously bad things happen to him, like bang, bang, bang, and he's bounced back once again. Has he ever spoken of his father with you, Evan?"

"Oh, sure," I said.

Herb gulped, "Then you know what a fine man Leonard was, and I can tell you that Lee is a lot like his dad. And it's Lee who's educated the rest of us to the fact that his father's eventual madness didn't reflect on all his good years on this planet." He touched my arm, and I looked to see that his eyes were damp and shiny. Herb continued, "I just want to lend my opinion, Evan. To me, Len Erasmus was a wonderful man, and I truly miss him. He worked hard and he strove to do well, and he loved easily.”

I nodded and he went on, "Intensely, too. That's what did him in. His love for his son led to the rage he felt for the man who harmed Lee, and he was driven to kill him. I don't know what happened after that. I mean, I don't know what happened to his mind. None of us saw it coming, what he did to you. It wasn't even plausible enough to ascribe to him."

"What?" I asked. "What do you mean?"

Herb smiled nervously, "I mean that Leonard wasn't like that, at least not before he did it. Evan, Len was this rock-solid, all-American guy. He didn't have an enemy that I ever heard about. I was in his wedding, and he was in mine, and we knew each other before that because we were dating sisters."

I looked at Herb in surprise, and he went on. "That man never had a bad word to say about anybody, and I never heard an unkind word about him either. He was a gentleman, too, and in the best sense of the word. Guys used to joke that if you opened the dictionary to the word 'gentleman', Len's picture would be there as an example." He patted my shoulder, "I guess this is my long-winded way of thanking you for being the way you are, Evan. I hope your reward comes as a long and happy life."

I smiled at Herb and thanked him, thinking he was a kind gentleman himself. Then he went off to refill his wine glass and I asked Aaron, "Want to look around outside?"

He nodded, and I told Barrett that we were taking a walk to see the complex, and he decided to come with us, which prompted Lee, Bruce and the girls to come, too. Then Herb's little daughters wanted to come along, and when we finally got outside every kid at the party who was old enough to walk was with us.

Lee led us around, and we saw the pool complex, which abutted a community building. We didn't go inside, but Lee said it had soda and snack machines, a couple of ping-pong tables, a kitchen, locker rooms, and not much else except a hall. The condo association had a few parties there each year, though nothing for Memorial Day. Residents could use it for private parties for a fee, and use of the general facilities was included in the condo fee.

Just beyond, on the other side of the hall, there was a full basketball court and two tennis courts that were in excellent condition, and in use by a bunch of thirty-somethings, with more people waiting to play tennis. Then we reached the bike path, and it was the nicest one I'd ever seen ... not because of the condition of it, which was fine, but because of where it went. I've mentioned that the complex where Lee lived was on a hill, but that hill turned into a ledge about one hundred feet past the tennis courts. It wasn't a high ledge; maybe a ten foot drop, and there was a whitewashed wooden fence a few feet in from it so nobody could fall off it accidentally. To the uphill side there were more condo buildings, but just a single row of them. The big thing was the view, and we stopped en-masse to enjoy it when we got to where we were looking right across Riverton to the river and beyond. Riverton's tallest building was an apartment block on the waterfront that was about eight stories high, and a few commercial buildings were six or seven stories. It was a low-rise city, and very beautiful from our vantage point.

Lee said, "I took a run out here this morning. There was this mist rising off the river, and it looked like a post card."

The rest of us just leaned on the fence taking in the view. We heard the joggers when they ran behind us, the whoosh of distant traffic, the occasional bird call, and not much else. Then suddenly there was a female voice, "Aaron? Is that you?"

We all turned to see a good looking teenage girl. Aaron said, "Beth! Hi! Do you live here?" Without waiting for her to answer, he looked at the rest of us and said, "This is Beth Ritter. She's in my drama class. Everybody better say your own name, because I won't get them all right." We did that, and I remembered being introduced to Beth briefly when Aaron was in the play the last year. I didn't mention it because she didn't seem to remember me. She did live in the complex, and her family had been there since it was built a few years earlier. She was already friends with the other girls from the complex, and they cheerfully took over as tour guides.

Beth seemed as enamored of Lee, Barrett and Bruce as the other girls, but that didn't distract them from gossip. They knew the way, for sure, but the way wasn't important when there was gossip. The girls knew who lived where, who was cool and who was not, and from the sound of it they knew what was eaten for breakfast in each unit we passed, though they didn't go so far as to describe it. Their gossip wasn't mean, but they knew what happened where they lived, and they relished the retelling. I thought it was funny. I didn't live there, of course, but four excited girls going on about things that might concern them or not made for a soap opera of conversation, and Lee seemed quite ready to get involved in it all.

When we were almost back to Lee's unit, we came across four guys our age sitting on a wall. On a closer look, one was older; probably eighteen or nineteen, and he seemed familiar to me. They were cheerful enough with the girls who lived there, but wary of the rest of us. We were introduced, and while the three younger guys were saying hello, the older one stared at Lee. He finally said to his friends, "Back off, guys. This is the little pervert that killed his pals."

He stood and looked at Lee saying, "You got a lot of nerve coming back here. Looking for fresh meat are you? You ain't gonna find it, man, because I'm on to you."

The hurt on Lee's face, which had been so happy just a moment before, enraged me, and I stood with Barrett and Aaron right beside me, and I was shocked to see Bruce standing right beside Aaron, a look of grim determination on his face. The kid who had spoken was big, probably two hundred pounds. He had big shoulders and tree-trunk legs, and I should have been intimidated, but I wasn't. I said, "You should learn to use your brain if you have one! There isn't an ounce of truth in what you just said. I can't make you take it back, but I can make you wish you had."

His chest puffed out, "Sure you can. Go ahead!"

"No," I said. "Your mouth started this, so if you have the guts you'll start the next part."

Barrett added, "Yeah, put your money where your mouth is."

Aaron stepped in front of me and said, "Stop it, Evan! You remember Jared, don't you? Let's try to talk this out." Before I replied, he turned to the big guy and asked, "Don't you remember Evan? He played baseball with you last year."

I knew the guy was familiar, but his looks had changed a lot in a year. He'd been almost a man then, but in a peach-fuzzy way, and his face had still been boyish. Now there was no trace of boy in him, and he'd clearly been eating well. He peered at me over Aaron's shoulder and nodded his recognition. I glanced at Barrett and he shrugged, like he didn't care one way or the other whether we talked or fought.

Jared touched Aaron's shoulder and asked, "What's this about? I'm just warning people that a bad influence just moved in here. Don't you know what this kid did?"

Aaron heaved his shoulders in a sigh and replied, "I know what he went through, Jared. All he did was survive. Lee never hurt anybody, and when he did leave with that pervert he was tied up in a blanket in the trunk of a car."

Jared's eyes were focused on Aaron, then he suddenly looked around until he spotted Lee, who had backed off by himself and was squatting by the curb. Jared appraised Lee for a moment, then looked back at Aaron. "That's not how I heard it. Everybody ..."

"Then you heard it wrong!" Aaron said forcefully. That made Jared jerk to attention, and Aaron added, "Lee and his friends were attacked by a sick man. That man killed Lee's friends and kidnaped Lee, and a long time later Lee was rescued."

"Yeah, but ..."

"Come on, Jared. But nothing! If you heard anything different, then what you heard was gossip. I never thought you'd listen to garbage like that."

Jared stared at Aaron, then nodded. He glanced at Lee, then back at Aaron, and said, "I'll talk to him."

Barrett said, "I'll go with you."

Jared looked, then nodded, and they walked over to Lee. Bruce followed them after a moment. They were out of earshot, but when it became apparent that they'd stay where they were, the rest of us moved on. One of the kids who had been with Jared had a basketball with him. When we neared the court we could see that it was empty, and before long we had a bizarre game going; a combination of basketball, keepaway and Red Rover. Well, it was bizarre to me. The kids who lived there had some sense of rules for it, so Aaron and I just went by what they said. The game was definitely good for aerobic exercise, and it was a lot of fun as well.

We played hard for about half an hour, then started dropping out from thirst and exhaustion. I backed up to the fence and just sank to the ground, breathing heavily and sweating. Aaron was already there, and I landed between him and this girl, Chrissy. I gasped, "Whew! That's a workout!"

I made myself steady my breathing and tried to squeegee sweat off my forehead using my hand. We were silent for the longest time, then Chrissy asked, "What happened to Lee? Will you tell me?" Beth heard that and leaned in to see what we said.

I grimaced and thought it over, then I said, "You know, you should get to know Lee. He'll tell you about it if he thinks you're his friend. I don't think it's my place to."

She paused. "Okay, I understand, I think. Was this just recently?"

"No," I sighed. "It's been going on for a long time. It's only recently that Lee's had a chance at normal, and guys like Jared don't help much."

Chrissy was quiet for long enough that I turned my attention to my surroundings, and then she said, "I like Jared. We all like Jared. He's usually this big teddy bear you just want to hug. He goes off on people sometimes, just like today. I guess he was wrong this time, but you watch. He'll make up for it."

That was good to hear, and I nodded. Then Chrissy asked, "Is Lee ... you know, is he seeing anyone?"

I snickered, "He just moved here, so I don't think so. He was sort-of in his last town." I added for Lee's potential benefit, "He does move fast, though, so if you're interested you should stake your claim soon!"

Aaron giggled, "Haha, I love it! Stake your claim! One day on a horse and you're talking like John Wayne!"

"You were on a horse?" Chrissy asked excitedly. "Oh, I love horses so much! Will you take me riding sometime?"

Plop! That's the sound I made when I hit the ground. Well, I was already on the ground but I was suddenly more on the ground when I realized that it was me who Chrissy was interested in. I looked to Aaron for his usual intervention, but he looked as stunned as I felt, and Chrissy picked up on it.

"Oh no!" She looked across the path at this little dark-skinned girl named Edwina and yelled, "Eddie! You are a serpent! You knew! Somebody told you!"

Eddie yelled back that if Chrissy had been watching my hands instead of my ass, she might have noticed that I was holding Aaron's hand during our walk. Chrissy looked me up and down, smiled, and said, "No offense, but Jesus what a waste!" She must have realized how harsh she sounded, and she immediately said, "I didn't mean it to sound like that. It's just that ... never mind! Lee's not gay too, is he?"

I laughed, "No, not at all. Neither is Barrett or Bruce."

Chrissy tried to save face. She looked me over again, then Aaron, and she said, "I guess I can see it. Have you been together long?"

"Almost eleven months," Aaron said.

"Wow!" Chrissy cried. "You're like married then! That is so cool!"

We would have gone on, but I noticed Lee approaching with Barrett, Jared and Bruce, and none of them seemed to be upset. Lee was in the middle and Jared had an arm across his shoulders. Barrett was walking almost sideways on Lee's other side, flapping his arms in animated conversation. I nudged Aaron, and when he looked most of the other heads in the court turned.

The three kids who had been with Jared when we met had never sat down, but kept on shooting baskets idly. I indicated them to Chrissy and asked, "What about those guys?"

She looked at them, then shook her head. "Don't worry, they'll listen to Jared. They haven't been here long, anyhow. Today was the first time I heard anything about any of this." She looked at Lee and the guys approaching and stared for a moment. She said almost absently, "Lee's different than most guys. He tries to please, not show off. I like that." Then she gushed, "He is so cute! Look at those dimples!"

I asked, "You like Lee?"

She turned to me and let her guard down for a moment. "I do. Is he really as nice as he seems?"

I smiled at her and nodded, and I said, "Lee's a real good guy."

She shrugged and grinned, "I already like him. Barrett's nice, too. And Bruce." Her eyebrows lifted and she sighed, "I'm so glad it's summer!"

Then the guys were right there, and Aaron asked Jared, "Things are okay?"

Jared nodded his head. "Yeah, we're good." He looked at me and said, "Sorry, Evan. I didn't have any reason not to, so I just believed what I heard." He glanced at Lee, then turned back to me and said reassuringly, "Don't worry."

I looked at Lee, who had already turned his attention to Chrissy, and Barrett was right there panting at Beth. I just snickered and turned back to Jared. "Are you playing baseball this summer?"

We got off into talking about baseball for several minutes, then Lee said loudly, "Come on over to my place, everyone. We have ice cream and brownies and fudge sauce, and I'm thinking mudslides!" I don't think everyone there knew what a mudslide was, but Lee had already listed the ingredients, so he had a lot of eager customers.

I still wasn't hungry, but I went with the flow, thinking some goo might taste good anyhow. Lee added, "We have cake, cookies, brownies, soda and ice cream." He grinned, "I think that covers the basic food groups! Come on! There's pie, too!"

Lee's mother and Jeff both seemed to be delighted that Lee brought back a crowd, and they plied us almost unmercifully with sugar. I had some ice cream with chocolate sauce, nuts and whipped cream. Aaron had the same with a brownie under it, and when we were finished we both felt bloated. We had a great taste in our mouths though, and a little bloat didn't seem too high a price.

Everyone seemed to be getting along, particularly Barrett and Beth. Lee really was quite the host, and he was talking with the entire group of kids from the complex, and Jared was right there with the rest of them.

Things seemed to be okay, and I figured I should get home pretty soon. It wasn't late at all, but I had to get organized to start work the next morning. I looked at Aaron and knew that a little alone-time with him would feel pretty important, so I whispered to him, "I should get going soon. What do you think?" He nodded his assent. We weren't in a rush, and sat there until people started getting up. I saw Barrett first and said, "We're gonna get going home. You can stay if you want." I grinned, "You probably should stay. Tomorrow you'll be all green and tired, and you'll be well on your way to learning the different weeds just by how they smell on your clothes."

Aaron laughed and Barrett laughed, and it was immediately clear that Barrett wasn't going anywhere as long as those girls were still around, so I turned to Lee. "Call me, okay?" I said, and he nodded. I went to high five him and heard myself say, "No, no," as soon as our hands met, and we fell into a hug. It was just a quick, friendly hug, but it really touched me to think that I'd come full-circle like that with Lee.

Aaron and I left on a high note, and were in the parking lot before we realized Jared had followed us. We turned when we heard him behind us, and I wondered if he had trouble on his mind from the look on his face. "What?" I asked.

He didn't look very pleased, and I tensed up, but it turned out he was ashamed more than anything. He apologized again and said, "I graduated this year, so I won't be around school. I didn't dream up what I said about Lee. That's really the word around here with some people. The way it went down ... three kids dead and Lee disappeared, then we saw him on television looking all happy after being with the killer pervert all that time ... a whole lot of people thought sure he was in on it." He gulped in a lot of air at once and squared his shoulders. "Goes to show how dumb we can be, huh? Well, I was fourteen when that went down. My mom didn't want to talk about it, and the news didn't show much, so when we went with what we knew and saw, it sure looked like Lee was in on it. Then he didn't come back to town, and the next thing we know is his dad killed the guy Lee was with. It's really bad stuff, and we thought what we thought. I don't even have to say about last Thanksgiving!"

I was confused, "What, then? Why are you saying this?"

Jared looked at me and sighed. "It's not bad, evil people who think this, Evan. They're people like me, who lived here and never got a full measure of truth about what happened. Between rumor and suspicion and speculation, we convinced ourselves that Lee was a bad guy. It was easy to believe, and even provable without the truth." He shrugged, "What can I say? That's pretty much what they think in the village. I'll talk to the ones I know."

I eyed him, "Talk about what?"

"About what really happened," he said defensively. "I didn't make this up, guys. My version is everyone's version around here. I'll talk to who I can, but you should expect trouble about Lee moving in. It's been a long time, and the story is like a given truth by now."

I looked at Jared and said, "Jesus, man! Now you're making it sound like I shouldn't leave!"

Jared just stared for a moment like he was thinking, then shook his head. "It'll be okay for now. You can't hit everybody, though." His look turned questioning, "Look, I'll do what I can here, but Erasmus is gonna be on his own before long."

"You think there'll be trouble?" I asked.

He shrugged, "I don't know, Lee seems cool. I don't think anybody will do anything, anyhow. You know how people are, so if Lee isn't too thin-skinned it'll probably pass when people get to know him." He reddened, "I know how dumb I must have sounded." He smiled a little and held out his hand, "Don't lose any sleep, okay?"

I shook his hand and said, "I won't. Take it easy."

When Jared left, Aaron asked, "Can I drive the truck?"

I grinned, "You got a license?"

Aaron looked to see if I was joking, which I was, then reached for the zipper on his pants, mumbling, "Somewhere in here."

I gasped in mock surprise, "You keep your license in there?"

Aaron smirked, "Everything that's near and dear to me is right here. Wanna see?"

"I'm not in there, then?" I asked meekly.

Aaron had this sweet smile that made me melt whenever he showed it; a special smile that he could probably make money with if all else failed. I'd pay to see it, for sure. He smiled it at me right then, crossing his hands over his chest, "You're there in my heart, Ev," he said seriously, even though I knew he was not serious. He tilted his head, "You'll remain in my heart too." He leaned close until we were nose-to-nose, and I thought he might kiss me right there in the parking lot. Instead he hissed, "Now give me those truck keys!"

* * * * * * * *

I felt especially fine the next morning. I was returning to work after an absence of a whole school year, and I was full of both apprehension and anticipation. The apprehension was partly from my long absence. I wondered if I'd start where I left off, or if I'd have to prove myself again. There would be new people who wouldn't know me, because lots of Harlan's employees were transients like Eli. I also didn't know, and had been afraid to ask, how many people there knew I was gay. I knew five guys did. I didn't know who, if anyone, they'd told, or what it would mean to me if everyone knew. I hadn't given anyone a reason to think I was gay or not gay. All I did was service their equipment and make sure they had what they needed. I wasn't really afraid, but it was an unknown area to me, so like I said ... I was apprehensive.

I was excited, though. I knew I'd learn a lot in the coming months, and it was knowledge I wanted to have. I really liked the mechanical things, the machines. I loved everything about them; their weight and solidity, their power, and especially their diversity of function. The routine maintenance jobs, oil changes and the like, were like pleasant chores. What I liked even more were the problems, where I had to diagnose what was wrong, figure out what would make it right, then get my hands dirty going about the repair. God, I found it gratifying when a machine that had to be pushed into the shop left humming under its own power, and it was me who made that happen.

I was looking forward to working with Hokay again, too. I had learned an awful lot from him the last summer, and I knew I'd barely scratched the surface of what he knew. His hands were as deft as any musician's, and when he taught me something he made sure I could get it 'just right'.

One of the best things about the job was working with the processes Harlan had put in place. They were simple for the most part, yet they provided for many contingencies. The computers kept track of absolutely everything, and in my absence they'd added bar coding and bar code scanners. Everything the company owned had a bar code sticker on it by then, and that sticker told the computer exactly what was being scanned. If a trailer had a broken blower on it, all Hokay had to do would scan the broken one and enter a code for out-of-service, then scan the replacement, followed by the trailer itself. I hadn't seen this in practice yet, but it sounded brilliant like most of Harlan's ideas.

Of course, what I loved most about driving in that morning was that I was in a company truck. It was a sharp looking vehicle the way Barrett had configured it, and I liked that about it. It said 'Blaine Corporation' on the doors, though, and I really liked that. I was proud of the company I worked for. Harlan knew how to grease the skids for sure, but that was in negotiations. His company paid all the taxes it owed, and paid employees a better than average wage. There were no defined benefits for most employees, but at the same time there were unofficial 'Harlan' benefits. If a guy missed a few hours or even more time because of a sick kid, he'd get paid.

Even without a medical plan, if an employee got sick in any kind of scary way, Harlan would send him to his own doctor and pay for at least a diagnosis.

When I got to work, Hokay's white truck was just turning into the drive, and I pulled up beside him. We both grinned when we got out, and Hokay's face looked ready to break with glee. "Evan!" he said. "You're back! We do good things again!" His eyebrows went up, "Ready to work?"

I was delighted myself, and by then I was beside him. I put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Ready! I've been ready!"

"Lots new," Hokay said.

"Show me what's new and let's do it! I'm ready to learn, Hokay, I really am."

Hokay looked at me warily, then smiled, "Ay, Evan always ready. Changes good, make things easier." He tapped my arm, "Coffee first, no?"

I grinned, "You know me! Coffee always first!"

After he started a pot, Hokay showed me how to work the new scanners, which were hand-held and pretty amazing. They had a little display that told you in English what you'd just scanned. There was obvious good in that, like if you scanned a broom and it showed up as a fifteen thousand dollar mower you'd know right away that something was amiss. There were little keypads on the scanners, so if something needed work you could select from a menu, and you could also key-in out-of-the-ordinary things in. It all went directly into the computer, and the hierarchy logic was built in, so it didn't matter at all what order you scanned things in. If a broom was in a barrel on a trailer attached to a truck, the computer put that all together. It was amazing.

I found myself bouncing and laughing at the brilliance of it. Even with the new technology, I was out of practice and we got a little behind schedule. Crews started showing up before we'd finished the equipment checks, so I went to do the paperwork while Hokay finished up, which he did in a hurry. We fell even further behind when the guys who remembered me from the year before wanted to chat me up, but it was alright. We got minutes behind, not hours. While the crews were gathering, the general foreman, Pedro, led my friends and a couple of other kids who I didn't know, into the lot, and he started assigning them to crews based on I didn't know what. Harlan had mentioned that I'd inspired him to hire several high school and college-age kids to do the general cleanup work that I'd done when in the field. It saved him some money over experienced guys, and he got eager workers who tended to show up every day.

It was good to see Billy, Dean and Huck in company shirts, but I only got to exchange a few words with them before they headed out to work. I did make sure that my friends knew Barrett, even though they'd be on different crews.

After the last crew was gone, Hokay and I had another coffee. I told him about my school year, leaving out the bad parts, and he told me what had been going on in his life and at work. My talk with Hokay made it fairly clear to me that he hadn't heard anything about me being gay, and that was a topic I'd neglected to ask anyone about. If Hokay didn't know, then nobody at work did except the guys I already knew about. If it was even being whispered about, then Hokay would know, because he was a natural born snoop who knew everything about everybody.

I felt relieved in a way. If it got out at work that I was gay, then it did, but I think there was wisdom in not blabbing it around unnecessarily. Harlan and the guys I roomed with apparently sensed it, so as far as work was concerned, my personal life was personal.

After our break, Hokay showed me what had changed on the computer. There were a lot of new features, but everything was done in the same style I was familiar with, and thus easy to learn. After that, there was some new equipment that had to be prepared for field use, and that used up most of the morning. I was already thinking about lunch when I saw Harlan for the first time that day.

I was pulling a new blower out of its box when I heard his voice. "Evan!"

I turned quickly to see him beaming at me, and said, "Harlan! Hi!"

"Hokay says you're already up to speed?"

I felt a blush, "He does? Hokay is kind of an optimist, isn't he?"

Harlan smiled and nodded, saying, "I know you, too, Evan. What he means is, if it was someone else sitting in your chair, it would be July before they were as proficient as you, given the off chance they'd ever be that proficient." He smiled brightly, "Never mind if I embarrass you, it's just good to have you back."

I smiled my appreciation, and he asked, "How's the new truck?"

"It's awesome!" I said. "I don't know what I did to deserve it."

Harlan shrugged, "You're core, Evan. That means I depend on you to be here, there, and everywhere. It's why I'm here, actually. As soon as you're free, take a ride to Bobcat. They have a new track for the little excavator, and we need it for tomorrow."

I grinned, "Sure! Anything else?"

Harlan shook his head, "Not for me, but check with Hokay. Did you see Barrett this morning?"

"Just for a minute," I said. "He looked ready to go."

Harlan nodded. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Give me a shout when the excavator's ready." He left after I gave him a brief wave.

I finished what I was doing, then walked out into the yard to see why a little excavator that had been brand new just a year before needed a new track assembly. I didn't doubt that it did, not for a second. I just wanted to see what had happened to it. I couldn't tell from looking at it, either, but the track on one side had obviously met some heinous fate. Everything was bent and gruesomely twisted. The only thing obvious was that it had encountered some superior force.

The people in the office called mid-morning to say they were getting Chinese delivered for lunch. Hokay had his lunch in a sack, but I was interested, so I had them order me shrimp in lobster sauce. When they called to say it was there, I left Hokay alone and went to the office building to eat.

The people there, the engineers and estimators, were the ones I didn't really know very well. In a company like Harlan's, getting the work in the first place was very important. Without contracts there would be little for the rest of us to do, and the guys who worked 'inside' were generally young, hard-working, brainy and intense. Well, don't take that too literally. The oldest person that worked for Harlan was Bob Ballas, the chief estimator. He was probably near retirement age, and his son, Jim, also worked in estimating with two other guys. Bob Ballas and his son shared this totally dry, droll sense of humor, and they could be really funny with their observations, but in such a way that I was always afraid to laugh out loud. I usually laughed later, after it had a chance to sink in.

There was a break room, but most people ate at their desks while they worked through lunch. There was some tension that day because a few people were away at a bid opening for a project they really wanted. I decided to take my food and eat in the shop with Hokay when I learned I'd be alone in the break room. Then I decided that it was really nice outside, and I dropped the tailgate on my truck and sat there to eat in the sunshine. I don't like a lot of Chinese foods, but shrimp in lobster sauce was usually good, and what I had there was no exception. I ate it straight down, then went inside for some water before I left to pick up parts.

I guess it's a little thing, but I was actually more excited to drive that truck on real company business than I was to get it in the first place. It was a sharp looking vehicle to start with, and I thought the low-key lettering of the company name lent it some dignity. It was personal pride probably, but I felt older and more important while I drove to the store: a representative of Harlan Blaine himself. I drove like a good soldier too; courteously and carefully, and right with the flow of traffic.

The Bobcat shop was North of Riverton, up the river about eight miles from town, and it took me the better part of a half-hour to get there. I hadn't been there before, and I only knew the people in the shop from the telephone. But the salesmen came to our shop often enough, and the first guy I saw was a salesman I'd dealt with. I knew his name was Ralph, and I was wearing a Blaine tee shirt, so there was some recognition.

"Evan!" he smiled, and we shook hands. He put a hand on my shoulder and pointed me at the few people working there, and said, "Guys, this is Evan from Blaine Construction." He introduced me around, and two of the men were guys I'd dealt with the year before, but over the phone.

It was fun for me to be there, and it was important fun. I was a boy in a man's world, and I felt like I fit right in. We talked Bobcats and we talked baseball. I got their jokes and they got mine, and if any one of them noticed I was sixteen they never let on. This guy Dave, who was fifty-something, mostly bald and a little paunchy said, "Let me ask you something, Evan. Have you ever driven up to a man's home and just flat out asked his woman if you could borrow his Bobcat?"

"Um," I muttered, suddenly toeing the floor. "Well, yeah. But just once!" I eyed him, "You heard about that?"

Everyone started snickering, and Dave sat back and slapped his knee while barking out a laugh. "I'm sorry ..."

He kept laughing, and it was so infectious that I laughed too, even though I was more curious than amused. When he calmed down he said, with tears in his eyes, "Eddie Campbell came home a couple of years ago with a South Carolina bride who's more your age than his. He will tell this story to anyone who will listen; about a boy knocking on his door asking to borrow a forty-thousand dollar machine, and his wife lets him take it!"

I don't know what my face looked like, but suddenly everyone burst out laughing, then louder when I looked at them. I laughed a bit more nervously than they did, but I laughed just the same. I remembered my own surprise that day when that lady told me the key was in the machine.

I drove back to Riverton with more than machine parts to show for my trip. I almost want to say that I felt more like a man, but when I think of it that's missing the point. What I learned that afternoon was more than that I could get along with a bunch of guys. I already knew that.

No, what I learned in that hour-and-a-half round trip was that I was a contributing member of society. I worked, and I strove to do things right. So do most people, and that's what keeps the world turning. Whether you're keeping machines running like I was, or programming big computers, or driving trucks or baking bread, it all matters, and every bit of it is interrelated. If somebody is paying you to do work, then that work is important, plain and simple. If it wasn't important there would be no job. In the long run, one job isn't generally more important than any other one, because when the one thing fails to happen, the domino effect starts. I couldn't point to anything specific that would go wrong if Harlan's Bobcat excavator didn't get fixed that same day, but I'd bet my week's pay that he'd find a big problem if it didn't happen when it was supposed to.

I was wired up when I got back to the shop. I ran inside to tell Hokay I was back, only to find him with a big guy. Hokay looked at me, smiled, and said, "Evan! This is my son, Abizer!"

I stopped and looked. Abizer, whose name I absolutely loved, was as big and black as Huck. Yet his eyes weren't dark like his father's, or even like mine. No, his eyes could barely be called blue, though that was the tint they had. There was a tinge of color there, but for all practical purposes his eyes were white. He noticed me looking and said, in a surprisingly high and thin voice, "Berber eyes, Evan. The eyes of a goat herder from the High Atlas mountains of Morocco." He smiled, "Or perhaps just the eyes of a goat." Whatever, he had a playful look in his face, and I chuckled along with Hokay.

Hokay said, "Evan, let's fix excavator. Abby will put radio in your truck."

"Radio?" I asked. "It has a radio. A really nice one!"

Hokay smiled like my father sometimes did. "Company radio, Evan. And GPS. Standard equipment."

I must have sputtered because Abizer laughed. "I'm not replacing your radio, man, just adding to it." He smiled again, "Don't worry, you'll still get whatever you listen to, only now you'll have interruptions."

I muttered, "That'll add to my listening pleasure, I guess. You'll show me how it works?"

* * * * * * * *

Replacing the bent axles and the tread on the excavator turned into an all-afternoon project, and I ended up staying an extra hour after Hokay left. By then everything was in position correctly, but there were a million bolts to torque up. Hokay had something important to do and I didn't, so I stayed until the machine was right, then another fifteen minutes to satisfy myself that it worked as well as it looked. I chuckled when I remembered Hokay's answer to my question about what happened to the machine. "It got squeeshed," he said.

I was cruddy by then; all greased up and sweaty, and I didn't want to get into the new truck like that. There was a shower in the shop, but it was my clothes that were the worse mess. I should have put on overalls, but I had neglected to. I did the logical thing and put clean overalls on over my clothes, and I was very surprised to see Abizer sitting in my truck when I went out. The truck was running and the door was closed, so I had to tap the window to make him notice me.

I startled him by doing that, but he immediately opened the door and jumped out. He smiled sheepishly and said, "Sorry, Evan. You were so long that I put in a cd and was listening."

I could hear Ziggy Marley and I smiled. "You like reggae?" I asked, and Abizer nodded happily.

"I do, too," I said, "Especially Ziggy. You didn't have to stay."

Abizer shrugged, "I said I would. Anyhow, your radio is simple. The GPS you should read the manual on, then go get lost somewhere and use it to find your way back."

I was really charmed by Abizer's voice. It was much like that of a younger boy, almost a falsetto coming from someone of his size, but it didn't seem put-on at all. And his 's' sounds almost whistled out of his mouth; quite the opposite of a lisp.

The two-way radio was a tiny thing, installed under the dash. There was a microphone, but Abizer showed me that if someone talked to me, I had five seconds to say something without the mike, and then the radio would go into voice-activated mode. Either way, it used the stereo speakers, and would interrupt anything I was listening to.

We fooled with that for awhile, then Abizer said, "You have to take me home. Here, I'll show you how the GPS works."

Well, that was pretty fascinating. Abizer plugged in his address, and the little pop-up screen gave me turn-by-turn directions to get there. When it said I was there, I was kind of astounded by the neighborhood and the house. The neighborhood was small and obviously new, less than a dozen homes on a short cul-de-sac. They were big homes, though, and Hokay's was about the biggest; a giant two-story brick affair. It sat on a flat acre that didn't seem big enough or grand enough for the house.

Abizer invited me in, but I begged off. I was already late, and I was eating with Aaron's family that night. I had to get cleaned up, and by the time I dropped Abizer off there was already some hurry-up involved.

I pulled out, looking around the neighborhood again, and I decided that it was just too new to look right. The homes were nice and the lawns were nice, but the trees were all straight from the nursery. In ten years it would look right, but by then other people would probably be living there.

I hurried home, such that traffic would allow, and my planned quick shower took a long time owing to the grease and oil on me. I got it off, though, and put on clean clothes while I checked my voice mail. I wasn't used to the service, so even that took a long time, and I had several messages that I didn't expect. I looked at the clock and I was pretty late already, so I shoved the phone in my pocket and hurried outside to go to Aaron's. As late as I was, I wavered before deciding to drive. I wouldn't get to walk home with Aaron if I drove, but I knew his family would want to see the new truck, so that's what I took.

I felt silly because it was all of a two minute ride, and I could have walked it in just over five minutes. Still, new wheels were important, and I could walk the next time.

I pulled up to the curb in front of the Castle's house facing the wrong way, and just like the first time I'd gone there, Justin was in the driveway washing his car. His new car, which was a brand new Audi A4 that he got for graduation. I'd only glimpsed it a few times during the last two days, but up close it was a silver beauty. I think I loved it as much on sight as Justin did after a few weeks of owning it. It was slick looking from the outside, like the metal had been stretched thin over a sexy frame. I was admiring it from the inside when Aaron came tearing out from the house.

"Evan! Evan! Guess what?"

I only started my grin before he was on me, and I'd never seen him so excited. He had his hands on my waist, and he was jumping up and down so excitedly that my shirt tail was up to my armpits in two seconds. "Whoa!" I cried. What's going on?"

Aaron was still bouncing. "Remember Grease? Well forget that, we're doing West Side Story, and I'm Tony!"

I wanted to share Aaron's excitement, I really did. I just didn't know what he was talking about, other than Grease was the second play he was supposed to be in. West Side Story had to be a different play; that much I could figure out, but I couldn't ignore Aaron while I thought about it. "That's great," I said quietly, pulling him to me. We were in the front yard, so I just patted his shoulder and pulled away. Aaron had joy in his eyes.

"You don't know West Side Story?" he asked. "You will. I rented it. Anyhow, I'm kind of the star. I get two solos and I get murdered in the end"

I almost formed a word, but Aaron went on. "This is the best ... the absolute best. If I can play a thug who goes out and fights people with chains, then I can do anything." He gave me the briefest of smirks and said, "They want me to bulk up."

For a lot of reasons, that information didn't sit well with me. Aaron's shape was perfect, and he had put on some weight and bulk since I'd first met him. I didn't think I'd like any more of it, and my face must have shown my feelings. Aaron gave me a lop-sided smile and said, "Not fat, Evan!"

I mumbled, "That's a relief."

He placed his right hand on his left shoulder and said, "My costume for parts of the show is jeans and a tee shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I need some better shoulders and biceps for that. Mine look good, I just need more of them."

I looked at Aaron's shoulders, then pushed the sleeve of his shirt all the way up and I shrugged. "Looks good to me, Aar. Very thuggish, I think."

He smiled, "Just a lot of push-ups and knee bends. I'm the right shape from swimming, they just want me to define a little better." He looked at me coyly, "I ... um, I get a personal trainer. He's from Switzerland and his name is Rolfe. They're paying for my gym time, too."

I wanted to snicker at the name, but Aaron had spoken it with a reverence that I didn't like. "How old is this Rolfe?" I asked.

Aaron shrugged, "I'm not sure. I didn't ask, but older than Justin."

Suddenly Justin was right there and he bopped the back of Aaron's head, saying, "Cut it out, Aaron."

He looked at me and smirked, "Aaron's jerking your chain. Rolfe is older than me, alright, probably forty years older. He also happens to be Aaron's P.E. teacher during the year, and my basketball coach."

I looked at Aaron, who was disappointed that his little ruse had been uncovered, but he smiled anyhow, and said, "I had you going for a second, didn't I? Come on, admit it. You were all set to be jealous."

I reddened, and Justin had the grace to walk away. "I can't be jealous?" I asked Aaron. "Who wouldn't be jealous of a free gym membership?"

I grinned, thinking I'd recovered nicely, and Aaron simply gave up. I wasn't really happy knowing that I could get jealous so easily, but Aaron's mother called us in to eat before I could belabor my thoughts. I was hungry, and I could wait for later to be jealous.

They were having leftovers from their picnic the day before. That was goodness itself, because what was left over were two kinds of potato salad, both good, deviled eggs, macaroni salad, and the most beautiful slices of red, ripe tomato that I ever did see. Everyone but me had a hamburger or hot dog, but I didn't see the need for meat. I had tomato slices for my main course, covered with thin slices of onion, sprinkled with freshly ground pepper, and drizzled with some nice olive oil. They were wonderful. Those were August tomatoes and it was barely June, but I was too busy savoring them to wonder where they came from. I actually made myself the fullest that I'd been in that long weekend, and no bread or meat had passed my lips.

Afterwards, Aaron wanted to take a dip in the pool, then watch West Side Story. He warned that the movie was long, so we kept our swim short, then went to watch the film.

Aaron had never seen it himself. He'd only read the script. He'd heard the music, but never seen the show. I was anticipating and Aaron was actually nervous, knowing he was about to meet a standard that he'd have to at least live up to.

We watched in the living room for the good sound system, and Aaron's parents joined us. It was an old film and neither of them had seen it. I sat on the floor in front of an armchair while Aaron got things going, and I liked the movie before it even started. There was music first, and Aaron had it theater-loud. Then a picture gradually assembled, an aerial view of New York City in the evening; the bridges and traffic, the docks and the skyscrapers. There were no title shots, no opening credits, just the scenery from above and the music, except I noticed a small rectangle appearing in a corner of the screen. The title did begin to emerge there, but only as the aerial view of the city seemed to be from a rapidly descending and accelerating airplane. Just when I could read the title, the scene shot straight down to street level. Then sheer fascination took over.

I was stunned that a movie that old could seem so modern. I'm not qualified to talk about performances. For the most part they were fine, but the voices seemed kind of operatic for the people they were supposed to be coming out of. It was the overall thing that floored me. The movie had been heavily stylized, and in the best sense of that word. The music and the orchestration were really phenomenal, and I sat in an awed silence when it ended.

Aaron was right, too. He had the best part, and I thought he should ask for a big raise the next day. The Tony in the movie didn't really sing his own parts. It was some man singing, which was fine.

But. But! Aaron's voice was perfect for the part! I could bring tears to my own eyes when I tried to imagine Aaron singing those lyrics, and I was certain that he would bring real tears to the eyes of everyone in every audience that heard him.

Aaron's voice was beautiful. He could put all kinds of emotion and character into his singing, but his was still a kid's voice; there's no way you'd mistake Aaron for an operatic tenor. When he cried out for Maria, it would truly be with the voice of a broken-hearted teenager, and nobody with anything softer than a cold stone for a heart would be able to bear it.

The movie had been really long, and I was stiff from sitting. I didn't have any complaints, though. It was late and I had to leave. In a twist, Aaron rode home with me, then decided to stay even though I had to go to sleep.

I still had the movie playing back in my head as we cuddled into the cocoon we'd formed with piled-up pillows. I kissed his forehead and whispered, "That part is so perfect for you. The guy in the movie was okay, but too old, and he isn’t you."

Aaron sighed, "I know. I fear having to play a kid when I'm not one anymore. I hate that they do that so much, too." He rolled onto his back and scrunched up to me, and asked, "You know why they do that?"

"Uh-uh," I mumbled.

"It's simple," Aaron explained. "Most kids my age are too self-conscious to act. Little kids are great; they can all act. Some of them pull it off right through their teens, but that's really rare. Most people forget how to act just about with their first zit. Guys, anyhow. Girls seem to do better. I think that's because puberty kind of makes girls sexy right away. It's different with guys. Everything that could possibly happen to embarrass you happens all at once. We get tall and uncoordinated, we start to get body odor and bad breath, our voices crack and our faces break out." He snickered, "I mean, who has time to act?"

I knew all that. I'd been there, but not too badly. I smiled at Aaron, "I'm glad that never happened to you."

His eyebrows went up, "What? Of course it happened to me. Why do you think I even have a theory?"

I was surprised, "It did? When was it? You were still acting when I met you."

Aaron said, "Oh, it was before we met. Not a lot before, maybe like the Tuesday before."

I'd been had, and I started giggling before Aaron did for once. It was only a moment before the bed was shaking under our mirth. When we calmed down, I said, "Aaron?"


"Want to try something new?"

Aaron paused, "Um, new in what way?"

I giggled, "Let's get thuggish!"

continued …