A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 14

When I got home that Saturday, the only car in the driveway was my Acura, which was in serious need of a washing. It was covered with bird shit, dust and pollen. As much as I didn't like seeing my car that way, I was already full of trepidation, wondering how Matt would receive me after his long trip to Europe.

All I knew for sure was that he'd returned the night before. Chris had called me when they were riding the airport limo home, but he was beat from flying and not very coherent. I don't think he knew what I was asking about when I tried to interrogate him about Matt, so I finally smiled inwardly and said, "Hang up, Chris. Sleep the rest of the way home, and I'll see you tomorrow."

Chris hung up without responding, and I understood. I'd been tired like that more than once.

I woke up and left early for Mt. Harman. The ride over from Riverton had been easier than usual. Traffic in the other direction was heavy, but I had clear sailing all the way. The easy drive let me think too much, and gave me plenty of time to work up some serious nervousness. I didn't know what to expect from my brother, Matt, and my gut told me this might be my last chance to work something out. I didn't want to go through life with a brother who hated me for being gay, but I couldn't think of a thing I could do about it. I didn't have a frame of reference either; nothing in place for a fallback, so I was simply scared when I reached home.

I walked into the house calling, "I'm home!" and got no response. I looked around downstairs, finding nobody, so I went upstairs and called again. Still no response, so I used the bathroom, then washed up.

I wondered where everyone was, because they knew I'd be coming for a visit. It was early, and I thought at least someone would be having breakfast. Done in the bathroom, I walked down the hall looking in bedrooms, and the door to Matt's was the only one closed, so I tapped lightly on it. "Matty?" I called in a loud whisper.

I heard a muffled, "I'm here," so I opened the door.

Matt was on his bed, dressed in only shorts, shoeless, stretched out face-down. "Matt?"

He groaned and rolled over, looking at me with a groggy stare. "Hi," was all he said.

I hesitated, "If you're tired I'll ..."

"No, no, I'm alright," he said, then made unhappy sounds while he sat up to look at me.

I smiled a little, because his greeting didn't seem forced, although he did sound tired. "Poland takes a lot out of a guy?"

He didn't smile. "Flying ten hours takes a lot out of a guy. It's not just ten hours, either. It's two hours in the airport, then another hour on the plane before it's in the air. Then it's ten hours." He looked right at me, "Then two hours to get out of the airport on this end, and two more hours home." He looked at me kind of morosely and announced, "I can't sleep on planes." Talking seemed to wake him up some, and he went on. “On base, you get in the plane and you take off; twenty minutes tops."

I smiled, and he kept going, "And on base, there's no luggage carousel."  He flopped down, flat on his back. Then a little smile appeared on his face. "I guess it's worth it. I saw a lot of new things, met a lot of neat people, and the food ... oh, man!" He sighed, "I could be Polish. Or anything European."

I was surprised by Matt's happy tone. He was talking about the trip and not about me, but he was speaking conversationally, and above all, contentedly. I didn't want to change the subject, so I pulled out his desk chair and straddled it to face him. "What was it like? Did you see Gdansk? Those Nazi death camps? I mean, I've seen pictures and read about all that, but I don't know about seeing it for real."

Matt's face suddenly looked pained, and he said, "We did the tour at Auschwitz." He swallowed, "I don't know what I expected, but the horror of that place won't go away soon." He closed his eyes and said, "All those people ... just wasted." He squeezed his eyes even more tightly, then blinked them open to look at me. "Awful. Just awful, and unbelievable that it happened at all, much less so recently." He turned pained eyes toward me, "You can still smell it, Ev, still taste it in the air." He grimaced again and said, "It's Hell there. The real Hell. There's no River Styx, no red guy with a pitchfork. People put those other people into the gas chambers." He paused for a long moment, then looked at me, "And the world stood by. There's no excuse. Most of them are dead by now, but those Nazi's graves should be marked so that real human beings will know where to piss in cemeteries."

Well, that elicited a smile from me. This was the Matthew Smiley, Jr. that I knew. I wasn't ready to tempt fate, so I tried to keep him talking. "So okay, let's not be so grim. What was the weather like? How did you travel around? Who were the people you met?" Were any of them gay? I wondered that, but didn't ask out loud. Instead, I asked, "How 'bout the women? Get lucky?" I leaned forward, leering. "Tell me all the dilligs, mawg!"

Matt chuckled and turned a little smile toward me. "You're a pisser, Ev. You really are."

"I try," I said, somewhat taken aback by the friendly comment.

His look became more serious. "I thought you'd be wondering why I'm talking to you at all."

I did wonder about that. What came out of my mouth was, "And?"

He swallowed, then said, "I don't know," and then paused. " I don't know. I don't." He smiled a bit helplessly, "I guess I'm not ready to give up on you is all. I think I learned more about you from your letters to Kuwait than when I lived here." He smiled grimly, "That's nobody's fault. By the time you might have been interesting, my mind was on other things." He raised up a little, "You were always the nut, though. Old Evan could be avoided on a good day, but not ignored."

"Yeah," I said softly. "My specialty."

"Yeah," Matt agreed. "You know, when I was in Kuwait we shared some letters, and I read yours to the other guys. Mostly for laughs because yours were funny, but I'd tell them about you too, and that was even funnier."

He didn't go on, and when his silence became too long I asked, "And so?"

Matt looked at me and said, "I'll tell you. Let me think it out for a minute."

I waited, and when he spoke again he said, muttering as if to himself at first, "Gay. Gay! My brother ... gay." He looked at me with a neutral expression on his face before going on. "I don't know, Ev. Some things are just too weird to contemplate, and you being gay is one of them."

I found some humor in his wording, but kept my mouth shut.

"I guess I wasn't ready for it. Hell, I wasn't ready for it." Matt didn't actually smile, but he looked at me in a way that I hadn't seen after his return from Kuwait. "Evan, if you're gay then you are. I can't fight it, and I'm not ready to give you up." His face took on a bit of a smile, and he mused, "Chris is quite a guy, you know."

I nodded. "He's my best friend."

Matt said, "I know. Just listen. Traveling like we were gave us big blocks of time on trains and planes, and Chris is able to talk nonstop about you when he has the time."

I grinned, and Matthew gave me a small grin in return. "That boy is a good friend. He sang your long points for hours on end, and even taught me things you taught him." Matt squirmed around as if to loosen his shoulders, then said, "He said being gay isn't a choice. It's just something you're born with." He eyed me, "Is that so?"

I was about to respond, but if Chris said that, then I had to deny it. "He told you that? That's funny, Matt, but it's classic Chris." I snickered, "No choice? That's a good one." I looked happily at Matt and lied, "Of course I was given a choice." I thought for a second, then went on. "Most people don't have early memories like I do, but when I was sliding out from Mom, there was a lady there with a pad on a clipboard, and I distinctly remember her asking whether I'd like to be a boy or a girl. When I said boy, she asked who I'd like for friends, and I said other boys." I folded my arms and looked at Matt. "Wired in early, maybe, but definitely a choice."  I smiled hopefully, knowing I might have to come clean about the choice thing if it went over wrong.

Matt just looked at me in bewilderment, and when I couldn't hold the stoic face anymore I pointed a finger at him and said, "Look at you!" I laughed, "Tell me I didn't have you going."

He smiled, but still looked bewildered, and I thought his expression was really funny. "Uh-oh," I gasped. "I think I've mixed my dilligs."

Matt started to chuckle, and he smiled at me. I eased up. "Sorry, but sometimes my brain just craps out my mouth." I gazed at Matt, and he seemed to be connected. I gulped, "So ... I mean, um ..." I didn't know what I meant, so I started over. "Gay?" I asked.

Matt frowned, and sat back. "Yeah," he said quietly, "There's that."

I started to open my mouth, but Matt spoke first, shaking his head at first. "I don't know what to think there, Ev," he said. "We can just leave it alone, can't we? I don't like that you're gay. Can you give me a single good reason why I should be reminded of it all the time?"

I hesitated, then said "Aaron."

"I don't mean that, Evan. I like Aaron and you know I do.  It's ..." Matt look flustered and held his hands up for a moment, "I don't know what it is." He turned a somewhat helpless expression toward me. "Evan, I don't know. You're my brother. Is my an adjective?" Then he mumbled, "No, it's a possessive." He looked right at me and said, "That's the only one I want to use for you, so if that's okay, then I want you to be my brother; not my gay brother, not my athletic brother, not my looney brother. Just my brother."

My eyes were moist by then, but I didn't shed a tear. I did smile broadly and say, "Welcome home, Matty!"

He smiled back and asked, "Hungry? I'm buying."

I looked at Matt while a huge feeling of relief swept through me. When I arrived home it was with the feeling that it was my last chance, and I didn't hold out a lot of hope for a reasonable resolution with Matt, much less a happy one. I ended up with both. "Where is everyone?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Bruce was going to the beach early. Mom and Dad aren't around?"

I shook my head and said, "If you're buying, then I'm hungry. We can take my company truck."

Mat gave me a look that said he didn't believe me, but he started to when we stepped outside, and he couldn't deny it when he saw the inside of the truck, which was both spotless and, by then, personalized.

The office at work had a label maker, and when I learned that I could make black labels with gold letters, I made some labels for the truck. I labeled the gas pedal More and the brake pedal Less, but never thought of anything for the clutch. On the console by the shifter, it read Wild Unprotected Six, and the GPS was labeled the Aaronator, because I could always find Aaron with that, no matter where he was.

I could also make labels with black letters on clear tape. There was a hard-to-find label on the windshield that said coming, and a more obvious one on the mirror that said going.

I happily pointed them out to Matt to make him a believer, then I fired up the V-8, and that got his attention. I didn't peel out right in front of the house; I waited until we were up at the top of the hill, then laid down a little patch, and pulled another chirp shifting into second. "Want to see if Chris is up?" I asked, slowing down as we approached his house. Matt assented, and I turned into their driveway.

I had just opened the door to get out when my phone rang, so I answered. It was Chris, of course, saying, "I'm home, honey! When do I see you?"

I said, "Open your front door," and he laughed.

Going out for breakfast now included Chris and his parents, and that made me very happy. I had done a lot in his absence, but I missed Chris all the time he was gone, and we had a lot to catch up on. We all did.

We went to a friendly little place to eat, and our table was boisterous to say the least. We took our time eating because our talk was so lively, and we stayed a good hour after the table had been cleared. We felt a bit guilty for that, and chipped in what amounted to about a one hundred percent tip for the nice waitress.

I heard about the trip, of course, and would see the pictures as soon as Mr. Humphrey got them onto his computer. All of them were worn out from traveling, but still radiating excitement when they talked about their many experiences. It was fun for me to hear them go on and on, even though it made me the odd man out.

I didn't have a lot of news, except about my new found love of horses and riding, which surprised nobody. Not a one of them had ever pictured me on a horse, but they all could envision such a thing, which was a nice stroke to my ego. If I'd brought my riding hat, I would have been the Marlboro Man for the day. Aaron wanted me to get a buckskin jacket with all the fringes, and I was considering it. In the meantime, he found me some buckskin pants that were stitched together with rawhide. They were small, so I cut the legs off, but went too far. They ended up like a buckskin bathing suit, kind of flimsily held together. The only times I wore them were when I wanted Aaron to sex me up, because seeing me in them made him horny.

Those weren't really things I could speak of with present company, so I had a good time with their stories and kept most of mine private. I did fully intend to get Chris into those buckskin pants one time, though, because that would be a sight that might keep me sexed up for a solid century.

I answered a lot of questions about me and Aaron, about Bruce, about Lee, about my job, and filled them in a little about my life, and we eventually left to go back to the Humprey's house.

The talk there was more sedated, and I could see that everyone still had half their beings somewhere out over the Atlantic. I told Chris to call me when he was back in spec, and took Matt home. My parents were home by then, as was my brother, Alton. Matt dozed several times while we were all talking, and he finally fell asleep. We left him on the patio and went inside where we wouldn't disturb him.

Alton didn't say anything, but it was clear to me that my parents had no clue yet about his little 'family', so I kept my mouth shut about that, if nothing else.

I felt wired to talk that day. That was probably because Matt seemed to have come to terms with me being gay, and just finally having that welcome-home with him had me feeling great. His original reaction to me being gay had been like a clot in my bloodstream; always there whether I noticed it or not, but an impediment to true happiness because he was my brother, and he belonged in my life. The idea of Matty being back was bouncing happily around in my brain pan, and I talked and talked, only stopping when Chris called me after his nap.

Then I bailed on my family and went to see my friend, and his folks were still zonked, so we had some time to ourselves.

I didn't even want to try talking to Chris about Matt, because I still had to sort it out. We had bags of other things going on, and too much for the time we had, so we went out in the red truck and drove aimlessly around while we talked.

I heard more about the trip, and specifically about a town in the Czech Republic that Chris was in love with. He heard about my times with Aaron, and about Phil, and he thought Phil was a great name for a horse. We didn't make a lot of sense, and finally stopped for ice creams, which we ate at a picnic table.

I had a fudge sundae with loads of nuts and whipped cream, and Chris got a banana milkshake because he missed having bananas in Poland.

It was so good to see Chris again. A month hadn't changed his appearance, except his hair was kind of long, but so was his father's and my brother's. His face was the same, and his sense of self, and we were as connected as ever.

Chris and I could talk endlessly, but we got as much from each other by simple osmosis as we did from words. If we were primitive people and had no language, we would have understood each other. Completely.

Still, talking was good, and the ice cream was good, and it was a real joy for me to be back with Chris. Aaron was my boyfriend and I loved him. Chris was my best friend, and he'd be that always, so I was doubly blessed.

"Are you gonna take me for a horseback ride?" Chris asked.

I got excited, "You want to try it? Yeah, we usually go during the week. Just tell me when. You'll love this place! It's right on the river, and the family that run it is really great."

"I, um, never rode a horse," Chris said.

I smiled, "I know. I never did before either." Reality crept into my thinking, and I said, "You might want to try a trail ride first. Don't sit on your balls and you'll have fun. If you like that, then you can learn to really ride."

Chris giggled, "You're the voice of experience? You really sat on your nuts?”

I probably blushed, and said "I didn't know! I was taking my first lesson, and nobody said how to sit, only how to steer."

Chris laughed, and I added, "Anyhow, in horse talk they're called cookies, not nuts, so it was my cookies I sat on."

Poor Chris let a straw-full of banana milkshake out with his laugh, some through his nose, and it looked for a moment like he might choke to death, but he recovered. "Cookies ... just fuck you, Ev." He looked at me with his face full of mirth and repeated, "Fuck you again! Listen to you. Are you trying to say that Clint fucking Eastwood has cookies and not cojones?" He grinned, "I don't think so, Evan. Not!"

I tried to deflate him, saying, "Whatever," but I had to go on. "Clint Eastwood may have cojones, but if Phil felt like it, he'd bite them off like cookies! You need to understand this Chris. Even if you grow to two hundred pounds, the horse will outweigh you by a factor of five. A lot of words mean cookie in horse-talk, so just be careful."

Chris laughed like I knew he would. I caught him up on the rest of my summer, which didn't take long, then brought him home so I could get back to Riverton.

I stopped at my house first, to say goodbye, and both Matt and Alton wanted to talk to me.

The patio was in full sun when we walked out, and it was a hot day. We walked to a shady part of the lawn and sat on the grass. Al started hesitantly. "Ev ... um" He glanced at Matt, then looked at me, "First, thanks for keeping quiet about my ... um ..."

I knew he meant his situation at school, and didn't know if he'd said anything yet to Matt. "No problem," I said. "What's up?"

Al kind of blushed, and said, "Evan, we just wanted to both talk to you about ... about safety. I mean ..."

"Protection," Matt said. "I'm sure you know this, Ev, but I ... we ... kind of want you to promise that ..."

I was staring. "That what?"

Al swallowed, "Well, that you'll use ..."

"Yeah," Matt added.

They weren't getting it out, but I suddenly understood anyhow. They wanted me to practice safe sex, and I thought it was damn cute. I nodded. "I get it." I smiled, "Thanks for the concern, but I'm not doing anything you should worry about."

"You're not?" they asked in staggered unison.

"Uh-uh," I said, shaking my head a bit. Then I looked at them in turn, "Listen, I'm really glad you care, and I don't want to say too much, but don't worry about me and Aaron, okay? We do know the dangers of AIDS and STDs in general, and we don't do anything that's risky to begin with." They both seemed relieved, and I said, "We're not in a hurry either, and I'd really, really, really feel a lot better if I didn't think you were worrying about my sex life." I smiled, "Otherwise I'd feel obligated to check up on yours, and I don't think I'd like that."

They both seemed a bit embarrassed, and I started to get up. I smiled and said, "Matty, I don't know what to say." I grinned, "I was always happy to be your brother. I'm glad I still can be."

"What's your hurry?" Al asked.

I smiled, "I have a date with a horse named Phil."

I gave them a little wave, then walked through the house to say a second goodbye to my folks, and I was gone.

* * * * * * * *

There was an accident on the road back to Riverton, and I got stuck behind it. I walked up to see, and it was a car that clipped a guard rail. There were no injuries, just a little mess, but there was no wrecker there yet, and I knew I'd be delayed. I called Aaron from the shade of the roadside.

"I'm stuck," I said as soon as he answered.

"Stuck how?" Aaron asked.

"There's a car bent up. No big deal, but I can't go over it, so I'll be here for a bit. I'm by the hot dog place."

"Should I cancel our ride?"

"I don't think so," I said. "I might be a little late is all, but I have big news!"

"Your brother?"

I smiled, "Yeah, still my brother. He's adjusted his thinking a little."

"A little? How little?" Aaron asked, and I detected some new cheer in his voice.

"Yeah," I laughed. "No more adjectives. He's not my big brother anymore, just my brother. I'm not a lot of things; not his little brother, not his goofy brother, and most especially not his gay brother. I'm just Evan, like I've always been."

Aaron was quiet for a moment, then he said, "That's brilliant, at least if you mean it the way it sounds." He giggled loudly, "We can lithp about barking toadth, and all he'll hear is dogs?"

"Yup," I said happily. "Dogs going woofie!"

Aaron said, "I hope he doesn't think about dogs gone wrong, but yay!"

Right then, I had to sprint back to my car because traffic was suddenly moving. When I got up to the wreck, a couple of guys were holding up traffic in the other lane so our lane could move, and I wished I'd thought of that. I was too accustomed to needing officials for things like that, where in reality anyone could take charge. I waved my thanks as I went by, then the road to Riverton was in good shape.

I went straight to Aaron's house, and when he suggested a swim I was ready. I don't know what the temperature was, but it was hot and humid, and I was feeling it. We didn't even fool around in the pool. I dove in, Aaron followed, and we stood in the water at the side after that. We snuggled a little, but it was even too hot for that. Our bodies were in the water up to four feet, and the rest of us was out, and the out part argued in favor of the coolness of the water.

I wondered about the horses, "Should we go out in this weather?" I asked.

"I was thinking about that too," Aaron said. He smooched my cheek and said, "We can call and ask."

I said, "No, let's just go. If we can't ride, we can hang out by the river."

Aaron said, "You really like it there. So do I. It's not wilderness, really, but it's easy to get alone." He looked at me, "Want a sandwich before we leave?  I’ll show you my hat."

Aaron had stopped at the ranch the day before after a call from Senor Vizcarrondo-Rosa, who had two hats for him to look at.  He chose one that was nearly identical to Diego’s except for the material, even made by the same company, that went for fifty-five dollars.  He bought it on the spot.

"Yeah," I said, suddenly feeling my appetite.

We went inside where Aaron immediately took his new hat from a peg just inside the downstairs door.  I made appreciative small talk while Aaron made a couple of what had become one of my favorite sandwiches. We called then OLTs, and onion substituted for bacon. It wasn't sliced onion either, but grated. The grating was a tearful job, but the eating made it worth the pain. It was summer, too, and there were early garden tomatoes around, so no more of the cardboard winter substitutes. They weren't the big tomatoes of August, but they were red and heavy with juice, and the sandwiches were awesomely good. We each had two glasses of milk, then, cowboy hats on, headed out.

Aaron and I were capable horsemen after a few weeks of lessons and a lot of riding. Riding was nothing I'd ever considered until Billy coaxed us out there the first time. That was just for fun, yet I already wanted my own horse, and maybe more importantly, I wanted property someday where I could stable one or many.

I'd been very surprised to learn that the same horses we rode on our first plodding trail ride had personalities, and they liked to fool around just like people did. My usual mount was a horse named Phil, and if Phil was anything, he was a diplomat. He forgave my mistakes, ignored me when I gave him a bad signal, and tolerated my learning curve.

Phil liked me as much as I liked him, I think. After a ride sometimes, he'd come up behind me and put his head over my shoulder. That made me laugh after the first time, when he'd scared me to death, but now Phil would snortle, too. He was a playful animal, and I liked that. Not always, because sometimes he dumped me, but we'd play these mad games of horse volleyball, with Aaron and me as the new guys, and the owner's two sons. There was no net and no scoring, but we'd try to keep this big beach ball in the air while we rode around in a little corral. The horses were the star players. I'd managed a few times, and Aaron was yet to, but Paolo and Diego could get their horses up on their hind legs, where the horses would keep the ball in the air with their front feet. It was hilarious for people to watch, and the animals loved it too.

That game gave me a huge respect for the horses, because they really did all the work. Rearing back on the hind legs was hard for them, and it was harder with a rider. For the horses to keep their eye on a ball and kick it was really remarkable.

The ranch we rode at was really coming into its own, both as a gathering place for local horse people, and as a popular family destination for the trail rides and lessons they offered. The Mexican family who owned it offered a lot for moderate prices, and they worked hard to make it better. It looked nicer every time we went there.

We were allowed to just do things by then, so when Aaron and I got there that day, we went to find our horses. They were still in the barn, so we led them to the corral to saddle them and generally prepare for our ride.

We both brought cut-up apples with us, hoping the treat would keep us from being dumped in the dirt, though apples didn't seem to buy a lot of influence. It was cool in the barn and really hot outside, and I sensed that Phil preferred the barn when I led him out into the sun. Bites of apple kept him coming willingly enough, and he nuzzled me several times while I was gearing him up to ride.

Aaron's horse gave him a bit of a hard time, but we were both ready to ride soon enough. Aaron mounted up and I was about to, when Diego came running over.

"You guys! Come on the trail ride with us for awhile. We have your friends going. Come on, no charge!"

I looked at him. Diego was a nice kid; a little hyper maybe, but a fantastic rider, and as eager as I was about things.

"What friends?" I asked, thinking probably some who had come with us before.

"I don't know," Diego said. They say you told them to come, so come on! Be friendly!"

I looked at Aaron, who smiled at Diego, and he said, "We're always friendly, aren't we? Do we get to eat and see the rodeo?"

Diego looked serious. "You can always eat and see the rodeo. I like when you watch us, 'cause now you know what goes in it." He grinned, "Don't be late!" and ran back toward the main house.

I looked the question at Aaron, and he just shrugged. We talked up the ranch all the time, and had no clue who might have decided to come. I straddled Phil and stroked his neck, saying, "Come on boy. Looks like an easy day for you."

Phil snorted his happiness with that news, and we took off at a walk. Aaron got his horse beside us, then a half length ahead, and I asked, "What's your hurry?"

He looked back and pulled on the horse's reins. "I'm not in a hurry, it's this animal. You know what?"


"We have bathing suits in the car. We should put them on in case we go to the waterfall."

"Good idea!" I said, as I goosed Phil into action and raced off toward the parking lot. Aaron was right beside me when we got to his car. We used his Toyota a lot because we could just leave things in it. I had to use the truck for work, so having more than a few small things of my own in it was often more trouble than it was worth.

However, the Toyota held an emergency wardrobe of sorts; sweatshirts, long pants, my baseball glove, bathing suits, towels, packages of trail mix, spare shoes, and miscellaneous other things.

We got our swim trunks out, then looked around and decided it was private enough to change right there. I leered at Aaron, who had his cowboy hat on. "I haven't seen you in just the hat yet," I said. "Let's get this right the first time!"

I wasn't shy with Aaron. I kicked off my sandals, dropped my shorts and undies, and pulled the brim of my hat low while I watched him do the same. There was a moment for stop-and-look there, and we soon looked like we had before; the substitution of bathing trunks for underpants known only to us, and the promise of 'later' in both of our smiles.

Aaron had been in training for his play for a month by then, and the program had him looking really good. What bulk he'd gained was mostly in his shoulders and upper arms, and it was not a major gain. He was still quite slender, yet when he modeled for me in a tight t-shirt and jeans, he could really pull off the look of a tough, city kid.

I was bulking up myself, but more in the form of the construction worker I was. I was bigger and stronger than the year before, but actually less defined, because my strength was coming from bull work rather than sports and training. I'd find a happy medium somewhere, I knew, but not before school started again.

I still felt good, and there wasn't a whole lot that could hurt me anymore. By that time, I'd pulled every muscle I owned, and bonked every protruding bone, and built up a kind of immunity in the process.

We got back on our horses and decided we'd mosey over to the house, only because Aaron introduced the word, and we felt that, as cowboys with bathing suits under our short pants, moseying into a party would be the way to arrive.

We couldn't impart that idea to our horses, unfortunately, and because trotting horses are unkind to nuts, we ended up letting them run, and arrived at the house with our own dust following us.

Luckily, the food hadn't been served yet, and people were just milling around. Our arrival was noticed, but didn't seem to anger anyone.

Just as I was getting off Phil, I glimpsed a familiar face, and thought sure that Diego had been talking about Dan Crumb when he said our friends were there, because there was Dan, and while I was looking, Lucien walked up behind him.

Then I heard, "Aaron?" from behind me, and the voice was familiar so I turned around. It was Lee Erasmus, with a girl's hand in his, and I didn't recognize the girl at first. After a longer look, I remembered her as a girl from the complex Lee lived in. Given his choices there, she wasn't the prettiest or shapeliest girl, but she did have a nice smile.

I was on Lee before he saw me coming, standing right there while he talked to Aaron, and when he seemed to sense my presence, he turned around and we were almost nose-to-nose. Met with my grin and my floppy cowboy hat, his look of surprise turned into a wide smile in an instant. "Evan!"

I put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Hey, Lee. What's the occasion?"

He said simply, "You. You said we should try riding here, so we are." He looked around quickly, "My mom's here somewhere." He looked at me, and saw that I was looking at the girl beside him, and said, "Sorry." He smiled, "This is my friend Jen." He smiled at her and said, "I've told you about Evan, so meet the man!"

Jen turned her great smile to me and held out her hand. I introduced Aaron, then heard another voice from beside me. "There he is. Evan!"

I turned to look, then noticed a hand in the air, and it was attached to Dan Crumb. Dan pleased my eye more than most people, so I focused on him while he approached, and Lucien was smiling beside him.

I smiled back, happy to see them together, and when they were close enough I held out my hand to shake. Aaron shook Lucien's hand, then we traded, and we were all smiling. I introduced Dan and Lucien to Lee and Jen, then Dan looked at my hat and grinned, "I love your hat."

Aaron smiled and said, "Evan loves it, too. He wears it swimming."

"Once," I corrected, then faltered, "Well, you know ... it's the cowboy look and all." I changed the subject and said, "I think I should be getting commissions here. Do you have your horses yet?"

They all shook their heads no. I remembered getting our horses for our first ride before lunch, so that much had changed.  Aaron and I had learned to ride beginning with the same package, and it really was a good deal. One price paid for lunch, an introduction to riding, a safety lesson, and a beginner's trail ride, and it had turned out to be the most popular offering at the ranch. They were already doing it twice on Sundays, and this was the second group for the day.

The place smelled fantastic already, with the fresh-made tortillas cooking on the hot stones, and the light meal would set the tone for a great afternoon.

We ate with everyone else, and exclaimed over the little rodeo put on by Diego and Paolo as loudly as anyone.

They were both truly amazing horsemen, and were far more comfortable with their horses than the first time we'd watched them Their routines were synchronized, and it was now evident to me that Diego held back to stay with Paolo, who rode as hard as he could.

The show was appreciated, and they were cheered wildly. Just when it ended, this girl Romi, who was their sister as well as Bill O'Shea's girlfriend, stopped to say hello. Romi was a very pretty girl, and after listening to Billy, I'd learned to look for certain smiles from her. Billy said she had one for every occasion, and the one I received was both friendly and a bit tired.

She said, "Hi, Evan. Hi, Aaron. Did you enjoy?"

We both assured her that we loved it there, and Aaron pointed out six people who were there on our recommendation.

Romi beamed at us. "I know. Every ride, every week, somebody will tell us they were recommended by you. It's so nice of you to do that."

She was glancing around, probably feeling obligations to others, so we ended our little talk and she hurried off.

I looked at Aaron and said, "Billy's a lucky guy. Romi is class all the way."

Aaron nodded and smiled at me. "I guess I'm lucky too, then. I think you're class too, Ev."

I grinned, "And I know you are. So let's go give these horsies some pointers. Maybe they won't dump us in the river."

"Gentleman horses," Aaron muttered. "That'll be the day."

Aaron and I decided to ride down to the river during the half-hour that it took for people to get their horses, their brief safety lesson, and even briefer instructions on how to make the horses do what they wanted. That part was honest instruction, but bogus in this case. Horses trained for trail rides were basically like cars in a train. They just followed the horse in front and completely ignored their riders.

The river was a busy place on a nice summer day. There was one of the big tour boats just going out of view when we got down by the water, and all manner of other craft; from large motor yachts to sailboats, rafts, canoes, kayaks, plenty of sport boats with their toys, fishing boats with their gear at the ready, and no end to little jet skis playing in the larger wakes. The river right there was far wider than in Riverton; probably nearly a mile over to the opposite shore.

Aaron and I liked to run the horses in the flood plain on our side. Underfoot was packed silt, which gave the animals great footing on dry days, and if we had a way to ask, I'm pretty sure the horses would have said they liked it there too. Things they liked to munch on grew out of the ground, and the river lapped calmly at the shore there, so they had eats and drinks. The shore was a shallow sandbar for the first fifty feet out, before it dropped off, so it was fun to trot in the water on a warm day.

Aaron and I spent our half hour galloping downstream for about a half-mile, then we walked slowly back through the water. The meaning of the word 'mosey' had become clear to us early on in our relationship with horses, and it had a horse meaning if not a human one. Horses liked to run, to play, to do a lot of things, but they liked to goof off, too, and they did that by moseying on home to where they belonged.

I don't know how pleased our two were when we went to catch up with the trail ride, but they were willing enough.

The trail ride was single-file, so Aaron and I went up along both sides until we got to where Lee's mother was, and she was right behind her friend, Jeff. I tipped my hat to Mrs. Erasmus and said, "Howdy," feeling corny all the way. Aaron had met Jeff, and they started talking to each other.

Lee's mother seemed tickled that I was beside her, and asked, "How'm I doing? I haven't been on a horse since I don't know when."

I gulped, "I ... I um ... I think you have a good seat there." I was embarrassed. That was a phrase horse people used all the time, but I always took it to mean a nice butt, and that wasn't what it meant in the case of horsemanship.

She didn't seem to notice, and asked, "Are you enjoying your summer? I don't think we could have asked for nicer weather."

I said, "Yeah, it's been nice. Dry, though. I think we'll need some rain soon."

We talked idly for a few minutes, then I went forward until I was beside Lucien, who believed that he was actively steering his horse along. He smiled when he noticed me and said, "This is nice. It's easier than I thought."

"You like it?" I asked. "I'm out here with Aaron two, three, four times a week."

Julien nodded, "Not this same ride, though. Right?"

I shook my head, "No, there's a lot of trails. We were just down by the river."

Lucien took a quick look around and said, "It's really a nice area.. Just driving here, it felt all old and ... I don't know, kind of comfortable. Like my grandfather probably saw the same things."

I thought about that, and had to agree. The other side of the river was old enough, including Riverton, but there had been progress on that side, like the Industrial Revolution happened over there. The side we were on was still mostly agricultural. And it truly was neat to drive through the small, old river towns along the way. Gentrification was happening, but at a turtle's pace. The old-line families still owned most things, and they only allowed change that pleased them and conformed to their way of life. I'd admired the miles of stone walls along the roads since my first visit, and it occurred to me that they were well-maintained by intent rather than chance. They, along with the graceful old homes they surrounded, were one of the defining characteristics of the area.

When I glanced over to see Aaron, he seemed to be having an intense talk with Dan, but then Aaron laughed suddenly, so I thought he must have been listening to a joke.

I rode ahead to find Lee, and he was right behind Jen. They were both looking ahead, but talking to each other, so I waited until he noticed me there.

"Evan! " he said, after long enough that I'd wondered if he would notice me at all. He seemed happy and said, "This is great. It's just really nice and peaceful out here, and I don't think this horse cares if I'm on her or not."

"You catch on quick," I said. "The horses get the same treatment with a passenger or not, and if you're under about one-seventy she probably doesn't notice you." I saw that he had his horse's reins draped around the saddle horn, and commented, "You learn fast! You could play pat-a-cake with your hands on these rides for all the horse would care."

We talked a little more, but Lee was with Jen, so I scooted ahead after a few minutes, and Aaron and I were soon on a hill with a good view down to the river. We dismounted and tossed our mounts' reins over a tree branch. Then we sat and took in a different view of the river, which was now below us. We weren't up high at all, maybe fifty feet, but the perspective was dramatically different.

I found it amusing, because I could detect all kinds of intent among the boaters below. It was the season, and lots were out there, more than you'd think from a water's-eye view.

The high-powered cigarette boats heading out to the ocean moved with a loud and barely-legal purpose, while the bigger motor-yachts tended to ignore the no-wake laws. Little sailboats were tacking about playfully, while bigger sailboats timed their ways to the drawbridges that separated them from the sea.

The big fishermen wended their way to the banks legally, while little ski boats minded their business between free-wake zones. Along the edges were the smaller outboards, people actually fishing, and people in canoes and kayaks. And for every wake, large or small, there was a jet ski to jump it.

I pulled Aaron to me, and we both watched the parade. From our perch, there was both order and serenity in the view below.

Then something changed, and not right where I was looking, but I nudged Aaron and asked, "Did that guy fall out of his boat?"

I started to stand while Aaron asked, "What guy?" and I was pointing by then. There was a small powerboat down there to the left, and by then I was more certain that I'd seen the lone occupant fall into the water. The boat was moving, but had started to circle. I looked at the water, searching for the guy, and I saw some other boats move closer, so I was sure that I'd seen what I thought.

I reached for my cell phone, then realized it was in the saddle bag, so I rushed over, pulled it out, and dialed 911 before I turned back around. Then I looked back at the water, and it was clear that people down there were looking for whoever had been in that boat.

"What's your emergency?" a female voice asked.

"I just saw somebody fall out of a boat, and he's still underwater."

"Your location?"

"I can't exactly say. I'm on a horseback ride." Then I thought, "Wait a minute, this phone has a GPS. Can you use that?"

"Yes. Alright, I have you. There are other calls on this. Will you identify yourself if there are questions?"

"My name's Evan Smiley. This is the best number."

"Thank you, Evan."

And that was that, except the guy on the boat still hadn't been found. There was a boat with flashing lights approaching rapidly, and quite a few small boats circling the area, but I had a bad feeling for whoever fell into that river. It had been at least a full minute, and I didn't think many could hold their breath that long. Then again, he'd been close to shore and could have just swum to some place we couldn't see.

Aaron nudged me, and I said, "Let's wait here." I looked at him and asked, "Did you see that?"

Aaron looked fearful, but just shook his head no and leaned against me.

I didn't know what to do, but where we were kept us in touch, so we stayed. Maybe fifteen minutes later, another official-looking boat pulled up, and a few minutes later we saw divers going into the water, and other people on that boat made the people who were close move away.

Aaron said sadly, "Let's go, Ev. I think it's over."

He was right, though I stayed right there for another quarter-hour at least. I didn't know who was on that boat, and couldn't say for certain if it was a man or a woman, a girl or a boy. I had the sense it was a man, but couldn't say why. Maybe size, shape or hair length, but I wasn't sure of what I saw from the beginning.

I finally sighed when Aaron prodded me again, and we mounted our horses. I turned to Aaron and said, "I think we just saw somebody die."

Aaron nodded without looking at me, and spanked his horse into action.

The people from the trail ride were gone when we got back to the corrals, and everything seemed calm. We could have called someone to look after our horses, but that day we put their tack away ourselves, then let them eat and drink while we brushed them down.

I think horses have a sense of when things aren't right. Our two that day were docile and friendly as we led them to their stalls, and Phil's normally amused eyes looked as sad as I felt.

We started the drive to Riverton, and Aaron found a news station. We caught the weather, and after the sports recycled we heard, "The search goes on for young Michael Armack. He's the grandson of Everett Armack, and the son of Andrew Armack, owners of the Armack Construction Company. Michael was seen falling off his Boston Whaler earlier this afternoon. The boat was near shore, and many saw him fall, but the young man is still missing.

"Michael Armack is fifteen years old. He's described as heavy-set, with black hair and brown eyes, and six feet tall. If he was injured, he could be confused, so again ..." and they repeated the description.

"Dead," I said, not really knowing why I said it, but most times people were missing in the water they were dead.

Aaron put a hand on my leg and asked, "Hungry?"

I wasn't, but I said, "Yes. Not really, but if I don't eat I'll be worse. Any ideas?"

Aaron scrunched up his face to think, then asked, "Deli?"

I nodded. A bland sandwich would suit me fine, and Aaron could explore his new fascination with Jewish food.

There were two legitimate delis in Riverton, and the first one off the bridge was Fein's, a small, old place at the end of Main St. That's where we stopped, and our plan was to get food to go. There was one person ahead of us, and she soon moved aside. I looked at the guy and said, "Give me a corned beef on rye. Um, some mustard ... not that hot stuff, and ... um ... let me think ... ah, cheese! Yeah, provolone. Wait, wait. Make that Swiss. I said mustard, right? And tomatoes, okay?"

Of course it was okay, and his look said that. I picked up a little bag of corn chips to go with it. They gave pickles without asking.

Aaron got more than me. He ordered a pastrami sandwich and also some potato salad, some cole slaw, and some pickled beets, and sweets for dessert.

He was ordering for me; the things I always forgot until I was home, and that right there was one of the reasons I needed him so much. Aaron functioned for me every time I neglected to think for myself.

I was busy remembering that I saw the Armacks on television often, advertising their home developments. I'm sure that's why they mentioned the company name on the news; they were heavy advertisers, and this was the owners' family. Plus their faces were familiar with viewers.

We swam before eating, once we were back at Aaron's house. We had our bathing suits on already, so it was a no-brainer to get the dust off and cool down at the same time.

When we got out, I felt better and I was hungry. Aaron's parents were sitting at the picnic table, so we sat with them and described our day while we extracted our food from the various sacks and wrappers that contained it. Aaron had ordered some matzohs, and they were still a little warm, so we all shared them. Then his parents went inside while we attacked the rest. We did a number on it too. My fork was a little sticky after the baklava, and I'd spit out a pickle stem before, but everything else was in us, and sitting well. I smiled at Aaron and said, "You know me better than I know myself."

He smiled, and just then Billy O'Shea came around the corner of the house. He looked like he just got out of his own pool. His hair was wet, and his wardrobe was his bathing suit, a tee shirt, and flip-flops.

Aaron asked, "How's your grandmother?" because Bill had gone with his father and brother to visit that day.

"She's okay for an old broad," Billy said offhandedly, then his face crinkled into a smile. "She's good. She asked about you." He looked at me and asked, "Where's your hat?"

I got asked that a lot, and didn't bother answering. "We went on the trail ride today. Romi's place is doing really well."

Bill smiled, "Yeah, I just talked to her. She said Diego calls you and Aaron their missionaries."

That got a laugh only because it so fit the way Diego talks. Then Billy's face went serious, "She said there was a drowning right there, too, and that you guys saw it."

I looked away for a moment, then back at Bill. "We only sort-of saw it. I guess we saw enough that I called 911 on it. It's a freaky thing."

Bill sat beside me and said grimly, "Yeah, it would be that. You okay?"

I said, "I guess. I just don't know why he'd drown. There were a lot of boats out, and it didn't look deep there. It was maybe sixty feet from shore. It just doesn't seem like a place you'd get in trouble."

Aaron added, "They didn't find him yet. He might still be okay."

Bill said, "People saw him fall in. It's not like some mystery that happened at night. They were right there and couldn't find him. Maybe he did get out." He looked from Aaron to me and found a small smile somewhere. "I guess he's alive until they learn something else."

Aaron and I both nodded, then we found more mundane things to talk about, and we talked until I felt sleepy. I left Aaron and Billy for the short ride home, then basically crashed into bed. It wasn't late, but I'd had a long day and was really finished.

It was hot on the porch, and that made me uncomfortable, so my sleep was a long time coming, and thoughts of drowning were crowding my head. It seemed a scary and horrible way to die; mostly because it wouldn't be quick, and there must be a feeling of total helplessness and horror while you're still conscious.

I did sleep eventually though, and got up on the alarm the next morning feeling fine. I started the coffee, then did my stint in the bathroom. I had English muffins and a bowl of Total for breakfast, then tossed ten sandwiches together. I put two of those in a bag for myself, added a pear and an apple, and I was on my way.

I loved my job. It was sometimes hard, usually dirty, but I still loved it. Working with a master like Hokay was a joy. He was unassuming, talented, and he really had his feet on the ground. Guys could shock him sometimes by the dumb damage they could cause, but he'd just fix it without comment. When someone pulled into the yard with a twisted piece of equipment, Hokay would look it over and say, "I can fix it. Who broke?"

If he got an answer, he knew who to give the older equipment to the next time. Otherwise, it was work as usual, and to me it was great. I went in whistling, and left at the end of the day tired, dirty and happy. I was learning from Hokay, mostly, but also from Harlan, and also from our suppliers. They supplied other companies too, and with different things. When I drove out to pick something up, I'd learn about other things that Harlan wasn't involved with, but I learned just the same.

Except that day. We had the radio on in the shop, and heard when they found the body of Michael Armack. They were short on details, only saying he was found about a half-mile south of where he'd fallen from his boat. I would have been sad only because it happened, but having seen part of it made it more personal to me; something other than the random deaths we hear about every day.

Hokay had children my age himself, and he was quiet after that news came on. We didn't speak of it, and went back to work silently after hearing it. I didn't know Michael Armack, but I thought he must be the unluckiest kid on the planet. His family had position and money, and he had everything going for him, then he drowned while fishing. It seemed totally unfair to me, and especially that he drowned amidst a crowd, and people had rushed to help him.

I got busy fixing flat tires, which was mindless business, and the thoughts running through my head weren't kind ones. The world wasn't a fair place, and I knew that well. There were millions of Michaels living in destitution around the world, and they'd die young too, without ever having the pleasure of their own boat, or even their own roof.

I got up to turn the radio off when the news started again, and Hokay gave me a look without saying anything. I went back to my tires, then Harlan came into the shop.

"Any coffee left?" he asked, then poured a cold cup from the pot and put it in the microwave.

When he turned around, he had a look of anguish on his face like I'd never seen. Harlan's temper was there sometimes, but it was quick, and he never harbored anger for more than a few moments. I didn't know what was going on, and worried about their baby.

He leaned his back to the wall, holding his coffee, and just stared at me, then at Hokay.

"What's up?" Hokay finally asked.

Harlan's face fell into sadness. "Our Godson died," he said miserably. "It's on the news."

I stared at him, then got up the nerve to ask, "Michael Armack?"

Harlan nodded, "Mike." His face contorted and he cried, "God, I can't stand it! The world's full of crooks, assholes and lunatics, and it's a guy like Mike who doesn't make it."

Harlan wasn't exactly crying, but he seemed to be on the verge. Hokay and I both closed on him, and Hokay asked, "Want to talk?"

Harlan tried a smile that wouldn't work and nodded, "Thanks." He looked at me and said, "Mind if I borrow your boss?"

"Go ahead," I said. "I'm really sorry."

I was sorry, too. I should have known Harlan would have known the Armacks. They probably did a lot of work together, and if the boy who had died was Harlan's Godson, then the relationship went far deeper than just business.

As bad as I felt, I went back to my tires, and when I was done I worked on the track Hokay had been fixing. This was a rubber one from a small dozer, and tracks like that were a pain. The combination of rubber and metal they used on the coursers made them tiring, and nearly impossible to drill through.

By the time Hokay came back, the crews were coming in, and I was covered in metal filings and rubber dust. The track was fixed and back on the machine, and I'd just turned the hose off from washing it. I'd had the presence of mind to wear a dust mask, and I pulled it off when Hokay appeared. He smiled brightly and said, "Evan look like a torpedo." He tweaked my nose, "All we need is red bulls-eye."

I looked at myself in the window and laughed my agreement. There was a round white area where the mask had been, and the rest of my face was black ... kind of metallic black ... like metallic pencil lead maybe. I grinned at my reflection to see how ridiculous I could look, and I sure could. I started wiping off my tools and putting them away, and told Hokay we'd need a new diamond bit before we could fix any more soft tracks. When I was done, I said goodbye and headed home, trying not to touch much while I drove.

I made it up into the apartment without being seen, and I shed my clothes in the hall outside the bathroom. I got in the shower, and it felt good. After a few minutes I realized the black wasn't leaving my hands, so I stuck my head out and looked in the mirror. Mortification started to set in when I realized I was still all black, and shiny black to boot. Boot is a bad word there, bad, but I had no time to think of a better one.

I turned off the water and tried to think of the cleaning compounds we had around, then started trying them out. I was running around naked, looking in cupboards and under the sink, and I gathered everything that might clean anything. I lined them up on the toilet tank and seat, then set out trying them one at a time. I had dish soap, laundry soap, bleach, scouring powder, toilet bowl cleaner, rust remover, WD-40, and lime remover, and nothing touched the black.

I didn’t despair.  I knew that anything would dissolve in something, but I needed to know the something I needed for rubber dust. The metal filings weren't showing anymore, so they'd either rinsed off or rusted away. I was flailing for a solution and wishing I had the Internet at hand, when I finally thought of something. Two things. Ron from downstairs raced cars, so he must know about rubber dust, and John Balls changed his appearance sometimes twice a day, so he had to be something of a removal expert too.

They were both worth a try, but nobody answered Ron's phone. I got hold of John, though, and he was helpful. "Wheel cleaner," he said. "If that doesn't work, let it grow out."

I said, "Um, do you have any? I mean, I don't have anything on, and I don't want to go to the store looking like I do."

John was silent for a moment, then he said, "Uh, I don't want to see you naked, really ..."

"I'll put some pants on. Just please, will you help me out?"

He hesitated, "Why me?"

I said pointedly, "I thought I'd call a specialist, okay? I really want this stuff off of me, and I don't want to wait a month for it to happen."

John snickered, "Okay, give me some time. I have to stop at a parts store."

I sighed, "Thanks, John. I'll owe you one."

We rang off, and I went back to the mirror. I was a mess, but decided to do the best I could.  When I tried to comb my hair out it caught up in my comb and hurt, so I gave up.

I pulled on a bathing suit, put the cleaning supplies away, and sulked until John showed up about an hour later.

He banged on the front door, which I rarely used, and I ran down to let him in. He'd tamed down his look for the summer, with not much metal visible other than rings in both ears. His hair was buzzed on the sides, short but combable on top, and he had a little ponytail in back that was lubed to stick up rather than hang down. It was a swimming pool blue that fit the season. When he came in and passed me, I thought the ponytail, sticking up the way it did, made his head look a bit like a scorpion. A scorpion's ass, anyhow.

If John Balls did nothing else, he always made me smile, and I was smiling happily as I took the sack he held out. It was heavy, and contained a gallon jug of Pro brand wheel cleaner.

John said, "Fifteen bucks," then looked at me and said, "Not bad. You know, I can bring this stuff back, and we can do something with the black."

I giggled and said, "No thanks. Is this stuff toxic?"

"Yeah, big time," John said. "Not really to people, just don't get it on your flowers, or into the water supply."

I just said, "Well, let's try it. What should I do?"

"Find a washcloth you don't like. We'll have to give it a shot, but they use this stuff to clean brake dust off mags, and that's kind of your problem here."

I grimaced, "I hope. My face isn't magnesium, you know."

John said, "We'll try it on your arm first. Where's a good place?"

"Bathroom?" I asked.

He looked more closely at the label and asked, "Is there a hose outside? We need proper ventilation."

I was concerned. This was me we were talking about, and I said, "Let's see if it works first. We can put a little on in the bathroom to see what happens."

John shrugged, and I was soon back at the sink in front of the mirror. John held a new sponge to the mouth of the bottle and got it wet with the fluid, then handed it to me.

The back of my hand was as black as any part of me, so I dabbed at it with the wet sponge, and nothing happened. I dabbed again, and caused a light spot. Encouraged, I started scrubbing, and soon had a square inch that looked pretty normal.

I smiled at John and said, "You're a genius."

He smacked his lips and said, "Let me do your head, but let's do it outside. Do you feel anything on your hand?"

I hadn't noticed, but of course I did after he asked, and it may have itched a bit. I held it under the faucet, then looked, and my skin was still there, and it felt fine. "What about my hair?" I asked.

"I can fix that," John said confidently, and I had no real doubt that he was serious, so I put myself in his hands and we went outside, pulling a pair of lawn chairs over to the driveway where the hose was.

It was slow going, but I was a white boy again, eventually. The guys I lived with had come and gone, and John had my cell phone in his ear while he worked. He let his family know where he was, then let Aaron know where I was, then he ordered Chinese. We had Joanie Baloney as an audience for awhile, and even she got bored and left. It was nine-thirty and full dark before John said he'd done all he could.

Without letting me protest, he scolded me for overdoing it with unfamiliar makeup, and left me a jar of cold cream from his van.

My arms and hands felt and looked fine, but my face felt abraded from all the scrubbing, so the cold cream felt really good. I went upstairs and got into bed, then I called Aaron. We only talked for a few minutes because I was fading fast, then we hung up and I popped a kiss in my mouth.

As tired as I was, I chuckled a little as I fell asleep, betting that not another soul on this planet had a day like mine.

It was a regular week after that, and nothing dramatic happened. I worked, I saw my friends, I spent some time with Aaron, and I did my part to keep up the place I lived in.

Then, around noon on Thursday, Harlan came out to the shop with some papers in his hand. I was under a machine at the time, and when I saw him bend down peering at me, I smiled. "Hi. I'll be two more minutes here."

"I'll wait," Harlan said.

I was tightening a bolt, and asked, "How's the baby?"

"Loud," Harlan said. "And persistent."

"Maybe it comes with the name," I said. I tightened the last two bolts, then rolled out. "What's up?"

I started to stand, and Harlan said, "Do you know this guy? He applied for the engineering opening, and he has your name."

I wiped my hands off and reached for the paper Harlan was holding, wondering what he was saying.

Of all things, it was an application from my brother, Matt. It was on a state form, so not a direct application from Matt. I knew he planned to sign up at the employment agency, but this was still a surprise.

"I know him," I laughed. "That's my brother, Matthew. He just got out of the service."

Harlan stood there looking perplexed. "I thought he might be. Does he know you work here?"

I was stumped by that. Matt had been in the company truck just days before, and I'd boasted up my job enough, but I kind of doubted that he'd know the name of my employer.

"He knows I work," I said. "I don't know if he could connect the dots."

Harlan looked at the application again, then he looked away, then back at me. "Evan, if your brother is anything like you, he's already hired." He looked at me expectantly and asked, "Is he?"

I liked and admired Harlan Blaine, but I didn't like that he would put me on the spot like that. After a moment, I said so. "Harlan, that's not fair. If my brother looks good on paper, then call him in. If you still like him, then hire him, but please don't make it my choice."

Harlan looked stricken, and I went on. "Matt is plenty smart, and I know he'll work hard, but he's eight years older than me, and I ... I don't know."

Harlan's look softened, and he put a hand on my shoulder. "Never mind. I'm sorry I asked, and you're right. I'll talk to Mr. Matthew Smiley, and take him on his own merits." He looked at me and added, with a gentle shove, "Get back to work."

I was happy to work, but my mind wished I'd said more. Engineering was far removed from what I did for Harlan, and I had no idea what made up Matt's skill set. He'd been an A-student but, as a family, I think we were bred for good grades. They just came easy to us, as did anything that required some mental agility. Engineering for Harlan would be on the construction side of the company anyhow, and I only dealt with the workers there, not the estimators, engineers or project managers. I watched Harlan leave, and decided that I'd avoided the being put in the middle, and that was good.

Then I went back to work, and found myself hoping Matt would get the job. I was under a machine, and I envisioned Matt working off the plans, commenting on them, and making his own way on the front end of the business. I could see him being good at it, and if he did fail it wouldn't be for lack of trying. If he worked for the construction company, I wouldn't see much of him anyhow, so it wouldn't be like we were looking over each others' shoulder. Matt could learn a lot from Harlan, too, just like I had. By the end of the day I'd convinced myself that Harlan should give Matt a chance, so I walked over to the office before leaving and told him that I'd be fine with it. I didn't want to sway him in any way really, but I didn't want him to have the impression that I'd have a problem if Matt worked there.

The next day, Friday, Harlan was out to attend Michael Armack's funeral, and there was coverage of it on the news when Hokay and I broke for lunch. Michael Armack was a kid like me, but his family was well-known and important, so there was brief coverage of the funeral, then several pictures of the boy. He'd been a big kid for sure, and not exactly good looking, but I liked his face just the same. His smile was eager and engaging, and it made me think that most of the people at his funeral were probably there because they knew and liked him, not because he was from a well-connected family.

It was only a minute-long segment, but it had both me and Hokay quiet again, and we didn't say much for the rest of the afternoon.

It was Friday, and the images of that funeral wanted to stay with me even as I drove home. After my shower, I took a page from Aaron's book and did some basic calisthenics in my room to burn off steam. That did work to an extent. I took another quick shower, then pulled on shorts and a basketball jersey before I headed out. I decided to walk to Aaron's because it was early, and I did feel dumb when I drove the short distance on days where we didn't have plans.

Aaron's car wasn't there, and I started to go on up the street to Billy's before I realized that he and Dean would still be on the job. It was the opposite of the year before, and I got out an hour or more before they would.

I didn't mind, really. Those guys were working hard for Harlan, so I was happy that I'd sent them to apply for jobs. They liked the work, or maybe just the money, and I was pretty sure that Harlan liked their eagerness, because it tended to rub off on the older guys. I don't know if people saw themselves in guys like Billy, Huck, Dean and Barrett, or if they just liked that they did so much work. Whatever the cause, the crews were less critical than I remembered from the year before, and the general lack of grouchiness made it even more pleasant to work there.

Since Aaron wasn't home yet, I walked to the top of the hill and followed the street down to the park, where I bought a popsicle from the ice cream truck, then I turned around and walked back, enjoying the icy treat on yet another hot day. The weather called for showers on the weekend, and that wasn't raising the usual complaints from people. It had been around ninety and dry for over two weeks, and just the change would be welcomed. The reservoirs needed the water, and it would help to keep Harlan's mowing crews working, even if they couldn't work when it was actually raining.

I'd just turned onto Aaron's street, when he stopped slightly ahead of me. I would have blasted my horn just to frighten him, but Aaron would never. I looked at my popsicle, which was dripping madly. I gave it a shake, and the part I'd been licking went flying onto the sidewalk, so I licked the stick and shoved it in my pocket as I hopped in.

I was always happy to see Aaron, but he just had the sweetest smile on his face, and I returned it automatically.

"Ev," he said. "Want to go to the beach?"

I looked at Aaron, who was already pulling up in front of his house. "I guess. Sure."

He touched my knee and giggled, "I've been thinking about fish all afternoon. Let's go get some clams or something, then walk in the sand."

I had my normal reaction, only worse than usual. The very thought of a fried clam dinner made me so instantly hungry, that great volumes of saliva formed in my mouth, and I could feel it leaking out from both sides. Evan the Rottweiller!

Aaron noticed, and almost choked on his own laugh. He put his hand over his mouth and, luckily for him, kept his thoughts to himself. I was embarrassed enough, and only went into his house to use the bathroom while he left a note.

Everything we needed was already in the car, so we drove off  right away, talking up the relative merits of clams, oysters and scallops, and who had the best tartar sauce.

It was a summer Friday, so traffic was heavy. There were no incidents, though, and we were in the early crowd for dinner at Denny's Bridge Restaurant, an outside restaurant we'd decided on along the way. The place was on a tidewater river across from a marina, and right by a bridge. It was already busy, but we got a picnic table right on the water, and ordered a pitcher of iced tea as soon as we sat down. Denny's had an inside seating area, too, but when I went in to use the men's room it was vacant, except for the bar.

We were there at six o'clock. By seven there would be long lines. We had no such problem, and both ordered custom platters, which meant fried clams, oysters and scallops, with a flounder fillet and a mountain of fries that we'd feed most of to the gulls.

We were at the end of the table closest to the water, and an older couple sat at the table after politely asking if we'd mind, which we didn't. We sipped cold tea and idly watched the activity at the marina, while aware of the squawking gulls who were everywhere, but somehow canny enough to not crap where people were actually sitting.

Some kids from a family who'd finished their meal were tossing their leftovers to the gulls, and it was neat to watch the birds hovering there, catching fries and chunks of bread right in mid-air.

I was so totally caught up in the atmosphere of the place that I was almost surprised when a huge, tin plate of food appeared in front of me. I noticed the other couple at the table looking on enviously, but they'd get theirs soon enough, so I dug in after smiling only briefly at Aaron.


Good, good, good! I had a weakness for shellfish to begin with, and when it was battered and fried just so, I found my own Nirvana. My fish-Nirvana, anyhow.

Denny knew too, whoever he was. They made this same meal a thousand times a week, and it was always identical and always good, because of the simple fact that practice makes perfect.

I was eating clam, oyster, scallop in that order. The clams had a crispiness and tang to them, which the oysters offset with sweetness, and the scallops were even sweeter. I was always happy to eat, but that meal had me almost outside of myself, and from sheer goodness.

When we'd eaten our way through, there were a ton of fries left, which we dutifully tossed up to waiting gulls, and over the rail to the ducks below. The fat gulls still caught theirs in mid-air. It was simple, cheerful activity, and we stayed there for quite a while enjoying ourselves.

We finally got things in gear and left, heading down the road about a mile to the entrance to a state park. There was a decent beach there, and the entry was free in the evening. From the highway, it was about a mile on park roads to the parking area, and we drove out to the farthest one, which was another half-mile. That was my favorite part of the beach. There was a long, stone jetty out into the water there. To the right side was the guarded area, a straight beach about a mile long. The area to the left of the jetty wasn't patrolled, and it was a lot more natural. There were small beaches all along, but also dunes, hummocks, marshes, and lot of wildlife.

There was a nature trail, which was an elevated boardwalk, but as long as we stayed out of the protected areas, we were free to roam the waterfront.

A sandbar sat a few hundred yards offshore, and the big surf broke out there, and even on a stormy day a two-foot wave was the best you could expect directly on the coast. That made it nice for beachcombing, and that's what we did. We exchanged our shorts for bathing suits in one of the changing areas, then Aaron ran our things back to his car, and we started walking.

There weren't many people around, but there were enough to keep us off of each other. One of the things we'd learned during a year together was that crowds were safer places to let on that we were fond of each other. If people didn't like whatever we were doing, they could look away for a few seconds and we'd be out of their field of view the next time they looked.

A lonely beach was different, so we just walked side-by-side, enjoying the world around us as we idly looked for shells, the water lapping at our ankles. One of the hummocks had a bench, and when we got there we sat, with a good view to an Osprey nest. The nest was man-made in an attempt to revive the species, and it was pretty simple; just a little platform with a straw bed, set up about twenty feet off the ground on a pole.

It was working, because the one we could see had a bird in it, and after awhile another bird landed there with something in its beak. It seemed pretty neat to be seeing that, so we watched quietly until the sun started fading, then we turned our attention to the Western sky in anticipation of a sunset.

We were disappointed at first. The sky turned a nice yellow, then orange, then red, but there were no clouds for the light to play on. The only real show was the red ball of the sun when it disappeared rapidly behind the horizon. There were about two seconds of brilliance right at the end, then it was gone.

I shrugged, happy anyhow. "That was nice, huh?"

Aaron sighed, "Yeah, it was. You know, sunsets are the one big thing we miss at the lake, unless we go out on the water."

I was unhappy that Aaron mentioned the lake. The Fourth of July was coming up in a week, and I'd talked up the Riverton fireworks to so many people that I felt obligated to go. In the process, I'd neglected to ever ask Aaron what he was doing, and he was planning to be at the lake with his family, assuming I'd go with him.

Well, the year before the nightly electrical storms had postponed the fireworks for several days, but they eventually got them off, and it was my real, official welcome to Riverton. I'd boasted enough about the display that I thought half the population of Mt. Harman might show up, and I'd planned all along to be the unofficial host.

"Aaron," I said as we walked back toward his car, "I hope you're not mad about next week."

He said, "I'm not mad. I think I'll come back to go with you. I have training the next day anyhow, and a rehearsal. He put a gentle hand on my shoulder and said, "You can come out to the lake for the weekend, and I'll go to the fireworks with you. We can do both."

I took his hand from my shoulder and held it. "That'll work." I looked at him, and as often happened I lost my train of thought for a moment. There in the gathering darkness, with Aaron's own thoughts wherever they took him, I saw the guy I loved, and he was becoming the man I'd love forever. In profile, he seemed determined, and in that determination I found something that seemed spectacular to me. Aaron Castle was what he was, and unapologetic about that, just like me. Aaron's talents tended toward the artistic while I was mechanically inclined, but we shared vivid imaginations. While I danced to unheard Cossack folk music, Aaron found an Egyptian Love Cock in old driftwood, and in our differences we were alike. Aaron ordinarily seemed delicate, but he could swim like a fish, water ski with the best of them, and he'd join in whatever was going on, unafraid. Yet I was the gentler of the two of us when we were together, and that was because I liked being that way, not for any fear of hurting Aaron. We just worked off each other like that. It wasn't like we were trying for effect. We'd been like that since we first met, and only fate could change things.

Walking across the sand with Aaron like we were gave me a feeling of pride. We were tough guys in our own ways. I was bigger and stronger physically, but Aaron had a mental toughness that would be hard for anyone to crack.

I smiled and leaned against him just enough to make him break stride.

"What?" he asked, smiling curiously.

I smiled, "I love you is what." My eyes suddenly teared up and I added, "I admire you too, Aar. You are the man."

Aaron seemed surprised, but took my hand and tugged me along. We'd gone a way before he said, "I feel like a man with you, Ev." He let go of my hand, punched my arm lightly and said," Last one back is a fag!" He pushed me off to the side and took off running.

I put my hand up and said, "Nobody gets away from Evan Smiley!" and tripped on a weed after only two steps. "Oof!"

I was on my face for a few seconds, and Aaron came back. He snickered, "I was hoping you'd catch me. You okay?"

He had my hand and helped me up.

"Yeah," I said. "I fell over."

"Over what?" he asked, looking around.

"Over you!" I cried, pushing into his knees. He fell on his butt right in the spoon of a departing wave, and made a little splash. His surprise turned into a smile, and he said, "You wait," while I helped him up.

He tried to look around at his backside, and finally asked me, "Is my ass all sand?"

I looked. "Not on the outside. It's just wet." I smirked, "If it's sand on the inside, I'll just have to call you SA instead of Aaron."

"SA?" he asked suspiciously.

"Yeh. Sandpaper Ass." He glowered at me and I said, "If you don't mind me saying, that would be one Hell of a condition for a gay boy."

Aaron made a loud noise and took a swing at me, but he was laughing by the time I grabbed his threatening wrist.

I smiled at him, and we walked on in silence. We were turning to the parking lot when Aaron said, "Um, Ev ..."

I lifted my eyebrows and smiled in response.

Aaron looked away, "It wouldn't matter, would it? I mean ... well, we talked about all that ... the ..."

I knew what Aaron was getting at. We'd talked about anal sex, and for the time being at least, neither of us were the least bit interested. But even a joke, or a flip remark like mine, would act as something like a checkpoint for us, where we'd both rethink our positions.

We were both relieved to learn that nothing had changed, and our sex life was still in the novice stage.

Novices can still have fun, and novice love might even be more fun than the advanced stages. Probably not, but we were still pretty much in the discovery stage, and everything we did was fun. Not really, but everything we kept doing was fun, and we had a fun night out on my porch.

It was hot and we were sweaty, and we got sand between the sheets because we hadn't showered. We had fun though. Giddy, loving fun, and it lasted until sleep took over, and even then I had happy dreams.

Continued …