A Horse Named Phil

Chapter 16

I was on my way to the lake by nine-thirty.  Traffic was on the heavy side, but still moving along.  The roads out that way are almost all two-lanes, and are much nicer to drive in light traffic.  The traffic did ease up after about the first half-hour, and it was pretty much going the speed limit all the way.  The speed limit on those roads is only between thirty-five and fifty.  I was in a V-8 Dodge with a six-speed stick, and even fifty was snooze territory.  Less than fifty, for any stretch, could make you comatose.


I stopped at an orchard thinking I’d get something yummy for the crowd, and could smell the strawberries as soon as I stepped out of the truck.  High season for berries was past, but only by a week, and they had ten-pound boxes at three bucks a pound, so I bought two of them, and a giant sack of their own-made shortcakes, plus six cans of whipped cream.  It would be a pricey dessert for sure, but I could still be popular even if I had become boring.


When I got to the Castle’s place, most people were by the water, but those in the yard migrated to the scent of fresh strawberries as soon as I turned the motor off.  Aaron’s grandfather reached me first, and I announced, “I have all the fixings for strawberry shortcake.”


He smiled kind of evilly at me.  “I have a knife you can borrow.  It’s in the drawer to the left of the sink.  Don’t keep people waiting.”  He smiled sweetly, and walked toward the lake.


This is what happens when you’re boring?  No more exclamation point?  What next?  The ‘n’ at the end of my name falls off, and I’m Eva?


Not!  If these people want strawberry shortcake they can invest some effort in it and make their own.  There were long tables out back with just some chafing dishes at one end, so I set up shop in the middle.  Plates and forks, shortcakes, strawberries, then whipped cream.  Be my guest!


Me first, though.  I fixed myself a double, with a small mountain of berries topped by a larger mountain of Reddi-Whip.  The berries were a day short of being overripe, and I had juice all over everything, myself included.  I had a work of art in my hands, though, as I hurried to where the people were so they could see.


Sure enough, some aunt or another said, “Oh, my!  That looks good.  Where’d you get it?”


“Back yard,” I said.  “Evan brought them.  You have to make your own, but it’s easy.  Hurry, though.  There’s not a lot left.”  A lot of people heard me, and started rushing back toward the house.  Others saw them and followed, not knowing what the attraction was, but keen to be in on it no matter what.


I sat on the lawn and dug in, and oh, was it ever good.  The shortcake was the old-fashioned kind:  dense, but already sodden with berry juice, and the berries were sweeter than the whipped cream.  I smiled and sighed after the first bite, and another bunch of people cleared out.  Aaron was at the tail end of them, and he stopped short when he spotted me, and sat by my side.


“Evan!  I didn’t see you get here.  What’s that you’re eating?”


I pulled a second fork from my shirt pocket and held it out to him.  “I’m eating my half of this yummy shortcake.”  He took his fork and reached over.  I pushed his hand away, and said, “Uh-uh,” and pulled my shortcake to one side.  “This is mine.  That side is yours.”


Aaron got a big bite on his fork, and it dripped juice and whipped cream down onto his knee.  He got most of it to his mouth though,  leaving whipped cream and a red line of strawberry juice to slide down his chin.  He made appreciative noises, and after he got it down he said, “Mmmmm.  Where’d you get these?”


“I don’t know; one of those orchard stands on the way here.”


“Mm, oh, yeah.  They always have good things.”  He took another big bite, getting more on himself, and said, “God, I love this.  Am I being a slob?”


He was being Aaron, and that was a good thing.  Right then, I could agree with slob, so I did, and I ended up with juice and whipped cream on my ear when Aaron kissed me.  That was okay, because when I complained, he licked it off.  If that doesn’t sound sexy, then trust me.  It’s sexy.  Way sexy.


When we finished, I scrunched our forks up in the paper plate.  Aaron pulled his tee shirt off and ran into the lake.  I had a swimsuit on underneath, but I had a tee shirt, a regular shirt, socks and sneakers to shed before I could follow him.


I left my things in a little pile and went after him.  Aaron could out-swim me any day, but he didn’t try to.  He was floating on his back when I got to him, so I did the same beside him.  “How’s the lovecock?” I asked.


“What kind of question is that?  I don’t get it.”


“You don’t?”


“Uh, no I don’t.  If you’re asking how is my cock, then the answer is just ducky.  If you want to know if I still love cock … well, yes, but I’m mostly fond of just yours.”  He looked over at me with more curiosity in his expression than humor.


I looked at him and said, “I was asking about that birdYour Egyptian Love Cock.”


Well, I found the perfect way to do Aaron in, if it ever came to that.  When he digested my words, he started laughing and rolled on his side, which caused him to go under, and come up sputtering.  Then he laughed harder, and went under again.  That time he came up spurting water like a geyser.  I took pity after that, and stood up to hold him before he did drown.  We were in water up to my shoulders, and buoyancy caused some issues, but we survived, even with Aaron totally lost in mirth.


When he finally caught some air and calmed down, Aaron said, “I don’t think that Love Cock is gay anymore.  Come look.” 


He took my hand and led me out of the water and  toward the front of the house, and we had to wait at the road while a line of cars went by close together.  When we crossed and were on the lawn again, Aaron said, “Okay, close your eyes now.  This is a surprise.”


I closed my eyes, and a grin grew on my face because I couldn’t guess a thing.  When Aaron said, “Stop,” I did, and opened my eyes when he said to.  I was there looking at the bird, and its blue-bottle tree.  Other than the fact that the vegetation we’d planted around it was now mature and beautiful, it was the same bird.


“What?” I asked.


Aaron said, “Look down,” and when I did there were a half-dozen or more egg-shaped stones there, the size of nerf-footballs, and painted or stained the same colors as the bird.


“I think it’s androgynous,”  Aaron said, matter-of-factly.  “I would have sworn gay, but it has to be a he/she with this litter.  He gripped my upper arm and asked in an anxious voice, “Don’t you think?”


“Well, sure,” I said, then laughed.  “He laid eggs?”


Aaron said, “I sure didn’t put them there.”


I was snickering at the eggs, then Aaron’s words sunk in, and I swung my head to look at him.  “You’re serious?  Who did?”

Aaron shrugged.  “They were just here when I came out the other day.  You know what I think it means?”


I looked my question, and Aaron smiled, “Somebody else is as warped as me.  That’s what this means.  Not a bad painter, either.”


We both looked at the eggs, me with a new slant on things.  I asked, “What’ll you do if they hatch?”


Let me tell you, Aaron laughed until he had drool coming from the sides of his mouth, tears in his eyes, and snot dripping from his nose.  He was bent over, but kept a quivering hand on my elbow.  After what seemed like a long time, he stopped laughing completely, stood up straight and said, “What would I do?  I would probably keep it quiet; otherwise people will come asking questions.”


“Who?” I asked.  “The Press?  The scientific community?  Oh, I know:  the Audubon Society’s driftwood-bird department, right?”


That got Aaron laughing again, but he didn’t have a lot left in him.  After a bit, he detached from me, looked at the eggs with his hand on his chin, and finally announced, “I know what it is!  Somebody’s playing a trick on me.  A wooden bird can’t lay eggs, and eggs look like eggs, not footballs.  Oooh, that makes me mad.” 


Aaron looked at me with something like a determined expression on his face.  “At least they got the colors right.,” then he looked again and bent over laughing, barely able to point at me.


His words were garbled, and only intelligible by me, but he basically told me that he got me a good one, which was the truth.  I’m not sure what it is with me.  People can play tricks on everyone, and get a laugh out of the ones that work.  Anyone who gets one by me, though, automatically dissolves into bent-over laughter like Aaron just had.  Eggs, my ass.  Those were nerf footballs that had been coated with plaster of Paris or something similar, and had then been painted.  At least I never thought they were real eggs.


We decided to bring my things inside, and had just turned when we heard someone calling, “Aaron, Evan!  Wait for me.”


We looked, and it was Chrissie, Aaron’s cousin from El Salvador, coming around from the other side of the house.  She walked quickly toward us.  Chrissie was eighteen then, and a knockout in every sense of the word.  I already knew from the year before that she was bright, sensitive and friendly, not to mention pretty.


Now she was just drop-dead gorgeous.  She had a dark tan, a great shape, the same blonde hair over dark skin that I remembered, and … I guess it’s called poise.  Chrissie didn’t walk toward us like a model on a runway.  It was more than that, even though she had the poise of a model.  She had a purpose, too, and if I didn’t know her I might have thought of a tiger with a serious appetite.  She was that graceful, that beautiful, and had the same kind of intent in her expression as a big cat on the prowl.


She smiled happily when she reached us, took both of Aaron’s hands in hers and gave him a kiss, then held her hand to me and we shook.  “You’re looking good, Evan.  You’ve grown some, too.”  She smiled, “I don’t have to ask how you’ve been, because I’ve been hearing for two days,”


“Good,” I said.  “Aaron told me you’re going to Columbia?”


She beamed, glanced gratefully at Aaron, and turned to me, bouncing on her bare feet.  “Isn’t it great?  I get to live in New York for four years.  Then I’ll move upstate to Cornell.  I want to be a veterinarian!”


I grinned, “A doggie doctor?”


“No, no no,” she said.  “Well, that too, but I want to look after the farm animals back home.  There are so many, and so few doctors.”


That didn’t compute with me.  I figured that any agricultural area would have plenty of vets, so I asked, “Why is that?”


Her eyes suddenly grew wide and saddened.  “During the revolution, educated people on the wrong side were often executed.  Most doctors didn’t take sides, and were killed by the guerillas and the army both.  They didn’t care if you fixed babies, if you fixed animals, or if you fixed politicians.  Doctors were too smart to live.”


I asked, thinking to be gentle.  “Isn’t it dangerous to be there, then?  To be a doctor?”


Chrissie looked at me, calm in her eyes.  “There are dangers, but not like before.  Things get better by the day, and I need eight years of education before I can start work.  If they are shooting doctors again, that far in the future, I can go somewhere else.”  She smiled, “My passion is to care for animals.  I love my country, but if the rebels are still at it in another eight years, then I won’t rejoin the madness.”  She added firmly, “Nobody needs a whole lifetime of that crap.”


I laughed, and was about to reply when a voice behind me said, “Evan, hi.”


I turned around and had to take a breath.  It was Chrissie’s brother, Renolfo, who everyone called Reno, or his nickname Fofo.  A year ago, he’d been one very cute thirteen-year-old.  Now he was as big as me, even in the shoulders, and it was clear that he thought himself a tough guy just from his stance.


He still had an Aaron face, and was smiling at me.  I said, “Damn!  Steroids, right?”


Reno snickered, and Chrissie said, “Vigoro implants.”


“Lots of them,” Aaron suggested.


Reno had filled out, for sure.  He still had the Latino complexion and the Anglo blond hair.  He was as strikingly handsome as his sister was beautiful.  He sure wasn’t a kid anymore, though.  There are a lot of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in Mt.  Harman, and they seemed to have a puberty that just lasts a week or so.  They’d be smooth-faced kids at the beginning of a term, and men with moustaches by the time they got their report cards.


That was Reno.  The change in him over just a single year was all good, but somewhat incredible.


“Did you get shortcake?” I asked.


Reno licked his lips, and Chrissy bopped the back of his head pretty hard, earning her a dirty look, then a meek grin.  “Whoever brought those things should call first!”  Chrissy accused.  “This cerdo follows fresas like normal boys follow Avril Lavigne.  If you cut him open, he’ll bleed strawberry syrup.  If you split his head, you’ll find crema … what you say?  Whipped.”  She giggled, put her hand over her mouth, and said, “I stop right there,” and grinned.  “You bring your own shortcake.”


It was a hot, hazy summer day, and we all gravitated back to the beach.  This time I sat on towels with Aaron, Chrissy, Reno, and some other relatives around our age.  Justin and Cindy both had summer jobs and wouldn’t be there until dinner time.  We sat, waded, took short swims to cool off, then repeated.  After about an hour Aaron asked, “Anybody want a boat ride?  Water ski, maybe?”


I had my hand up in a second, as did some others.  Not everyone wanted to ski, but they wanted to get out on a boat to stop sweating, and for something to do.  Aaron led the way to the dock, told a few of us what to do to make the boat ready, then decided some of us would have to wait and take turns.


I wanted to try skiing again.  The last time I was there, I was able to get up on skis and take a run around the islands, but I was still pretty shaky as a water skier.  Once Aaron made a high-speed lap of the lake, he put me in the water first.  I was nervous, but grateful that I’d be the basic unit of measure.  I didn’t have to live up to anyone’s prowess, and I sure wouldn’t frighten anyone off with my own.


I did fine, and didn’t fall until I meant to, when I signaled that I was done.  I was still an arms-out, behind-the-boat skier, and I was happy with that.


I was happy to spot others, too, and I drove the boat when Aaron took his turn.  He was strutting his stuff way off the wake when something went wrong.  I cut the throttle when Chrissie screamed, and turned to see Aaron descending from the sky, headlong into the water.


That didn’t compute, and I think my heart stopped, but I had the presence of mind to turn the boat toward where he went under.  “What happened?” I asked desperately.


“Aaron fell,” someone said.


“He fell up?”


“Yeah,” Reno said.  “Up first, then down.”  He pointed, “There he is!”


Aaron was there, and he still had one ski on, and he was having trouble ridding himself of it.  “Just wait, Aar,” I said.  “Stop wiggling.  Reno, go give Aaron a hand.”


Aaron got his legs up ad flopped on his back, treading water with the one ski pointed vertically.  Reno was there in a minute, and they talked while Reno pulled the ski off, then swam back to the boat.  Aaron was grinning, so my pulse started the long descent back to normal.  Chrissie and I helped him up into the boat, with Reno pushing. 


Aaron plopped down on the floor of the boat and grinned, “I think I did a double flip.  Did anyone see it?”


Everyone but me said they did, and Chrissie asked, “What did you hit?”


Aaron said flatly, as if it was the truth, “Crocodile.”  He looked at everyone in the boat in turn, and added, “I thought they got rid of them all.”


One of the older kids said, “Cut it out!  You just messed up.”


Aaron looked at him and said, “That’s true, too.  I messed up after I hit the croc.”  He had defiance in his eyes for a moment, then smiled.  “You’re right.  This is a croc: a crock of shit.”


We all laughed, and I asked, “You’re okay?”


Aaron smiled, “I think so, but you can check me over later.  I could have hurt something that I’m not aware of yet, so if you’ll  take a close look …”


That was pretty bold for Aaron to say, but it didn’t bother anyone.  I got back to the controls and steered the boat to the second ski, and when we were close enough I could see that it wasn’t right anymore.  It was upside-down in the water, and stopped raggedly about ten inches from where the front should have been.  When I got close enough for one of the cousins to pick it out of the water, I could see that it was all there, but pried into two pieces, with the front part dangling by fibers.


Seeing that, I intended to inspect Aaron for damage, because if that thing broke, it could have as easily been Aaron’s leg or ankle as the ski.  I got the jitters just thinking about it, and when I brought the boat back in to get another pair of skis, Aaron and I volunteered to stay ashore so others could have a turn.


I walked back to the house with Aaron, joking about crocodiles, while I was mildly concerned because he was favoring one foot.  Aaron thought he twisted it,  and no big deal.  When we got to the big first step toward the front porch, he winced, but said, “I have a surprise for you.”


“For me?”


“I didn’t want to tell you, but I got a little tattoo.  It says, “I love Evan.”


I don’t like tattoos, but I was flattered that Aaron would go through the pain of getting one for my benefit.  “Let me see,” I said.


“When we’re inside,” Aaron said, then whispered, “It’s on my dick.”


I laughed, “I heard this joke, Aar.  You want to put words in my mouth, right?”


Aaron said, “You’re no fun.”


Wanna bet?” I asked, as we hurried upstairs.


* * * * * * * *


It was the July Fourth weekend, so the sound of small fireworks was in the air, coming from all directions, even the Castle’s yard.  Aaron and I rested up, and when it became too hot to stay upstairs we spent an hour in the shade on the front porch on idle, and in catch-up mode.  Aaron brought a pitcher of ice water out after just a few minutes, and we talked with whoever stopped to talk with us.


A breeze came up at around four-thirty, and I tossed a Frisbee around by the beach with some others, while Aaron sat it out.  His ankle was sore, but not hurting seriously, and not swollen.  He didn’t want to test his luck, so he watched.


Younger kids were on the dock tossing firecrackers out over the lake.  Their laughter blended with that of other kids at nearby cottages, and still others out in boats, prodding them to do more.


They were joined by Aaron’s father, grandfather, Rashid, and a couple of other men, who kept giving them little firecrackers and bottle rockets.  After a while, the kids were shooed off, and the men produced what looked like an Olympic torch without the flame.  I was back sitting with Aaron by then, and asked, “What’s that?”


What I could see was a pole with a half globe atop it, the top open to the sky.  “It’s a floor lamp,” Aaron said, and then he giggled.  “It’s been repurposed.  Watch.”


I’d never seen Aaron’s father smoke, but he had a Cigar that would make Castro proud, and he was puffing it like crazy.  He made a lot of smoke, and the end was as fiery red as a rocket.  He put it in the repurposed floor lamp, and they all tossed loose packs of firecrackers in, then backed up quickly.


It was wonderful!  Once the cigar got something going, everything went up, and they kept running in to feed packet after packet of firecrackers into the bowl.


It took a while for me to realize I wasn’t hearing an echo, but rather the sound of similar displays from around the cove.  The fireworks were louder, but there was also the sound of lots of people laughing happily and cheering things on.  I found myself laughing and cheering with the rest of them, just like a little kid, which made me laugh and cheer even louder.


One of the guys out there, whose name is Larry, is related to the Castles through marriage somehow, and I remembered him from the year before.  Aaron told me then that the guy was really rich, but all I saw was that he was really loaded.  He was fun sober, but came to the beach with a cooler full of ice and booze, and I saw him sometimes with a drink in each hand.  Aaron called him Liquid Larry, which was both funny and appropriate.


Watching the men with the fireworks, I could see that Larry was pretty drunk already, and sure enough, he took a misstep and took a horrible looking fall from the dock, where he landed across a canoe in the water.  There was the kind of collective gasp that you hear when something like that happens, then there was a surge of people rushing to the dock to help.


By the time I got there, some men were in the water trying to see if Larry was badly hurt.  It seemed clear to me that he should be, and I knew he’d be hurting when the booze wore off, but aside from a nasty scrape down the side of one leg he seemed functional.  He was apologetic, too, but as soon as he was on his feet on shore, he limped over to his cooler and fixed another drink.  His wife was there by then, and she fussed over him, and made him sit on the grass.


The call to dinner came soon after, and I was surprised to learn that the Castle’s ‘traditional’ July Fourth dinner consisted mainly of grilled salmon, fresh peas, and boiled new potatoes.  There were plenty of other things, but that was the main course, and it was delicious.


After we ate, everyone hung out talking until after sunset.  I was on the beach with Aaron, and the sunset wasn’t over the water, so we sat facing the other way.  It wasn’t a brilliant sunset that night; just some red over the trees, and right at the end a cloud way up turned gold on the bottom.


The sound of a rocket shooting up made us turn around just in time to see a little thing shoot up sparks from an island.  Aaron nudged me and said, “Let’s watch from the party boat.  You can drive.”


“Why me?  I don’t know this lake, and …”


“You drive,” Aaron insisted.  “I always do, and I want to watch.”


“Watch what?” I asked, but had my answer when I saw bigger fireworks shooting up from all around the cove.


“Wake up call,” Aaron said.  “Come on.”


He was on his feet, and held his hand down to me, so I got up and we hurried out to the dock.  I got on the big boat and got it started while Aaron called people to get on if they wanted to.


Well, they wanted to. There was a label right in front of me warning that the maximum capacity was thirteen people, and in moments there were easily twenty, probably more like thirty.  Nobody seemed particularly concerned with safety, either.  Parents perched little kids on the rails and held them from behind.  Not one soul put on a floatation device, either.


And I couldn’t see a damn thing in any direction.  When Aaron said, “Go!”  I put the boat in reverse and idled away from the dock. 


Someone from another boat yelled “Watch where you’re going!”


I mumbled a swear word, and a voice from our boat yelled back, “We’re drifting, man.  You watch where we’re going!”


Just then, Aaron was at my side, and he did his best to sit on my right thigh.  There wasn’t quite enough room, so he leaned against me and said, “Watch Remo,” while he pointed to the bow of the boat, and Reno was there, standing up high on something, and pointing to the left, so I turned the wheel that way and put the boat in forward gear.  We were still at idle speed, meaning the boat was barely moving, and my nerves calmed right down.


Once my eyes adjusted, I could tell that we were in a regular flotilla of small boats of all kinds.  I put our boat in neutral and left the engine idling so the bow and stern lights would stay on, and the only light on the water was from other power boats.  The light was just enough to let us see the smaller boats, and all eyes were on shore.  The cove Aaron’s family home was in had little fireworks displays going off here and there.  It was pretty, but in an underwhelming kind of way.


After a few minutes, the pace picked up.  People were shooting off aerial displays and bigger rockets, and the sounds of appreciation from the other boats in the water kind of swept me along.  With all the noise around from fireworks, it still seemed peaceful and serene, and we followed the fireworks from cove to cove on that side of the lake until things were quiet.


I’d been aware of similar doings across and around the lake, but we could only see so much, and it was enough.  When I pulled the boat back to the Castle’s dock, it was like the end should have been written there, and everyone behaved like it might be.  We were all tired from the hour, from being dirty with smoke and fireworks debris, and from a good time.


Later, in bed, I asked Aaron, “What do they do on the actual Fourth?”


He snored in response, and that was the end of my Saturday at the lake.


* * * * * * * *


Sunday was a nice, peaceful day.  Activities were much like Saturdays, so there is no point reporting them in this telling.  We ate, played in the lake, relaxed and we all talked  Dean showed up in the morning, and it seemed that the spark between Chrissie and him was still hot.  They disappeared shortly after Dean came by, so that’s all I can say about that.


It was another day, as hot as Saturday but far less humid.  The high point for Aaron and me was spending a few hours on his catamaran giving rides.  The breeze was from the west, gentle and steady, and I learned something of the art of sailing in such easy conditions. 


It was that kind of day.  We spent a lot of time just looking, noticing things like birds in the air, skiers on the lake, and neat new boats.  A lazy day.  A perfect day.


Sunday night at the lake hadn’t been in my plans, but I stayed because I was having such a good time.  Aaron found an alarm clock for our hot, little tower room, and I was up at four on Monday, and on my way back to Riverton by five.  With the non-existent traffic at that early hour, I was home before six.  I’d been playing Marco Polo in the lake until ten the night before, so I didn’t really need a shower.


I started a pot of coffee, then made myself  toast and eggs for breakfast.  I’d heard the weather forecast many times on the ride home, and a couple of days of bright sunshine were predicted, along with a further drop in the humidity.  I hoped the nice weather would last through the holiday.


It was an easy day at work.  A lot of the guys took the day off so they could have the long weekend, and I could tell they’d worn Hokay out by working on Saturday, which was when I usually took care of things.  Hokay didn’t begrudge me that, but he did go home after the morning crews were gone, so I was on my own for the rest of the day.


I didn’t mind.  Our suppliers had closed, for the most part, and by noon I found myself with the time to wash my own truck.  I’d just put the hose to it when Matt walked up. 


“Busy?” he asked hopefully.


“I was just gonna wash the truck.”


“I bought a car,” he said.  Want to see it?”


I closed the hose nozzle, excited.  “What’d you get?  Is it here?”


Matt said, “It’s here.  Do you want your car here?  I can do that tomorrow, because we’re coming for the fireworks.  I can ride back with someone.”


I thought for a second and said, “No, leave it at the house.  It’s off the street where it is.”


I’d been following Matt across the street to the offices, and we walked to that parking lot.  There weren’t many cars there, because few people were working, and I knew Matt’s car before he pointed it out.  It was another Acura, an RSX, which had replaced the Integra model I had.  Matt bought one in pearl white, and I ran over to it.  Matt was behind me, and popped the locks, so I opened the driver-side door to look inside.


Acura had done a good job with the new model, I thought.  The basic size and shape were the same, but the new car had improved technology, more safety features, and a new look.  I held my hand behind me for the keys, which Matt gave me, then I took the driver’s seat.  I felt right at home there, too.  Some things were different looking, but the controls were generally the same.  The seat seemed more comfortable, the radio looked more complicated, but when I felt the controls they were like my car.


“Where to?” I asked Matt.


“I don’t care, but take it easy, okay?  They said take it easy the first thousand miles, and I have nine-hundred-twenty to go.”


I didn’t want to break Matt’s car, so we just took a short ride, then ate lunch in the shade of a tree.  Matt was happy with his car, with his new home, and with his job.  I was glad for him.


I loved him again when he asked after Aaron, like it was the most natural thing in the world.  He gasped when I told him about the water skiing accident, and laughed when I told him Aaron  pulled a muscle that only I was able to help him with.


After lunch, we went our separate ways, and I gave my truck a quick wash.  It was dusty more than dirty, but Harlan liked his equipment clean, and this truck had Harlan’s name on the outside, not mine.


Things stayed quiet.  I did minor maintenance on some equipment that was near-due, but Hokay and I had cleared up any backlog we had, so I was working in advance.


Around two, my cell phone vibrated in my pocket, and I opened it while pulling it from my pocket.  “Evan here,” I said, expecting to hear a crew member.


Evie!  I’m in town.  Tell me how to get where you are.”


It was Chris.  I started to say something, then decided to be Evan.  “You can’t get here from where you are.  You have to go where I tell you first, okay?”




“Okay, first tell me where you are.”


“I just turned a corner onto Main Street.  I came in on Riverpoint Drive.”


I managed to not laugh.  “On, no, that won’t do.  Go back to Mt. Harman and come in via Evan Boulevard.  Then I’ll know where you are.”






“Fuck you, okay?”


“Not okay, and Aaron has first dibs.”


Chris said, “I’m staying with you tonight.”


“Really?  What’s up?”


Chris said, snidely I thought, “Nothing’s upNan’s with her family in Christendon, my parents are going to see friends, so I’m here to see my friend.  Please, kindly and gently, tell me where the fuck you are.”


“Who did you say you are?” I asked, but I couldn’t hold my laugh.  Chris laughed too.  He was practically around the corner from me, but the directions would be difficult, so I said, “Watch for my shiny red truck.  I’ll be there in less than five, so just follow me, okay?”


Chris said, “You always told me to lead, never follow.”


“Yeah, well.  Wait a minute.  That’s what you told me!  Try leading yourself here.”


“Dork.  Just come and get me, okay?  I’ll be good.”


I told Chris what to look for, and that I’d be there in five minutes.


He was on Riverton’s Main Street.  To stay on Main Street heading either north or south from town, you had to make turns.  The street continued in a straight line each way, but took on new names either way.  To get to South Main Street, you had to follow Main Street to where it ended, then turn right and go part way around a circle to get to South Main Street.  The street straight ahead had a different name and went different places.  There were no signs to indicate this arrangement.


The same was true going north.  If you went straight on Main, thinking you would find North Main Street, what you would do is cross the bridge and end up in a different town altogether.  To get to North Main Street, you had to know where Main Street ended, then turn left and go up four blocks, and lo:  North Main Street!  There are no signs that way, either.


Otherwise, downtown is inscrutable.  There are turns off Main Street that you can make the turn on, but one block later they become one-way, and it’s invariably pointing to where you started from.  There are dead-ends, alleyways, and parking lots, not to mention the river and the college, all put there to block your progress. 


Aaron’s father says that maze is the single reason that Riverton still has a viable downtown, with no Wal-Marts, Home Depots, not even a Staples.  It works the way it is, and the robots who design those big places don’t know what to do, because they’re always lost when they come to look.


Traffic was light, and I slowed beside Chris when I saw his car.  I honked the horn and waved for him to follow me, then put my truck in reverse for a second to make the guy behind me think I was going to back up.  Then I pulled ahead, and the guy let Chris in behind me.


When you know the way, it’s a two minute drive with no lights from where Chris was to Harlan’s.  Even with a couple of lights, we were there in five minutes, and Chris followed me to the shop.


I hopped out of the truck and grinned while Chris undid his belt, then stepped down from his vehicle.


Chris had grown whiskers!  I’d seen him a few weeks before, and he talked about how much he hates shaving.  I don’t like shaving either, but I look groty when I don’t.  Chris, though, with his blond hair, had very blond whiskers.


I suppose any adult would say they looked silly on a guy his age, but to me they looked great.  They weren’t the frizzy, spiky whiskers most men get, but soft looking, just right to match the hair on his head.


I grinned while he stepped down from the truck.  “I like the beard.”


“So do I,” Chris said.  “That makes you, me and Nancy. Let’s celebrate!”


He reached back inside the truck and came out with a Snickers bar in each hand, and held one out to me.  I smiled, because back when we first met, the first thing Chris and I agreed on was that Snickers was the best candy bar.  I never ate a lot of candy, but Chris has a sweet tooth that I think grows up through him from his heel.  I like a candy now and then, and I really like Aaron’s kisses, but I’m not whole-hog about sugar.


Can’t say that about Chris.  Valentine’s Day and Easter are his two favorite times of year, and he pays homage to the men who invented solid chocolate bunnies, Milk Duds, and especially Snickers bars.  He even likes licorice sticks, but only with popcorn, and only at the movies.


I was happy to pull the wrapper back on the Snickers and take a bite.  It was soft already from the warm day, and perfect like always.


“Good,” I grunted to Chris.  “Want me to show you around?”


Chris nodded with a mouthful of Snickers, and I took him inside first, to show him the shop.  I spent some time at the computer because Chris liked computers, and I think Harlan’s programs made sense to him.  Then it was back outside, where most of the trucks and trailers were already parked, and tried to give him some idea of what I actually did to earn my pay.


A crew pulled in while I was showing Chris the various equipment, so I spent a few minutes checking them in.  Huck was on the crew, and he was one Riverton friend who had never met Chris.  They had both heard a lot about each other, so after I introduced them I spent a few minutes with the crew chief, and checked him in after a quick inventory.


By the time I got back to them, Huck and Chris were in conversation like they were old friends.  They weren’t in any deep discussion, just talking and joking.  As soon as I got there, Huck said he had to go, because some of his father’s family from Jamaica should be there.


“Are you going to the fireworks tomorrow?” I asked him.


“For sure,” Huck said.  “We’re having a big picnic there all day.  You?”


I smiled, “Hey, it’s our anniversary.  I won’t miss it.”


Huck hurried off, and Chris literally leered at me.  “They call you grins?  I love that.  You should have told me.”


I gave Chris a shove and said, “Just forget it, okay?”


“Never, man!  I just can’t believe I never thought of it.  It’s like … it’s like the perfect nickname, just like when you call me Polack.”


I said, “Polack isn’t a nickname.  It’s a stereotypical ethnic slur.”


Yeah,” Chris agreed, “but not the way you say it.  It’s like a term of endearment from you.”


I gave up, dropped into a squat and waited just long enough for Chris to join me, and we headed across the parking lot like the two Cossacks we are, and laughed until our legs hurt.


Later, after I’d shown Chris my porch, and had cleaned up, Aaron still wasn’t home.  Billy was, though, and Dean, so we got together and took Chris downtown after he frowned at the description of a crab sandwich. 




We ended up at el Horno, a Mexican restaurant downtown.  I hadn’t been there because there was usually a line out onto the sidewalk, but it wasn’t crowded that night, and we got a table right away.


I could see the reason it was popular.  The inside was done in stucco, with lots of arches and several small dining areas.  There was a giant oven in the center of the place, with a big cast-iron door, and it seemed like all the main meals came from there.


The menu was simple and the portions were huge.  Bill, Dean and Chris all ordered fajitas, and I went for a chimichanga that turned out to be the size of a large pizza. It was loaded with chicken, cheese and veggies, too.


It was a fun meal with those guys.  We kept the iced tea lady very busy while we ate, talked, and joked around.  After we worked our way through all the food, we got coffee, then Dean ordered a fried ice cream, which isn’t fried at all.


When it came, he got tears in his eyes and pushed it toward me.


“I can’t,” he said.  “That’s for Devon … his favorite.”


Billy and I both frowned while Dean’s eyes filled with more tears.  Chris looked confused, and when I thought he’d say something I shook my head no.


After a minute, Dean wiped his eyes on his napkin and pulled the ice cream dish close.  He picked up the spoon and looked around, saying, “Sorry.”  Then picked at  the fried ice cream for Devon, his dead friend.


That was a down moment, but Billy brought us right back up.  “Guess what?” he asked, with his usual grin.


“What now?” I asked, with a bit of an echo from Dean and Chris.


“I’m getting married!”  Bill exclaimed.


Dean snickered and muttered, “Who’s the lucky guy?”


Bill extended a finger to Dean and smiled brightly.  “Don’t you wish?”  He turned his smile to Chris and me in turn, then looked back to Dean.  “I’m the lucky guy this time, and I really mean lucky.  I’m just some kind of small-town boy.  I really have no business with a classy girl like Romi, but we’re really in love.”  His smile turned into a stare.  “I’ll marry that girl, just you wait and see.”


There was a too-long silence, so I said, “That’s great, Bill.  Have you, um, mentioned this to Romi?”


Bill looked at me, and finally said, “Not yet, but it’ll happen.  We need to be older, to finish school so we know lots of things.  There is the topic of income, and we’ll have to figure that out.”  He smiled a soft and happy smile, “Then we’ll make a mini me and a little Romi, and the world will be right again.  Not just for us, but all mankind.”


I snickered, “I think you’re stretching it a little.”


“Of course I am,”  Bill laughed.  “I’m painting the picture of my own future.”  He gave me a faked glare, “Would you want less?”


Dean, over his sad moment, said “Less of you would be a nice feature in my own future.”


Bill smiled, “Don’t worry, brother.  That feature is built-in, trust me.”


Dean looked taken-aback, and said, “I didn’t really mean what I said.”


“Neither did I, Dean.”  Bill leaned close to Dean, picked his hand up from the table, and kissed the back of it, then held it in both of his while he looked at Dean.  “You’ll find a mate too, and together we’ll populate this area with brains and talent.”  He paused before adding, “And great beauty.”


I was used to those two, but Chris had a fit of laughter that got the rest of us going, and we laughed the evening away before going home.


I let Chris use my mattress, and slept on top of a sleeping bag on the floor.  It was warm enough, but I woke up later with a chill, and pulled a thin blanket off Chris and onto me.  If he missed it, I knew he’d take it back, but that didn’t happen.  I had a few of my pillows, one under my head and the other cushioning my knees, so I slept pretty well.


My alarm was still set for work, and I reached to turn it off when it sounded, but only managed to goose Chris, which earned me a swat on the back of my head.


Ow!” I complained. 


“Pervert!” Chris explained.  “That’s no way to wake somebody up.”


“Sorry, thought you were the clock.  Can you shut it off?”


“Mm,” Chris said, and I fell back to sleep.  Then I heard him mutter, “60 Minutes should investigate these things.  There’s no two alike.  Ev?”


I grumbled, “There’s a button on the right end, top one.”


That alarm was set for five thirty, and it was nearly eight when I woke up of my own accord.  Chris was still sleeping, so I got cleaned up and dressed, then put on coffee in the kitchen before I woke him.


I handed him his toilet kit, a towel and washcloth, and pointed him toward the bathroom.  I poured myself a coffee and sat in the kitchen sipping it idly, and thinking I could have slept another few hours.  That though never seems to come to me in time, and that’s a personal failing.  I often missed sleep during the week, and what better day to make for a few hours than the Fourth of July?


It wasn’t to be.  I promised Chris that I’d show him around Riverton, and then we’d go to the big celebration at Patterson Park.  I’d promised the guys I lived with, my parents, and I think a lot of other people, that I’d get to the park early to stake out some good ground.


I was up against it, time-wise, and could either cheat Chris or everyone else I who was counting on me.


Chris would lose this time, but I’d know he lost and he wouldn’t.  From our place to Patterson Park, I had to take him almost the entire north-to-south route through Riverton, and I could go the length of downtown.  He’s already seen bits of it, but downtown was storefronts and restaurants, with walk-up businesses like lawyers and dentists upstairs.  Chris would have to come back to experience the town.  Then he’d know that when he walked into a store, the owner would be there, ready and willing to talk about the things he had for sale.


That very fact had charmed me for a solid year, plus the pride the shopkeepers had in their stores.  They washed their own windows, swept their own sidewalks, and kept their stores spotlessly clean and tidy.  If there were empty hangers somewhere, they weren’t in a basket next to the cashier.


I wanted Chris to see that, to experience it, but then I remembered he just came back from Europe, where Riverton behavior is probably the norm.


Chris was impressed anyhow.  About halfway down the main road, he muttered, “No chain stores.  No painted windows.  All these little restaurants.  I like it here.”


“Different, huh?” I asked.


“I like it,” Chris said.  “It’s …”   He paused for a good ten seconds, “It’s like all old but … it’s clean like it’s new.”  He let out a quick laugh, “Different than Mt. Harman, huh?  And everywhere else?”


“Like Europe?” I asked.


“Not really.  Well, a little, I guess.  The street’s too wide, but yeah.  In Poland, a street this big would be lined with government buildings, palaces, all kinds of important places.  Not stores, though; that’s what’s different.  The stores would be on the side streets and the neighborhoods.  I mean, they have a downtown where you buy shoes and things, but it’s all in an area, and usually no cars.


Chris shut up, and I drove toward the park, then he socked my arm.  “At the risk of sounding really stupid, it’s more like Poland than here.  I mean, more than most places around here.” He sighed quietly, “It’s different here.  In Poland, there’s a cathedral, and near there is the main market.  It’s just … different.  You don’t go the store on Saturday and stock up for the week.  Over there, you go every day, and get what you want for dinner and the next day.”  He smiled at me, “It’s neat.”


“No stocking up?” I asked.  “No freezers?”


Chris snickered.  “I didn’t say that.  They have supermarkets kind of like ours.  We went into a couple of them.  They sell some food, but in boxes, cans and bottles.  It’s mostly like soda, beer and cleaning supplies.  And some lady will follow you around, watching like you would actually steal that crap.  Like I’d steal laundry detergent?”


I laughed, and Chris went on, “When me and your brother wanted detergent, we paid full price for it, no questions asked.”


I glanced at Chris and asked, “You washed your own clothes?”


“No.  Hell, you know better than that.  If there’s one thing Europe has that America doesn’t, it’s fountains.  Let me tell you.  In a little fountain, a handful of Tide will make suds.  If it’s a big fountain, a box of it will cover the whole square, and if they have it under blue light, that square will glow until the sun comes up!”


I laughed, then asked, “You’re perverting my brother?”


“I’m innocent!” Chris cried.  “Matthew showed me how to do that.”


I laughed again, surprised.  “Really?”


Chris said quietly, “Matt’s regular, you know.  He knows how to have fun … and when to.”


I slowed for the park entrance.  I knew I was near, but not exactly where to turn. I took those moments to consider what Chris had just said, and his words suddenly made a lot of things clear to me.


Matt was my oldest brother, and all my life I’d kind of revered him for that little fact alone.  He was the oldest, the biggest, and in a brotherly sense he’d always been in charge.


Growing up, if Matt told me to do something, I did it. 


If he saw that I had to pee, he’d  point to a private spot and tell me to go.  If I fell, he told me only pussies cried, so I didn’t cry.  When I was learning to ride a bike, he said to watch him.  I did, and I could follow him in no time.  He was faster than me, but he always waited for me to catch up.


There were plenty of times when I would have gleefully murdered him, and I’m sure he felt the same way often enough, but we never crossed the line between words and actual violence.


I saw the little sign for the park and pulled in.  There were other cars there, but not a lot of them.  I drove near the river so we could unload, but I wanted to park nearer the exit so I wouldn’t have to endure too much traffic after the fireworks.  I left Chris with our things and parked near the exit, then I trotted back to where he was waiting.


He was looking toward the river when I reached him, and I made enough noise that he turned around when he heard me.  He smiled, “This is nice.  We set up on that island?”


I picked up what I could carry and said, “Yep,” then headed across the footbridge to the south end of the island.  I sucked in a breath when I saw how many of the tables were already reserved with coolers and food on top of them.  That had been my plan, and I was kind of angry that a lot of other people had thought of it.


“Come on,” I said to Chris.  “We need a lot of tables.”


Then I heard a little voice call, “Evan!  Hi, Evan.”


I looked around until I saw a little blonde girl waving at me, and when I focused through the light and shade, I could see that it was Shane’s daughter, Molly, grinning at me.  She hopped off the table when I approached, and other little ones were waving at me.  Kevin, Shane, and Pat had all their kids guarding about ten tables and several grills, and they had some friends with them.


I said, “Good job,” to the kids.  “Anybody bother you?”


“No,” they chorused, so I went with Chris for the rest of our things.


Chris asked, “Who are those kids?”


“The ones I know belong to the guys I live with.  I guess they brought friends.”


Chris put his arm firmly around my waist and said, “Friends are nice.”


Surprised, I said, “Yeah, they are,” and put my arm across his shoulder as we crossed the bridge.”


I smiled and wished all days could start as nicely.



Continued …


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