Jack in the Box

Chapter 4

Jed Anderson - Arlington Road Neighbor : July, 2000

Ever since the accident I've been trying to make things right with Mike. I'd done awful things - terrible things - to him for a long time, then he saved my little brother's life. My other brother Kevin, Pat's twin, had been killed instantly, but Pat managed to survive. At first there didn't seem to be a lot of hope that he'd ever be normal, but months later it looked like the worst permanent damage might be that he had to wear glasses and live with a ringing in his ears.

Losing Kevin had been awful for the family, but we were coming to grips with it. We prayed for him every day, but the prayers became less tearful and more confident all the time. My parents were strong of faith, and they knew God was looking after their young son until they could join him.

Mike, though, was a different critter. He seemed strong at first, but then he got into a condition that's hard to describe. We'd both lost our best friends in the accident. I grieved for Don all the time, but Mike wasn't grieving for Jack. I think he was waiting for him.

The first weeks after the accident I went to Mike's house and sat with him for hours on end. I learned all the details about who Jack the person was, kicking myself all the time for treating him as Jack the queer for the entire time I'd known him.

I honestly don't know why I did it, or why Don did either. Neither of us knew any more about homosexuality than we'd heard through the grapevine. It just seemed like such an opposite way to be. When we learned that Mike and Jack were a couple we tormented them every chance we got. I should say we tormented Jack the most. Mike was always normal until Jack moved to town.

I've thought and thought about it. I suppose the truth of the matter is that we didn't really know anything, so we thought it had to be bad. We hated to think of ourselves as hicks, but that's essentially what we were.

We lived in a little burg on the Kentucky border that didn't even have its own school system. Instead, we were part of a school district made up of three towns. Both of the other towns were much larger than Morton.

We weren't insulated from the rest of the world, but we didn't have a lot locally to compare ourselves with. We did the things small town kids were expected to do. We went to school in clean clothes and played in old ones. When we got old enough, we tried to date the best looking girls, settling on whoever would have us. We played school sports, learned the countryside, hunted and fished with our fathers, and helped our mothers with whatever they asked for.

I think the way Don and I felt was that a queer guy like Jack had no business coming to town and trying to change our way of life, change a good kid like Mike Waters into another fag.

I'm alive, so I guess I have to bear the shame for what both Don and I did. I am ashamed, don't doubt it, but it's too late to do anything except try to help Mike. Don and I were almost four years older than them. We weren't bullies - you can ask anybody. If we saw somebody picking on someone smaller than him we'd immediately break it up, maybe send the bigger kid home with a black eye to explain to his parents.

The difference is that we knew about bullies, understood them. We knew nothing about gays except what they supposedly did sexually. We were stupid, and we became bullies of the worst sort. We picked and picked and picked and picked and picked on Mike and Jack. We got everyone in school to join us. When we got tired of picking, it had found its own momentum. It was an endless cycle. When we ran out of venom somebody else would step in with a new supply. When they ran out, we'd jump back in.

We got everybody ... absolutely everybody ... to hate Jack and Mike. They were perverts ... deviants ... living sinners in our perfect little town.

Then the crash happened. I was on the bus, and I might actually have caused it. I know I bumped the driver's arm just before it happened, but I'm not sure if that could have made him lose control like he did.

Mike stepped up and took charge after the crash, and I was in awe of him. He knew that Jack was dead just like I knew Don and one of my brothers were dead. They were dead in a manner that left no doubt. Mike led a few of us in saving the seriously injured, acting like he knew exactly what to do. When the smoke had cleared and all the rescue people got there, he was a legitimate hero in my mind. He gave all the credit to Jack Murphy. The county even re-named the high school and the hospital after Jack.

After all the ceremonies and funerals, they had an assembly at school in honor of Jack and Don, the two boys from the high school who'd died in the accident. The others had been from the Junior High. I got a spot on the agenda and talked about what Don and I had done, what we'd all done really, but everybody else had just followed our lead. I thought I was rambling, but a lot of people said I was effective after I'd finished. I know that all the kids who knew Mike wanted to apologize and renew their friendships afterwards.

I think Mike tried for a while. He surely wasn't hateful toward anyone, but he'd lost so much more than the rest of us. We'd both lost our best friends, but Don and I were a different sort of best friends than Jack and Mike.

I guess my relationship with Don was more like best chums. Whatever shenanigans we got into, we'd just laugh and say that when we were old, sitting on the porch wearing britches that came up to our chins, we'd remember that particular incident. It was an easy friendship. We did things for each other, but we never talked about it. We wore some thin little badge that might have said 'love' on it, but we never even considered hugging each other.

Jack and Mike had a deeper connection - one that went to the depth of their souls. My talks with Mike after the accident made me feel like a bigger and bigger idiot. I started to see Jack as the person he'd been, not my narrow-minded version of a little queer. I started to understand Mike's love for him, and in a larger sense I started to get an understanding of love itself.

Mike rarely cried during those days, but he had me in tears more often than not. I was learning from my victim, learning more than I thought I could absorb about the subject of love. I understood the parts about parents and children, husbands and wives, even boyfriends and girlfriends - though I'd never had a girlfriend that I'd fallen in love with yet. What I learned from Mike was, secondarily, his love of things and of places, actions and deeds.

Much more importantly, I learned about his love for people - his need to know them and understand them. He'd done it all his life, but when Jack came along it had tunneled down to this one person. He'd taken all that love and focused it on Jack, then he lost him in the most horrible way.

Mike seemed to be wavering between reality and fantasy, and I was worried that he was coming unglued. He definitely understood that Jack was dead and gone, but couldn't shake the idea that he'd somehow come back to him. A lot of people were worried about him, but he wanted to figure things out on his own. His parents had gotten him into counseling; he didn't stay with it very long. He'd talk to you if you called or dropped over to see him, but he never reached out.

Andy was concerned enough yesterday to ask me to come over and tell him what had been going on between me and Mike, which was basically nothing. I kept trying, but Mike got to be more and more the same.

That's why I was surprised when he called me this morning.



"Yeah, it's me. You feel like fishin' or somethin'?"

I already had plans, but I dropped them like a water balloon out an upper window. "Yeah, I'll go! Where they bitin'?"

"I don't know. Thimble Brook or Badger Pond ought'a be okay."

"You wanna drive or ride bikes?"

"Up to you."

"I'll be right over."

"Thanks, Jed. Bye."

"Bye, Mike."

My head was a mix of excitement and fear. I'd never give up on Mike, but I hadn't expected anything so sudden. I called my friend to cancel our plans, then changed into junk clothes, dug out my pole and tackle box, and hopped on my bike.

I was excited that Mike had made a move, afraid because the whole neighborhood seemed to have him on suicide watch, my parents included. They were always talking about how despair could drive people to do unpredictable things.

I pedaled up the street and turned into his driveway. His garage door was open and he was in there. I said, "Toot, toot!"

Mike turned to look at me, a trace of a smile on his face. "Hi, Jed. You wanna dig worms or stop at Arlie's?"

"I don't care. Naw, wait ... let's just buy 'em." Arlie was a kid down the street who sold nightcrawlers for two dollars a dozen. When Mike had his bike loaded up we headed out. I was a little afraid to say anything, not knowing what was on his mind or what had brought about this change in him. We stopped at Arlie's house and got two dozen worms, and advice that the pond had been treatin' people good that morning. We stopped at my house to pick up some food, then rode the mile to the pond.

It was a nice enough day. Hazy and not sunny, but nice and warm. We dropped our bikes and I started to head to the water, but Mike said, "Not here, Jed. I got a hole we found." He started walking. Badger Pond is really a swamp. It's hard to fish in most places because there's lots of old dead trees in it, and most of the rest has a grassy bottom. It's pretty big, though. Probably covers a square mile, though it's hardly square. I just followed Mike, getting my feet soaked in the muck.

We walked for a long time, probably to the other side from where we'd left the bikes. Mike's spot was great. It looked like open water for as far as I could cast my line. The bank was grassy and dry, and there was a semi-circle of pines around it. I thought it was beautiful, and remembered Mike telling me that I should treasure little spots like this when I found them.

He stopped and turned around. "You like it?" He was smiling. It wasn't the forced smile that I'd gotten used to. He was sharing his fishing hole with me and wanted me to like it as much as he did.

"I love it, Mike! It's beautiful. How'd you ever find it? I mean, whatever made you walk all this way in the mud?"

"Dad'n me found it. We walked all around the pond one day. This is the neatest part. The fishin's better by the road, but it's more fun here."

I took that at face value, thinking that with such a beautiful spot you didn't really need fun. Luck either, for that matter. Just being lucky enough to be there, to have the time, to have a friend ... that's what mattered.

There! I'd just thought it. Mike was my friend now. I'd been trying hard to make it happen and suddenly it felt like it had. I was smiling as I got my fishing pole ready. I cast out and had a bite before the line had settled. I reeled in, but it was just a little sunfish so I threw it back in. Mike and I had both gotten excited that I caught a fish so fast, but pretty soon we were sitting on the grass with our lines in the water, not saying anything.



"Do you think I'm crazy?"

I suddenly wished for a whale to bite my hook and drag me away. It didn't happen.

"Why'd I think that, Mike? You ain't crazy, least as far as I can see. Why'd ya ask that?'

"I think I might be. It's Jack. Ya wanna know what I been doin'?"

I looked at Mike. He was staring at his line in the water, no particular expression on his face.

"I didn't think ya were doin' anythin'. Not's far as I could see."

"I been writin'. I write letters to Jack. It's all I do, Jed."

I didn't say anything.

"I must'a wrote a thousand by now. I been sneakin' into his house and sittin' in his room and ... I write letters to him. Is that nuts, Jed?"

It sounded nuts. "That ain't nuts at all, Mike. Why ya think that makes ya crazy?"

He looked over at me. His blank expression turned into a little smile. "I don't even have the zip code, Jed. I got no place to send 'em. That's not why. I always just said what I thought - what I felt."


"Last night I asked questions - like he could really answer me."

I just looked at Mike's face. I could see his eyes welling up with tears, then I did something I'd never done before in my life. I scooted over beside him and pulled him into my arms just as he burst into tears. Andy had been telling me for months that just being there for Mike was the best thing I could do, now I felt it for the first time. He was wracked with sobs, and he was holding me just as hard as I was holding him, like my presence at that moment was important to him.

Mike cried hard for a long time. I had tears falling from my own eyes, but I tried to stay strong for him.

I was wondering who was really strong though. On the bus, right after the crash, it had been Mike who'd covered the final embarrassments of the people who'd been killed. All I'd managed to do was throw up on one of them.

Right at the moment I only wanted to protect Mike. I'd taken his lessons on love seriously, now I was practicing. I had been practicing, even doing, at home. I hugged Patrick all the time, hugged my parents too. I'd come to view Pat as a human being ... as a brother, not just a little pain-in-the-ass kid like I'd always treated him. When Kevin died we all lost him, but Pat lost something more. They were twins, so identical that they could fool my parents when they had a mind to. I was the big brother, removed from them by five years. Both of them grew up knowing my scorn for things brotherly.

When Kevin got killed I felt another kind of shame. Shame for not having bothered to even know my own brother. I mean, sure I knew him, but I'd never let him in my head - to learn the things that made him different from his twin. To me, and to both of them, I'd been totally indifferent. I must have seemed like the big brother from hell. I could see them ... see them ... trying to emulate me, trying to do the things I did that pleased our parents. I saw it, but I didn't want to. I never knew how much remorse a person could feel. My own brother had died without me even knowing who he was or what he might have been.

I had an immediate problem. Mike was coming out of his crying jag, and I wasn't sure if he'd said anything. I pushed him back a little, then pulled his hair out of his eyes. I had gotten lost in thought and couldn't remember the last thing Mike had said. Oh, yeah. The letters ... no, the one with questions.

I pulled him a little tighter. "How ya doin', Mike?"

He sobbed one more time, then said, "Better, I guess. Thanks, Jed. Thanks for stickin' with me."

"I'm here, Mikey. I'll stick as long as you want."

"I don't know what's goin' on, Jed. I was cryin' all last night too." He craned his neck to look at me and I loosened my hold so he could turn around. "Was I ever normal, Jed? I can't even remember."

I held my tongue until I figured I could make it come out right. "You're normal, Mike. You just got a tough deal. It ain't anythin' to worry about. I cried a lot when everyone got killed. Everybody did."

"That's why I think I'm weird. I didn't cry then ... not once. I felt awful, but I never cried ... not until you talked at school."

"I made you cry?"

"No, not really. It's just that everythin' could'a been different, me and Jack could'a had some friends if you thought of it before."

"I know, Mike. I know. Me'n Don were just bein' idiots and we got everybody else caught up in it. I can say I'm sorry 'til the day I die, but that ain't gonna fix it. I just hope you believe me."

We weren't looking at each other. I glanced up at Mike and he was staring past me. I returned my gaze to the grass. Mike's voice was soft. "I believe ya, Jed, and ya don't hafta keep sayin' it."

I looked up at the sky, and the haze had been replaced by dark clouds.

"We better head out. It looks like a storm's comin'."

Mike looked up. "You go, Jed. I don't mind gettin' wet."

I felt a sudden fear. The hairs on the back of my neck started tingling. I wanted out of there, but I wanted Mike with me. His sudden emotions, then his lack of feeling about the approaching storm made me think suicide.

"Come on, Mike. It was hard enough gettin' in here. We'll never get out if the mud gets worse than it is now."

"Just go then, Jed. I don't really care."

I sat back down. "If you're stayin', so am I. Howcum ya don't wanna go home?"

After a long pause he said, "It ain't the same anymore. Jack's house got sold. I met the guy that bought it last night."

"What? He's an asshole or somethin'?"

"No. He seemed real nice."

Mike finally faced me, his face red and contorted in grief. "It's the last thing I had, Jed, the last place I could feel Jack!"

He burst out crying again, this time almost violently. I moved over to him and pulled his face to my chest. He was so wracked with sobs that it was hard for me to hold onto him, but I wasn't letting go. A few gentle drops of rain started to wet us, but Mike kept on crying. His sadness made me start to cry again. It really hurt me that someone so young, someone who used to be so happy, had turned into the heaving mess that I was trying to comfort. It hurt worse knowing that I had caused much of his pain.

By the time he calmed down it was sprinkling rain pretty steadily. I knew I had to get Mike out of there, or we'd end up spending the night. He resisted at first, but finally agreed to come to my house for some soup. It was warm out, but he was shivering. I didn't know if it was because he was wet, or because he'd exhausted himself from crying so hard, but I was getting scared.

We packed up our stuff and walked as quickly as we could back to our bikes. It took quite a while, and by the time we got there the sprinkles had turned into a light rain. Mike seemed a little out of it, but managed the ride to my house. When we got there and into the kitchen I noticed that he was as white as a ghost and trembling. I got each of us a towel and I started to dry off, but Mike's trembling had turned into shaking. I was getting scared.

I led him into the living room and grabbed a blanket from the sofa. I helped him pull his shirt off, then wrapped him in it and tried to dry his hair with a towel. I yelled out, "ANYBODY HOME?"

I heard my brother from upstairs. "Just me."

"Patty! Get down here! I think Mike's sick."

I heard Pat thunder down the stairs, then come up behind me and draw a sharp intake of breath. "What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know, Patty. Go make some soup real fast. Get it started, then fill up the tub with hot water, okay?"

He hesitated. "Okay. You should call somebody."

I took another look at Mike and realized that Pat was right. I looked at my watch and it was almost two. Who the hell would be home?

I was thinking about the neighbors, then realized Mike's father was on nights now. He might be home. I made sure Mike was okay on the sofa for a minute, then went to call his house. Nobody answered. I ran back in to look at Mike, then thought to call the Surdiaks up the street. They were retired and would probably be home.

Karen answered. When I told her what was going on she said she'd be right there. She wasn't kidding, either. I'd run upstairs to get Mike another blanket when I heard her and her husband come inside. I ran back down. Karen was feeling Mike's forehead and Bob was watching her. She stood up and asked, "Do you have a thermometer?"

I nodded and ran to the bathroom to get it. When I got back and handed it to her, Pat came in with a bowl of soup on a tray. The thermometer was in Mike's mouth by now, so Pat just set it down on the coffee table.

Bob looked at me. "What happened, Jeddy?"

"I ... I don't know. We went fishin' then he started cryin', then he was all shakin'. I ... he rode his bike here okay, but now I think he's sick."

Karen was reading the thermometer. "Well, he's got a little temperature. It's one hundred. How long were you boys out in the rain?"

"Not too long. It only started really comin' down when we got here. It's gotta be somethin' else. I was with him all along."

Bob was looking at me. "You went fishin'? How'd you get him to go?"

I looked at Mike. His eyes were open and Karen was feeding him some soup. He didn't look any better. He suddenly shuddered and his face went red. His last mouthful of soup went shooting straight up in the air. I thought he'd choked on it, but Karen yelled, "Bob, get the car. Jed, call the clinic and tell 'em we're bringin' Mikey in. Try to get hold of his folks, okay?"

I was flabbergasted. "What's wrong?"

"Damned if I know, but I'm taking no chances. Get moving, boy!"

I jumped. By the time I'd found the number and called the clinic, Bob had his car by the side door. Karen talked into the phone describing what Mike was like while I helped Bob get him into the back seat. When Karen came out I said I wanted to go with them, but she gave me a flat out no. I had to find his parents and tell them what was going on.

I still had the back door to the car opened, and I looked at Mike. He seemed to be as afraid as I was. I took hold of his hand and said, "Good luck, Mike. I love you."

Karen yelled for me to close the door, and as soon as I did they took off. I stood in the rain watching them until they were out of sight, then turned and walked back inside. Pat was by the door looking scared.

"What's wrong with Mike?"

I hugged him, trying to comfort him and myself at the same time. "I don't know, Patty. I wish I did. Do you know the names of the places his parents work?"


I sighed. "I don't either. His father's a printer. I don't even know what his mother does. Do you know where the girls hang out?"

He just shrugged. I decided to take a ride up the street to Mike's house to see if I could figure anything out there. I didn't know if they locked their doors, but most people around here didn't. My car didn't want to start at first, but it finally fired up. I left Pat calling around the neighborhood to see if anybody had numbers for where Mike's parents worked, then drove up to his house.

There were some people next door, but I didn't pay any attention to them. The side door was locked. I went around to the back and it was locked, too. I tried the front door, which was also locked. I went back around to the side and saw that the kitchen window was open a little. I was trying to push it up when I heard a voice from behind me.

"Um, can I help you?"

I turned around to see a tall guy that I didn't recognize. "Who're you?"

"I'm Tim. I just bought this place. Are you trying to break in here or something?"

"I'm tryin to get in. Their son's sick and I gotta find out where they work."

He looked shocked. "Mike?"

I nodded.

"What happened? Wait, his father gave me his cell phone number". The guy pulled out his own cell phone and started pushing buttons. "Here it is. Just push send."

He handed me the phone. It rang about four times, then asked me to leave a voice message. "Um, Mr. Waters, this is Jed. Jed Anderson. Mike's in the hospital and I don't know what's wrong with him. He's not hurt - he got sick. The Surdiaks took him there. You should call there as soon as you hear this." I looked back at Tim. "Can I call home?"

"Go ahead."

I dialed and Pat picked up. "Any luck, Pat?"

"Yeah. I found Melissa and she's callin' her Mom. Are you comin' home? I'm a little scared."

"I'll be back in a minute. Just watch TV or somethin' for a while."

I handed the phone back to Tim and took a moment to look at him.

He was looking at me. "Are you gonna tell me who you are and what happened? I'm Tim Atkins. I just met Mike last night."

"I'm Jed Anderson. I live about a mile down the street. I don't know what happened. He just got sick real fast." My mouth was going faster than my brain. "It's your fault."

He looked surprised. He put his hand on his chest and said, "My fault? How'd it get to be my fault?"

I don't know why, but I was angry with Tim. If he hadn't decided to move in nothing would have changed and Mike wouldn't be in the hospital. "His best friend used to live here. He got killed a while back and this house was the last thing Mike had to remember him with. Then y'all gotta come here with all your yankee money and ruin everythin'. Why the hell don't you people just stay where ya belong?"

Tim was scratching his head. "I don't know where you get your information, Jed. I spent an hour with Mike last night and I told him he could have Jack's room for as long as he needed it. I sure didn't do anything to make him sick."

I looked at him for a second, then turned and headed for my car.


I turned around. "What?"

"Try not to be so hostile next time. We're gonna be neighbors."

I thought 'Dickhead', then climbed in my car and backed out fast. I was thinking of what I'd do to that asshole if anything happened to Mike because of him. I was still ticked off when I got home, but my anger turned to boredom as we waited for news about Mike. Pat had called my parents to tell them what happened, and the only times our phone rang it was them asking if we'd heard anything.

It was a little after four when there was a knock at the front door. Pat and I both jumped up. Mike's father was standing there, a blank look on his face.

"Mr. Waters! How's Mike?"

"He's okay, Jed. He's in the car and he wants to talk to you."

I started to walk past him, but he blocked the way. "Jed ... thanks. You did the right thing." He looked at my brother. "You too, Pat. Thanks."

"What was wrong with him?"

"I guess it's in his head. He needs to see a shrink, but they think it's post-traumatic stress disorder. He's kept things bottled up way too long and his head made his body sick. Something triggered a reaction."

I muttered, "Yeah. Your new neighbor."

"Why do you say that?"

"I gotta talk to Mike."

I walked out to the car, glad that the rain had stopped. Mike was in the back seat leaning against the window. I tapped on it and he sat up and opened the door. He looked fine. A little tired, maybe.

"Hi, Jed."

"You okay? Man, you scared the shit out of us."

He looked down. "Sorry. I gotta go back to counselin' now. I hate that stuff."

"Well, I counseled your new neighbor. What a fuckhead!"

Mike looked up in surprise. "What?"

"I told the guy we don't need any new yanks around here, that he's the reason you got sick. Least he knows he's not welcome."

Mike groaned. "Oh, no. What's with ya, Jed? Why'd ya do that?"

"You said he took away your last, ah, connection with Jack. I just let him know I didn't appreciate all that."

Mike looked up at me. "Jed, if I said that I didn't mean it. I thought I was gonna lose it, but Tim said I could have Jack's room as long as I wanted. He's a real nice guy. I thought I could learn stuff from him."

Damn! My foot was in my mouth again, and now I'd probably ruined whatever deal Mike had made with the guy. I couldn't believe it! Tim had told me the same thing and I didn't listen. I had to go up there and apologize.

"I'll fix it, Mike. I swear it! I'll go with ya right now and tell him that I just got a fat head. Oh, man. I hope he doesn't carry a grudge."



"When you were putting me in the car before you ... you said you loved me."

I could feel the blush rise to my face and ears. "I ... I meant it, Mike. I do love you."

"Not like Jack did." It was a statement, not a question.

"No ... not like Jack did. Like Jed does."

Mike looked at me, then gave me a little smile. "Thanks, Jed. You ridin' with us?"

I thought about it. "I better drive, that way Pat can come." I looked at Mike's father sitting on the front porch with Pat. "We're ready to go, Mr. Waters. You wanna come, Patty?"

Mike's father came to the car while Pat and I climbed into mine. We followed them up the street to Mike's. The rest of them went inside while I went next door to find Tim. I knocked, but nobody answered. There were some men out back, so I went there. It looked like they were digging a huge foundation. I walked up to a guy who seemed to be in charge. "I'm lookin' for Tim, the new owner."

"He already left, kid. He'll be back next month when he moves in."

I felt let down. A month? What the hell good's an apology after a month? I started walking away.

"Hey, kid!"

I turned around. "Yeah?"

"You live around here?"

"Down the street. Why?"

"You working for a living?"

Hah! In Morton? "Not yet."

"I'm short-handed here. You interested?"

A job? I ran back to him. "I'm interested! I'll do anything."

He smiled. "Never say that, kid. You got a license?"

"Yes, I do."

"Come by tomorrow. Early - like before seven. Bring your Social Security card and your license. It's ten bucks an hour, time-and-a-half after forty. Bring what you need to eat and drink. What's your name?"

"Jed. Jed Anderson, sir."

He smiled and held out his hand. "I'm Mark. Mark Tomkus."

"Um, Mark? What'll I be doing?"


I could swear he said gopher. I didn't want to seem too stupid, so I just smiled and said I'd see him in the morning.

I had a job! Work! Money! Something to do! I was so excited I almost forgot why I'd come there. I ran over to Mike's house and found the whole family in the kitchen. I wanted to tell them my news, but I could see that Mike was trying to argue his way out of going to counseling, and I couldn't interrupt that. They decided to talk later, after supper.

"Mr. Waters? Do you have the new guy's phone number?"

"Just his cell phone. I don't know if it'll work out of state."


He looked at me. "Something wrong, Jed?"

I hung my head. "I kinda mouthed off at him today. I hafta apologize."

He raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. "You're a piece of work, Jed. The for sale sign's still out front. Go get the agent's number and they can give you Tim's."

"You think they will?"

He smirked. "If you manage not to piss 'em off first."

I guess I deserved it. I knew I deserved it. I went back outside, then realized I didn't have anything to write on or with. I had to go back inside to ask. Armed with a pencil and a post-it, I got the number of the agency and the agent's name off the sign, which still didn't mention that the place was sold.

I drove home slowly with Pat, my free arm around him, telling him about the job and the reason I had to call the new neighbor. My emotions were up and down. I was excited about the job, ashamed by my mouth, saddened that only one arm was around a brother, and worried about Mike. I was also hopeful that working with real men would help me sort things out.

The family discussion at dinner that night was different and interesting. Pat and I had to tell our parents what had happened to Mike and what we knew about what was going to happen. I announced that I had a job starting the next day and asked my father what a gopher was. My not knowing had him gleefully telling me that I'd be tunneling bodily down to the septic system. He said it wouldn't be too bad if I brought some corks for my nostrils and didn't make waves. When he had me totally bewildered he told me the word was go-fer - a helper who got things for the other workers.

When I told them about the things I'd said to the new neighbor, both my mother and father got seriously pissed off and told me to take care of it right away. I knew there was a longer lecture to come later, but I got up and called the real estate office to ask for Tim's phone number.

I finally got ahold of the agent and, after I explained why I needed it, got Tim's home phone number. I dialed.


"Hi. Is this Tim?"

"No, it's Dave."

"Is Tim there?"

"Who's this?"

"My name's Jed. I met Tim today and I need to talk to him."

"Tim's out of town. He should be back later on. Is there a message?"

"Um, yeah. I sort'a mouthed off at him today and I'm callin' to say I'm sorry."

"Can you describe 'mouthed off'? What happened?"

"I guess I blamed him for somethin' I didn't know much about. I just want him to know I'm sorry and I was just bein' stupid."



"Give me your number and I'll have him call you tomorrow."

"I'm startin' a new job tomorrow. Can you ask him to call tonight?"

"It'll be pretty late. Oh, I guess it won't. I forget about the time difference. I'll tell him you called. If it's not tonight I'll tell him to wait until tomorrow night. Jed?"


"Tim doesn't get pissed off too easily, so I wouldn't lose any sleep. Okay?"




"What grade are you in?"

"I just graduated. Why?"

"Nuts. Never mind." He laughed. "I'll tell him you called, okay?"

"Thanks. Who's this, anyhow?"

"I'm Tim's brother, Dave. I'm moving there too, and I hope you take your time before you get mad at me."

"Yes, sir."

I could hear him laughing. "Be good, Jed. I'll give Tim your message."

When I hung up I had to face my father. He was a good man. I think I pleased him most of the time, but when I got off track he could get really angry. When the things I'd done to Jack and Mike came to the surface at home he had been furious. He didn't know much more than I did about gays and homosexuality, but he knew about mean people.

That's what I'd been ... just plain rotten mean. I was too old to be spanked or, for that matter, punished in any meaningful way. My father's shame in me was all it took. We'd always been close and I idolized him, so when he found it hard to look at me I found it just as painful as a knife through the heart. He'd always said that I'd be the perfect kid if I just used my head once in a while, and tonight I could sense his disappointment in me once again.

I didn't get a big lecture. I didn't get anything, really, just that searching look that seemed to ask 'What the heck's in your head, boy?'


"What's on your mind?"

"I'm sorry. I was just tryin' to protect Mike."

"Without knowin' the facts!" His look was steely.

"That's me. Without knowin' the facts."

"Don't say that's you, son, because that's not you. That's just a cop out and you know it. You need to take the time to learn the facts before you go actin' dumb." He looked at me. "This has been a rotten year, Jed. Don't go makin' it worse than it already is. I know you have a head on your shoulders, and you're too old to forget about usin' it. I expect better, son. Did you apologize to the new family?"

"He ain't home yet. I left a message."

"Jed." He eyed me cautiously. "You're not a kid anymore. You have a good heart; don't go lettin' it get in front of your head. Slow down, son. You really need to let people explain themselves before you go gettin' all mad. Understood?"

"Understood, Dad."

I sat there, chastised. My father stood up to leave.



"Do you still love me? Can you hug me?"

His look softened. I walked over to him and we embraced.

"I love you, Dad."

"I love you too, Jed."

"I'm sorry I'm stupid."

"You're not stupid, Jeddy. You do some dumb things, but look ...you graduated high school and you got accepted at Vanderbilt. You're far from stupid, son."

"Thanks, Dad."

"You're just an idiot sometimes."

Continued …

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