Jack in the Box

Chapter 7

David Devino - Arlington Road : August, 2000

Moving to Morton turned out to be less traumatic than I thought it would be. When I was down for my first meeting with the School Board a month earlier it had gotten a little hairy. I had stated clearly on my application that I was gay, but I still got flown down for an interview. There were five members on the board, four of them quite gracious. The fifth, Mr. Rumshackle, was quite concerned about that one little tidbit and he tried to create a stir. He said I'd be everything from a 'bad' influence to a 'corrupting' influence, called me everything from a pervert to a sinner to a dangerous character.

Mrs. Brayshaw subverted his rants at every turn, making him re-read the laudatory recommendations from my file. The other board members clearly supported her. When it came to a show of hands, Mr. Rumshackle raised his when Mrs. Brayshaw called for votes against, then slowly raised it again when she called for votes in favor. She looked at him and said he couldn't vote twice, then he said the second one was the one that counted. It was unanimous. I was in.

After the meeting, we sat around talking for a while and Mr. Rumshackle came over and apologized, claiming he had to try. He turned out to be a decent guy from a very conservative background. He said I had done well and promised not to make any trouble for me.

On this trip, I was here to stay.

I met Mike from next door and asked him to help me with my unpacking, then to show me around the parcel out back. Tim had told me about him, so I knew he was both gay and troubled. Basket case would have been a better term, but I'd been there once in my life. I made up my mind to try to teach him a few life lessons that I hoped would help him, knowing full well that I'd have to keep him at arms length. It's one thing to give comfort to a distraught child in the presence of other professionals, sometimes even in the presence of other kids. It's never appropriate in private situations, though.

My tour of the property led me to the discovery that Tim, without a hint to me, had gone ahead and ordered a barn built. It was complete with a guest house, and I knew that the guest house was where he intended for us to live. It was the embodiment of every dream house I'd ever imagined, especially the main room with a glass wall that faced the lawn and woods out back, and the massive stone fireplace that graced the room.

I called Tim that night.


"Hi, Tim. I love you."

"Again or still?"

"Still, I think. Imagine my surprise when I went out back today."

"Oh. Heh, I guess I forgot to tell you."

"You forgot shit. You didn't miss any details, I'll tell you. What're we gonna do with two houses?"

"Three. We still have this one. Maybe we could become slum lords?"


"No? How about we use the one in front for an antique shop? The zoning's okay."

"Yeah, that sounds good. How do you plan to get the two cars that go by here every day to stop?"

"I dunno... free ice cream maybe?"

"That's a plan, I guess."

I knew that Tim's reputation would follow him and that whatever he did would thrive based on that reputation.

"Traffic's that light?"

"Let me put it this way. I went over to Arlington, and on the road to the butcher shop there there's a street sign that says, 'Caution - dog sleeping in road'.

Tim laughed. "You're kidding!"

"I'm not. I thought it was hilarious. And the dog was there snoozing, a black lab on black pavement."

"Heh, I hope his name's Lucky. So, do you like the barn?"

"Barns are barns. I love the guest house. I absolutely love it. I might dig out a sleeping bag and sleep there tonight."

"Whatever lights your candle. I kinda hoped you'd wait for me. Why don't you chop some firewood, then we'll christen it together."

"Firewood? It's ninety-two here."

"Make some ice cubes, then. Have you met anybody?"

"Yeah. I'm already invited to a picnic Saturday. I met Mike from next door, and a couple of his friends."

"He has some friends now?"

"He does. He just doesn't know it yet. Is that why you glommed onto him? Because he reminds you of me?"

"I didn't glom. He did the glomming, Dave. I was just trying to be nice."

"Since when do you have to try to be nice? You pretty well have the market cornered on nice."

Short pause. "Was that a compliment?"

"You need a compliment? That was just a statement of fact."

"Thanks. Got any more facts?"

"Just one. I love you."

"More than yesterday?"

"More than ever. Thanks, Timmy."

"I need to get some sleep. The business closing is tomorrow."

"Night, Tim. I really do love you."

"No more than I love you. When's your meeting?"

"In the morning. I'll call you when I get back, okay? "


We hung up. I hated not having Tim with me, but we'd gotten used to separations over the years. This one would only be for nine days. We'd endured worse in the past.

I put a few more things away, then got cleaned up and went to bed.

My meeting with the school folks went well enough, but I was surprised that I'd be teaching at the high school in Dover instead of the middle school in Morton. The middle school was being expanded and only had room for sixth and seventh grade. The eighth graders were going to be housed in the high school for at least a year. I didn't even know where Dover was. One of the other teachers, Drew Hyland, offered to take me over and show me around.

On the way there I learned of the tragedy that had befallen this area. Drew's own nephew had been one of the children killed on the bus. I also learned about Mike Waters' role in the aftermath of that crash, heard about what had been said at the ceremonies. It seemed that I had a young hero for a neighbor... a very reluctant hero.

Drew showed me around the building and told me how they had segmented it enough that the eighth graders should only have to mix with the older kids while coming and going, then at lunch. He showed me where my classroom would be. It was fairly new and nicer than I expected. These people still put windows in their classrooms, and mine looked across the athletic fields toward the hills beyond. It seemed like a great place for kids to daydream when they got bored of me corrupting their values.

On the way back, Drew took a turn and showed me where the crash had taken place. There was a bronze plaque there to commemorate the incident. It seemed pretty benign in the late summer, but I could tell that Drew was having a little trouble negotiating the turns. Every turn seemed to be banked the opposite of what you'd expect. I made a mental note to avoid the road in anything except the best weather, but I figured that Tim would love it. It suited his Evel Knievel side.

When I got back to the house, Mike was still doing the things I'd told him to. I hated asking him to iron tablecloths and the other linens. He said he wasn't embarrassed and that he knew how to iron, so I had left him to it.

"Hi, Mike. Everything okay?"

"Oh, hi. Yeah, it's fine. How was your meeting?"

"Full of surprises. I'm not going to be at the middle school. Eighth grade is moving to the high school."

"I could'a told ya that."

"Hmm. I just learned. What kind of thing should I bring to the picnic?"

"I don't know. I can tell you what other folks bring. My Mom'll bring beans. Mrs. Rizza always bring ziti. The Hannisons bring salad. It's just regular stuff. Andy Stark usually makes chili. Bring some cookies or somethin'. They never have much that kids like."

"Cookies? I'll have to buy some."

"I can make some if you get the stuff."

"You know how to make cookies?"

"Just the kind you slice off and bake."

"I didn't know they had something like that. Feel like taking a ride?"


He finished up what he was doing, then we walked out to my car. I started talking once we were on the way to Arlington. "I heard about the accident today."


"It was pretty awful for everybody, wasn't it?"

"I guess. Does that mean you heard about me?"

"I did. Is it all true?"

"You don't believe it?"

"I didn't say that at all. I just wanted to hear it from you."

Mike hung his head and started fussing with his fingers. "I don't like to talk about it. I talked enough already."

I felt really bad for Mike. If something like that had ever happened to Tim or myself I can't imagine what the other would have done to survive. Suddenly, writing mountains of letters didn't seem far-fetched at all. Mike was a tough kid, I could see that. He was trying to handle his grief in a way that made sense to him, and there was no way I could fault that. I didn't mind that he was searching for Jack. I searched for my father for a long time after he died. I knew the kind of stress Mike was feeling, and hoped I could help him to sort things out.

I had to get him up though, not farther down. "Let me tell you a story, Mike. I can't finish it here, but I can start. I'll tell you a little every time I see you, then ask if you believe it. Is that okay?"

I glanced at him. He was looking at me with a doubtful expression, but he said, "Okay."

I started to tell him the story of a happy, fun-loving little boy named David.

He was obviously interested, so after we left the store I went on with it. We were back home before I got to the part where David's father got sick.

"Hey, neighbor!"

I looked toward the voice and saw two men sitting on Mike's back porch. I guessed that one of them was his father, didn't know about the other.

"Hi." I looked at Mike. "You want to put this stuff away?"

"No problem. That's my Dad and Mr. Stark."

I turned to Mike's porch.

"Want a cold one?"

I smiled: my kind of guys. "Sure." I jumped up on the porch as they both stood up, then held out my hand. "I'm Dave Devino."

"Hi, Dave. I'm Joe Waters and this is Andy Stark. He lives down the road with all the rich people."

Andy grinned. "Hi, Dave. That's bullshit, you know. All the money's up this end."

Joe got me a beer and we sat down to get to know each other. I learned that Andy was Mike's godfather and he lived a few miles down the road toward Morton. He had a grown son in the Carolinas. Mike had an older brother and two younger sisters. I told them about myself, at least as much as I give out at a first meeting. I told them I lived with Tim, that he reconstructed antiques, and that I was a teacher.

These guys had obviously been friends for a long time. They had an easy way between them that doesn't come from anything else. I enjoyed watching them tease each other, enjoyed hearing the slight accent that seemed somehow so right. I wondered what I sounded like to them.

Mike hadn't come back out, so Joe asked, "Mike's not being a problem, is he?"

"No, not at all. He's really good worker, and he's been helpful. At least he keeps going and doesn't complain."

"Well, that's good. I'm glad he's not moping around."

"Is that what he usually does?"

"It's all he does. We're just hoping that school will wake him up. He was doing a little better 'til summer break started."

"Well, maybe he's just bored. He probably just needs more time. It was a terrible thing. I just heard about it today."

Andy looked at me. "It's not our favorite topic of conversation. How do you reconstruct antiques?"

I grinned. "Very, very carefully. Timmy'll be here next week. Best to get it from the horse's mouth."

"You're going to the picnic tomorrow?"

"I wouldn't miss it."

"What's your specialty? What dish are you bringing?"

"Well, on the advice of an expert... cookies."

They both almost choked laughing. Andy said, "I'll bet your expert's first name starts with the letter Michael Waters!"

"Yeah, it does. I got snowed?"

"No, at least somebody'll be glad to see you there."

Joe said, "That's some barn you're building. The guest house is something else, too."

"It sure surprised me."

They both looked startled. Joe asked, "You didn't know about the barn?"

"Not a clue. Tim somehow neglected to mention it."

"Mike said you two are brothers?"

"That we are. My mother adopted Tim and a couple of other kids, then Tim's father adopted all of us."

I could see them trying to figure that one out, so I changed the subject. "So, the whole street comes to this picnic?"

Andy looked up. "More like the whole town. It used to be just the street, but it kind of spread out. Now just about everyone comes. You'll have a good time. It's mostly good folks around here."

"I already figured that out. The people were the reason Tim wanted to move here to begin with. I haven't met too many yet, but the ones I did meet seem pretty genuine."

Joe said, "I think that's what keeps people here, Dave. There's precious little bullshit, and that's what people like. Another beer?"

"I'd better not. I'm still pretty whacked from the trip down and all the unpacking. I need to eat something."

Andy stood up. "Well, come on down to my house. My wife won't be home 'til after eight, so you can eat with me. I've got a couple of decent looking steaks in the freezer."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, come on over. That way you'll know where I live."

I looked at my house, wondering about Mike. Joe noticed and said, "Don't worry about Mike. He's probably in the middle of another letter and won't want to be bothered anyhow."

I looked from one face to the other. I smiled at Andy as I stood up. "Let me get changed. I'll be right back."

He grinned. "You're coming?"

"Why not? Give me five minutes."

I went back to the house. I'd taken my tie off earlier, but I felt over-dressed in suit pants and a dress shirt. I put on a pair of Docker's and a sport shirt, then a pair of sneakers. I didn't see Mike, but I could see a light from under the door. I tapped on it and told him I was going out for a while, but didn't get any response.

I said goodbye to Joe, then followed Andy to his house. I liked the place. The house itself wasn't fancy, but it was situated on a hill with a view out to the foothills. It was a comfortable country type place. He started the grill and the steaks outside while I stayed indoors to fix up a salad. When everything was ready we sat on his screen porch and ate, keeping the conversation generic until we were done.

"That was a great steak, Andy. I really appreciate it."

He smiled. "I'm glad for the company. My wife's never home anymore."

"I shouldn't talk about the accident?"

"Sorry I said that. Joe's the one that has a hard time talking about it. I just didn't want you getting off on the wrong foot with him. He's really a great guy. It is a sore subject with a lot of people, though. Best if you let them bring it up."

"I won't forget. I just found out that Mike and Pat were on the bus."

"You met Pat, too?"

"Yeah. He collapsed the other day, and I took Mike and one of the contractors to pick him up. It looked pretty hairy at first, but he was okay."

"Oh, man. I didn't hear that one yet. I hope Patty's alright. I'll have to call his father. Have you met Jed yet... Pat's brother?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact. He's working on the barn. He seems likeable."

"I forgot that he was working there. He sure loves his job. I guess I should fill you in on some things."

Andy went on to tell me about the stormy relationship that Mike and Jack had with the rest of the school, how Jed had been one of the ringleaders of their year of torment, how Mike and Jack had held it all inside. I also learned that Pat's twin brother had been killed along with Jed's best friend, and just how close Pat had coming to dying. It was something of a miracle that he was alive, much less doing well. Of course there were other families that had been devastated by the tragedy, but these were the people I'd met. It was hard to listen to. So much pain and suffering in one little town, so many families affected.

Listening to it had brought tears to my eyes. Andy noticed. He got up and walked out, coming back with a box of tissues and two cold beers.

"I guess I know why people don't talk about it."

"Oh, they talk about it, just not with strangers. It was like that then, and it'll always be like that." He smiled. "I've been here eighteen years and I'm still a stranger, so don't worry about that part. It'd be different if we didn't all hear what happened after the crash... what happened with Jack and Mike. It's too big of a mystery to try to dissect, so we all just keep that in our heads and try to leave it alone."

I looked up at him. "Everybody believes it?"

"Oh, it's true alright. Not a soul around here doubts that it happened just like Mike said."

I stared at him for a long time, trying to get that thought to settle, trying to relate it to the way Mike was acting now. "Do you think Mike's going to be okay?"

He heaved a sigh. "I'm starting to doubt it. He lost too much. We thought he was strong at first, but now it's like he wants to fade away somewhere."

I was trying to sort it out. Mike had lost his only and best friend. His lover. Not once, but twice in the same awful night. Picturing myself in his position, I looked at Andy and smiled. "Well, when you consider all that he's been through I don't think he's doing too badly. I'll try to help."


"Why not? I like the kid, and I'm his neighbor. I know something about loss. My father died when I was eleven."

"I'm sorry. I couldn't know that."

"No problem. I went through a bad phase like Mike. I'll do what I can. Maybe you can be my hugger."

His eyebrows went up into a question. "Hugger?"

"Yeah, hugger. I'm a teacher and I really have to avoid physical contact with kids. I have to find somebody to give Mike hugs when he needs them."

He grinned. "I'm your guy!"

"You don't mind that he's gay?"

His face clouded a little, not quite angry, but almost. "I'm his godfather, Dave. I've known Mike since he was born. You're not seeing the radiant boy that he used to be. His being gay has nothing to do with anything. Nothing at all."

"Does everyone around here feel that way?"

"Look, Dave. If it wasn't for Mike and Jack a lot more families would have lost kids. It took two gay boys to keep that from happening, so I don't think you'll find anybody around here who gives a holy hoot about that anymore."


"Why's it good? It's the way things should be."

"I mean it's good because there's two new gay boys in town."

"You're the only new people in town." I could see the surprise wash across his face. "Oh. OH!" He grinned. "Well, dang and slap me silly. Um, is it a secret?"

"We don't hang out a shingle if that's what you mean, but we don't hide anything. We have nothing to hide. I think you'll find that we're good citizens and great neighbors. No problem?"

He stood up, holding out his hand and smiling. "No problem, no problem at all."

"I'd better go. Thanks for everything, especially for filling me in."

"Leaving already?"

"I have cookies to bake."

We said our goodbyes and I headed home, feeling good about the people I was meeting. I went inside only to be met by the aroma of hot cookies. Mike was in the kitchen in front of the oven, looking at his watch. "Hi, Mike. I came home to do that."

He smiled. "Hi! I told you I'd make 'em."

"You bamboozled me, didn't you?"

He grinned. "How so?"

"How many people really want cookies at that picnic?"

He smiled, more like a smirk. "All the smart ones."

I reached for one of the cookies that were already on a tray only to get my hand smacked with a spatula. "Those're for tomorrow!"

"I know that. I was just inspectin'. I don't want to poison everybody on my first day here."

"They're fine. I already, uh, inspected 'em."

"You don't need a second opinion? I'm Italian, kind of an expert in matters of taste."

He looked at the cookies on the tray, then back up at me. "Well, one's okay I guess. There's gonna be a lot of people."

I picked up a cookie and took a delicious bite. "I talked to your godfather. He loves you, Mike."

"I know that. I love him, too."

"He seems pretty lonesome. You should maybe go to visit him once in a while."

He looked up, surprised. "Andy's lonely?"

"Your father changed shifts and his wife's at the gym all the time. He's usually alone. Would it take too much for you to go visit once in a while?"

He looked dejected, inspecting his sneakers. "I guess not. I'll stop by."

"Good." I grabbed another cookie before he could stop me. I grinned and held it in front of my mouth. "These are great. You're a good cookie cooker."

He was going to say something, but noticed his watch and practically tore the oven door off its hinges opening it. He did it just in the nick of time. The cookies in that batch were noticeably darker than the others, but not quite burned. He quickly scraped them off with the spatula, then started slicing up another package.

"How many more?"

"This is the last batch."

"Are you okay by yourself? I'm pretty beat."

"You go to bed pretty early for an old guy."

"Yeah, well this old guy needs his rest if he's gonna be fast enough to swipe cookies off you. Give Andy a hug when you see him, okay?"

"I will. When do we start looking for Jack?"

"We already are, Mike. We already are. Just don't forget any of your promises."

I looked at the question on his face, then turned and walked to the bedroom.

* * * * * * * *

I was up early the next morning, looking forward to meeting people at the picnic. I decided to treat myself to breakfast out, so after I was cleaned and dressed I drove to the little restaurant in Morton.

It was really full again, but a waitress pointed out a stool at the counter. It was on the short end of the 'L' that the counter formed. I sat down and immediately had a coffee and a menu in front of me. I glanced around and looked at the other diners, then looked along the other part of the counter. There were two men and five kids sitting there. One of the men looked hugely familiar to me, but I figured he must look like somebody from somewhere else.

That group seemed to be having a fine time, the men cracking jokes and the kids playing with their food and sticking straws up their noses. When the waitress came to take my order she looked over her shoulder at them, then backed up a step. "If these people give you a hard time, just smack 'em" With that, she grabbed a rolled up newspaper and bopped one of the guys on the head. "Just like that."

The kids thought it was hilarious and started grabbing for the newspaper. The guy she'd hit grinned at her. "Why ya gotta be so mean in the morning, Maggie?"

"Because I know what your gang's like, Joe. I know darn well you give these kids food-fight pills before you bring 'em in. You do it on purpose so I can spend the day cleanin' up their slops."

"Why you pickin' on me, woman? I just drove twenty hours in a van that smelled so bad I'm lucky my clothes didn't melt. Just to get a mess of the best grits in the south."

"Well take a big mouthful of them grits and start chewin' on 'em."

She turned back to me with a wide smile and a wink. "They won't bother you now, sonny. What'll you have?"

I gave her my order, then sipped my coffee. The guy who Maggie had hit looked over at me. "Don't you listen to a thing that woman says. She's the meanest waitress in the state, bar none."

He was grinning, and the whole place was snickering. He turned his smile back to me. "So, what brings you to Morton?"

"I just moved in. I'm going to be teaching eighth grade."

He grinned. "Wow! The new school marm. Welcome! I'm Joe Goldman. These are my sons Scott and Sam, and this here's Melissa. This is Nick and his two boys, Hector and Jose."

I shook hands with the nearest kid, Scott, then I waved to everyone else. "I'm Dave Devino. We bought a house on Arlington Road."

Nick looked at me. "The Murphy place?"

I nodded. They all suddenly lost their smiles. Nick shook his head. "That's a sad story. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time." He brightened. "Jose and Scott are starting eighth grade this year." He looked at each boy. "Say hello to your new teacher."

Maggie was just putting my food in front of me when I noticed another man coming up behind Joe. He had his finger in front of his mouth as if to say shhh. He walked up behind him, then wrapped his arms around him and put his chin on his shoulder so they were cheek to cheek.

Joe didn't even look up, just said, "I thought I heard a slither and a hiss." Then he grinned and turned to kiss him on the cheek. The two boys who Nick had introduced as his sons called the new guy Dad. I was confused, but I guess there were a lot of possibilities.

I couldn't dwell on it. I had a monster breakfast in front of me. I started eating, and when I glanced over again and saw Nick with the new guy I suddenly recognized them. They were Scott Johnson and Nick Cassarino, singer and bassist for one of the hottest rock groups of the eighties and early nineties. I wasn't about to make a scene about it, but some of their songs were among Tim's and my own favorites.

I could overhear part of their conversation.

"So, bwana, when'd you get in?" Scott was talking to Joe.

"Just before ten. I want you to know I really appreciate you flying back and leaving the driving to me."

"What are friends for? I know how you love it behind the wheel."

"Handlebars, Scott. Not wheel. Handlebars! Open air. Do you have any idea what that vehicle smelled like with a week's worth of dirty laundry for fifteen in it? When it's ninety out? You're gonna pay, my friend. Big time. When I figure out what you like least, I'm gonna lock you up in a van with it for twenty hours. So, Hah!"

"Oooh. Did Scott make Joey mad again?"

Nick said, "Stop complaining, Joe. I had to drive with your wife and the Bodines and nine kids. I don't think the ringing's ever gonna leave my ears."

"Who are you kiddin'? You play in a rock and roll band. You should be lucky that your ears still work at all."

I knew I wasn't hearing angry words there, just ribbing between long-time friends. When I put down my fork Joe said, "Scott. This is Dave Devino. He'll be teaching Little Scott and Jose in eighth grade."

Scott Johnson walked over to me and held his hand out to shake. He had a good smile. "Hi, Dave. If these little snots give you any problems, you just let us know." I still had his hand and I was staring at him. "Something wrong?"

I let his hand go. "Well, you're kinda famous you know."

"Oh, yeah. I guess I am. Tell you what, around here I'm just Scott. Are you going to the picnic today?"

"I sure am."

"Good. Then you'll see." He smiled a very happy smile. "We like it here, Dave, so it's just Scott and Nick. We're nothing special, just middle class kids that got lucky." He put his hand on my shoulder. "It's people like you that make everything work. Welcome to a really fine part of the world."

"Thanks, Scott. I think we're really going to like it here."

He looked around. "Is your wife here?"

"I'm not married. The 'we' is my brother and me. He's in the antiques business."

"Oh, so we'll meet him later?"

"He's still up north finishing up some things. He should be here Wednesday."

"Well, next week then. Stop by when you're settled in. You can meet the rest of the kids."

"There's more?"

"Oh, yeah. Three girls. You'll get Jose this year and Nydia a few years later. She's the baby."

Little Scott was whispering something in Scott's ear. He turned a hopeful face to me. "Do you by any chance play banjo or fiddle?"

"No, just a little guitar. Why?"

I looked around and everybody looked disappointed. "No reason." His expression turned hopeful. "If we found you one would you learn it?"

"Learn what?"

"Banjo or fiddle, man! All we have around here is guitar players." He directed his stare at Joe. "Nobody cares about the finer things anymore."

Joe said, "If it's so important, why don't you learn?"

Scott grinned and pointed a finger toward his ear. "Tin ear, remember? You're the one who told me."

I got off the stool and picked up my bill. Scott grabbed it. "This is on us, Dave." He smiled. "Welcome to Morton."

I reached for the bill, and he jerked his hand away. I said, "You don't have to do that."

"I know I don't, but I want to."

"Thanks, then. I appreciate it. That picnic's from one to five, right?"

Everybody in the place started laughing.


Nick yelled over, "It might start at one today, but it won't be over 'til the end of September, then the birthdays start."


Little Scott piped in. "Me and Missy are almost the only people in town that weren't born in October." He pouted. "I really got screwed. I was born on Christmas Eve. Nobody gets excited about my party?"

Jose called from the other end of the counter. "You always have the best party, Scotty!"

"That's only because..."

The kids were yelling, but when I started to leave Nick stood in front of me. "Where ya headed?"

"Home, I guess."

"Uh, you want some company?"

He had such a pleading look in his eyes that it made me smile. I looked around and saw Joe and Scott with the same look.

"You want to come to my house?"

They were all over me at once. "Oh yeah, thanks for askin'. Let us get rid of the brats and we'll be right there. We know where it is."

"Oh, sure then. Come on over."

I was looking at three grinning men. Scott said, "We'll see you in a few, Dave. Thanks a lot."

I left and drove home quickly. I picked up the phone as soon as I walked in the door and called Tim.

"Atkin's Reconstructions."

"Hi, Joyce. Is Tim there?"

"Hello yourself. How's the sunny south?"

"Sunny. And hot! Is he in?"

"Just a second."

"Tim Atkins."

"Timmy! You're never gonna guess!"

"Something wrong?"

"No! Guess who's on their way over?"

Silence. "I give up."

"Scott Johnson and Nick Cassarino!"


"Yes! They live right here and they're coming over. They bought me breakfast."

"Boy, you move fast. They live in Morton?"

"Yeah. They want to meet you."

"Me? Why?"

"I don't know, because they do. Is this cool or what?"

"It's definitely cool. Why're they coming to our house?"

"I don't know. They seemed all excited about it. Maybe this place is more boring than we thought."

"Let me think. I can't believe this. Do they seem normal?"

"Within my definition, yes. I can't believe I'm so excited!"

"Shit! I wish I was there. They really said they wanted to meet me?"

"I wish you were here right now. What'm I gonna do?"

"You'll think of something. What time's the picnic?"

"According to them from one today until the end of September. You can still make it."

Tim was laughing. "I'm gonna tell Ken that one. It'll give him something new to strive for, huh?"

I heard the door open and turned to see Mike Waters coming in. "I'll say. Tell him next year to get a month's worth of fireworks. Mike just came in. You wanna say hi?"

"Sure. Put him on."

I held the phone out to Mike and whispered, "It's Tim." Mike eagerly grabbed the phone, and I raced around trying to straighten things up. When I heard somebody pull into the driveway I headed back to the kitchen trying to look nonchalant. Mike was still on the phone, so when I heard a knock I went to the door. The three guys were there with a cooler. I backed up to let them in. They were all grins.

"Thanks, Dave. This is so cool."

"It is?"

I led them into the kitchen and we all sat at the table. I asked Mike if he was going to be long on the phone, and when he nodded yes I led him to the bedroom and had him pick up in there, then went back to the kitchen and hung up that one. Joe, Scott and Nick already had iced teas open and Joe held one out to me.

"You're a lifesaver, Dave. This is perfect!"

I didn't have a clue. "Lifesaver?"

"Yeah. We all just got back from seven weeks up north. The women have eight million things for us to do, so helping you move in was the perfect excuse to scoot out of there, plus there's the picnic. Now we can just meet 'em there and they can go home when the kids get bored. You gonna show us around?"

"Uh, sure. There are boxes everywhere, but if you want to see it let's go."

We headed into the living room, which was mostly contemporary furniture with a few antique pieces, then into the dining room. The stuff in here had been some of Tim's earlier efforts, but everybody always thought that it was beautiful.

Joe looked at me. I should say he glared at me. "Dave, I know we just met. I want your most solemn promise that Marty will never, ever set foot in this room."


"My wife, Martha. If she ever sees this stuff she'll hound me 'til the end of time to get something just like it. I bet there's nothing just like it anyhow, is there?"

"I doubt it. This is some work Tim did."

"Well, there's your motivation. If she sees these things I'll have to kill you so she can have them."

Joe looked serious, and Scott and Nick were nodding in agreement.

"You want to see the barn?"

"You have a barn? Let's see it!"

We walked outside and out back to the barn. The main door was open, so we just walked in. Everybody was looking around and commenting on the size of it. After they had a good look I led them into the guest house. It had doors that led directly outside, but the one from the barn came through an area with a laundry room and bathroom. The first room we got to was the kitchen, which was big and bright and modern. I decided to take them right into the front room, which was really in the back and had a terrific view of the property and the woods behind.

Everybody was admiring the workmanship when Mike walked in. He said hello to everybody, and seemed to know the others. "Dave, I have a message from Tim. He said to say he loves you even though you failed to mention if you felt the same way. He also said to enjoy the picnic while he does nothing."

My ears were burning. "That prick made you rehearse that, didn't he?"

The men all burst out laughing. Mike, keeping a straight face, said, "Yes sir, he did. He also said he'll give you something to make sure you never forget again when he gets here next week." Then Mike started snickering.

Rats! Outed by a teenybopper!

I looked sheepishly at the other guys. "Now you know."

They burst out laughing again, then Scott said, "Joey's the only straight person in this room, Dave." He looked over his shoulder at Joe. "He claims to be, anyhow, but the friends he keeps kinda makes you wonder."

I was trying to put it all together in my mind. What they'd just implied was that Scott and Nick were a gay couple. It was a surprise to me, but it explained the kids calling each of them Dad. I wondered what that was about, but I was trying to stay on top of what people were saying.

Joe put on an indignant face. "Fuck off, Scott! Sorry 'bout my language, Mike. The only reason I keep you dickheads as friends is because queers need friends."

That set them off laughing again, and I joined in. I felt good for a lot of reasons. These were good people, I could feel it. They seemed like they had been friends for a long time, and I like that. Straight, gay... it wasn't an issue with them. I'd kept most of my childhood and teen friends and it was the same way. The friendship part is what mattered, not the sex of your lover or what you ended up doing for a living.

Mike disappeared, but the rest of us spent a couple of happy, frivolous hours swapping jokes and tales from the past. It wasn't normally something I enjoyed with my own friends, but that was because I'd been there to begin with. When somebody started up with 'remember when' or 'remember that' I'd zone out. Listening to other peoples stories, told to me, was a different matter. I liked theirs and they liked mine, and by the time we left to walk over to the picnic I knew I had found some great new friends.

I felt very comfortable when we walked down the street to the picnic. I wasn't even surprised by the crowd in the yard because I'd seen picnics that big before, but then it struck me that this was the whole town here. From toddlers to geezers, they all seemed to know and like each other. Black, white, hispanic... nothing seemed to matter. Nobody was separated by category, it was just a big happy blend of friendly people.

The first hour wasn't really fun for me, although people were having fun all around me. I was the new teacher and almost everybody I met had a son or daughter, niece or nephew, even neighbor's kids entering eighth grade. I had to stay there making small talk while they extracted their particular kid from his or her own fun to come and meet me.

After that, I did manage to eat some food, drink some beer and play horseshoes with people who were no better at it than me. I teamed with Joe Waters and we actually won two in a row.

I met just about everybody in town. My years teaching had gotten me to where I was good at remembering names and matching them to faces. I met the still-sad faces of Jed and Pat Anderson's parents. They were nice people, friendly and outgoing, but you could still sense their loss. I spent some time talking with Patrick. I really liked him, and wished that we'd moved a year earlier just so I could have had him in my class. He was hard to look at with the glasses that made one eye look huge, but he joked that he was 'The Morton Cyclops'.

I hated to think of the hurt he'd been through, but he was obviously a loved child. Not just by his parents, but by everybody. He couldn't play with the other kids, but one by one they'd spend time with him. These kids weren't being sent over by their parents, they just came and focused on whichever eye they liked best. I could tell that Pat wanted to be in on the games the others were playing, but he seemed content, happy even, to sit and watch and talk to his friends.

I found myself sitting alone for a minute. Mike came over with a fistful of cookies. "Want one?"

I took one and looked at him. "Having fun?"

"Yeah, this is always fun."

"Play any games?"


"Wanna be partners in horseshoes?"

"I ain't no good."

I stood up and grinned. "That's perfect! I stink, too. Let's go. Gimme another cookie."

"They play for beer, you know."

"So what? The beer's free."

"If we win, do I get one?"

I looked at him. "You want one? The first time I had beer I thought it tasted like rat piss."

"How old were you?"

I thought about being honest. "Twenty-one. Minus ten."

"That's an age?"

"It sure was." I laughed. "Yeah, it was." I looked at him. "What were you doing when you were eleven? I was learning how to make friends."

"And get drunk?"

"Naw, not drunk. Just snuck a can here and there. Learning to make friends was the big part."

I started walking back to the horseshoe pit. Mike caught up and walked beside me. "You didn't know how?"

"I guess I did. I just didn't know what a friend was, really... what friends mean to each other."

When we got to where they were playing horseshoes there were a lot of people waiting to get a chance to play. We sat down on the ground and Mike offered me another cookie. He looked serious.

I asked him, "What's up?"

He looked at me, then at the ground. "I don't even want friends. I like it by myself."

"Is that really true, or are you just trying it out to see how it sounds?"

He had picked up a stick and was scratching the ground in front of him. "I don't know. I only ever had one friend, and that was Jack. I'm not lookin' for a replacement."

"Were you happy before you met Jack?"

"I guess, but it was little kid happy. I didn't know anything, so why wouldn't I be happy? I was like a little puppy. Everything was new and fun."

"Jack taught you things?"

He looked up at me, finally. "More like we learned things together." He looked away again, at the scratch marks he was making on the lawn. "Why am I tellin' you, anyhow? What do you care?"

I didn't even answer that, just turned my attention to the game in front of me. I wasn't angry, and I didn't think he was playing a game. I just thought he had to generate his own questions before I could try to answer them.

We had only known each other for a few days, so there was no reason for him to trust me. I had to wait for him to get to a point where he wanted to share his thoughts, even though I was fairly sure I knew what they were.

I was idly watching the game, when a double-ringer got me cheering with everyone else. I felt a poke on my arm and looked to Mike. He was looking at me with tears starting to run down his cheek. "I'm sorry. I do that all the time."

I gestured to Andy. When he saw me, I hugged myself and nodded toward Mike. Andy was there in two long strides. He sat next to Mike and Mike fell into him, finding himself cradled in the man's arms. Other people noticed, but minded their business and continued the game. Mike settled down pretty quickly and pulled back from Andy. Andy looked me a question and I shrugged, then nodded my head once to the left to indicate that he could leave.

I tapped Mike on the shoulder, then stood up. He got up, and we started walking back toward the picnic tables. I asked, "Do you know what that was, Mike?"


"That was a gesture of friendship... of love. You have to start returning them before you can get to where Jack is."

"I... I'm goin' home."

He ran across the yard and headed up the street. I stood and watched until he was out of sight. I realized what my own backside must have looked like to everybody all those years ago.

I turned to get a beer and almost bumped into Scott Johnson. He held one out to me and grinned. "How's it goin' teach?

"Okay, so far. I kinda feel like I walked into a big spider web."


I nodded.

"Mike's our own hero... him and a few other kids. He doesn't want any part of it, so we leave him alone." He grinned and bopped my arm. "So, you have your own man? How long?"

"Twenty six years, if you start from the beginning. Timmy would, but I'd start about four years later."

He looked excited. "Hey, neat! It's twenty six years for me and Nicky, too! We should get together for an anniversary or something."

"I don't know. We're really not sentimental about things like that."

Scott nodded. "We aren't either. I was just joking."

I had a question, so I asked it. "How do you have all those kids? Was one of you married once?"

He nudged me toward two lawn chairs that had just been vacated. When we got comfortable, he said, "No. Neither of us were ever married. When I was a kid, Joey promised that when he had his second child he'd trade me for a good cat. When Sam was born he reneged, then when Missy was born I got him a dog. He reneged again, so we had to go find some kids. There's dumpsters full of 'em in New York, you know. Me'n Nick would go dumpster hoppin' near every night, but we never found exactly what we were looking for. The dumpsters were all full, but all the kids were too cute or too cuddly looking."

There was a little girl sitting on the ground in front of us, looking indignantly at Scott and listening to this. She resembled the two boys I'd met in the morning, so I suspected this little yarn was for her benefit as much as mine.

Scott went on. "Anyhow, we play white-boy blues for a living. We weren't looking for cute and cuddly, we wanted ugly kids."

A shout of protest shot up toward us. "DADDY!"

"Really ugly ones, kids that could keep us singing the blues forever. One really dark night, we snuck into an alley and found a dumpster we never saw before. It smelled worse than most, so we pulled out our trusty gas masks .."


"When we got the lid up, there they were. Five of 'em, all snarled up together like snakes in a pit. We didn't want to be hasty, so we leaned up against the wall and wrote some songs real quick, just to see if they'd work. Man, anybody who'd just seen what we just saw could write great blues, so we scooped 'em out of the dumpster and wrapped them all in a blanket. Then we took them to a laundromat and ran 'em through the machines 'til we could tolerate the stink. The rest is history. The authorities in New York gave us one-way bus tickets to Morton, and here we are."

The little girl had climbed into Scott's lap and he was stroking her hair. He looked over at me. "Do you believe that?"

I was laughing. "Not particularly."

Then Scott laughed. "I like a man that knows a liar when he sees one." He gave his daughter a squeeze, and she squealed in delight. "This is Nydia. Don't you love that name?"

I did. I'd never heard the name before, but I liked it. I liked Scott, too. I didn't know if I'd ever learn how he came to have a family, but he felt like an old friend already. I'd known him for years through his music, and that may have been part of it, but sitting there with him and his little girl made me totally lose the sense of awe I'd felt when I met him earlier. I felt completely comfortable.

A young woman came up behind Scott and hugged him from behind, then put her hands around his throat. He made like he was choking.

"Is this the man you helped to move in?"

Scott looked over at me. "Dave, this is my oldest daughter, Maria." He looked back at her and grinned. "She's also my mother."

Maria smacked him pretty hard on the shoulder, then smiled at me and held out her hand. "Hi, Dave. I'm really happy to meet you. Did he really help you to move in, or was he just goofing off?"


She smacked him again. "I knew it! You think unpacking and washing all the clothes is woman's work." She was tugging on his earlobe. "Well listen, mister. Tomorrow you and your boyfriend are gonna start helping out or your daughters are going on strike!" She walked around to look at him, then crossed her arms. "Well? You should know that your underwear and socks are still in the hamper."

Scott looked helplessly at her. "What?"

She held her stern expression. "You men are all slackers!" Then she smiled, and a radiant one it was. Scott stood up, lifting Nydia with him. Maria hugged him, and I laughed when Nydia's face popped out between them, gasping for air. "I love you, Daddy. Am I doing the right thing?"

"We'll be fine, honey. Don't worry about us. Just go to school and learn everything." He looked over at me. "She's leaving for college on Monday." He grinned. "Stanford, no less!" Scott held Maria's shoulder in his free hand and said, "I am so proud of you, Maria. We all are." He smiled at her. "You're gonna turn the world on end, then kick its ass to the moon. We'll miss you, but it's what you have to do... what you want to do. We'll take care of everybody." He smiled and kissed her on the forehead, then on the nose.

They tightened their hug. Little Nydia somehow squeezed her way out from between them and sat in Scott's chair. She looked at them for a second, then turned a smile to me, nothing but happiness and sunshine on her face.

I excused myself to run home for a minute. I wanted to wash up and change my shirt, also to check on Mike Waters. He wasn't at my house, so I cleaned up and walked back to the picnic. The first person I ran into was Joe Goldman. He was speaking with a woman, and I judged her to be his wife. They were arguing, but not angrily. Joe wanted a ride home to get his 'toy' and she didn't want any part of it. When he saw me, he looked over and grinned.

"Hey, Dave! This hard-nosed woman is my wife, Marty. Marty, this is Dave Devino. He's going to be one of Scott's teachers."

She smiled. She was a pretty woman with very dark skin and shining black eyes. "Bless your soul." She held out her hand and we shook gently. "Teaching must be one of the hardest jobs there is. Especially with emerging teenagers." She looked at Joe, then back at me. "Like this one. Yes, he's big, but I think he'll be forever ten."

Joe grinned. "At least I'm gettin' older. When we were at the amusement park she said I was eight." He looked back at her. "So, do I get a ride from you or do I have to hitchhike?"

She looked exasperated. "Oh, all right. Tomorrow you stay home, though.

He looked at me. "Take a ride, Dave. You can see where I live. I'm coming right back."

I didn't have anything special to do. "Sure."

I followed them to their car -- a nice looking Audi. I climbed in the back seat and admired the cream-colored leather upholstery. Marty got in the driver's seat and Joe into the passenger seat. She tore out of there like she was in a hurry. We went back through Morton, then turned left.

Joe looked over the seat back. "There's no sign, Dave, but this is Short Hill Road. If you come at night we're at pole 79."

"Pole 79?"

"Yeah. The phone poles have numbers on them. You can see them pretty good at night. When you get to 79, that's us."

I was looking at the scenery. This was another nice road, even more rural than where we had moved. I asked Joe where the road led to, thinking I'd take a drive out here sometime.

"Oh, it's simple. Short Hill Road becomes Long Hill Road, then that turns into Humongous Hill Road. After that, it's uphill all the way."

I could see Marty's reflection in the mirror. "Dave, there's something you need to know about my husband. He knows how to start a sentence, but after that all you're going to hear is what folks around here call a crock of shit."

I was laughing as we turned into their driveway. It was a long one, going past a barn, several smaller buildings, four big greenhouses, then finally up to a very nice looking house at the top of a hill. Marty was going right back to the picnic, so Joe and I climbed out listening to a warning to him that he'd better come straight back there. He leaned in and kissed her, then she drove off.

Joe opened the door to the house and I followed him in. He showed me around the ground floor, and it was a nice place. He wouldn't bring me upstairs, saying the kids lived up there and it might threaten my health. A friendly looking Golden Retriever came walking out from somewhere and immediately put her nose in my crotch.

Joe said, "Stop it, Blondie."

I patted her head and looked up at him. "Blondie's her name?"

"No, I don't think so. You'll have to ask one of the kids. Blondie's what I call her, though. You like dogs?"

"I love dogs. Wait 'til you meet Buster."

"Buster? I can hardly wait. He's moving here, too?"

"Tim's bringing him. He's um... a large dog."

"Bigger than Blondie? I thought she was pretty big."

I just laughed. "You'll see."

We stopped in the kitchen, which had to be thirty feet long. "You said you play guitar, Dave?"

"A little. It's just a hobby."

"Wait a sec."

He disappeared, then came right back carrying two guitar cases. He grinned. "Don't worry. You don't have to play, this is just how I hide my booze."

I followed him outdoors noticing that he didn't even close the door, much less lock it. We walked down the driveway to the barn, which was also wide open.

I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw where he tossed the guitar cases. It was a dune buggy. A metallic blue one, with a Rolls Royce grill.

Tim and I had found a soulmate in Morton.


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