Jack in the Box

Chapter 13

Tim Atkins - Arlington Road Neighbor : August, 2000

When I exited the Interstate, I checked the trip computer to learn that my average speed for the thousand mile trip had been 55.3 MPH and I'd managed 16 miles per gallon. Eighteen hours and three minutes ago I had left our old house headed for the new one. I had stopped for tolls, gas and food. I even took a short walk after breakfast just to work out a kink in my right leg. Traffic had been on my side for once, and I had only passed one radar trap during the whole ride.

This was the first trip of any distance I'd made since I got the M5 and I was pretty certain it'd take years before my grin wore off. What a car! I hadn't been bored for one single second, and I didn't even feel particularly tired. I had power, comfort, and every gadget known to carkind. Mr. BMW had done his job very well.

I was grinning for a second reason, too. I was just a few miles away from the best person I ever met in my life. I had long ago given up trying to use any term of endearment for Dave, because he absolutely bristled whenever I did. Still, he was my best friend, my brother and my lover and I had sorely missed him. We were starting a new life together, just the two of us, far from family and friends. We had fretted about leaving everybody, then decided that there would be plenty of visits.

Most of the people we knew were happy and healthy. They'd come to see us and we'd go back often enough. There was always the telephone, e-mail, lots of ways to stay in touch. We'd kept the house and rented it to the son of a friend, so we could always escape back if things didn't turn out as we expected. From Dave's calls I didn't think that would be the case anyhow. He was making friends hand over fist, and liking everybody he met.

I now had a pile of money in the bank, plenty to last us ten lifetimes. I had planned to sell my businesses to the employees, which is what happened with the store, but when word got out that the reconstruction business was on the block, I got a fabulous offer from a museum that we'd done much work for. They promised to keep it exactly as it was, retaining all the talented people I had working for me, and agreeing that I could use my secret 'recipes' as long as I didn't compete with them. I got to keep my company name and start again, though I wasn't sure I wanted to.

Dave and I had come a long way since our first meeting, which was a scrap on the way home from school one day. Back then I was a wimp and he was a tiger, but over the years we had merged into two units who were very much alike in most ways. Running a business had toughened me up as much as teaching school had softened Dave. I had learned to speak my mind and Dave had eventually learned when not to speak his.

After that first schoolboy fight we had never gotten angry with each other over anything that mattered. We didn't try to bore each other with niceness, rather we tried to make each other really happy about at least one thing each day of our lives. It had become remarkably easy to keep it up. Sometimes it was as simple as rolling over and going back to sleep on a rainy Sunday, even if we already had outdoor plans, other times driving to a hilltop where we'd have a view of a particular planet alignment or a comet. We didn't have any real rules about it, just that the day's little 'happy' couldn't cost anything that we wouldn't already have spent.

I think if there were ever a book written to prove the existence of personal dichotomy, synchronicity, karma... whatever, Dave and I would have been the perfect role models. We had a love that had to be the model of perfection. It had lasted over twenty five years already, and seemed to build on itself every day.

It wasn't just that we said it, we really felt it. Each day we'd know that we each had done something special just to make the other happy. Little things usually, but something just the same. They piled up, amassed, accumulated. They were the proof of our love, the proof that it grew every day.

I turned onto Morton Road, which became Arlington Road as soon as I got to Morton.

I was almost there, but I pulled over next to some trees to take a leak. I didn't want my first action on my arrival at our new home to be a fast break for the bathroom. I got back in the car and kept driving, my excitement mounting. I was literally feet away from the object of all my desires. I was keeping my eye out for the 'for sale' sign, but the next thing I knew I was at the crossroad that was downtown Morton.

I really needed to figure out some landmarks so I'd know where I lived. I turned around and headed back, trying to at least remember what the house number was. I knew it was on the mailbox, but I guess the ride had numbed my mind. This time I found the house and turned into the driveway. Dave's car wasn't there and that surprised me. I'd called him four hours earlier and told him where I was and when I'd get there, and I was pretty much on time. I couldn't believe he wasn't waiting for me.

I got out and went to the side door only to find it locked. I knew I had a key for the house on my key ring, but I had a lot of keys. I started trying them, not bothering with the ones that were obviously for cars. I found one that fit the lock but wouldn't turn it, then looked for something that looked like it. I had one that looked exactly like it, and it opened the door. I trotted back to the car and got my bags out, then went inside the empty house.

I was disappointed in a way. I really thought Dave would be there with lunch ready and a cold glass of something for me. I called out but got no response, so I dropped my things on the floor and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. There were notes plastered everywhere. "Hi". "Welcome Home". "You're Late". "I know where I am". "You don't". "No Hints". "Maybe Just One". "Turn AROUND!"

Classic Dave! He'd spent at least an hour making sure they'd be read in a sequence that made sense. I tensed, then turned around to meet his ever-loving soft smile. We didn't waste a second looking at each other, but collapsed into each other instead.

I squeezed him hard. "Dave! Who do ya love?"

He pulled away from me and saluted. "I Pledge allegiance to the Tim," then he burst out laughing and we fell back into a gentler hug.

"I missed you Dave, big time."

He nuzzled my neck. "Me too. You hungry or ya wanna get laid?"


"Which order?"

"Your choice, Dave." I smiled at his grin.

His grin widened. "You're givin' me the choice? Okay, barn or bedroom?"

"I haven' even seen the barn yet. Did they do a good job?"

"It's perfect. That's where lunch is anyhow, so let's go!"

We walked out back, arms over shoulders. I had planned the barn as a workshop, the guest house as the house of Dave's dreams. I was eager to see how it had turned out so far. The builder expected to be completely finished in two more weeks; some painting and trim work remained to be completed.

The doors to the barn were wide open and Dave's Explorer was inside along with a few pickup trucks. As we got closer I noticed the sparkle of some blue metal flake paint, then did a double take when I realized the paint covered a dune buggy. I ran over to it and stared in admiration, then turned to find Dave looking at me with a happy grin on his face.

"Who's is it? Did you buy this?"

"Yeah. What good's a hundred acres without a duner?" He laughed, "I'm kidding. I just borrowed it. I've been teaching Mike Waters how to drive it."

I was smiling at the car. "How is Mike? Is he doing any better?"

"Well, he's on an up right now. I just hope it lasts. You want to, uh, survey the property? Lunch can wait a while."

I just jumped in the passenger seat and looked expectantly at Dave until he dug the key out of his pocket and hopped into the driver's seat and started the thing up. He backed out of the far end of the barn, then turned and drove right across the backyard into the woods. I yelled, "Did ya find a place to cross the brook?" Dave smiled and nodded, then we crested a hill and headed straight for the water.

We were almost there before I spied a bridge made of new-looking wood. We drove across it, then started following some trails that were obviously very recently knocked down. Dave was driving fairly slowly and pointing out different spots that he thought were nice features of the land. He ended up stopping at a pond that started in a meadow and disappeared into dense woods. I looked at him. "We own a pond? This is still our property?"

"Yup! Wait'll you see the other end." He started to climb out.

"We're walking?"

"The car won't fit, and I sure won't be the one to cut down any of these trees."

I climbed out and when we were side by side I slipped my hand into Dave's. We walked slowly alongside the pond, which turned out to be quite large. We were on a narrow path, narrow enough that we had to go between certain trees in single file. It was beautiful and it certainly lent credence to the term deep dark woods. The water beside us almost looked black, with reflections of trees and bits of sky on the calm surface. We came up to a clearing where the edge of the pond met a chiseled looking outcropping of rock backed by a grassy area that was about ten feet wide. I knew this was our destination the second I saw it.

I ran right over to the rock and kicked off my shoes, then pulled my socks off and hoisted my pant legs to the knees. I sat on the edge and dangled my feet in the cool water. Dave was beside me in about two seconds, his head against my shoulder. I put my hand on his leg and whispered, "It's gorgeous! Just perfect."

I felt a little kiss on my cheek, then a tongue toying with my ear. I giggled, then Dave whispered. "It's deep enough for swimming. Feel like getting naked?"

I smiled. "Naked's good! You're not hungry?"

Dave grinned wickedly. "Who said that?"

We swam. The water was comfortably cool and crystal clear. The pond wasn't very deep, maybe ten feet, but you could see things almost as clearly as if they were on the surface. I was so many heavens beyond the seventh right then that I lost count. The business world was behind me, at least for the time being. I had financial security that it would take a total yo-yo to blow. I managed to acquire this beautiful piece of land. Dave would say that I could never own it, and I understood that, but it could be mine to use for a while, mine and Dave's.

Dave had a hobby of studying native cultures and had gotten me interested enough to like the idea that we belonged to the land rather than it belonging to us. We never declared it, but we were Pantheists. It was the most appealing idea, that God is his creations, that a speck of dirt is as important as the greatest conqueror. Kings and emperors could simply not exist were it not for the humble soil beneath their feet.

I couldn't exist without the handsome, sincere man swimming alongside me. I also couldn't shake the feeling that we'd done what we were supposed to do, struck out on our own, found a new idea that we needed to build upon by ourselves, between ourselves. Swimming in that clear water made Atlantis seem possible. Anything seemed possible.

We were kids when we first met, little boys really, but we developed a bond that nothing seemed able to shake. Sure, we've had moments of anger, periods of disappointment with each other, but we had one thing that overrode everything else. We were each committed to the other's happiness above our own.

When we finally climbed up on the rock Dave grinned at me. "You were thinking good thoughts, weren't ya?"

I smiled back. "That I was. I was loving a good person, too."

He gave me a look of mock surprise and pointed his finger at his chest. "Me?"

"Only you. Now I wanna do some good things." I growled and jumped on him.

* * * * * * * *

Fortunately or not, after a week apart good things don't take very long. No matter how good they are! We got dressed and headed back to the car, enjoying the nature around us even more now that we were an official part of it. We were probably in or approaching the second halves of our lives, but after a romp like that we both felt like kids again, and reverted to our teenage senses of humor.

Dave was being mischievous. "What would your Mom say if she saw that?"

"Probably the same thing she said the first time. Like 'Eeeeeek!'

"Sorry, I forgot about that."

"Like hell, you've been claiming permanent ear damage ever since."

"Heh, yeah." He looked at me with a wide-eyed grin. "She was loud, though."

"She was loud? What about your sister?

"Shit! She made a lot of noise too. I never knew she knew so much Italian."

"I think that was Latin."

"Same difference. So, you hungry again or do you want lunch?"

I smacked his arm with the back of my hand and started running towards the car. I had it started by the time he got there and climbed in. "Who's this belong to?"

"A guy named Joe. You'll like him."

I revved the engine and slipped it into first. "I already do!"

I took it easy the first time around, getting a feel for the trails that Dave had laid down, then I gunned it and we raced around for almost a half hour. Whoever Joe was, he was not getting this car back. Neither Dave nor I had come here looking for a second childhood, but a dune buggy and a hundred or so acres of raw land sure seemed the perfect way to start a second adulthood.

We laughed and howled and swore, just like when we were kids. When I finally slowed down to take the bridge I had to push Dave off my arm to steer straight. We got back into the yard and were headed towards the barn. When I saw it I had to stop. All I'd seen of this side before were architectural drawings of my interpretation of Dave's dream house. I'd even paid for a 'rendering', a painting that would show the building in perspective and in color.

I should have been prepared for what I saw, but I wasn't, I just plain wasn't. The real world setting was much more beautiful than a watercolor could begin to depict. The old oak branches that formed a canopy over the deck, the wall that I'd asked to be angled so the rest of the barn wouldn't be in sight when you looked out from inside, it all worked better in real life. The deck preceded it, but the glass looked black with the sun right over the building.

I could see our reflection in the glass, broken up by the many stiles of the deck rail. They were happy reflections, so I yelled, "Wooooo-eee! We made it, Davy!"

Dave grinned. "I never heard you say 'whooooo-eee!' before. Is that like 'Yee Haw'? I just learned that the other day." He started laughing. "Welcome to Morton, Timmy!"

I looked once again at the house and grinned. "Thanks, Dave. Yee Haw? That's how I should say it? Well, YEE HAW!"

I stopped the car beside the deck and jumped the steps up onto it. From there I could see a painter working in the living room. I opened the slider and walked in, Dave right behind me. Even with drop cloths covering the floor I was pleased with what I could see. I'd tried to get the effect of the lounge room of one of our favorite restaurants without actually copying it. The room in the restaurant was Dave's favorite indoor place. This room was a different shape, but I had used similar materials. Granite for the fireplace, random width pegged floorboards, floor to ceiling tinted glass on one wall.

I had only dealt directly with the contractor, but when I learned who his subs were I wrote to each one of them and promised bonus money for their best work. As I looked around I could tell that I'd be writing more checks very soon.

That first inspection told me that I'd gotten what I asked for. Everything looked perfect. Even the screws on the wall switches and outlets had been indexed. I was pleased with the work and pleased with myself, that I'd been able to do something like this for us.

I stood there wondering about it all, the way I had metamorphosed like so many people seem to do. As a little kid I think I'd been pretty average, but when my father got caught up in drugs I turned inward. I didn't want to be with people anymore, I was afraid of the questions they'd ask. I started collecting things, anything at first, then mostly bottles and radios. I was a loner, but my mind was active. I liked looking at the things I had, fixing them when I thought I had a chance, but I wanted to know about them... who had made them and why they did it in the first place.

I had to learn how to learn, if you will. I lived at the library every moment I could, running there from wherever I was to maximize my time with the books. I was very haphazard for a while, then a remarkable librarian named Mrs. Russell started showing me how to research things, how to read footnotes, how to take my own notes so I didn't have to start cold on every visit.

I started to get good at it. I was ten years old, but I knew my way around that old mausoleum as well as anyone who worked there. I wrote tons of notes and figured out a way to file them so no piece of paper was ever more than a few moments away from my grasp. I amused myself by turning the dry history of things into stories about the men and women who had created them. I didn't make anything up except to fill in the gaps, but in my own mind I made the people who manufactured and built things into fun sorts of playmates.

I tried to picture them my age, my friends... Fulton, Whitney, Bell, Edison, the Wrights, Lear, so many others. It wasn't just their inventiveness, it was their ability to turn their inventions into reality. I would just picture Edison buying a piece of ground and saying, "Okay, here we will build a building to manufacture electric lights. First we must buy other ground and build another building to generate electricity. Before we go too far, we need a third piece of ground for a building to manufacture wire, but we have to figure out how first."

It all fascinated me, and I learned all I could. I'm still like that. If we're anywhere near a factory that offers public tours you can bet I'll be there, staring in fascination as pills tumble down a tiny conveyor and get packaged, wide-eyed watching the production of trash bags, mesmerized at foundries and rolling mills, blown away at the sheer size and power of the machinery that makes toilet paper.


I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped a foot. "Sorry, just thinking."

"Let's eat. I just made something light 'cause we're going to the picnic later.

"Picnic? We got invited somewhere?"

He smiled. "They weren't kidding. It just keeps sliding down the road, house to house."

I followed Dave into the kitchen, which had everything I'd been able to think of to cook with, along with places to put it all. Our 'table' was a piece of plywood balanced on two sawhorses. Dave had linen napkins and fine china set out and offset by a crystal vase full of wild flowers and, I think, weeds. Two chairs of the folding card-table type were set up opposite each other.

I sat down. "What'd ya make?"

"Greek salad and chicken pita's. What to drink? We have beer, wine, iced tea and Sprite. Oh, and lemonade."

I wanted a beer, but I'd been up for a long time and figured it would just knock me out. "Iced tea sounds good."

Dave served us up, and it was a great lunch. He had been cooking or helping since he was a little kid, and he really enjoyed it. He wasn't a chef, but he was clever and had really spread his wings. It was Mediterranean this time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"So when's the rest of the stuff coming?" Dave asked. My papers and personal things, along with my van and some other equipment were on the way.

"The stuff I shipped should be here tomorrow by UPS. Buster's coming with David and Tim. They think they'll be here Saturday."

Dave smiled. "The old man's lettin' 'em go for once? I think that's great!"

I grinned back. "Yeah, they're all excited. You should have heard them the other day, you'd think they'd never been outta town before! They're really excited."

Dave looked behind me, then I heard a voice. "Hello? Is this private? We can leave if you want."

I turned around and it was Mike Waters along with a skinny kid with the biggest eyes I'd ever seen on a person. Dave swallowed and put his napkin to his lips, motioning them over. He gulped, "No! Come on in! You've met Mike, Tim. That's Anton with him. Anton Wolfe."

I stood up and shook hands with a smiling Mike, then held my hand out to Anton. "Hi Anton, pleased to meet you."

His smile was shy but expectant. We shook hands and he said, "I'm pleased too." Then he looked more intensely at me. "You know all about art?" I had to suppress a smile at his accent, the way he made extra syllables out of vowels. I had never really decided why people called the vocal sounds of the south a 'drawl', but Anton definitely had one.

I was taken off stride by the question, but I answered, "I don't know all about anything, but I like art. Why the question?"

Before Anton could say anything, Dave told them to dig into the food that was left, which they did with a vengeance. I was wondering how Anton had gotten into the picture when Dave said, "Anton's quite the artist, Tim. Wait'll you see the things he does."

"Really?" I looked at Anton. He wasn't quite like anybody I'd ever seen before. He had eyes that were huge, almost like you'd see on a deer or certain breeds of dogs, but they seemed to emit a certain intelligence or insightfulness, even when he was cramming his mouth full of chicken pita while he had a fork full of salad waiting in the wings. He only had a frizz of hair on his head, and his skin was quite dark. He was almost as tall as Mike but looked like he weighed half as much. The word 'odd' popped into my head, but as I watched the two of them eat he seemed pretty much like a regular kid.

I had only met Mike the one time before, but my memory of that meeting had come to haunt me. I wasn't sure just what it was, but watching him devour the remaining food with Anton sent some signal to me. I just couldn't connect it to anything.

Mike was definitely a good looking person, well past the stage where anybody would call him cute. I think I was seeing what he'd look like as a man, and he'd surely be a handsome one. Well, he had a lot of hair and it stuck out at all angles, but the hair wasn't even his distinguishing feature. That feature would have to be his expressiveness. He was obviously enjoying what he was eating and happy to be with the company there, but on a pretty regular basis I could notice a dimming of the spirit, see a cloud of something in his face. Each time it flashed over him it looked different, but the separate feelings I got were, doubt, anger, sadness, even fear. Dave had said that Mike was messed up and, even though he was having fun at the moment, I thought I could see it.

Mike looked at me and said, "I still have your letter, Tim. It's in Jack's room. Want me to get it?"

I looked at Mike, then Dave, realizing I'd never told David I gave Mike the letter he'd written so many years ago. Dave didn't say anything, but his face told me he didn't think it had been one of my best ideas. "It's okay, Mike. As long as I know it's safe." I looked over at him, still stuffing his face. "You're okay? " I noticed Anton trying to eat just as fast as Mike was. "You're making friends?"

Mike had a mouthful of food, but he gave me what I took for a smile just before he swatted Anton's hand away from the last pita sandwich. He grabbed it himself, then broke it in half and held a part out to Anton. Anton grinned and grabbed it.

I looked at Dave. "Were we like that?"

"I'm afraid so. Don't you remember the food binges at Kenny's and my Mom's?"

I smiled. "I guess I do. We were always eatin', weren't we? Kenny's still feeding tons of people and loving it. He'll never change."

Dave looked wistful. "I guess we had it pretty good, huh? I know we had some tough times, but I mostly remember having fun all the time." He started staring at me with a curious expression, then he leaned in close. "You have gray hairs! When did that happen?"

I was mortified. I had never noticed any, then Dave gave me a quick peck on the lips and grinned wickedly. "Just kidding. You happy now?"

I grinned. "Getting old is supposed to make me happy?"

Dave had a sly look in his eye. "No, not getting old is today's happy moment. I will never ever get tired of your face, but you never seem to age anyhow. I love you, Tim. I am so glad you're here."

I was getting the feeling that Dave forgot we had company. I cleared my throat. "So Anton, I'd like to see some of your work one of these days." Anton looked up expectantly and Dave blushed. He had forgotten about the kids for sure.

Anton said, "Sure. Mike has a picture and a carving right next door. Wanna see?"

I smiled at his enthusiasm, then glanced at Dave for approval. When Dave nodded I said, "Bring it on over. I can't wait to see."

Mike and Anton jumped up and fought each other through the door. I grinned at Dave. "What's Anton all about? He's a neat kid and I love that accent."

Dave looked serious. "They hated each other until just the other day. Mike had a real bad weekend, really up and down. He punched out Anton and it pissed me off. I mean, Mike's twice his weight. Anyhow, when they got back here I put them into a position where they didn't have any choice but to talk." He smiled. "That fixed the immediate problem, but Mike's really a mess still. The kid's fucked up, Tim. I feel really bad for him. He's got me wondering just what the hell I'd do if anything ever happened to you."

I choked up. "I worry the same way about you."

Dave was about to say something, but Mike and Anton came back in. Anton handed me a birdhouse in the shape of a log cabin.

I'm sure my jaw dropped. What I had in my hands was an amazing piece of handicraft, perfect in every detail yet obviously still handmade. I stared and stared, wondering about the hands that had crafted this. There was perfection in many details, whimsey in others. It was beautiful.

I admired the craftsmanship, and my business sense told me these would sell easily and for a good price. I looked at Anton, his slight body suddenly seeming more imposing. "This is really beautiful, Anton. How long did it take to make?"

He screwed up his face thinking. "Hmmm, maybe five hours of work, about two weeks what with waitin' for glue to dry and everythin'."

"This is all glued?"

"Naw, it's pegged inside. Lots of it's just fitted together. I only use glue where I hafta 'cause it takes too long to make."

I swear, right then I started trembling. "Do you make your own glue, Anton?" I asked in a shaky voice. I had to know. Reconstructing antiques was a painstaking process in and of itself, but glue was everything to the end result. You needed to use something that would hold forever but still dissolve easily so things could be taken back apart. I had tried for years to get an actual folk 'recipe' and had learned enough to come up with my own using animal hides, but nobody parted with their secrets. I even guarded my own.

Anton smiled. "Yeah, I make my own but it's a real pain in the butt. It stinks bad too."

"Um, what's in it?"

"Just stuff. Granny taught me."

"It holds together well?"

"Oh yeah. It'll come apart if ya want it to, but it ain't gonna happen by accident."

I figured I'd wait until another time to press for details, maybe even offer him money for the formula. "What other tools do you use?"

"Just a knife, really. Sandpaper if I got some, a rock most of the time."

I was inspecting the craftsmanship more closely, seeking imperfections. Actually, the true beauty of a piece like that lay in the sum of its imperfections, the fact that it was made by hand and without sophisticated tools. A quick glance would indicate that all the stiles on the railing were the same. A little scrutiny proved that no two were exactly the same, even though they had been carefully made. The same was true of the 'logs' that made up the body of the little house and the 'shingles' that covered the roof.

I chuckled when I noticed the porch light, just a small white stone glued to a carved socket, but it and the similar doorknob set off the otherwise all-wood piece perfectly. I smiled broadly at Anton. "You're really good. Do you sell these?"

He had a hopeful expression. "I never did, but Mr. Dickey said he'd pay me to make one like that. It's his house, only I didn't know when I saw it." He paused. "Um, how much should I get for somethin' like that?"

I had to think quickly. I could sell pieces like the one in my hands to wealthy customers for five hundred dollars all day long, and they'd leave the store smiling and thinking they'd stolen it. Friends and neighbors were different, and apparently Anton hadn't agreed on a price with Mr. Dickey. "I really don't know what to tell you about Mr. Dickey. You didn't set a price, so you'll have to take what he gives you or just keep the birdhouse. I can sell it for you if you want."

Anton was squirming. "I was thinkin' maybe ten dollars." He looked embarrassed. "Is that too much?"

I smiled. "No, that's not too much. Mr. Dickey will be gettin a real bargain. Do you think you could do one of these from a photograph?"


I looked at Dave, who had been staring impatiently during this whole exchange. "Remind me to look for pictures that show Barry's house and Ken's place. I know what they're getting for Christmas."

Dave grinned. "Ten dollar presents?"

I smiled back. "I think I can do a little better." I looked at Anton. "Listen, if you can do them from pictures I'll pay you well. If they come out anything like this I'll give you two fifty each. How's that?"

He looked dejected, so I said, "Two hundred and fifty. They're really worth more, but," I smiled slyly, "We're friends, right?"

Anton just stared at me. Mike gave him a shove and said, "Say somethin', doofus! Teach me how to make those things!"

Mike's shove made Anton bump into Dave, who grabbed his shoulders to keep him on his feet. Dave was grinning like a maniac, but Anton just gave me a confused look. "You're funnin' me, right? You ain't gonna pay that much for no birdhouse!"

I held my hand out. "Shake on it, Anton. You can ask anybody, I never lie. If I even try to I get red as a beet. Two fifty each. I can get you more than that if you make them for other people." He took my hand tentatively, looking into my eyes, then he gripped it firmly and smiled a smile that would make the saints want to come marching in. I asked, "Deal?"


Mike asked, "You wanna see what I do?"

I said, "Sure."

He handed me a picture of a boy drawn on typing paper. I could tell that it was well done, but there was a tiny little 'a.w.' on the bottom right so I knew Mike was fooling around. I looked at him and said, "It ain't bad, Mike. Maybe you should learn to make bird houses."

He looked surprised. "You don't like it?"

"I didn't say that. I think it's great, but you spelled your initials wrong."

He blushed and his voice became quiet. "Tony drew it. Can you tell who it is?"

I took a real look at the drawing. My years of art training had never gotten me to the point where I could reasonably draw the human form, but this was something of a masterpiece. I knew instinctively that it had to be Jack, but Anton's depiction drew me in. He had way more than the form right, there was real life in this drawing. I didn't know the story behind the picture, but I knew I had to be looking at Jack during a happy moment of his life, something that Anton must have seen with his own eyes. It had to be real, there was no way anybody could dream something up and put so much reality, so much spark, into it.

I looked at Mike. "It's Jack, isn't it?" I stood up and took two steps to reach him, then hugged him. "I'm so sorry, Mike. He was just a name 'til now, but that picture's real and it says a lot." I pulled back. "At least I think I know him now." I looked at Anton. "That's not your first picture, I wanna see more! Jesus, you're good!"

I could see Anton beaming and feel Mike starting to quiver at the same time. Mike started squeezing me and I looked helplessly at Dave. His own smile seemed a little hopeless, then it brightened. "Hey Mike, Tony! Why don't you guys take the duner out by yourselves?"

Anton jumped happily and yelled, "YES!"

Mike pulled away from me and looked at Dave. His voice sounded truly surprised. "Really? You'll let us do that? It's not even your car."

Dave smiled. "I trust you. Just don't go nuts and don't break anything. You guys've only been driving for two days, so take it easy. There's two cans of gas on the back side of the barn, so fill it up before you go. The key's in it."

Mike's surprised smile was a treasure. "We'll be careful! C'mon Tony, let's DRIVE!"

They disappeared, again squeezing through the door at the same time. I smiled at Dave and asked, "Joe won't mind you letting them use his dune buggy?"

"It's here because I said I wanted to teach Mike. Wait 'til you meet some of these people. They've been friends for years and years, and they really look out for each other. I half thought I'd be lonely here, but I haven't felt like that for even a second."

"My instincts were right, then?"

Dave smiles and laughs a lot, but he has a special smile that you don't really see that often. It doesn't last that long, but if you happen to catch it you'd swear that the earth had a million suns. It's not the smile you see when he's happy, although he smiles brightly then. This is the smile that you see when he's pleased, when he knows that something wrong is now right, something missing is now found, something unknown is now understood.

He flashed that smile at me right then, and it lit me up. "Timmy, nobody has better instincts than you. This place is like magic! Wait'll the picnic starts up later, you'll see what I mean."

Dave's enthusiasm was all I needed right then. "We're really going to a party? I think I need a nap."

His face softened. "Oh man, I'm sorry... you're tired. I couldn't stay up past nine o'clock the first few nights after that drive." His look was concerned. "Let's go to the house and you can get in bed." He smiled. "You're going to meet some neat people tonight. There's too many to name, but you're gonna love 'em!"

I stood up, feeling pretty pooped. I was way more tired than I had felt when I got there. A nap sounded like a good idea, and Dave and I walked outside heading towards the house.

"Am I gonna meet celebrities?"

"Most likely, but don't just stare like I did. Scott and Nick seem like regular guys. Joe said there's other big stars here, but you'd have to know country to know who they are. Believe this though, I got smashed with Nick Cassarino Saturday night! I even sang 'Johnny B. Bad!"

I laughed. "You didn't get shot? That's a pretty crude song to do in polite company!"

Dave laughed merrily. "Hey, they had some pretty gross ones too. Mine weren't any worse than some others."

We were at the back steps and Dave looked at my car. "Man, you killed half the insect population on the way here." He turned to look at me. "Why don't you go take a nap and I'll wash the car?"

"You're not coming with me?"

Dave looked like he was struggling with his response. "I need to get on schedule here, Tim. Work starts next week and I've been trying to get regulated to the time change and everything." He smiled sweetly. "You get some z's and I'll try to make this car look like it's worth what it cost." His smile turned brighter. "I'll tuck you in, okay?"

"Why don't you get in with me? I'll show you how to tuck something!"

He laughed. "It's tuck, Tim. With a 'T!"

"Damn! I thought you said..."

He grabbed my arm. "To bed, Timmy! I'll wake you up in a few hours. We can... ah... catch up tonight."

I yawned and Dave led me into the house and down the hall to our room. I sat on the edge of the bed and he pulled my shoes off. He closed the blinds as I stretched out on top of the covers, then he was beside me. I don't know how long it took, but he stroked my hair with the gentlest of fingers, kissing me lightly on the side of my face until I was asleep.

When I woke up I didn't know where I was for a moment, or what had caused me to lose my dream. It became clear pretty quickly that my bladder's need for relief had awakened me, but it still took some time for me to realize where I was. There was a light blanket covering me, and got it twisted around my legs getting up. I almost fell, but managed to fall back onto the bed instead of doing a face plant on the floor.

I got untangled and up on my feet and looked around. I had paid no attention to the room before, but in the dim light I could see that Dave had set it up much like our old bedroom. The room had four doors, one to the hall, two to closets and one to the bathroom. I just didn't remember which was which, so I started opening them with success on the second one.

I peed, then took a shower. When I was done, although the bathroom was laid out differently than the one in our old house, I could see that Dave still had fluffy white towels in reach of the tub. I grabbed one and dried myself, then wrapped it around my waist and was about to head to the kitchen to get my bags when I spotted one bag on a chair and the other on a dresser. I opened a few drawers in the dresser to see which ones Dave was using, then put my things in the others. I hung some pants and shirts in the closet, then got dressed in a pair of shorts and a pocket tee.

I carried my toiletries into the bathroom, shaved and combed up. I checked very carefully and decided that Dave had indeed been joking about gray hairs. I didn't think I looked half bad for a guy who was pushing forty with a vengeance.

I turned around, ready to face my new life in bare feet. As soon as I opened the door to the hallway I heard voices, and it sounded like a lot of them, both male and female, adult and child. I turned toward the kitchen and saw two squealing young girls run from there and go outside, the screen door slamming behind them. It looked like there was a crowd in our driveway and I felt confused.

I reached the kitchen to find a large black woman stirring something in a big pot on the stove and two other women slicing what looked like big trays of pudding on the table. I said, "Hello?"

The woman at the stove looked at me and smiled hugely. "Hello yourself. You must be Mr. Tim! Welcome to Morton, suh. I'm Crystal Hankins and these two other ladies are Marty Goldman and Karen Surdiak."

I looked at each of them and smiled, then said, "Hi everyone. What's going on?"

Karen grinned. "Hi Tim! We've been waiting to meet Dave's brother, but I must say you two don't look anything alike."

I gave her our stock answer. "We're both adopted. Again I ask, what's going on? Why are all those people outside?"

Crystal gave me a broad grin and nodded at a tray of deviled eggs on the counter. "Why Mr. Tim, did David fail to mention our little street picnic? You pick up that tray of eggs and carry 'em outside and meet your neighbors. We were supposed to be at the Anderson's this time, but Patty's had a spell, so it's back up here for tonight. Go on, git!"

I smiled obligingly. "Nice to meet you all." Then I picked up a tray of special looking deviled eggs. Special because each one had a shrimp coated in something red laid across the top. I headed outdoors, kicking the screen door open.

Somebody yelled, "Here he is!" then most heads turned my way and there was a loud chorus of "Hi Timmy!", just like they used to cry "Hi Mickey," on T.V.

I was startled but amused. I held out the tray and asked, "Where does this go?"

A guy right in front of me said, "It's your house, so anywhere you want." He made like he wanted to shake hands but realized both of mine were occupied so he just smiled. "I'm Andy Stark and I live down the road." He winked, "The eggs go in the back seat of my car so I can eat them all myself."

"Hi Andy. I can't wait to taste one, but where should I really put them?"

He grinned and took the tray, then held it up over his head and yelled, "Coming through!" and headed toward our back yard. I started to follow him, but it was a long walk since I had to meet everybody and exchange pleasantries.

It turned into a magical evening for me, confirming at first my initial feelings about the people around here, then doubling and redoubling them. A few I had met on my last visit, but the whole town seemed to live on the same easy going level. My first assessment told me most people were black, followed in numbers by whites then, for whatever reason, a large contingent of Guatemalans. It sure didn't matter to them. The adults were mingling easily as only real friends can, their younger kids playing an energetic game that seemed to be a mix of soccer and kickball out back. There weren't a lot of teenagers there, but the ones who had come seemed to have the same easy camaraderie.

Dave has a gift for remembering names that I don't share, so I apologized in advance for that small deficit when I met somebody. And boy, did I meet people. Farmers, shopkeepers, crafters, truck drivers, construction workers, accountants, you name it. From what I could see that night, they all shared the equal playing field that was Morton. Nobody looked up and nobody looked down. They all looked at, and it appeared they liked what they were seeing.

I met some celebrities, too. The most astounding to me personally were Nick Cassarino and Scott Johnson. How many speakers had I blown out listening to those guys at full tilt? They were as simple and unassuming as the few country stars I met, much more interested in how everybody had made out with tomatoes in their gardens that summer, how kids were doing with particular things, how someone's mother was faring.

Me being me, I focused on Scott and Nick and found them to be two entertaining guys with outrageous senses of humor, and what seemed like a whole bunch of kids who all called them each Daddy. I wondered about that, but thought it better to ask Dave later. They were so much different in real life than they seemed to be in public that I was astounded, but I found myself liking them both immensely. I knew we'd be friends, but then I felt ashamed for even thinking that. I was meeting a lot of potential friends, interesting people, and I had never really shared Davy's knack for that.

I was having fun, especially since I hadn't actually seen Dave since he put me to bed earlier. As the crowd cleared out rapidly around eight o'clock I saw him sitting on the porch next door with an older man with a long silver pony tail. I bounded over there and said hi.

Dave smiled up at me. "Timmy, this is Wayne Wolfe. He's Anton's father. We were just talking about you."

Wayne stood and we shook hands. Dave handed me a cold beer from a cooler at his side. "Talking behind my back, huh?" I kidded.

Wayne said, "I was jes tellin' Dave what a difference we're seein' in Anton these past few days, and how Anton's attributin' it all to Dave. Jes now the boy was tellin' me that you like his art and he kin make some money with it. Any fool kin see he's good with his hands, but are there really folks who kin pay for that sorta thing?"

I looked at his weary face and smiled. "Anton's not just good, he's gifted. I'm sure he can sell his birdhouses, hell I just ordered two myself. The drawings I don't know about. I've only seen one and it's very good, but I don't know about the market for portraits. There probably is one, but the crafts I'm sure about."

Wayne smiled, "I don't know what one you seen, but they all look good to my eye. The boy can sure draw but," he looked at me, then at Dave, "all he has is pencils and paper he swipes at school." He looked dejected. "I don't know what that boy needs." He looked up. "I mean he's a good boy, just not what I expected. I was fifty-eight when he was born, the others were all growed and gone. Anton came along an' I thought he'd be just like the others, but he ain't. He's real smart in some ways, but dumb as a dead dog in others. He's been doin' our numbers since he was nine, but damned if he can figger how to split a log!"

Dave said, "I like Anton, Wayne, I think he's a nice kid."

Wayne shook his head. "He is a good boy. He does what he's told and he works hard. He don't lie or anythin', least as I can detect. No sir, what I'm worried about is me an' his Ma ain't likely to be around to see him all grown. I wanted him to go to trade school, but he wants to stay in high school because of the art class. That never made sense, but now I'm hearin' he might be able to keep hisself even doin' his pictures an' stick work." His look turned pleading. "That's all I'm askin'. He wants all these papers and chalks and things that I just plain can't afford. If'n he can make a livin' at it that's different. I got money saved for a toolbox for him, I just don't wanna spend it on the other things if it ain't gonna be practical!"

I stared at Wayne's face, wondering what it must be like to have a baby of your own when it should be a grandchild, possibly even a great grandchild. I heard what he was asking and knew my answer would be important. I looked at Dave, and his expression told me I was on my own. "Listen, Wayne. If I were you I wouldn't do anything just yet. I have all kinds of art supplies that should be here tomorrow. Anton can dig into them for now, and if he's really interested after awhile, if he can sell his stuff, then you get him his own. If he can't sell it or he loses interest, then you just get him his tools. How's that sound?"

He smiled, not looking nearly as old as he had a few minutes ago. "I get it... like a plan A and a plan B!" His smile faded. "I got nothin' to give in return for your kindness."

Damn! "Ah... it's not kindness, Wayne. I think Anton has talent and if I can help develop it I can make some money too! Don't think I'm trying to interfere with what you want for your own son."

When Wayne smiled the next time I could see the ancestry of Anton's own shy smile. There was a genuineness to it that told volumes about the man. He spread that smile to Dave, then said, "You know, when we first came to town my wife wanted to move back right away, said the place was too high-falutin' for folks like us. I told her no, this place ain't like that. I got no background, all I ever did was farm labor, but from the git-go people around here always had respect. Nobody treats us different than nobody else, which ain't the case in the hollers." His smile lit up. "You two fellas are gonna fit right in!"

I smiled happily at Wayne, then glanced at Dave to see his own contented smile. Our only qualms about moving to such a small town had been about how we'd 'fit in'. Now one of the old timers was telling us we were already there. The smile on my face was strengthened from within.

After a little more talk, Wayne excused himself to go find his wife and son so they could go home. After he left I looked at Dave. "Anton's got a pretty cool Dad. I like him."

Dave said, "Me too. I haven't met anybody to not like yet. Do you really think Anton is gifted?"

"Oh, he has a gift alright. I can't wait to see more of his work, but it's the kind of talent that I'd hate to mess with. The kid's a natural just the way he is and it'd be a shame to see him get pushed too hard and spoil it. I'll lend him some stuff and see what he can do with it on his own."

Dave looked at me and smiled. "I really like it here, Tim. It's even more perfect now that you're here."

"I'm already liking it myself. Um, which guy owns the dune buggy? I never figured it out."

"Joe? I never saw him myself. His wife and kids were here so I must'a just kept missing him or something. You ready for bed?"

"There's still people here!"

"So? They know their way home. If you wait for the last ones to leave you could be up all night. These things just seem to break up on their own, so don't feel that you have to be a good host or anything." He stood and held out his hand, pulling me from my chair when I took it. "Let's go to bed."

* * * * * * * *

The next few days were spent settling into the house and following the picnic down the road late each afternoon. UPS brought a lot of my belongings on Thursday and Friday and we spent a good amount of time sorting all that out and finding places for everything. We were expecting our friend's kids on Saturday with my van and a U-Haul full of other things.

The time flew by pretty fast. Mike and Anton showed up at some point every day to play with the dune buggy, the owner of which I still hadn't met. It was already the vehicle of choice for Dave and me when we had to run to the store. We also used it to explore more of the property, taking advantage of the opportunity to swim every time we stopped at the pond. The spot in the woods was beautiful, but the other end was deeper and more fun for swimming since it was in the open and sunny.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Being together with Davy was the big thing, but I was putting names together with faces and starting to feel that I knew some people. I think that, by Saturday morning, we had been invited to visit enough people that we could have pulled up to any door and just walked in.

Saturday dawned bright and hot. Dave and I decided to go for a short run anyhow, but have since decided that when it's pushing eighty degrees at seven AM, a swim is a much brighter idea. Our planned seven miles turned into less than two, and we were still both exhausted and overheated. We walked to cool down and found ourselves at the pond. We kicked off our shoes and jumped in, clothes and all. That water felt gooood! We climbed out a few times thinking we'd lay in the sun to dry off, but the sweat just started beading up on us again, so we'd jump back in the water. I swam the length of the pond and back once, but Dave was content just splashing near the shore just like he'd always been.

When I got back we heard the dune buggy roaring towards us, Anton and Mike's voices screaming laughter over the country rock they had blasting on the radio. When they saw me standing half out of the pond they came to a sliding halt that raised a huge cloud of dust. I just fell back into the water to let the dirt blow away, then suddenly the two of them came jumping in beside us stripped to their underpants.

Dave and I were pretty waterlogged no matter how hot it was, so we climbed out once again and shook ourselves dry. I told the kids that I'd be back for them in a while, then Dave and I hopped into the duner and headed home, both of us starving for breakfast. The air conditioning felt fantastic for a few minutes, then it actually seemed chilly. I looked and Dave had it set to seventy-two degrees. I changed it to a more reasonable eighty while Dave whipped up eggs Benedict and some coffee.

The phone rang while we were enjoying our meal, and it was Artie's kids saying they probably wouldn't be in much before nine that night. They'd lost hours caught up in the traffic behind an accident the night before and were still two states away. Dave assured them that we'd be waiting for them when they got in, then after he hung up he said we should do something special for them when they got here.

I looked at him. "Special like what?"

"I dunno, maybe some nice steaks or something. Pam's a big health freak and they never get anything decent at home. I can run down to the butcher shop later."

We had just been there the day before. It was Adolph, the 'Country Butcher', and it was where most people got their meats locally. Adolph was a pleasant sort of person who I guessed was in his mid sixties. He was red of face, white of hair, and had very blue eyes that always appeared to be amused. He hummed while he cut pork chops to order, whistled while he sliced 'Christiansen's Local Bacon', laughed when he boxed up (as the sign said) 'Custom Laid Eggs', handing them to me and saying, "If you don't like 'em jes let me know and you can have the mother for your pot!"

Before I went outside to go get Mike and Anton I looked at the thermometer. It was over ninety out there and not yet noon, so I drove to the pond pretty fast. When I got there I didn't see them and supposed that they had sought out some shade. I honked the horn a few times, then drove over to the other side of the pond where I'd have a view of the far end. I still couldn't see them and was considering leaving their clothes, which were in the back seat, where they could find them and just going back to the house.

Suddenly, a whole bunch of one-inch sized black things landed on me and all over the car. When I saw that they were moving I squealed and undid my belt as quickly as I could, jumping out of the car in one motion only to be met by gales of teenage laughter. I turned to find Mike and Anton bent over, each with a hand on a knee and the other one pointing at me. They seemed pretty helpless so I peered back into the car and realized that I'd been bombed with a lot of black beetles.

Realizing that I'd been scared shitless by a bunch of bugs, I started to laugh myself. I don't know what causes it, but when I think something's funny the funny builds up in me until I'm just about hysterical. I get kind of lost in laughing for a while. I must have a funny laugh because people have been telling me for years that I make them laugh by laughing myself, even when they don't know what set me off to begin with.

When I finally calmed down enough to feel authoritative I looked at those two standing there in wet underpants and said, "Okay. That was funny, now get them bugs outta the car!

Anton came running over and started gathering them into a paper bag. I stared at him. "You brought those with you?"

He turned around and innocently stated, "No! We just got 'em 'cause I gotta make some glue. That's why we came out here today, it's easier when it's hot 'cause they're all logy!"

"You make glue with bugs?"

"Yeah, it's the best kind. Granny showed me how!"

I almost choked out the words. "Will you show me how?"

Anton kind of clutched his bag of bugs to his chest. "It's s'posed to be a secret."

It was too hot to press the issue. "Anton, I have some art supplies you can try. There's good paper, watercolors, chalks. You can try some different things." I lost my own battle with myself. "Just please show me how you make your glue?"

His big eyes just stared at me for a minute, then a slight smile seemed to appear. "Are they colored chalks?"

"Yes, lots of colors."

He grinned, "Okay! I'll give ya some glue if you let me use your chalk."

"That's fine, Anton. Um, could I watch you make the glue?"

"Uh uh. I gotta be alone when I do that."

Those were devastating words. Well, try again. "Why alone? I won't tell anybody if you don't want me to."

Anton was clearly torn, his weight shifting back and forth on his feet and his gaze alternating between me and somewhere else. "I... I can't!"

He looked like he was going to cry, so I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "It's okay, kid. It's not that important."

Anton looked up at me with teary eyes. "It's not that. I just never get it right without Granny!"

I was confused. "Granny?"

Mike took a step and put his hand on Anton's other shoulder, apparently knowing something that I didn't. He whispered something in Anton's ear that sounded like, "Tell him."

I was staring at Anton, right into those huge soulful eyes. I tried to smile reassuringly, but I'm sure it didn't come out right. Anton squared off and looked back. "Granny showed me how to make glue, now she's dead."

The pain on his face was evident, so I said, "It's okay Anton. I'm not trying to upset you, just curious."

"It's not you, Tim! It's just that she..."

"She what?"

He hesitated and almost stuttered it out.

"She comes back sometimes, but only when I'm alone."


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