Jack in the Box

Chapter 33

Davy Loomis - Connecticut : October, 2000

I really loved having Mike come to visit. I had never really met anyone like him, so gentle and introspective some times, but energetic, outgoing and friendly. He presented a lot of contradictions, but they all added up to something special. He could be so insightful one minute, then seem so naive the next that you wanted to strangle him. Then that little smile would crack on his face, and you didn't know if he was serious or not to begin with.

I learned that his smile, when it arose from something serious, meant he'd figured something out in his own mind, and that having that new knowledge pleased him, even if it wasn't good news. It was the knowing that mattered to him, not particularly the good or bad of it.

I knew that Mike was trying to figure out his place in the scheme of things, and I watched his emotions run rampant. He could laugh happily one minute and cry the next, then he'd go from serious back to laughing.

We were trying to be like each other, and that both amused and confused us. Mike didn't see his own special qualities and, according to him, I didn't see mine either. I guess what it boiled down to is that we liked the way each other viewed the world and the people and things in it, and were trying to emulate each other, evolving a homogenized view that was better than either of us had started out with.

He liked the way I just joined in things, I liked the way he tested the waters first, then became the center of things if they suited his mood.

I don't suppose that where anyone comes from seems special to them, because that's what they know. I had come to love Morton because of the total lack of pretension that I saw there. Lack hell, if anyone there ever put on a pretense they would be laughingstocks. Maybe the pretenders got laughed out of town on a regular basis, which is why I never saw any.

Where I lived, there was pretense everywhere, and the biggest was people living beyond their means. I'd lived in the same house all my life, and it was nice enough, but it was something my parents could afford. There had been a lot of families who had moved into our neighborhood to look good, to appear to others that they could afford it and therefore had arrived, and soon enough you'd see their houses up for foreclosure auctions. My Dad told me that the really sad thing about that was that if they'd stuck to what they could afford, they'd still have homes.

There were other pretenses, too, like clothes at school. When I first started junior high, I wanted to have what the other kids were wearing. That's one of the only times my parents had denied me what I wanted, because they wanted me to me, not to follow the crowd. They saw what my friends were wearing, the baggy pants and 'wife beater' shirts, and they said no way, and that's where the David Loomis look came from. I couldn't wear baggy pants, and I didn't especially like them anyhow, so it was jeans and Dockers mostly, but I was into colorful shirts. I didn't wear multi-colored shirts like the Hawaiian things, but brightly colored ones. My closet fluoresced so much that I wondered that it didn't melt the paint. I was into the bright primaries: red, yellow, blue and orange mostly, and it worked. My shirts were so eye-catching that it didn't matter that I was wearing dorky pants that stayed up.

I didn't see that in Morton. I can't say that people dressed the same, and I didn't know if they wanted to, but clothes didn't seem to matter there at all, no more than cars or houses did.

The other thing I didn't see there, the one thing that had me really jealous, was racial prejudice and the tension it creates. It wasn't always bad here, it just flared up sometimes. The jealousies and resentments that came with those flare ups were awful. It pained me to live with that, the idea that because of a hot summer, some black kid who had been my friend forever suddenly wasn't my friend anymore, because I wasn't black.

I didn't see that in Morton, none of it. There was little tension to speak of anyhow, and it wasn't of the racial variety. Come to think of it, none of it came from money differences, either.

Because of this, Mike grew up in a different world than me. We both knew that, and were trying to close the gap. I had come home from Morton with a deep sense of something I couldn't put my finger on at first, but when I thought of it, it was the fact that diversity worked for the good there.

Here it only served to divide, and that was something I was trying to change in my own slice of the pie.

Morton was a gray old town, at least commercially, and so was here. Morton's people were hanging together, though, and enjoying each other and the way things were now. That was so unlike here, where the whites were blaming the blacks and Puerto Ricans for the death of the town, where those two groups pointed their fingers at each other and the whites for the same thing.

It all made me crazy. Now, as if to illustrate the differences, Mike had gone and befriended a kid who'd just insulted Guy. I knew he would, too. When Mike flew at the kid in a rage, it took three of us to pull him off. Then, when he calmed down, he kicked us out so he could make peace in his own way.

When he asked us to leave, I thought at first he wanted to kill the kid in private; then I caught on. The kid's name was Bob, and he was one of the refugees at Ken's place, which had harbored an untold number of them over the years. He was with Bally Roman, a kid I used to despise, but who had gradually become something of a friend as the chip melted off his shoulder.

They weren't refugees from the third world, just kids with tough lives. Ken lent them his woods and ponds to try to sort things out in. He didn't usually get involved personally, but sometimes he did, and after Mary came out from talking with Bob I could see that this was going to be one of those times. Mary was a little woman, and Ken had become a bit bulky, but she yanked him out of his conversation and disappeared with him through the dining room.

I looked at Mike, "Wanna tell me what's going on?"

Mike's eyes were still staring after Mary and Ken. "No."

Guy piped up, "Come on! You beat him up, didn't ya?"


Guy was petulant, "Well, what, then?"

Mike smiled at the both of us, then directly at Guy. "There's some things I can't say, and I won't, so quit asking." His look softened and he put a hand on Guy's shoulder, "Robert has big problems, way bigger than the name he called you. Don't give it no never mind, okay?"

I could only see Mike sidelong, but I could see Guy, and I got the immediate feeling that something was cooking between him and Mike, at least in Guy's mind. The way he looked at Mike, then the way he smiled, the compliance in that smile. I don't know where Mike's mind was, but Guy was clearly hopeful, if not infatuated.

I wanted to test Mike, so I socked his arm and he turned around, putting his other hand on it. "Ow! What was that for?"

Mike looked surprised, maybe a little annoyed. I said, "Um, feel like taking a ride in a real dune buggy?"

Mike's eyes lit up, "Yeah! Can we all go?"

I shook my head, "It only fits two. C'mon, I'll show you the trails, then you can take Guy for a ride." I was getting excited, "You're gonna love this thing!"

Mike asked Guy if he minded doing it that way, and he didn't. Mike left to find where Bob was so he could get his coat. I watched Guy look at Mike as he walked away. I nudged his arm and said softly enough that only he could hear, "You really like him."

Guy sighed, "Who wouldn't?" then added, "I mean, you like him too!"

I chuckled, "That I do. Um, Guy?"

He turned, "Huh?"

"Don't set your hopes too high. Mike doesn't live here, so you have to find someone who does. Don't go setting him up as your ideal, either, measuring everybody against him. That's not fair to anybody."

He eyed me, then said sadly, "I know," and repeated himself even more quietly, "I know."

"Davy?" I turned to see Bally standing there. "Mike says for you to take Guy, they need him in there."

I asked, "They need him for what?"

"Bobby asked if he'd stay, that's all."

"He didn't want you to stay?"

He shook his head, "He says it's too embarrassin' to say in front of me."

"You don't know what it's about?"

He looked glum, "Yeah, I heard it all. Bobby didn't know I was there, so I guess that don't count."

"So, are you going to tell us?"

He turned his head away and mumbled, "I can't," then looked back with watery eyes.

I said, "I understand," then I turned to Guy, "Feel like a ride in the duner?"

He surprised me by saying, "Nah, not now," as he eyed Bally cautiously.

Bally turned to Guy, "I'm sorry about before. Bobby's got a lot to learn. Don't hate him for what he said."

Guy said sulkily, "Tell him to learn on someone else." Then more loudly, "Why shouldn't I hate him? He hates me, and he don't even know me."

Bally was clearly hurt by Guy's words, and he looked like he'd already been crying, so I kind of strong-armed Guy, and said, "Hey, save it for later, okay?"

Guy backed up and scowled at me, "Why should I? He's got problems? How 'bout he is a problem!" He glared at Bally, "I don't know you, an' you didn't say anythin', but your friend's an asshole !"

Bally looked at Guy for a few seconds, then it looked like his face collapsed. His lips started quivering and tears started pouring from his eyes, which had turned into little slits, like he couldn't confront Guy anymore. He turned away from him. I pulled him to me while I told Guy to get lost and keep his mouth shut. I watched Guy turn away, and held onto Bally while he cried, steering him out of the kitchen toward the privacy of an upstairs bedroom. I left him sitting on the bed and went into the bathroom for some tissues.

He had more or less settled down when I got back, so I handed him a wad of Kleenex and sat beside him. We sat in silence for awhile, then I asked, "Better now?"

He nodded his head quickly, and I went on, "Guy's upset too, you know. Bob was pretty mean out there."

"You think I don't know that? I just found out what Bobby's been goin' through. Guy did not pick the right name to call him, that's what set me off." He turned a concerned look to me, "I know what Bobby's like, I'm the only friend he's got."

"Why's he like that, then?"

"It keeps people away, I think." His look turned pleading, "Listen, Bobby's really a good kid, he's just messed up. Now I know why."

I said, "I'll talk to Guy. He didn't have to get on your case about it."

"Don't bother, I don't even know the kid."

"Yeah, well I do. He's usually a good kid too, and I think he should apologize to you."

"So do I."

We were both startled, and jumped a little at Guy's voice. He was standing in the doorway looking contrite. "I'm sorry, Bally. I had no business gettin' mad at you."

Bally quietly said, "It's okay, I'm not mad."

Guy came closer, smiling hesitantly and holding out his hand, "I'm still sorry."

Bally shook his hand and said, "Forget it. It was Bobby's fault anyhow." He squinted at Guy, "Don't you play for the Hornets?"

Guy smiled in surprise, "Yeah, I play forward."

Bally said, "I remember you, I played for the Raiders last year. We kicked butt with you guys, but you were hard to defend."

Guy smiled at the compliment, then shrugged, "Everybody kicks butt with us. You're not playing this year?"

Bally sighed, "I couldn't come up with the money. Dad was laid off all summer, so there was just no way."

Guy was about to say something, but Mike appeared at the door. " There you are! I thought you were outside."

Bally asked, "How's Bobby?"

"He wants to see you. He has to go to the police station, and they're tryin' to find his mom right now."

Bally went white, "The police?"

Mike said, "Go to him. He's hurtin', and he needs his friend right now."

Bally stared open-mouthed for a second, then tore out of the room and thundered down the stairs. Guy and I just stared our questions towards Mike. He leaned against the door jamb and said, "Guy, that kid don't hate you, he's just all screwed up." He looked relaxed on the surface, but I noticed that he was clenching his fist until the knuckles were white.

Guy asked, "He's in trouble with the cops?"

"No, he's not in trouble; he's gotta get someone else in trouble." Mike sank down into a squat and looked at me, "That Mary's a smart lady. I wish I had her instead of Dr. Service. She made more sense in a half hour than that guy did in six months."

I asked, "What's it all about, Mike?"

He shook his head, "It's just bad, okay? That kid has a life nobody deserves." He looked up, "Nobody!" then tears appeared in his eyes.

I asked softly, "Wanna go home?"

He shook his head and whispered, "No, it's fine here." Then he raised his voice a little, "There's just some stinkin', rotten, awful people in the world. You hear about things, but you never think you'll see 'em."

Guy asked, "What's gonna happen?"

Mike looked up and said, "I'm not sure. He has to tell his mother what's been goin' on, then they have to go to the police and make charges. The kid's scared."

"About what?" Guy asked.

I tapped his shoulder, "Don't ask, okay?"

Guy looked back and forth at us, then nodded his head.

I shared Guy's curiosity, but I could see that Mike felt bad enough already about whatever it was. I didn't want to press him into breaking a confidence; he'd hate himself if he did. I said, "The trails are scary at night, but we could run around the driveway and the fields down front if you still want a ride in that thing."

Mike stared at me vacantly while he translated what I'd just said, then a little smile crossed his face. "Yeah, driveway's good. Let's see this thing you're talkin' about!" He got to his feet, and by then he was grinning in anticipation.


We all got up and tumbled down the stairs, kids again. We'd been having fun, then had a setback that really didn't belong to us, now we were back in fun mode. I had to promise Ken that we'd stay in the yard to get the key, then we ran down to the garage and I turned the light on. There before us was Ken's Baja bug, his seventh one by his own reckoning, and it was beautiful. I'd seen pictures of some of his old ones, and there was no comparison. Whoever made this one knew how to bend tubes. It looked ferocious and graceful at the same time, all done in a silvery-gray, with red seats and steering wheel, yellow trim here and there.

Mike whistled, "Hoo-eee! This thing looks like it moves!"

I said, "It does, get in!" I told Guy to give us a few minutes, then he could have a ride with Mike. We got buckled in, then I started it and let it idle for a minute to warm up. Then we were off, straight out of the garage, across the driveway, and we caught air before landing in the field. The car had enough halogens that it looked like an eerie daylight ahead of us, so driving in the dark wasn't a real challenge as long as we stuck to the fields. It took some getting used to in the woods, and I'd only tried it a few times.

It didn't matter, the thing was easy to handle and a blast to drive. Mike was whooping with joy after my first tight slide, louder on every jump. There was nothing high in the field, but you could get the car airborne often enough to catch a few thrills, and the little bumps seemed bigger in the dark anyhow.

I was having fun, and Mike seemed thrilled. I stayed at it long enough to give him an idea of the extents of the field, then a flat area of the yard that stretched back from the far end of the parking lot. After that, I let Mike take a charged up Guy for a ride and went back up to the house. When I got there, Bally and Bob were in the kitchen eating. Well, Bally was eating eagerly on his own, Bob was being force fed by Jim and Sherry.

I went over to them and asked Bob, "Things okay?"

He finished whatever he had in his mouth and muttered, "No." He looked around, "Where's that other kid?"

"Which one?"

"Mike, the one that talked to me." He hung his head, "I… I never said thanks."

Bally grinned a mouthful of meatball at Bob, "You never said thanks in your life."

Bob backhanded his arm, "Shut up." He turned back to me, "Where do you know him from, he's got an accent I never heard."

"I met him down south where he lives, he's just visiting. You like him?"

He stared for a second, "I guess I do, I mean things're gonna change I hope." Bob's expression turned earnest, "He made me say somethin' I thought I never would." He flashed a first-ever little smile at me, "I should'a told right away. I... "

I interrupted, "How old are you, Bob?"


I turned to Bally and asked with my questioning expression.


I looked at the contrasts between them.

Bally had been a scrawny ten year old when he first showed up at Ken's place, invited by a friend. Now he had a little brawn to him. Bob was pretty skinny, and this was the first time I'd ever seen him without something on his head. His dark hair was badly cut, but he wasn't a bad looking kid without the scowl.

You wonder where friendships come from sometimes. When Bally first started coming out there, he was a hateful little wise-ass. He found that he loved nature, though, and his free and abundant exposure to it had brought him to the point where he had to ask questions, and therefore engage with people to learn what he wanted to know. Over time, he'd started to let people in a little, and he slowly changed into a pretty nice kid. With his somewhat chubby good looks, Mary always called him a cherub. He was always at the door with a fern or leaf in his hand asking what it was, and Ken had to buy botany books to figure out what was growing on his own property, but I sensed that he liked finding out himself.

I'd only seen Bobby a few times, and in my mind he was a surly little jerk, the kind of kid who tried to take everybody down from whatever was interesting or exciting to them. When Bally had a new thing he was asking about, Bobby would stand off, his arms crossed and his foot tapping, crying, "It's just a weed, for Pete's sake!"

Everyone could see how that hurt Bally, but he stuck by Bobby all the time. I'd only seen that happen once myself, but I heard about other times, and Ken and Barry seemed amused by it, saying they had a winner with Bally.

Now I saw what they meant. Bally stuck with Bob no matter what kind of crap he got from him, and Bob knew it. He had a real friend, somebody he could practice his rants on without fear of reprisal. He must have returned it in some way, too. There's no such thing as a one-sided friendship, at least not one that lasts.

I was standing there picking up meatballs with my fingers and popping them into my mouth, so I wasn't really dwelling on it, anyhow.

The cold finally got to Mike and Guy, and they came in red-faced, shivering and laughing. Probably hungry, too, if I knew Mike.

Sure enough, they shed their jackets, washed their hands in the kitchen sink, then started gobbling up food like they'd never seen any before. Bob stood up and faced Guy. "Listen, I'm sorry 'bout what I said."

Guy stared at him, "Yeah? So?"

Bob flexed at the knees, then at his full height said, "I said I'm sorry! Can we leave it at that?"

I watched Guy, a little angry about how he'd handled the whole thing. He stared at Bob, then lifted a limp looking hand to shake, saying, "Forget it. It's no big deal."

Bobby kept after him, "No, it is a big deal. I was wrong anyhow, but if Mike didn't flip I'd still be in Hell."

Guy eyed him, "What's goin' on, anyhow? Nobody'll tell me anything."

Mike put his hand on Guy's shoulder, "Some things are private, Guy. You must have things you don't want the whole world knowin', dontcha?"

Guy's already red ears took on an even deeper hue while he pondered that. "Oh um, I get it," then he reached for some more food.

Mike looked at Bob, "You hangin' in there?"

Bob lowered his eyes, "Kinda nervous, I don't know what's gonna happen now."

Mary had come into the kitchen and overheard. She approached Bob and said, "You're going to tell the people who need to know, then you're going to visit me a few times a week until you learn to be happy." She smiled broadly, "After that, it will be your job to make your family and friends feel proud and privileged to know you."

Bob looked at her shyly, then broke a trace of a smile, which Mary returned warmly. The look of hope on that kid's face was something to behold, as if he'd just learned he had a brand new destiny. She said, "Ken just left to pick your mother up. He's going to tell her about things so you won't have to. All you need to do is confirm the truth, okay?"

Bobby nodded.

Not knowing what had gone on gave me a disconnected feeling. It was obviously not anything good, especially if it involved the police. I was curious, and I would like to have known what had been said out there in the woods, but I could tell that I'd probably never hear it. I figured it must be something dishonest to involve the police, and I guess I could believe anything about Bob. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he'd been stealing things or peddling drugs. I thought it wouldn't matter anymore whatever it was, if he was going to get help.

Whatever his problem, I could see in the way Bob looked at Mike that Mike had affected another life for the good. I intended to make Mike think about that, and wondered if he'd ever get it, that he was a positive influence on people. He'd done something good, but he was leaning against the counter eating chili, using celery stalks to spoon it up with. He appeared to be in hog heaven, as if he didn't have a thing to do with what happened around him.

People were studying him, though, and I was first in line. Guy was staring at him, and Bob and Bally kept looking his way. Mary went over and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then they talked for a few minutes, though I couldn't hear what was said. I'm sure she was thanking him for whatever role he'd played earlier, because his body language was saying that thank-yous embarrassed him.

It had been really nice earlier, when he started telling us some stories about Jack. Until then, Jack had seemed like some kind of icon. I knew what he looked like from his picture, I knew a few details, like his age and where he lived, and I knew that Mike had loved him dearly. I also knew what had happened to Jack, but beyond that he was an abstraction.

I'd never heard Mike tell many stories about anything, but he was pretty good. He'd given us a good idea of what Jack was like, even what he sounded like when he mimicked his expressions. Their exploits were pretty much what you might expect from a couple of small town boys, with one difference. They loved each other, as in romantic love, and I was a bit surprised how open Mike had been about that.

Actually, I was surprised by all of it, by how easily Mike told his tales, how careful he was to avoid getting off track. He had a lot of joyful, happy memories, and they kept reminding him of other things, things that I don't think he'd thought of in a long time. He said, "That reminds me..." about a hundred times, but he finished the first adventure before going on to another.

He also kept asking us if we were getting bored of hearing it, but that wasn't possible. For one thing the stories were pretty cool; he wasn't telling us boring things. He had a great way of telling them, too. I suppose you'd call it a sense of the ridiculous. Guy and I always knew when we were about to hear something funny, because Mike would laugh a little before saying it, then let us laugh after it came out.

The big surprise, though, was that Jack, and not Mike, emerged as the boy with a bit of a wild side. It was only a surprise because I'd never known him, and maybe him being dead had something to do with it, but I'd envisioned some quiet little bookworm practicing to be a doctor. The way Mike told it, Jack was the instigator of much of the devilry they'd gotten into, and tended to be very self-congratulatory about it. He'd been the aggressive one when it came to sex, too.

It brought mixed feelings to me at first, catching me off guard with my earlier perceptions, but as I came to know Jack the person through Mike's eyes, I got a sense of what he was really like and what pushed his buttons. Mike had loved Jack, and instead of trying to explain the why of it, he gave us the who of it, all gift wrapped in wry and gentle humor. There had been no soul searching or remorse on Mike's part either, which was another surprise. It sounded like he was telling stories that he'd told a thousand times, then he said that this was the first time he'd told anybody anything like that.

Most of the times that Mike and I had talked about Jack had ended up with Mike in tears, but that afternoon the only tears were ones from laughter and cold air.

The laughter had stopped for awhile when I showed them where my uncle had tried to kill himself, all of us trying to fathom it and juxtapose it into our own lives. That wasn't possible, and when we turned back into the woods our good feelings returned.

Then we'd been interrupted by our encounter with Bally and Bob, an angry encounter that had apparently turned into something good. I'd never seen Mike act out his anger before, and when he started pounding Bob into a tree it looked like he wanted to kill him. Three of us couldn't pull him away, but he suddenly stopped and backed off. He told us all to leave them alone, and at first I thought he didn't want any witnesses to a murder. Then, when I saw his face I could tell that wasn't it. He had humiliated himself with his anger and wanted to make it right, so I'd taken Guy and Bally back to the house.

Bally was afraid and he wouldn't come in, so I let him go eavesdrop after he promised not to get involved. When they finally came up to the house, Bobby was all tears and anguish, Bally the faithful soldier helped him along while Mike had led the way, and he looked pretty relaxed. All I could think was that he thought things were settled, at least as far as he was concerned.

Then he got involved again when Bob wanted him there instead of his friend, Bally, when things transpired with Ken and Mary. He came away from that all concerned about the same kid he wanted to murder earlier.

I had to shake my head to clear my thoughts. Guy had joined Mike at the chili bowl, and they were engaged in what seemed to be an attempt to finish it all, using chips and vegetables to scoop it out with. Bally was behind Bob, and they carried on in a whispered conversation. Bally would say something into Bob's ear, then lean down so Bob could whisper back to him.

The whole scene suddenly seemed unreal to me, so I got up and wandered out of the room in search of my parents, who I'd barely said hello to when they came earlier. I found them in the living room and, true to form, they were all cuddled up together and talking to another couple. It didn't bother me now, but when I first hit my teens I was embarrassed by their lovey-dovey behavior, even though I'd grown up with it. They both had names, but they called each other 'Sweetie' all the time.

One time we were at a picnic with one of Dad's suppliers. When the guy tried to introduce my mother around, he realized he only knew her as 'Sweetie', so that's how he introduced her. I was maybe thirteen at the time. People thought it was cute, but I was wishing for a stray cosmic ray or something to come by and make me invisible.

My short week in Morton had made me appreciate what my folks had together, and the ways they demonstrated it. It was commonplace in Morton, where even old couples held hands when they were together, where kids sat in their parents' laps well after the age you would expect that, and they found another lap when the preferred ones weren't available.

During my week there a lot of little ones sat on my lap, a guy they didn't even know. The first time it happened it seemed weird to me, but when I looked around most of the older kids' laps were occupied by little ones. They didn't even necessarily try to engage you, they just chose the softness of a lap... any lap… over the hardness of a picnic bench.

I squeezed onto the sofa next to my mother and leaned into her, savoring her warmth and softness. If I dared, I would have climbed into her lap, or my Dad's like I used to. I'd gotten too old for that, too big, but right then I yearned for it, for the days that they'd pass me off to the other when somebody had to do something. " I have to fix dinner, Davy, sit with Daddy for awhile."

I did. I got passed from lap to lap, and it didn't matter, didn't feel any less loving. My mother loved me, my father loved me, that's how I'd grown up, and that's what I saw with most of my friends. They were in various situations, family wise. Juan's father had died young, but his mother loved him. Vinny's mother had left for parts unknown, but he had his father to love him. Paul's mother starred in her own Looney Tune, but his father stayed there, and you could tell there was a lot of love in that house. Poor Tom had a mother and three sisters, and both he and his father were henpecked to death, but there was no hiding the fact that they both loved it..

There was a break in my parents' conversation when the other couple left to replenish their drinks. I wanted to tell my father something.



"There's two kids here who might need a little help. One probably doesn't need much, but his father was laid off all summer. I think the other one might need a lawyer."

His eyebrows went up, "A lawyer? Is he in trouble?"

"Yeah, some kind. I'll ask Ken later, but he has to go to the police station when his mother gets here."

Dad shook his head. If there's one thing that really bothers him, it's kids in trouble. He said sadly, "Well, you're in charge of that now. Have you spoken with Michael yet?"

"Not yet, I'll ask him when we're home."

When Dave's mother had adopted my father, which was unofficial but real just the same, he had a fortune in drug money that she made him promise to give away. He and his brothers had been doing that for years, but it wasn't as easy as it sounds. It was all cash, so they couldn't give big amounts at one time; that would raise suspicions. Instead, they gave it away in small installments, always giving the recipients a way to let them know when they no longer needed the help.

My father and his brothers still got involved infrequently, especially Dave because he saw things as a teacher. For the most part though, now the job had been passed to Tim, me, and our cousins. It had been Dad's idea to try to enlist Mike, and he understood when I told him how many people in Morton seemed to get by on very little.

When my father and his brothers had first started this little venture, they spent some time actively seeking out people who needed their kind of help, but it had soon become passive, and it still was.

When we saw or heard something, as I just had with Bally and Bob, we'd consider it, or when we heard someone bemoaning the woes of a relative or friend, we'd consider that, too.

I hoped that Mike would give thought to helping us, although I didn't know quite how to broach the subject with him, and Morton might not need that kind of help anyhow. There were plenty of people there who were pretty poor, but it seemed that the community looked after each other. That didn't mean that some outside help wouldn't fit the equation, but I needed to hear it from Mike.

I wanted him to join in just because it would give us something to do together, something that wouldn't be bothered by the miles that separated us. He could be an equal, even take a few boxes of money home with him. That was a funny thought all by itself, but I was serious in hoping that he'd buy into the idea. Giving away money wasn't fun all by itself, but when you saw good results it was worth all of it. It didn't happen all the time, not even most of the time, but when you saw despair or desperation turn into something like happiness, when you knew you had something to do with it, well... it was a wonderful feeling, to say the least.

My mother's voice intruded on my thoughts. "Is something wrong, Davy? I know something happened with that other boy, did it involve you in some way?"

I leaned my head on her warm shoulder, "No, Ma, it doesn't involve me. I don't even know what's going on there. I was just thinking about Mike. He has to go home already."

My Dad leaned over, "You really like him, don't you? Tell me how you feel, Davy, I want to hear it."

I looked at him, wondering what he meant with that question. "I... I don't know, it's like we're so close we're one person. I don't know how to say it, Dad. It's like what they call morphing in the movies, where one person blends into another one. I... it's like we feed off each other, like something happens when we're together."

Dad smiled, "It's called love, Davy. That's what happened to me when I met your uncle Tim. We couldn't get enough of each other at first. It was like we wanted to be inside each other." His smile broadened, "I'm glad you've found a friend like that. You know how special Tim is to me, and now you have Mike. You'll always have someone to go to, and he'll come to you, too." He glanced at my mother, then smirked at me, "Don't fuck it up."

My jaw dropped into a gape, and my mother smacked him. "Arthur! Your language!"

I could tell that Dad was going to burst out laughing. He squeaked, "Sorry," then he giggled, "it's an important lesson," he started wheezing in mirth, "Important... lessons... need... emphasis!" Then he laughed out loud, and my mother and I did too.

It was so unlike Dad to swear that it just busted us all up. I knew he did it so I'd always remember. I knew it in my soul now, it was my job, then and forever, not to fuck up what I had going with Mike and, while the idea was serious enough, the presentation was hilarious. The Loomis family, minus Timmy, was reduced to a quivering mass of giggling jello on Ken and Mary's sofa.

Whenever I looked up at other people's curious looks, I laughed all the harder. It was the kind of laughter that hurt your stomach after awhile, the laughter so typical of this house, the laughter so big and all-consuming that, for a few minutes at least, you were helpless to perform any other function. Unless, of course, you'd failed to relieve your bladder recently, in which case there would be cause for more laughter, the unwanted kind.

Through my tear clouded eyes I saw Mike standing there with a 'Now what?' look on his face. I got up and hugged him, still giggling.

From behind me, I heard Barry's amused voice asking, "Are you going queer now, Davy?

I held onto Mike for a few seconds, then turned to Barry. "I might if I could, but I can't."

That got the whole room laughing, and I had to yell out, "I love this guy, though."

That was the truth, too. I loved Michael Waters, and I'd just told a whole roomful of people that I did, and I meant it. I knew that Mike was gay or bi, or whatever, and it didn't matter. I loved him for the boy he was, and for the man he was becoming. My Dad was exactly right, too. Nobody could fuck it up except me, and I didn't intend to.

I liked being able to hug him unashamedly; he felt good in my arms. I loved Michael Waters.

Our moment in the spotlight was interrupted by screaming from the other room. We all ran out to find Bobby's mother kneeling on the kitchen floor and wailing loudly. Ken and Jim were trying to soothe her and pull her to her feet, but she had her arms latched around Bob's legs and wouldn't let go. Bob had his hands on her shoulder and his face sideways in her hair, and he was crying his eyes out. Bally was behind him, with his hands firmly on Bob's shoulders.

Everyone else was gaping at the scene before them, and it took several minutes before Bob's mother let go. Ken and Mary steered her out of the room while Jim held a hand out to a still-crying Bob, then they followed the others. Bally stayed behind, staring after them until Bob called his name, at which point he darted out of the kitchen.

The people left behind looked awkwardly at each other, and gradually went back to whatever they'd been doing. Eating and drinking resumed, conversations picked up, but now everybody knew that something was wrong and that they were helpless to do anything about it. The scene was the same, but the volume had gone way down, to the point that it was almost embarrassing to talk above a whisper.

Guy soon changed that. He told a joke, a really funny one, and since people couldn't help hearing it, the room burst into laughter when he got to the punch line. He told another funny one, then other people started coming up with their own. It didn't take long for the normal hilarity of Ken's place to return. The only thing missing was my uncle Tim's rich laugh.

Barry went to answer a knock at the door, and when he came back after awhile he said the police were in with Bob now. He asked Mike what it was all about, but Mike wouldn't tell him anything other than that there was a problem. Barry accepted that and rejoined his little group.

I looked at Mike, thinking we had a lot to talk about. "Ready to get going?"

He shrugged and looked around, "I guess, if ya want to."

"I need to talk to you, to ask you something. We can stay if you want."

He shook his head, "No, it's okay. What about Guy?"

"We'll drop him off. Come on, it takes a long time to get out of here anyhow."

That was no lie. Sometimes getting away from Ken's place took forever, because the simple act of saying goodbye brought up lots of new things to talk about.

Mike collected up a reluctant Guy, and he became downright miserable when he learned that he wasn't staying with us. In the end, I felt bad enough to invite him to spend the next day with us, even go to the airport if he wanted to. He might even turn out to be useful. Mike wanted to get some souvenirs for people, and I hadn't been able to think of anything that represented Connecticut, at least nothing that didn't just have the word stamped on it.

I don't think that really satisfied Guy, but he didn't have any choice and he knew it. Resigned to his fate for the evening, he decided to revert to his own cheerful self instead of sulking, and that's the way we left him at his house after we finally got away from Ken's.

Mike walked in with him while I waited, and ten minutes later he climbed back in the car, saying, "Guy's one cool kid. I really like him."

I asked, "As?"

Mike looked at me in bewilderment at first, then he got it. He grinned, "As a cool kid." The grin disappeared as quickly as it had shown up. "I get confused, Davy. When Guy hugged me he felt so exactly like Jack... I dunno, it could have been him."


"And? Well, he's gay, so it means it's possible, and he freakin' smells so good." He started fiddling with his fingers, "I ain't gonna lie to ya, Davy. I'm as queer as I'm not queer. If you was gay, it'd be all over and done with." He leaned against the car door and looked at me, "Tell me the truth. It don't bother you the way I feel?"

Hoo boy!

Thank God for traffic. I pretended to concentrate on that while I searched for an answer. I guess that in some ways it did bother me that I was the subject of another guy's sexual feelings, but that guy was Mike, and I'd just earlier announced to everybody who mattered in my life that I loved him. I did love him, too, just not in a sexual way. I loved everything about Mike, and I didn't really worry that his feelings for me had an added dimension over mine for him, but I was finding myself in the perfect place to fuck everything up if I said the wrong thing.

I thought of equivocating, but it wasn't the time, and I had to say something. "Mike ...I have a lot of feelings for you, I really do. They don't involve sex, and I really appreciate that you keep that to yourself."

I glanced at Mike and saw that I hadn't hurt him, but he was staring at me. "I love you, Mike."

He smiled, seeming satisfied. "I love you too, like a brother. I can control the other thing." He giggled, "Your hiney's safe around me."

I laughed, then pulled into the driveway. When we were walking into the house I said, "There's something I have to talk to you about. You want a soda or anything?"

"Is it okay if I have a beer?"

I looked at him, mildly surprised. "Beer, huh? I guess. Give me your coat, and I'll meet you in the family room."

I hung up our jackets in the hall, then grabbed two Heinekens from the refrigerator. I had to laugh a little when I handed him one. He'd just pulled his sweatshirt off, and his hair had all followed in the direction of the shirt. It was sticking out all over the place, and when I told him he smoothed it out with his hands.

I took the remote for the fireplace and started a nice fire, then I sat opposite Mike.

He looked at the fire, then at me, then back at the fire. "Now, that's cool! I bet you never hafta split wood."

I grinned, "Nope. It's nice to have a fire. When Dad ever saw this thing, well, it was being installed the next week." I lifted my can in a toast, "Let's make a toast, Mike." He lifted his can and I said, "To us. To the time we get to spend together, brother."

Mike smiled and said, "Yeah... brother," as the cans clicked together.

We took sips, and I got down to business. "Listen, Mike. Tell me if I'm wrong, but aren't there a lot of poor people in Morton?"

The question seemed to surprise him, and he answered hesitantly, "Well, yeah, I guess. Nobody's starvin', if that's what ya mean."

"I didn't think people were starving, but a lot of people must have to do without things, miss out on things."

He pondered that, "I don't know, Davy. I mean, I know it happens. Like Tony's first bike was Jack's old one. You saw how they live; it ain't so bad."

He was right. The Wolfes lived in an old house trailer full of old things, but they seemed pretty content. They knew how to feed themselves well, entertain themselves with board and card games. They worked hard to maintain themselves, but they did a good job of it. My uncles had hired Tony's Dad to take care of their place, so now he was earning some money that he never expected to, and Tony was earning his own with his crafts.

I looked at Mike, "You told me that Tony was only middle-poor, that other people are worse off. You don't need to answer; there's a reason I'm asking you this."

His eyebrows asked the question.

"My Dad told you about the money we have to give away. It's kind of the family business, and if we're brothers I think you should be in on it."

He put his hand on his chest, "Me?"

"Yes, you. It's something we can to do together, Mike, even when we're apart. It's kind of my job now, and I can't do it alone."

"W-what do I do?"

I smiled, "You keep your eyes open, Mike. Look for that kid who can't go on a school trip or play a sport because there's no money. You did it today. Don't think I missed seeing Bob in your coat. He's on my list now. You need to listen, too. Somebody's always moaning about something, try to tune in and figure out if it's real. Ask questions, even. You'll find people who are being hurt by lack of money, and you can do something to fix it."

"I just give them money?"

"You'll do it?"

He nodded.

I was beaming with happiness while I spent the next hour telling him how it all worked, how we had our own little system of checks and balances. I told him about some of our successes and failures, and how to turn it off when the money ends up in the neighborhood bar instead of the shoe store.

It was fun watching Mike absorb it all, and his little smile of understanding appeared about twenty times. By the time I had explained everything, he seemed pretty enthusiastic, and we decided that he should start with the first needy family he found when he got back. That way he'd get to do something right away and determine what worked best for him.

I thought it was a great idea, and got two more beers to celebrate with. My parents came in while we were whooping it up a little. The beer wasn't a problem, they let me drink a little if I wasn't going out.

They came in smiling, and I greeted them with, "Mike's doing it!"

My mother cooed, and Dad went over to shake hands with Mike. "That's great! Welcome aboard, Mike." Mike stood and shook his hand, and Dad went on, "Davy explained why we do this, didn't he?"

Mike smiled sweetly, a smile that I hadn't seen before, then he hugged my father to him. "I understand, and it's a beautiful thing. Thanks for letting me help."

My father murmured, "We're happy to have you, Mike. He pulled back from the hug and grinned, "Very happy indeed. It sounds crazy, but giving away money they way we do isn't all that easy. We'll all appreciate your help."

He turned to me, "Davy, you haven't said a word about your date last night. Didn't it go well?"

Wrong question. Melanie really interested me. She was a knockout to look at, also kind of quiet and shy to know. I spent the next half hour detailing our meeting and first date, then all the reasons why I liked her. Mike had heard it all the night before, and the next time I noticed him he was dozing in his chair.

I felt bad, and went over to gently nudge him back awake. He came to with a start, but quickly realized where he was and smiled. I said, "Come on, let's get to bed."

He yawned and stretched, saying, "Okay," then we said goodnight and headed upstairs. When we got to my room and Mike took off his shirt, he got a whiff of himself and said, "I stink, I need a shower. Too much tension I think."

I said, "Go ahead," and turned to my computer to check email.

There were a few, nothing of much interest. I sent a new mail to my uncles in Morton so they'd know that Mike had signed on. They knew I was going to ask, and had agreed wholeheartedly that I should.

I was done when Mike came back from the bathroom, and decided to shower up myself. I thought about Mike and about his visit while I was washing up.

He'd arrived innocently a few nights ago, and I think we'd done some things that were fun, but his comment about too much tension had stuck with me. That's what the difference between Morton and here was, tension. Mike had come to visit and have some fun, but he'd ended up in one confrontation after another, and with people he didn't know.

He'd handled himself pretty well, and shown me some things about himself that I didn't know were there. He took a big chance for Guy, and that had turned out pretty well, at least within Guy's family. I still had to consider Paul, decide whether I still wanted him as a friend. I thought I'd follow Juan's lead on that one. If he couldn't get through to him then nobody could.

Then I thought about what Mike had said about my friends not having to like him to still be my friends, and it rang true. The guys Mike had met weren't all of my friends by any means, just kind of one set of them. I had other friends from school, from skiing, from shooting pool. They didn't necessarily even know each other, but they were still my friends.

The way Mike had faced Paul had been pretty impressive, and at Ken's I saw him totally flip out and, I swear, try to kill Bob. That one I didn't expect. I'd seen him break down into tears on too many occasions, but never into a rage like that. Bob's mouth had triggered it. I got angry with him myself, but Mike acted way out of proportion to what had been said. Then he backed off as just as quickly and, whatever he'd learned about Bob out there, turned it all around, both in his own mind and for Bob.

I turned off the shower and dried off, feeling kind of bad for Mike, even for myself in a way. I know that if I thought about it I could find parts of my visit to Morton that weren't really perfect, but they'd be minor. All in all, my trip had bent my mind a little, bent it for the good by showing me a harmony and peace that I didn't know existed outside my own house.

Mike had left that to come here, and he found something else. He seemed to like it anyhow, so maybe different is good. I finished drying my hair, then wrapped my towel around me and went back into my room. Mike was in bed, but I could tell that he was still awake from the light glinting off his eyes.

I asked, "Are you alright?"

He didn't turn, but he smiled at the ceiling. "I'm fine." His smile turned into that little grin, "You sure know how to put on a weekend!"

I reached into the bathroom to flick off the light, leaving the only illumination in the room coming from the clock radio dial, and what little filtered in from the streetlights outside. Mike disappeared except for his eyes.

Then an idea came to me. I unwrapped my towel and tossed it to him, saying, "Catch!"

It landed partly on his chin, and he pulled his arms out from under the covers to see what it was.

"What's this for?" His face turned to me with a question.

"It's for my bed. That last night in Morton we made a real mess."


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