Jack in the Box

Chapter 44

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

I left school the next day with Dwayne. He told me a few things. First, that he hadn't mentioned Bruce to his father, though he didn't say I couldn't, and second, that he'd told his father that it was a one way thing between Dwayne and me. I had tried to push Dwayne away and he kept trying.

I was edgy, and I could tell that Dwayne was nervous, too. Dwayne had a lot at stake, and I had to convince his father not to get my parents involved in what I considered to be history at that point. Dwayne was tired, to boot. He'd slept poorly, from both worry and from being in a strange place.

The driveway in front of the school is a big semi-circle, and we walked all along it looking for his father's car. I only knew to look for a dark blue Buick, but there wasn't one there. Then, when we were out at the road, Dwayne spotted it just past the yellow signs they put out to slow traffic. His father was standing by the car waving his arm back and forth. Dwayne acknowledged that we'd seen him, and we walked that way.

Dwayne said, "Don't worry. He won't bite."

When we got to the car, Dwayne's father was standing behind it, looking nervous himself. We appraised each other while Dwayne introduced us and we shook hands.

He looked more like Dwayne than Ned did, though I don't know if I'd have chosen him in a lineup. Well, maybe the cheeks would have given him away. He was a nice looking man, graying hair, with an even gaze and a good smile. He had a very deep voice, too; not booming, but very low-toned.

He and Dwayne exchanged a few words after I got into the car, then Dwayne tapped my window and waved while his father got in the driver's seat. He asked quietly, "Morton, right?"

I looked at him as he started the car, "Yeah, right on Arlington Road. You know the way?"

He glanced at me before pulling out, "I sure do. I used to date a girl on Arlington Road. Rachel Hannison, do you know the family?"

"Yeah, they live just down the road!"

"That would be her brother, Allen. He bought the house when their folks retired."

I said, "I didn't know that. Um...Dwayne says you want my folks to know what went on. I don't want that to happen. I mean, I don't see how it'll do any good for anyone."

I was watching, and he reddened, "Mike, parents have a right to know what their children are up to, what's happening to them." He was quiet for a mile, then said, "Dwayne told me that what he did to you was totally uninvited. Is that the truth?"


"Okay...so tell me how it made you feel."

I hesitated, "He scared me. It was a little at first, just things he said that bothered me, then..."

"Mike, are you gay?"

I considered my response, "I guess it depends who I'm with. Dwayne says he told you about me and Jack, and that was real. Now I have a girlfriend, and that's real, too. I loved Jack, and now I love Annie."

He smiled, "Annie...that's a nice name. Do you...do you love them the same way? I'm not sure what that question means; let me try again. Is it puppy love or," he let go the wheel and wiggled his hands by his ears, "the get all inside your head kind of love?"

I laughed, "The second one. I was in love with Jack for a lot longer, and it was different. We lived next door and did lots of things together, and it was real intense sometimes. People at school found out about us, and we got pushed together even more. Nobody else wanted to know us, so it was him and me." I looked over at him, "Is that what you're askin'?"

Dwayne's dad glanced at me, "I'm not sure what I'm asking, Mike. I'm out of my realm right here. I know what homosexual means. I...I just never heard it in terms that implied any real kind of love. I thought...well, it doesn't matter. Dwayne tried to explain it, but he hasn't been in love yet." He rapped lightly on my knee with a closed fist, like he was knocking on a door. "Maybe you can explain it so I'll understand?"

I squeaked, "Me?" then I thought about what he'd asked, and it was a fair question. "I...um, I don't know how to start. I loved Jack, and not just as a friend." I shook my head, "He was a friend, my only one for a while, but there was more than that." I looked over at him, "I loved Jack, probably like my father loves my mother. I don't know...that don't sound right." I shrugged, "It's different, but it's the same. I loved Jack; that much I know. I loved everything about him, and...and, if it's what you're askin', we… we… fooled around I guess you'd call it."

I know I was blushing furiously. I'd never told my own father that, though I'm sure he surmised it. Jack had an addiction to sex that I didn't share. I felt I was catching up now, but doubted I'd ever be like Jack in that respect. I enjoyed sex; who wouldn't, but it didn't define me There were lots of things, lots and lots of other things that were as important as getting my rocks off, at least until I felt that particular need.

Dwayne's dad said, "I don't mean to embarrass you, and you don't have to answer, but what did that sex consist of?"

Oh Lord. Should I answer him? "Um...I don't wanna answer that. I mean, we kissed and held hands mostly. There was a little more, not too much really."

He saw my embarrassment. "I'll stop, Mike. I shouldn't pry into your private life, and I apologize. Let me ask this. Did your folks know about you and Jack?"

"Yeah, they knew."


"And? Do you mean were they okay with it?"

"That's exactly what I mean."

"Dad went off at first. After that it was okay."

"Went off? You mean he was angry?"

"Worse than angry. He scared me, and I ran away."

He looked surprised, "He threatened you?"

"Not really a threat. He told me to get out, and I ran as fast as I could. I never saw him like that before."

"Hmm. How did that get resolved?"

"It's kind of a long story, but when he found out where I was, he came to get me. He said he didn't know what set him off like that, and that he loved me. After that, we all went to family counseling for a while, so everybody could get used to the idea that I'm a little different."

We were on my street, and I guided him to the driveway next door, pointing out my house as we drove past it heading out to the barn. I said, "There's an office inside, and we can talk there. Nobody'll bother us."

Dwayne's father was impressed by the building, commenting on it as we walked in. We both got chairs, and sat looking at each other for a moment. He smiled at me, "Mike, I'm in an awkward position here. I just learned yesterday that my son's gay, and I have to come to terms with that." He adjusted his position in his chair.

I said, "It's not a big thing, you know. Dwayne's a lot of things. Bein' gay is just one of 'em, and it doesn't have much to do with anythin' else."

He sighed, "That's what I'm trying to understand. My brother said the same thing, that being gay is normal enough, just sort of a different flavor of normal." His look turned wistful, "I need some education, I suppose. I never sat down and thought about homosexuality before. I just had this gut feeling that it was wrong...a perversion." He caught himself, "I don't mean to be offensive, so tell me if I am." He smiled at me, "You're a nice kid, Mike, and I appreciate that you're talking to me like this. If your little difference is just that, then maybe it won't be too hard for me to understand Dwayne."

I said, "It's not a big deal, at least it shouldn't be. Other people get freaky about it, but I think I'm normal. I used to think I was just gay, but now I'm kinda middle of the road. That's probably weirder than Dwayne, but it's the way I am. I have a girlfriend, and I really love her. She's a nice girl," I smiled, "smart and funny, stronger than me." I looked up at Dwayne's father and smiled in embarrassment, "There's some boys I like, too, but I'm plannin' to be faithful."

He chuckled. "Dwayne said you were open about things, and I can see the truth in that. I only wish he had been." He looked at me seriously, "I feel like I don't even know my own son. It's really been hard for me the last seven years or so. Now I know that Dwayne was afraid of me, and that's my fault. People told me that it's normal for a teenager to rebel, and that's what I thought it was. I should have looked closer, asked him. Dwayne wasn't running around and screwing up like I did at his age, he was just distancing himself from me." His eyes opened wide, "I can deal with Dwayne being gay, I know I can. I really have a problem with what he did to you...tried to do."

I said, "It's taken care of."

Dwayne's father looked a plea at me, "I wish that was true, Mike. It's not taken care of." His smile disappeared, replaced by an angry frown, "It just reeks of mental illness. Even Dwayne admits he needs help."

I said, "I know that. Listen to my side, okay?"

Mr. Masterson nodded, and I told him my story about Dwayne, starting when he first talked to me at that school dance. I went right through everything...telling Dwayne Jack's story, my nervousness about his sexual references, then his explanation about them, how it got worse, then threatening. I let him know how upset I'd become, even told him about puking out my feelings. Mr. Masterson was a good listener; that much I can say, and I remember wondering if that's where Dwayne got it from.

When I got to telling him about our plans to trap Dwayne, I started laughing, remembering the things we'd said and done. Dwayne's dad laughed too, almost like he wished he'd been there to see it. Then I told him how Dwayne had come to see me afterwards, that we had an understanding, sort of a treaty. I said how my friends were Dwayne's friends, and we'd help him if he tried to get help.

I was trying to save my own butt, really. Dwayne's father seemed to be a good guy, but he had the idea that my parents should know about what happened, and I didn't want that. Why? I'm not sure, really. Dwayne had been a big problem for me, but I had managed to gather my friends together, and we handled him. It was important, beyond trying to explain, that people would do what they had just done for me.

That was the defining thing. I had friends. Friends who would believe me over lies they heard, people who could use humor and grace to overcome a situation, without just going for the throat. The biggest thing is what I told Dwayne's dad. "Dwayne has friends, you know. We pulled that crap on him, and it worked, but we're all behind him." I caught his eyes, "Dwayne's way more than a gay kid. He's really smart, really a good writer, even if he can't spell from right."

His father stared at me, his eyebrows up, then laughed. "He can't spell from? That's what you get out of this?"

I laughed a little too and looked at him. "It's not his spelling. This is the first big thing that I ever did with just my friends. It'sover! Dwayne can't scare me anymore, and there's no reason on earth my folks have to know it ever happened." I pleaded with my eyes, "Maybe someday when it's old enough to be funny, I'll tell 'em." I smiled, "I just got out of the shrink's chair. It's Dwayne's turn now." I leveled my gaze, "I'm okay with this...really. Dwayne's the one that needs help now, not me!"

He said, "You could have just told the school authorities what Dwayne was doing."

I shrugged, "I know. It didn't seem right to get him in that much trouble unless we had to. He would'a got kicked out of school for sure, maybe even arrested. If he was just gonna get yelled at, I would have told."

Mr. Masterson smiled, "Well, he got yelled at, that's for sure. I'm angry about that, and I find it hard to believe that you're not furious."

He looked at me, a sincere expression on his face, "Honestly, Mike, if anyone had ever tried something like that with me, he'd be anchored in the deepest part of the deepest river I could find."

I stared back at him, "I got mad, I really did. I don't know why I don't hate him, but I don't. I guess I never thought it would really happen…what Dwayne wanted. It cost me money, it cost me some good times, but it's all over. All over!

I tried to stare Mr. Masterson down, and we both ended up smiling, then chuckling. Dwayne's father said, "Mike, you're not what I expected. I thought you'd be some scared kid who was really cowed by Dwayne's behavior." He smiled brightly, "That's not the case. You tell your parents what you want to, I won't do a thing. I won't even apologize for Dwayne. You seem to have him all figured out."

I laughed, "That'll be the day! I like him, though, even after all this. He's...um...interesting!"

Mr. Masterson laughed as he stood up. He held out his hand to shake, "Thanks, Mike. Thanks for your time, and thank you for being a friend to Dwayne." He hung his head a bit, "I suppose I have to get to know him all over again." He looked back up and smiled sadly, "Dwayne, when he was a little boy, was always full of surprises." His eyes clouded, but he kept the smile, "I guess big boys can be surprising, too. Thank you, Mike! This has been enlightening."

I grinned, and said, "Dwayne told me what's on your dragster."

I swear he blushed! "Oh, um, that was a friend of mine, not me. He's an artist, and he asked what we wanted. We told him to use his imagination." He smiled, "Ever been to the drags?"

I shook my head.

"Next summer. If you're interested, that is, we'll take you to the races." He smiled, "I thank you, Mike. You've given me another viewpoint, and it's a good one." He grinned, almost laughing. "I can get used to this," he said, shrugging. "My son's gay." He tensed up a little, "I'm not used to it yet," he smiled, "but he's still my Dwayne."

He looked at me, kind of a mysterious expression on his face. "I love my son, Mike. We'll figure this all out."

I walked him out to his car, and when he was getting in I said, "Dwayne's smart, he'll be okay."

His father was sitting down in the car when he said, "He gets that from his mother, not me." He shot me a sunbeam of a smile and backed out.

I watched until he was out of sight before I went back into the office to check my email. I was still thinking about Dwayne's father. I thought I understood Dwayne's fear, but it sure seemed to have been misplaced. His dad came across as a pretty laid-back type of person, and he was willing to listen and learn. I felt a lot better for Dwayne, and I was excited about being invited to see some races.

I was relaxed, too. I'd been nervous earlier, but Dwayne's father didn't turn out to be some snarling monster like I'd envisioned. He was the father of a kid with a problem, and he was trying to help with it, just like fathers are supposed to do.

There wasn't a lot of mail, but I had another note from Guy, and he was funny as usual. His gay and lesbian club was full of new members; now he wondered if he was the only real gay guy there. He was still glad he joined. They didn't do gay things there, just talked about tolerance and things like that, but now a lot of people were hearing it. He had his eye on one kid, but didn't have a clue whether he was gay or not.

My reply was, "Ask him."

I replied to a few other people, and then wandered home. There was no rush, and it was another nice day. I dawdled, looking at what Mr. Wolfe had already done to Tim and Dave's yard. There hadn't been any big projects, but the whole place looked neater, healthier, better cared for. Ours did, too, and it occurred to me that I hadn't had to mow the lawn in a long time. Tony's dad was doing it, and I hadn't even thought about the fact it was always mowed.

When I went inside only Lissie was home, and doing her schoolwork at the kitchen table. She looked up when I walked in, and said, "Finally! I need to talk to you."

I filled a glass with water from the tap, then poked my head in the refrigerator, "So, talk. I'm listenin'"

She said, "It's about me and Pat."

Not finding anything less healthy that appealed to me, I grabbed a pear and asked, "What about Pat?" as I sat at the table.

She looked upset, "It's not him, really. I get teased because I like him. Everybody says he's a geek and a creep."

I was surprised, "Patty? Why do they think that?" Then it occurred to me, "The glasses?"

She nodded, "Mostly, I think. He's talking to new kids now, but they laugh behind his back. I can't tell him that, 'cause he'll start a fight and … well, you know."

I looked at Melissa, "What do you say to them?"

She looked so sad, "I try to defend him, I really do, but it just makes me a geek, and I'm losing my own friends."

I tried to think, "Is it everybody? Even the kids from Morton?"

She thought, then said, "It's not everybody, mostly girls, but I can't get them to understand about Pat. It's like if I don't break up with him, I won't have any friends left."

I was concerned, "What about the guys from here? Scott and Jose… Lionel?"

"They all like Pat, but that doesn't help me any. Scott's being an idiot anyhow, he's always in trouble."

I was incredulous, "Scott is? Why's he in trouble?"

She raised her voice, "All he does is screw around. He's like the class clown now."


She glared at me, "He's not even in high school yet, but he goes around acting like a senior. He'll get kicked out if he doesn't watch out."

"What about Jose, then? Don't tell me he's screwin' up!"

Her look softened, "No, he's not in trouble, but he has braces! What's worse, freaky glasses or tinsel teeth?"

Oh, God. Did everyone have to be perfect? I almost laughed, wondering how much relief Jack and I had provided for the kids with pimples … braces … bad hair, wrong anything. Why worry about that stuff when you have two queers to tease all day? That's enough to make all kinds of less-than-perfect kids feel better, isn't it?

I looked at Lissie and smiled, "It's your show, little sister. If it was me, I'd stick with Patty. Those other kids, they'll grow up someday."

She smiled back, "I know, I just wanted to hear what you'd say." Her smile brightened, "We can be just like you and Jack. I don't mean that it'll be nearly as bad, but it's kind of the same thing." She stood up and held her hand to my cheek for a second. I looked up and she was still smiling, "Don't worry about me, Mike. I just thought you should know what's going on."

I wasn't happy about it, but I smiled anyhow. "Thanks, Liss. You stick with Pat, that's where the good is."

The second that she left, the phone rang and there was a knock at the door. I yelled, "Come in!" and picked up the phone.

I said, "Hello," into the phone as Dwayne came through the door, and it was Tony who was calling. "Give me a second, Tony, Dwayne just walked in." I looked at Dwayne and said hi, then told him the phone just rang. I motioned him to the table, then grabbed another pear from the fridge and held it up as an offering.

Dwayne took it and sat down, then I asked Tony, "What's up?"

He sounded excited, but he usually was when he called, "Did you hear about Joe?"


"Yeah, it's his birthday, and there's a surprise party. I wanna make his house to give him, but it's on Saturday. I need some of the pictures you have from when the picnic was there!"

I asked, "His birthday? I didn't even know."

"Yeah, well you're invited, everybody is. It's a surprise, that's why there's no warning. You got the pictures I need … the ones Paulina took. This can be his present from me and you and Pat!"

I said, "Okay, I'll bring 'em tomorrow. I um," I looked at Dwayne, getting his attention, "I talked to Dwayne's dad today."

There was a short silence, "… Why?"

"Tony, did you say anythin' about what Dwayne was doin' except to the people in on it?"

"No … I …"

"Good. Neither did I, but Dwayne told his father, and they wanted to tell my folks."

"Oh shit."

"Exactly." I smiled at Dwayne, who was paying careful attention. "I talked him out of it, Tony. Dwayne's dad is cool, a real nice guy." I caught Dwayne's happily surprised look, "It looks like everything's good. Can I call you later?"

Tony laughed softly, "Yeah, you go take care of Dwayne. I gotta remember white anyhow."


"White! Like Joe's house?"

"Call you later."

After we hung up, Dwayne asked, "Really?"

I sat down, "Yeah, Dwayne. You were right last night, you kinda blew this one." I looked into his eyes and, for the first time, felt like I was being allowed in, which is the feeling I got right off the bat from his father. "Your dad's cool. He's not especially happy, but he loves his son." I grinned, "You're home, Dwayne!"

He looked happily stunned for a second, and then tears formed in his eyes. "Oh, Mike! What do I say here? I...I..."

I smiled, "Don't say anythin', Dwayne. Go home." I looked into the eyes that were still focused on mine, "Your father's been missing you."

Dwayne dropped his gaze, "I don't deserve..."

I said, "Don't start, Dwayne. Not with me, anyhow, that's how you should start with your father. He's messed up with this, too. It's like Tim said. It's a family problem now, and I get the sense that you have a fine family."

Dwayne blinked back a tear and smiled, "Yeah, I guess I do. Um, can I call home to see if it's okay?"

I pointed to the phone, "Help yourself."

Dwayne was worked up. He had the pear clenched between his teeth while he dialed, and as I walked out of the room to give him some privacy, I heard him ask excitedly, "Mom?"

* * * * * * * *

Saturday was another bright and beautiful day, though chilly. Paulina had enlisted Clay, Annie, Tony and me to help make sure Joe's party remained a surprise. It was going to be at her place, and the trick was to get Joe there before everyone else, because people were coming from out of town and they didn't want him to see them around.

They'd supposedly had his party at his own house the night before, complete with cake and everything. One of Joe's friends from New York, who played in the band with Nick and Scott, had gone there, just to keep him off track.

Scott Johnson had dragged Joe away from that party to get pumpkins, the idea being that Halloween was coming up, and they'd have a hayride and a pumpkin carving thing for all the younger kids.

Our job was to get all the kids there, then go on the hayride with them to make sure Joe was gone long enough while everything was being set up.

Paulina and Clay took minivans to get the kids, while Tony and I helped Joe set up his haywagon, which was really his flatbed trailer. Annie supervised.

That part didn't take long. We just busted up a few bales of hay and spread it on the wagon, then loaded some whole bales for the taller kids to sit on. Joe put a few of the pumpkins on just for looks, and Tony and I razzed him about being old, first having asked him about his birthday party the day before.

He took the razzing okay, and smiled about the party. "It's not even my birthday yet; they just did it last night because Keith could only come this weekend. He grinned, "That man lives large! I knew he was there yesterday as soon as I saw a triple stretch Rolls clutterin' up my driveway."

Annie asked, "You call that clutter?"

Joe grinned, "It's clutter in my book. I sure don't have one of those, and for four people and a driver, well … you could fit a marching band in that thing, complete with tubas!"

Annie made a face, "Ew, is he a snob?"

Joe turned his face to her and said, gently, "No, Keith's not a snob. He has a pile of money and has fun with it." He looked at Scott and Nick's house, "Not like some people I know." He grinned, "What snob would claim to have named his kid during a fart?"

Tony yelped, "A fart?"

Joe smiled, "His name's Burton; you figure it out."

That somehow struck Annie funny, and I looked on in horror as she giggled. Oh God, do girls fart? Did Annie fart?

I know that I'd let out more than a few burtons in my life. BrRRTon, and they were always the ones you worried about having lumps in them. I looked at Annie's mirth and decided no, she has a father and two brothers, so she probably just overheard.

When Clay and Paulina got there with two truckloads of excited, younger kids, we got them up onto the trailer. Joe chugged up the tractor, and we headed up the little dirt road that separated the yard from the big property out back.

Clay had picked up Jens, and he seemed to be as excited as the younger kids, even though he lived on a real farm and could do things like this anytime he wanted.

Per plan, I jumped off the trailer after awhile, telling Joe to go slow for a few minutes so Tony and I could run ahead, then 'scare' the kids when he got there.

It was fun. We ran up into the woods, Tony on one side of the road and me on the other, and hid behind trees. When the trailer was halfway past us, we'd jump out and scream, "BOO!" causing the kids to shriek in fright and delight.

We only did it twice, but the mission was accomplished.

Joe was now on a trail that he had to get to the end of before he could turn around, and the turnaround was spectacular enough that we spent some time there.

It was the top of a trail through the woods, and it ended in a high meadow, with such a view across the hills that even the little kids appreciated it for awhile. Then Paulina and Annie poured fruit punch into little cups and opened bags of chips, so we stayed there for another fifteen minutes.

After that, a bathroom break ate up more time. Annie and Paulina took the little girls down into the woods on the right, while we older boys led the younger ones to the left.

The kids were more clingy on the way back. I had one on each knee, and smiled at Tony's apparent delight at having a little girl straddling his leg. Annie was patiently quieting a boy who was crying for some reason, and Paulina had a circle around her in the middle of the trailer. Clay and Jens were joking with a bunch of kids, and I thought to look around to see if anyone was left out. Joe's daughter was on his lap, steering the tractor, and everyone was accounted for.

It was a happy time for me. I remembered going on hayrides, right in the same place, and having my brother to cuddle with on the way back. I kissed the backs of the two little heads in front of me, just like he used to, and hoped it made them feel the same way I did when it happened … warm, safe and loved. God, nostalgic at fifteen! But when I looked around, all the other older kids had the same look that I felt on my face.

Horses, (husses, as Tony called them) made a hayride even better than a tractor one, but all the other feelings were the same. Night, day, any season of the year, they were events that could have been boring, but never bored anybody.

Paulina started humming loud enough for everyone to hear, and in a minute we were all singing, "Row, row, row your boat …"

That all stopped when the tractor did, and Joe groaned, "Oh, no. I don't believe it."

I stood, dropping my two little hitchikers onto the straw. I looked, and a large banner was stretched across the narrowest part of the road, held in place by I know not what.

It read, in huge letters, 'LORDY, LORDY - JOE IS FORTY!' Underneath, in smaller letters it said, 'Drive right in, Joe. You KNOW you want to'.

Paulina and Clay must have primed the little ones on the way, because they all chirped, "Surprise!"

Joe muttered, "I guess," then started the tractor back up and drove right through the banner, revealing a party ready to happen. Lots and lots of people were there, laughing and cheering, and Joe's ears were a shade of red that I had to point out to Tony.

Joe pulled the tractor to a stop where his wife was standing, and grinned down at her. "You got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy!"

She grinned back, as Joe handed their daughter down to her. "You don't think you can turn old without people coming to see it, do you?"

Joe climbed down into a hug and groaned, "I'm not old," then he pulled back and looked at her, "everything still works. Want proof?"

She smiled and kissed him, "Later. Your parents are here … your brother and sister … Scott's …"

Her voice faded as they walked into the welcoming crowd

I guess forty is a milestone to a lot of people. My mother had a big party for my dad when he turned forty, and he had a big one for her the next year. Dad liked his, Mom wasn't too happy about her age getting that much attention.

I saw a familiar head and got all excited. I grabbed Annie's hand and pulled her, "Raymond's here! Hey Ray!" My brother turned around, grinning when he saw me charging toward him. We got into a happy hug for a moment, and I asked, "You know Annie, don't you?"

He smiled and held his hand out to her, "Oh, I know Annie. How's your family?"

Annie shook hands with him, saying, "They're fine. Did anyone know you were coming?"

Ray replied, "Just my dad." He looked at me with a question, "Things change, huh? Howcum I didn't know about you and Annie 'til I got here?"

I smiled, "That's what happens when you don't come around, and you don't call."

His eyebrows went up. "I guess you're right." He took a step back and looked me up and down, finally grinning. "You look great, Mike. Mom said you'd changed, she just didn't say how much." He put his arm across my shoulder, and I took Annie's hand while we walked toward the food. "Was that great news about Dad's job, or what?"

We caught up a little on news before we got to the others. Ray was staying for the night, so we could talk more later.

The party was great fun, at least I thought so. They had all Joe's favorite foods, which had pretty much always aligned with mine; clams, oysters, shrimp, both raw and grilled, and what other people called 'real' food; stuff like steaks and chicken. It was a catered deal, so all the guests were free to socialize. It was pretty fancy. The shrimp, oysters and clams were in the bed of a pickup that was full of ice. There were waiters walking around with trays of different things, people taking drink orders. Others were manning grills, and there were long tables full of all sorts of hot and cold food.

A lot of the people were Joe's friends from out of town, and they all seemed fine. I met Joe's parents, his brother and sister, his nieces and nephews, and they were great. Then my heart almost stopped when I met Scott's father. I honestly didn't know, but there was Scott, a legend of rock and roll himself, introducing me to his father, like the legend of rock and roll, at least the stuff I liked.

I didn't know if I should drop to my knees or what, but he turned out to be a regular guy, all happy and normal.

I got away from all the celebrities and rejoined my friends. Annie had been with me all along, and when we caught up with Clay, Tony, Jens and Buddy, it was like a relief. James and Aaron, our own little gang. I looked around and asked if anyone had seen Pat, and it seemed like none of the Andersons were there. We all looked around, then Tony spotted Pat walking in, accompanied by his parents.

It turned out that Pat's mother hadn't felt well earlier, but now she was better, so they decided to come to the party.

It got funny. There was a pumpkin carving contest, and Tony should have won it with his carving of Joe's face. Joe was the judge, though, and he chose to cut out the back of Tony's pumpkin and pull it over his head, like a mask, while he looked at the rest of them.

He declared a little girl to be the winner, because she had come up with a truly happy looking pumpkin with huge eyes, and ears that stuck out.

When things quieted down, I felt something fat and soft slam into my gut. I looked at a baseball mitt there, then up, and I found Clay and Buddy grinning at me.

Clay said, "We have time. Let's go out back and see what you've got."

Buddy held up a bat, and said, "C'mon, guys." He grinned, "There's a flat field out back. Let's have some fun!"

More gloves appeared, a pail full of balls, a few more bats, and a bunch of happy boys shucked their coats and headed up the hill. Fearing humiliation, I was less happy than the others.

Baseball had already humiliated me once, when I was nine or so. Dad had signed me up for Little League, thinking I'd like it, and I was a complete failure. I would have made the perfect pinch runner, if some such thing was allowed, but it wasn't in Little League. I was fast enough, but the other fundamentals somehow eluded me. I couldn't hit or catch or throw, and I didn't know the rules.

Tony was with me on this one. Clay thought he was a natural born pitcher, but that was Clay. Tony knew less about baseball than I did, because he'd only played in gym class. We kind of held back together, two born losers… sports wise, anyhow.

Clay thought Tony could throw, and I didn't doubt that for a moment, but I didn't know what he thought I could do.

It started suddenly. The guys who reached the field first started tossing balls to the kids who were still on they way. They were laughing, having fun, but I was scared to death. What if someone threw a ball to me ?

It didn't take long to find out, one came right at me, and I caught it, painfully, in my right hand. I saw a raised glove across the field and tossed it that way, then another one was right at me, and I caught it again, and again painfully.

Buddy Early ran over to me, laughing. "Use the glove, Mike."

I cried, "I'm right handed, I got the wrong glove!"

He got right up to me, "That's the point, Mike. Catch with your left, throw with your right.. If you wuz left handed it'd be the opposite. Here, catch!"

He was only a few feet away, and he tossed the ball underhanded. I went for it with my glove and missed, having to run after it. I threw it back to Buddy, and he caught it easily, even though he had to reach for it.

He lobbed it back to me, and with a few contortions, I managed to catch it and throw it back. Buddy said, "Get beside it", and tossed it back to me. I caught it awkwardly again, and threw it back, this time over his head, but he leaped up and caught it again, laughing, "Watch where you're throwing, too! I'm gonna throw it past you, run back and get it!"

It didn't take me long to get used to playing catch like that, and it was fun. The problem was that I could see what the other guys were doing, and it was a whole lot more intense than what I was doing with Buddy.

They were throwing balls, not just tossing them back and forth, but throwing hard and far. I looked at Buddy and threw one to him harder, hearing it smack into his glove. He widened the distance between us and threw it harder to me, and I caught it. I was surprised, because it felt good. I backed up and grinned, whipping the ball toward Buddy. It wasn't that accurate, but a few quick steps let Buddy catch it.

We had to stop when Clay called Buddy over to catch for Tony, and the rest of us gathered to watch.

Buddy pulled on a face mask, and Clay walked off the distance to where Tony should pitch from, then stayed there and coached Tony.

Watching was amazing. Tony's first throw kicked dust from Buddy's mitt almost before it left his hand. I was impressed, but the guys who knew the game were exclaiming loudly all over the place. Clay was jumping up and down laughing. Tony threw a few more before guys lined up to try to hit one of his pitches.

That was comical at first, as they just watched the balls fly by into Buddy's glove. Starting with Aaron, who was on his second try, they started to swing, and a few guys actually connected weakly. Clay called a halt for a minute, huddled with Tony, and the hitters were back to watching the ball fly past them.

Buddy called to James, "Show Mike how to hold a bat, get him in here."

James walked over to me, holding out a bat and grinning. "C'mon, Mike. Give it a try."

I shrugged, "I don't care. Show me how."

James gave me a quick lesson on batting stance and posture, keeping my eye on the ball, swinging levelly, and following through.

When I got up to bat, James stayed with me, encouraging me to swing at everything Tony threw, so he could help me with it.

I did, and I swung late every time. James was encouraging, telling me to relax, to watch Tony, to pay attention, and after nine pitches I tapped one back, surely an out in a game, but I hit it, and everyone cheered. It bolstered my ego, and the next pitch I connected with, sending it high and far, to great cheering, and making Tony turn around to watch it fly away.

Tony turned back, smiling, and James said it was his own turn at bat.

Clay came running up to me, his face full of excitement. "You did it!" He clapped his hands on my shoulders, grinning. "That was a home run anywhere, Mike! You've got a great swing, and that was a wicked pitch to hit!"

I laughed, thinking I was being set up, but I didn't care. I was positive that Tony had thrown that ball differently, but I had a new feeling about playing baseball. I already knew I could run, now I could throw and hit, too, and it was fun. Learning the rules would be the hard part, but I could do that.

When Tony complained that his arm was getting sore, everything broke up. Kids collected up the equipment, and we headed back to the picnic, Tony and I were now quite obviously part of the team.

Tony was the center of attention, and I could tell that he was really enjoying it. He'd made a connection with boys on a different level than he could with his art, a level they all understood and could appreciate. All the guys were calling him Tony, too, as if Anton was too formal for a friend.

Clay was being solicitous of Tony's arm. Everyone else was just whooping it up, nobody louder than me. I was elated … about hitting the ball like that for sure, but more because I felt part of something new … new to me, anyhow. I had no delusions about being a great baseball player, but I knew I'd have fun with these guys. This wasn't the whole team by any means, but having something like baseball in common widened my hopes for a normal life, at least a little.

I already kind of automatically liked people who liked to fish, just because I liked it. It gave us something in common. Maybe baseball could do that, too, and with different people. I sensed that it was already happening. I was wedged between James and Aaron, and they were absolutely joyous.

Maybe it was a compound effect. These were two guys I'd fished with often enough, and we always had fun. Now we had something else, and they seemed as happy about it as I was.

When we got back to the picnic, everyone was gathered together, and there were sporadic bursts of laughter. That's because Joe was opening his presents, and most of them were gag gifts. I laughed when he got a shawl, a bottle of Geritol, a cane, a hand-knit dick warmer. There was a small pile of funny hats beside him. Joe was threatening the donors, but it was clear that he was touched by it all.

His wife and kids were all sitting with him, handing him things from the pile of cards and gifts.

I found Annie and stood beside her, taking her hand in mine. She smiled up at me, "How was baseball?"

I said, "I hit a home run." I snickered, "I think Tony gave me a special pitch."

There was a tug on my other elbow, and I turned to find Tony right there, a pained look on his face.

"You think that? I didn't throw you nothin' special. I don't know nuthin' special. You hit the same throw I gave everybody." He seemed worried, "You believe me, don't you?"

I just looked at Tony, surprised at what he was saying.

"Mike, that's why Clay was all over me out there. He says I need more than one pitch, if I keep throwin' the same thing somebody's gonna hit it hard. You did, now he's a told ya so!"

I stared at Tony, then started to giggle, partly at his vehemence, partly because he was telling me I really hit a good pitch.

It didn't take but a moment before Tony caught the giggle, softened, and we were back on keel.

Dwayne had tried to insert a lie between Tony and me, and ultimately failed. I'd just done the same thing, though I didn't think of it as a lie. It just seemed impossible that I'd hit a ball that nobody else could, but I guess a wrong assumption wasn't a lot different than a lie. If Tony hadn't overheard me, I could have gone on forever thinking he'd sent me a ball I could hit. It wasn't a big deal this time, but it could be the next.

Annie tugged me, and reached around to touch Tony. "Look, you're present's next!"

We all stood to attention.

Joe's birdhouse was the most detailed one Tony had done. It was more like a whole-house model, with everything finished, not just the front, and Tony had carved a little figure of Joe, sitting in a chair, his feet up on a table, and strumming his guitar on the deck.

For anyone who had spent any time at all visiting Joe, it would be like old home week. He'd always end up out there like that, whether his company joined him or not.

Our anticipation peaked as Marty slid the big box over to Joe. A whole bunch of us had stayed up late the night before getting it ready, and the only one getting paid for it was Richard Phelps, who worked for half price when he learned that it was a gift.

Tony said, "I wanna get closer," and started weaseling his way through the crowd.

I thought he wanted to get closer to Paulina, who was up there taking pictures, but Annie said, excitedly, "He wants to see his face. I'll bet you dollars to dimes that Joe's Christmas present is a picture of this."

I looked at Annie and smiled, poking her side with my fingers to make her jump. She was right, of course, and she got a kiss for it. "You're so smart. Why do I hafta spend so much time thinkin'? Why don't you do it all? That way I can just eat and sleep and …"

She gave me a threatening look, "And?"

"Shh, look! He's openin' it."

Annie socked my arm, and we paid attention as Joe started pulling off the Sunday funnies that we'd wrapped the box in. He said, "This one's from Anton Wolfe, Patrick Anderson, and Michael Waters. That's mighty formal soundin', boys."

When he got the lid off and looked inside, he just gaped, then his mouth started to move like he was talking, but no sound came out that I could hear. He reached inside and lifted the birdhouse out, and when he held it up there was a collective gasp.

I put my hand on Tony's shoulder and felt him stand up a little straighter. Joe and his family momentarily blocked the creation from view while they took a close look at it, then Joe stood and held it in front of him, turning around slowly so everyone could see. He was beaming, and people started clapping.

Marty stood up and hollered, "That's the last one! Thank you all for coming. The bar's open, and there's enough food for an army, so please have a nice time and enjoy yourselves."

With that, the party broke up into smaller groups, though there was a good lineup of people taking a closer look at the birdhouse.

We stood there and watched them for a moment before Tony asked, "Did he even like it?"

Annie reassured, "He must have loved it, Tony. Precious few things have ever struck Joe into silence like that."

Tony looked over at her, "You think so?"

Annie smiled, "I know so. He gripes endlessly about maintaining that place, but a flock of low-flying cows wouldn't get him out of there." Her smile got brighter, "He'd just get up on the roof with a hose."

Tony and I laughed, and we separated when Tony saw Paulina and chased after her.

I looked at Annie, smiling curiously, "You called him Tony?"

She kind of wiggled her shoulders and said, "Yeah." She looked the way he'd headed, then back at me. "Joe's right; Anton's too formal. He can be Anton when he's rich and famous. For now, Tony's more like the way he is."

I leaned in for a kiss, saying, "He'll always be Tony to me. I don't like Anton …"

A hand landed heavily on my shoulder, and I turned to look at Joe and Marty standing there, a soft look in Joe's eyes. He said, "Thanks, Mike … I mean thanks! Aside from my kids, that's the most beautiful gift I ever got."

Marty added, "It's the perfect thing. We've heard about Anton's little business …"

I interrupted, "He's Tony now. Not just to me, to everybody. Tony Wolfe, not Anton!" I suddenly blushed, because I was being rude.

Marty said, "Tony, then. It's just such a lovely construction, and having Joey out there on the porch like that makes it perfect." She nudged Joe, "This man lives for his time on the porch!"

Joe started to protest, but Marty excused herself to find the ladies room. Joe called after her, "There's walls and stuff between here and there, girly. Don't hurt yourself!"

Annie and I both laughed, and Marty, not too discretely, flipped Joe the bird.

Joe turned back to me and Annie, a broad smile on his face. "I have to mingle. If I don't catch up with Anton … um … Tony, you be sure to tell him that I love this birdhouse."

We smiled and said we would, and when we turned around we saw Clay with Jens. I really only saw Jens at school, but he suddenly looked bigger. He'd always been a runty kid, and it didn't make sense given the size of his parents. Now he must have been in a growth spurt like I'd gone through in the last year. I smiled and put my hand on top of his head, then tried to draw it straight to me, landing at my upper lip.

Jens grinned, "An inch in the last two months. Daddy says he was five foot at thirteen, six foot at sixteen. He looked at Annie, then leaned in and whispered in my ear, "My dick, too, and I'm getting' hair down there!"

Clay heard. If Annie did, she gave no reaction. Clay laughed, "Yeah, puberty in full gear." He clapped a hand on Jens' shoulder, "Next thing you know, it's pimples, oily skin, and a sex drive!"

Annie heard that, and she giggled. "Don't be giving Jens ideas, Clay. You certainly got pimples and became oilier." She grinned and looked around, "Oily may be the perfect adjective for you, now that I think of it."

Clay started to protest, but was drowned out by Jens worried voice, "I though puberty meant I got hairier!"

Poor Jens. We laughed at his expense, and then Clay dragged him away, saying that puberty changed a whole lot of things.

Annie and I wandered for awhile, talking to people. When we came upon Joe's nephews and nieces, we felt bad. They were kids around our age, and they were sticking to themselves, so we started talking to them. They were from all over the place; four from Kansas, two from New York, and one from Wisconsin. They knew each other, but not really anyone from here, so we made friends, then kind of dragged them along with us. Two of the boys, John from Kansas, and Alan from Wisconsin, were really strikingly handsome. They both had dark skin, dark brown hair, and great faces, and they turned out to both be pretty shy.

The girls, both from Kansas, were very pretty, and very black. We learned that their mother was an American Indian, and that their first father was a real mix of things: white, black, hispanic and American Indian. They were hardly shy; both were very intelligent and outspoken. A blended family from two prior marriages. Once we all got comfortable, we had a nice time.

It was fun talking to kids from different places, and they had all been totally dusted by the famous people they'd met. When we found a place to sit together, our local friends joined us, one by one, and it turned into a happy little sub-party. Paulina told us which bartender would give us booze, and it became a very happy party when tongues started loosening up.

We had fun talking about the different things we did, the things we liked. James and Aaron were very keen on the two girls from Kansas, and ended up sitting next to them. Wherever it came from, I found myself keen on Alan from Wisconsin. It was his looks at first, of course, but he was intelligent, with a dry wit and a great way of telling stories.

Sick, I know, but I sensed that Annie felt the same, and when he left to go to the bathroom, I suggested that we try to pick him up. I got smacked on the arm for my thoughts, and we both started laughing.

The most I'd ever had to drink was part of a beer, now the grass at our feet was littered with empty beer cups. My wooziness told me that I'd had one too many, and Annie said outright, "No more beer for you, mister!"

I was rescued, sort of, by my brother. He was drunker than the rest of us, and he sat beside me, slapping his arm heavily across my shoulder, "So much for bein' queer, huh Mike? Now it's all Annie?"

I know I blushed, but I stood up unsteadily and declared, "I need a wizz. Be right back!"

I stumbled down toward the house, and had to wait in a short line for a turn in the bathroom. By the time I got in, it was all I could do to get it out fast enough, and I pissed like never before. Three beers, all in big-boy cups, were trying to squeeze out through one little hole all at once, and it caused both pleasure and noise at the same time. I was certain they could hear the sploosh in Idaho, but I didn't really care.

When I was finally done, I washed my hands and saw my face in the mirror. I was all shiny, and my hair was mussed, so I washed up.

I used soap, hot water, and a wash cloth, then splashed cold water on my face. That made me feel better enough to comb my hair, and I went back the way I'd come, stopping for a ginger ale on the way.

It was getting dark, and the party was slowly breaking up. The group I'd been with was still there, minus James and Aaron, who left with their parents. Annie thought my soda was another beer, and she moved to take it away, but when I told her to taste it, she drank half and handed it back. I sat between Ray and Annie, and we continued as before, all telling little tales about our lives.

After awhile, Alan from Wisconsin looked at me and asked, "What was that gay remark about before?" He looked at my brother, "What did you mean?"

Ray looked at me with a question, and I looked the same question at Annie. She looked at the others, then back at me. She shrugged, "Your call."

I looked at Alan, "Why'd you ask?"

John from Kansas laughed and said, "Because Alan's as queer as a blue-breasted robin! He jerked his head back to the rest of us, "Um, sorry. I … um …"

Most of us laughed, and I said, "Okay, listen up." I was still pretty drunk, and I didn't care anyhow. "I loved a boy. His name is Jack … was Jack. Is Jack! Jack Murphy. I … Jack was the most perfect person, and I loved him. I still do. Now he's …" I choked up, "now he's gone. Dead." I looked around, "I'll always love Jack. That's not right, not exactly. Now I love Annie, and we'll always love Jack!" I let my neck sag until I was looking at the ground, and mumbled, "Does that make any sense?"

Annie was right on me, hugging me wordlessly, and I felt Raymond's arm around me. I could hear Tony and Paulina sniffling.

Alan was suddenly in my face apologizing. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. It was just a question."

I looked at him, and he pulled me and Annie to our feet, looking at us. "In my house, we usually make up with a hug." He smiled, "How about it?"

Annie and I leaned into a hug with Alan, and we were immediately joined by Raymond. It felt good that way, but eventually everyone joined us. A giant group hug, and it wasn't for anyone or anything special, just a hug. Our yak and giggling picked back up, but nobody let go for awhile, not until Alan's mother came and said they had to go back to the motel.

My brother offered to bring Alan later, but Alan didn't want to leave his mother alone. We learned after they left that his father, her husband, had died recently. I should have put it together, I knew that Joe lost a brother a year ago, it just never connected, and I felt bad. I felt bad when it happened, too. Joe had been devastated when his brother died, and we'd tried to console him, but it was far away then. A ceremony in Wisconsin, a funeral in New York, then the Goldmans were back

I said goodbye to Alan sadly. I didn't know if John's remark had been for real, but if it was, Alan was Dwayne's age. Even if it wasn't true, there had to be somebody for Dwayne, somewhere. It was his job to find him, not mine, but I still wondered while I watched Alan walk away.

When I got back to what was left of our group, Tony was consternated that his parents had left without him. Paulina and Ray both offered him a ride home, but I asked him to stay at my house. There was no reason, just that I wanted him to, and he accepted.

We stayed a litle longer, only leaving after Annie did with her family after Annie and I shared a long kiss in the dark, a long and loving goodnight.

I was walking on air when I got back to where Ray and Tony were waiting, grinning to beat the band.

We started moving, waited while Tony said goodnight to Paulina, then it was off to home.

At our house, our parents and sisters were getting ready for bed. It was pretty cold out, so we put our jackets on and the three of us sat out on the porch. Ray was interested in my feelings for Annie, and I did my best to explain.

The last time he'd seen me, I was thoroughly gay and totally fucked up. I could explain a lot of things, and it was fun doing it. We could all laugh, because we'd all been there. When it came to Annie, there was no easy explanation for Ray. Tony didn't need one, because he already understood.

My brother was being a pain in the ass, trying to understand, and that wasn't the usual for us. When I said I was gay, Raymond was the first to accept it, the first to think it wasn't a big deal. Now he thought I was trying to hide something, trying to undo what I'd told him a few years ago.

"That ain't the case, Ray! What I had with Jack was love, you have to know that! That was queer for sure, and I'm the first to admit it." I cast an 'I'm sorry' glance to Tony, and continued, "I have the same feelings for Annie now." I glared at Ray, angry that he didn't get it, then I lightened up. "Listen, there's names for it, mainly "weird", but I'm not gonna apologize. I'm just Mike … Michael Waters, and what you see is what you get." I both huffed up and stood up, pointing at Ray's chest. I looked pleadingly at him, "It's me, Ray! Your brother! Don't go thinkin' I'm fucked up, because I'm not, at least not anymore." I pointed at him again, "I'm your brother, Ray, and that's the only label I'll take from you." I sucked in air, "Okay?"

Ray stared at me for a moment in astonishment, then his face cracked a smile, and it brightened. He opened his arms, and said, "Come here, brother," and I straddled his legs while we hugged.

I leapt up when the chair started to give way, but it was too late. Ray sank slowly backwards, a helpless and funny look on his face, and he was on his back in a second.

I laughed at his predicament, held my hand out to pull him up, then laughed harder and let go when the chair folded itself around him and followed him up.

Tony got up and helped me extricate Ray from the chair, and I hugged my brother properly. "I know I'm confusin', but at least I'm not a mess anymore."

He hugged back, silently at first, but still holding on tight. He finally sniffed, and murmured, "I know, Mikey. I know." He paused, "I love you, Mike. Don't ever doubt that."

I had no words, so I just squeezed. Ray finally said, "I'm beat. You guys should get to bed, too."

I held on for another second, whispering, "G'night, Ray."

He was right. I was tired, too, and sure that Tony must be. I looked at Tony, "You want the bed? I can sleep on the floor."

Tony looked haggard, too, and what he said surprised me.

"I don't care where, Mike. I wanna sleep with you."

After washing up, we ended up on the living room rug on a sleeping bag, another one pulled over us, in our underwear. We were side by side at first, but trying to get comfortable got us both on our sides, me to Tony's back.

I had my dick up against his butt, and it did its usual thing. I tried to pull back, but Tony kept following me, keeping his butt right against me. I whispered, "Tony, I need some space here."

He giggled, "I got a bone, too. It's okay."


"Please, Mike. Just once?"


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