Plan A: A Kiss at Night

by Driver

Chapter 2

If you do the right thing, even with the wrong attitude, you've still done the right thing

The end of a school year was always a heralded event, what with the ten weeks of freedom it promised, and this was better than any other.

We were only supposed to have a half-day that Wednesday, and were happily surprised when they let us go at nine-thirty, right after a final assembly, where I got inducted into the National Honor Society.

I was downright giddy when I emptied out my locker of the few things still in it, and I crammed them into my book bag mindlessly while I joked with my best friend, Chris. We had plans, lots of plans, because we both knew this would be our last summer of absolute and complete freedom.

At fifteen, nobody expected us to get jobs, and they would when we were sixteen. Nobody held us responsible for anything but reasonable behavior and household chores. No, we were allowed ever-increasing freedom, and we were good to go, and we'd been anticipating that moment for a long time. The beach beckoned us, overnight hikes beckoned us, long bike rides to anywhere. Fishing, clamming, crabbing, they all called to us. Baseball, hoops, boarding, roller blading, summer movies, live bands at the park ... I was excited!

Chris watched me cram things in the bag, leaning laconically against a locker, his usual dopey smile on his face. "Why don't you just toss that crap? It's not like you'll need it," he said.

I grinned up at him, "You know me. I wrote on these papers, therefore they're important papers, and I'm keeping what's important."

Chris rolled his eyes, "The writings of a madman. Do you really think all your reminder lists will be worth money someday?"

I hooked my bag on my shoulder and stood, pointing at Chris, "When I'm famous, everything with my writing on it will be worth money. You'll see," I said with a grin. " If Abe Lincoln had a good supply of paper ..." I giggled, and dropped a hand on Chris's shoulder, "Let's go. Let's go!"

We headed out into the sunshine, talking excitedly.

Chris and I were best friends. I'd been friends with other people a lot longer, and I tended to keep my friends, but when Chris and I met in Jr. high something happened. We had some classes together, but we really met in a park, where we'd both gone with other friends to play basketball.

Two games of H.O.R.S.E. at the opposite ends of the same court, then a challenge arose from their end to play a real game, and it was issued by Chris, of course.

We played, and we played hard and dirty. There was nobody but us to call fouls, and who cared about fouls? We were all doing it, and with glee. There was lots of body contact, and the one that got me happened when I was stretching for a three-pointer, and Chris crashed right into me, splaying me out on the asphalt on my back. One of my teammates shoved him back, and he landed his butt right on my stomach, completely knocking the wind out of me, and with me already being stunned and my head hurting, I thought I'd die.

I was out of gas for a minute, and he wasn't moving, and I couldn't draw a breath to tell him to. It was all I could do to move at all, and I honestly thought I was going to expire right there, right that second. It was my funny bone that saved me. Envisioning death by basketball, and the ensuing obituary, I started to laugh inside, and it went right through me. I gasped in enough air to laugh, and that expanded my tummy enough that Chris bounced right off of me, and when he landed we were nose to nose. All I had to go by was his face, and he wasn't a whole lot better off than me. Still, in a second I saw him register surprise, fear, humor ... all the things I was feeling. Surprise because it happened so fast and so violently, fear because it was too soon to tell if we'd been hurt, and humor because it was fucking funny.

Too funny! Chris was flat on top of me, matched up inch for inch, and I thought it was hilarious, and we both laughed helplessly for a solid minute. I finally managed to push him off me and sit up, but we continued laughing, and we really never stopped.

After that it was simple. We became best friends because we liked each other better than anyone else. We were both more engaged in life than anyone we knew, and we had fun even with bad times. It was just the way we were, there was no real intent involved.

The world around us, the people around us, there was always funniness involved, and we laughed together. We were a match in most ways, both bright, both athletic, both idiots in our own minds, but our idiocy was what other people called charisma, and we made a fine pair.

That last day of school, though, we made a fatal mistake. We'd stopped at my house first, and were in my bedroom, me shedding school clothes, when Chris said, "Suck me off?"

I didn't even answer, just pushed him back on the bed, and he pulled his pants down.

We were well into it when I heard a loud gasp, then, "Jesus! I'm telling!"

It may have just taken a nanosecond for that to sink in, but it seemed like forever, and my guts froze. My brother's voice!

I pulled off Chris and whipped my head around, only to see Bruce's back disappearing rapidly.

I looked at him in horror, then turned that horror to Chris and saw it in his own face.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Our eyes exchanged that feeling, and we stared at each other just long enough for me to think to run after Bruce.

I found him in the living room and said, "Bruce ..."

He turned a red face to me and screamed, "Don't even talk to me. You're a fag?" He had tears in his eyes, and I reached out to him, but he elbowed me aside, saying, "I'm telling Dad!"

He whirled away from me and headed to the kitchen, me right on his tail. "Bruce ..."

He spun around, tearful anger in his eyes, "Don't talk to me, Evan! I don't believe this."

I said quickly, "I'm sorry you saw that, but don't tell Dad, man. Please don't tell."

I reached for him, but rage flared on his face and he shoved me back against the refrigerator. "Don't touch me! Fuck you! You don't think your own father deserves to know you're a queer?" He burst out crying, "I can't believe it, I just can't."

He stumbled out of the room, and I just stood there, stunned and drained. It was the end. Then I remembered Chris, and ran back upstairs.

He was in my room, still on my bed looking shocked. I said, "You should go, Chris. You don't need this."

He sat up, "What about you?" and there was pleading in his eyes.

I looked away, "I don't know, Chris, I'll think of something," then turned back to him. I wanted to smile, but this was too serious and I couldn't. I looked at the floor and said, "This is serious, Chris. Go home, so I can think my way out of it."

He reached toward my shoulder, "Evie ..." and I pulled away.

I sensed his hesitation about leaving, and croaked, "Go, Chris. Go home."

Oh, God. This was sad, and for both of us, and we weren't used to sad at all. Chris said, "How much money can you get your hands on? We'll go away ... California or Florida, maybe Myrtle Beach!"

I shook my head, "No, Chris. This is all mine, you didn't do anything. Just go home and let me figure it out." I looked at him, water in my eyes, "It'll be okay, Chris. You're not the queer, I am."

Chris looked at me sadly, then pulled me to him. "Tell me what you're thinking, Evie. This is scary."

I almost started to sob, because it was scary, then I made myself stop. "I'm okay, Chris. Just go, so I can do what I have to."

"What's that?" he asked, fear in his eyes, "What will you do? Don't do anything crazy, promise me."

I said, "I'm not crazy, Chris, just in trouble. Big trouble."

Chris heaved his shoulders, "I probably will be, too," he said softly, then he attempted a smile, "but not as bad as you. I hate to say it again, but you should have come out a long, long time ago."

I sighed, looking at Chris. "I couldn't, man. You know my dad." Chris nodded nervously.

I knew my father better than he did, knew his temper, knew what he thought about failure. There was no way he'd accept me being gay, that was as clear to me as the fact that granite was a type of rock. My dad was a type of rock, too, the sedimentary kind, so set in his ways that I could tell you what he'd have for breakfast on any given day.

He wasn't a bad parent, not at all, and his temper tended towards loudness and away from violence, but it was always there, ready to blow at any moment.

I had to think things out, and I urged Chris again to leave me alone. I had a day and a half to work with, and I'd probably need all of it. I knew that much, because there was no way in the world that Bruce could bring himself to tell our mother what he'd seen. Dad was away at a conference and wouldn't be home until the next night, so I at least had the luxury of time.

Chris stood there, and he was still hesitant to leave, to let me face this alone, and I could see it. I stood right in front of him looking into his eyes, until he hugged me, saying, "Be strong, Evie." He patted my shoulder, "You know I love you, man."

It was always that way with us. I was gay and Chris wasn't, and to keep things cool between us I always waited for him to initiate any tender moments, even though he knew when he did that it would give me cause to tease him.

I basked in the hug, but saw no reason to change the status-quo, so I said, "You always say that, Chris, but you never kiss me." I smiled into his eyes.

He smiled back, "Never say never," and kissed me right on the lips, ever so gently and quickly, then he said a few words of encouragement and left.

I stood there fingering my lips, treasuring that brief little kiss.

My thoughts and feelings about Chris were complicated to say the least, maze-like. I loved him, plain and simple, and he loved me, but not in the same way as I loved him. I'm gay and he isn't, if that helps, but Chris was there every step of the way when my gayness started to poke at me back in Jr. High.

When everyone was running around saying, 'that's so gay', calling each other fag as an insult, Chris didn't, and he'd even tell people to shut up sometimes, though it did no good.

My evolution from an asexual little boy into a queer adolescent happened right in front of Chris, and was aided and abetted by him after awhile, and he was so cool with it, like he was with everything. The worst I ever got from him was the nick, 'Evie', and he only used it in private, and lovingly at that. He got his benefits, and I sometimes wondered about him, but not too seriously. He wasn't the best looking kitten in the litter, but he was the nicest, and he liked his blow jobs a lot. He even tried to reciprocate once, and it lasted for exactly a tenth of a second before he said he couldn't do it.

I didn't mind, I got in lots of practice on him. Chris knew how I loved him, the way I loved him, and I knew how he was. There was a longing, a yearning, on my part, and it's about the only thing we didn't share. Chris would grow up to marry a woman someday, make babies, and I wouldn't, but there was the meantime, and it was fine for both of us.

Now it was shattered.

My brother. Me. I don't know why I assumed nobody was home, I just did, and I didn't even close my door, much less lock it. Now he'd seen. Now he knew. Now he hated me, and he was going to tell our father.

I got up and moved over to my desk, turning on the computer and pulling out a pad to write on.

I didn't know what I'd do yet, not even what to think about, but I had to do something.

Chris' words were in my head, still. We could leave, run away, go someplace nice. Then I thought about the mess we'd leave behind, and about my best friend.

He didn't have a lot to worry about. What Bruce had seen didn't really implicate Chris in any way, other than as the happy recipient of a blow job. There was no documentation of prior ones, and besides, he was straight.

My first note was 'Chris is out of this'. That made sense to me.

I was staring at the AOL screen when it occurred to me that I wouldn't find anything online, at least nothing that would help.

I sat back in the chair and closed my eyes, trying to think of something, and it slowly came to me. I could leave, just me, and before Dad even came home. I just had to figure out the how and where-to of it.

I sat up and started scribbling like crazy, things like 'how', 'where', 'How get there', 'money', 'proof of age', 'what to bring', the list went on and on. I played with it for a long time, too, and a plan emerged, and though it was full of detail, it came up short of purpose and destination. Basically, I had the means but nowhere to go, just a big cloud out there.

Then it came to me. I didn't have to go far, didn't have to spend a lot to get there. I could just take the bus to a few towns away. People went to Disney more often than they went to neighboring towns. That's where the computer came in handy. I went to Map Quest and asked for directions from my house to downtown, and kept expanding the view, until I could see a thirty mile radius.

I was looking at all the towns when Riverton caught my eye. I'd been there, and it was nice enough to visit, but the big thing was there wasn't a highway to there, just a state route, which I knew to be a pain for all the stoplights along the way, plus it was a narrow, old road. You had to have a good reason to handle the hassle of the drive between the two towns.

I found the town's website and checked it out, looking for places to stay, job postings, and I wrote everything down.

When my mom came home and called me to dinner, we sat at the table and Bruce acted like nothing had happened. Talk was more stilted than usual, but that was the sum of it. Mom thought we'd be happier than we seemed, given that school was out, and after she said that we both acted happier, and I was hoping that Bruce had gotten over it.

When we went upstairs afterwards, it was clear that he hadn't. I was right ahead of him, and I turned at the top of the landing, blocking his way.

"We should talk, Bruce. We have to talk."

"No we don't," he hissed, trying to get past me.

I still blocked his way, and I implored him with my eyes, but he stood there resolute, disgust the only message I got from his expression, so I finally sighed and lifted my arm to let him pass, then I watched him march down the hallway.

I turned into my room thinking that tomorrow was another day, and maybe he'd feel differently after sleeping on it. I went back to my planning for awhile, then I called Chris.

It's a good thing I did, because he said he'd been climbing the walls waiting to hear something. I explained how it was at home, telling him nothing about my plans, and we actually had some fun plotting an early demise for Bruce.

We talked for a long time, and Chris ended saying, "I love you, Evie, I really do. Please don't do anything stupid."

I said, "I promise, Chris. I love you too, but you know that."

I'd already heard my mother go to bed, and there hadn't been a sound from Bruce, so I tip-toed downstairs and into my father's office. I knew what I needed, and I had an idea where I'd find it, and I was right. There, in his drawer, was a folder that was labeled, 'Evan - Important Papers'.

I only needed two things.

I had to poke out my Social Security card from the card that surrounded it, and I scanned a copy of my birth certificate on his multi-function machine, then I wrote it to a floppy so I could fool around until I got it right.

Then I went back to my room, and I spent a long time making myself older, with a legitimate-looking birth certificate, then it was back downstairs to laminate the reduced version, so it looked just like the reduced version I already had.

I was now, on paper at least, sixteen, a year older.

I finally went to bed around one. The work had distracted me, but when I closed my eyes my situation was right behind my eyelids, staring me down, and I felt the beginnings of despair.

I was afraid, and I was angry with Bruce. His IQ was somewhere off the map, he was outstanding in all subjects, yet he always had problems dealing with things that weren't logical and on paper. I was his brother, for Christ's sake, and what me being gay had to do with anything else I couldn't see. It was a problem in his head, and I knew it was a problem of the sort he'd never figure out without resorting to his favorite 'fuzzy logic', and that could take him the next ninety years.

Bruce had a lot going for him in some ways, but his logical brain seemed to prevent him from making real human connections. He was a good looking kid, the best looking of us all, and I suspected that he knew it, used his looks to make friends that his orderly mind wouldn't allow all by itself.

My two older brothers were only a year apart, but there was a four year gap before I came along. Neither Bruce nor I were ever close to our older brothers, not that we didn't like and admire them, they were just too much older for us to do much with. I'd always been closest with Bruce, but his nature never allowed a warm relationship.

We did things together though, all the time. I was the toucher, I loved hugs and pats on the shoulder, where Bruce recoiled from things like that. He was fun to talk to because he knew so much, and he could be pretty funny, but he was essentially a cold fish.

A cold fish who had my life in his hands, and I knew where he was headed with it. His formatted head wasn't right with it. Maybe he'd figure it out someday, and maybe he wouldn't, but he presented a clear threat to me ... more than a threat. Gay was a human condition, and one Bruce wasn't prepared to deal with, so he'd pass it to my father to take care of, and that seemed like an almost mortal threat to my future.

I was agitated, and I knew I wouldn't sleep. I started to get out of bed, thinking I'd try to talk to Bruce one more time, but when I saw the time I knew I'd just frighten him if I went in his room, and he was easily frightened by 'bumps in the night'.

I was frightened myself by all of it. Yes, I had a plan, but that was just me. I always had a plan, though it had always been just for the fun of planning before. I knew what I'd do if there was a fire in the house, how I'd deal with different kinds of assaults, what to do in a nuclear emergency.

That was all fine, but it was also bogus. I had a real emergency now, my first one, and I was just plain afraid. I'd talk to Bruce again in the morning, try to reason with him, but to do that I'd have to do something that I wasn't good at, which was turning 'soft' thinking into hard logic that he'd understand.

Gay was a soft subject, even to me, even though I'd started on my way to knowing that I was gay at the age of twelve. There was nothing there that would appeal to Bruce, though. No math, no logic, nothing would explain me. I wasn't a fractal, not green ice, not even an ozone hole.

That morning I'd been his brother, and we'd joked at breakfast, both excited about the last day of school. I knew how his mind worked, and now I was a foreign substance, not to be trusted, but Dad would sure figure it out.

Right. Dad ... the man and the mystery. Our father was a provider, and not a bad one, and he was a celebrator, which you could witness in our dining room, where every one of our brotherly triumphs was commemorated with the dent of a champagne cork in the ceiling, all labeled to the occasion by my father.

From births to first teeth, sports trophies to straight a's, it was all on that ceiling, and I have to admit, it was probably the coolest thing about our family, that we celebrated each other like that.

At the same time, Dad was strict, demanding even. We all had our freedom to a point, but if things expected didn't materialize, those freedoms evaporated, either individually or collectively. Dad had no tolerance for dirt, lies, things left undone, or unnecessary noise. Within those guidelines, we were allowed to pursue our own interests, as long as we went for the gold.

Mom had the same basic rules, but she allowed for failure or disinterest. She understood the nature of passing fancies where my father didn't.

Dad was the dominant force in our lives. He didn't deny us much, but what he gave us he expected the maximum use from. For instance, if I had ever happened to mention that I liked, say, the tuba, Mom would have said something like it was an admirable instrument. Dad would get on the net, determine the best type of tuba to learn on, get me one of them, then wait expectantly for me to entertain him with tuba music. Oh, oom pah!

He wasn't awaiting me to be gay, though.

There would be no new dent in the ceiling for this, and I expected that my old dents, the ones that belonged to my little triumphs in life, would be re-plastered, the notations painted out.

I found myself weeping. I thought I had it all figured out, and I didn't. I thought I could be secretly gay, just Chris knowing, until I was out of there, at college anyhow. I'd wanted to be out, but I saw what it cost other kids in school, and even with Chris urging me otherwise, I'd held it to the two of us.

I wasn't desperate to begin with, because of Chris. I loved him, and he let me love him, because he loved me in a monumentally different way.

Still, I was happy with him, and he was happy with me. We'd be friends forever, I knew that much. He'd marry someday, and I wouldn't. Until he did, I considered his dick to be my property, and he was a willing donor, so to that respect we were in tune. We both knew it was weird, but we didn't lose sleep over it.

Now I was losing sleep, and it was because of Bruce, and I got more scared, more angry by the moment. He'd tell my father about me, that was clear, and in the worst terms, and behind my back. Even though I knew Bruce would do that, I couldn't picture the scene, and I didn't want to. Dad would go ballistic, I knew that much, and his anger would scare Bruce, that I also knew.

I did finally fall asleep, and my alarm was still set for school days, so when it went off I slapped the snooze bar and tried to go back to sleep. Then the events of yesterday flooded my mind, and I came to with a start.

I had never once been anything other than excited to face a new day, but this feeling of dread now saturated my mind and my body. I laid there fretting, trying to force some cohesion to my thoughts, and it took a long time. I finally decided to talk to Bruce again, try to reason with him, so I pulled on a pair of board shorts and, after going to the toilet, walked down to his room.

I tried the door, and it was locked, so I tapped on it, then louder, until I heard a muffled, "What?"

"Bruce, let me in. I have to talk to you."

"Go away, Evan."

"Please, Bruce?"

"I said go away."

Fuck. I went back to my room to find something to open his door with, and ended up taking a ball-point pen apart for the cartridge. I went back to Bruce's room and was just aiming it at the little hole in the knob when he pulled the door open. He saw me and tried to close it, but I got my hand on it and pushed my way in.

"Stop it, Bruce," I ordered when he tried to push past me. I grabbed his arm tightly and pulled him over to his bed, and I shoved him down on it, face first. "Don't fight me, Bruce, you know you'll lose."

He stopped struggling and didn't say anything. "I'm your brother, Bruce." I let go of him, "Now, sit up and look at me."

He sat up and faced me, but his eyes wouldn't find mine, so I started talking. "Bruce, if you go telling Dad what you saw yesterday, do you realize that's going to upset this whole house? There's no benefit, man, not for you or anyone else, because you know Dad'll blow a fuse. Tell me what your problem is, let's try to work something out."

Bruce looked at me warily, "I don't have a problem, Evan, you do. Why would you go gay on us?" His face flushed, "You can't push your way in here and make it my problem! All I did was walk down the hall, and I find you with somebody's penis in your mouth."

He pointed a finger at me, "You have the problem, Evan, not me, and I don't want to talk about it."

I got angry, "Don't dismiss me like that! I'm gay, and that's the way it is. It's not a problem, it's a fact, and it's a fact that neither of us can do anything about, it's just the way I am." I backed off a little, "Listen, I'll find information for you, something that will explain homosexuality, something you can read and figure out for yourself. And it is your problem, because you're making it one. I was gay before you saw me with Chris, you're making it like I'm gay because you saw that." I smirked, "There! That should be right up your alley, cause and effect."

Bruce was staring at me, blank-faced. I said, "What you saw yesterday gave you new information about me, that's all. You have lots of other information in that database you call a head, tell me how this affects the rest of it, and I'll tell Dad myself."

The stare continued, so I did, too. I pleaded my case. "Look, Bruce, what you saw me doing to Chris was just a little exercise in sexual pleasure. I liked doing it and he liked ... um ... being done. I know it freaked you out to see it, and I'm sorry that I left the door open, but it is not a big deal!" I looked at that stare of his and gave up. "You're not listening, are you? Fine, Bruce! Ruin my life!"

I stomped out of the room and went downstairs for some food. I didn't want to taste food, but my stomach was empty and I needed strength.

My mother hadn't left yet, and she sipped coffee while I ate, asking what my plans for the day were. I could talk to her, but my mouth was working on its own, and I was all torn up inside, following her every expression, her every movement and gesture, trying to burn her into my memory, for I feared it was the last time I'd ever see her.

At the same time, I was making every effort to seem the loving son, so she'd remember me fondly when I was gone.

When she left for work we hugged and kissed, and it had been a long time since the last hug and kiss. When she walked out to the garage I longed to run after her, to get another hug, another kiss. Instead, I just watched until the door closed, then I sat down heavily and toyed with the rest of my breakfast. I wasn't hungry anymore, and I felt like my mother had just died, my dad before her when he left on his trip.

They were gone to me when I made up my mind. I decided to go, to not have to see the result of what I was. I was angry, disappointed, a whole lot of things, but I was me, and I couldn't change that. I was very thorough cleaning up the kitchen, then I went to my room, leaving the door open in case Bruce decided to talk, but I didn't really hope for it.

I picked up the phone and started calling numbers of places I'd found on the net with employment ads. I struck out again and again; the jobs were already filled, or you had to be eighteen, or you needed experience. Then I called Blaine Group, Inc. /dba Greenleaf Landscaping. I explained to the lady who answered that I was looking for work, and she transferred me to the owner, Harlan Blaine.

He picked up, "This is Harlan."

"Oh, um, hi Mr. Blaine. My name's Evan Smiley, and I'm looking for a job."

"Have you done landscaping before? What equipment do you know?"

I was nervous, and decided to be halfway honest. "This would be my first real job, but I know my way around the yard, and I'm really good with small engines." I started talking faster, just short of blathering, "I'm not afraid of hard work, and I'm pretty smart, and I love the outdoors."

He chuckled, "How old are you, Evan?"

I hesitated, because it was the first time I'd say it, "Sixteen, sir."

" ... hm. I do need help, Evan. I like experience, too, but I like the way you present yourself. Why don't you stop by here so I can get a look at you, and you can see the operation?"

I was happily surprised, and stopped just short of high-fiving myself. "I can come by later on today, if that's okay."

He said, "I'll be here until six, probably later. Do you know where we are?"

I said, "No, but I'll find it. I ... I'll need a place to stay. Do you know of any rooming houses?"

There was a long pause, "Evan, tell me you're not running away from home."

I heard a 'please' in his tone, and my "No" wanted to come out an octave too high, but I managed to tame it. "I don't really have a home," I lied, "I'm just in a bad situation here."

He paused again, "Alright, Evan. I'll talk to you when you get here, and thanks for calling us. Check the bulletin board when you get here, there are ads for rooms, sharing, that kind of thing."

"Thank you," but he'd hung up. I exhaled and sat back, then right back up. No time now, and I picked up the notes I'd made the day before.

I already had a plan. I already had a plan, and faulty as it might be, it was right there, step by step, and I got to work. Plan A, ready for action!

I booted my pc from the floppy, then started the format of the hard drive, which I left it to do by itself. I got my hockey bag, which was the biggest one I had, and dumped it out. In the place of hockey gear I crammed in all the underwear and socks I owned, at least all the clean ones, then I started putting in clothes, separating sensible from faddish for the most part, but including some of my favorites.

I hit all my money stashes and came up with over a hundred sixty dollars, then I found three hundred more in Dad's office, another forty in the (yes) cookie jar. I needed more, and went to Bruce's room, which was open and empty. He didn't have much laying around, but he wasn't the type. I took what there was anyhow, then found my bank book and rode my bike to the nearest branch, concocting a story on the way in case they questioned the withdrawal, which they didn't.

I withdrew most, but not all, of it, leaving a balance of just over a hundred bucks, and when I got back home and added it up I was just shy of two thousand. It seemed a fortune, but not knowing what lay ahead of me, I hoped it would see me by.

When I got back home the house was empty. I still had room in my bag, so I packed some favorite things, thinking to put some warm clothes in there, my FM headphones, a picture of me and Chris when Chris still had his tinsel teeth.

Oh God, I looked at that picture for a long time, wondering if I should ask Chris to go with me, or at least to tell him I was going, and I decided against both. Chris was my best friend, and I severely wanted him with me, but when I thought about it there was no reason to involve him, to screw up his life. My disappearing would reach into his own home, and leaving him ignorant of my plan, my intentions, was surely the best thing to do.

I sighed and slung the heavy bag over my shoulder. I paused before leaving, thought about leaving a note, but that wouldn't serve a purpose. It was best to just disappear and let the disappointment happen behind me.

I tried to balance the bag on my bike, but I couldn't even get out of the driveway. It was too heavy and floppy, so I started walking downtown to the bus station.

When the bus came an hour later, I was the only passenger, and the driver, a woman, remarked that she was surprised to see me, that most passengers went the other way.

That seemed ominous enough. Riverton didn't have a bus station, so I got dropped on a corner where other people got on the bus. I looked around, looking for a pay phone, and what I saw was a lot of traffic, lots of people walking on the sidewalks, in-business stores up and down the street.

It was like some foreign land. My town, my old town, had the traffic, but that was it. There weren't people on the sidewalks, because the stores were either boarded up, or their windows were soaped up. This was a different kind of town, busy ... active. I was taken with the place when a guy touched me on the shoulder and asked, "Lost?"

I spun around, almost losing my balance from the weight of my bag. I found myself looking at a forty-ish guy in a business suit, wearing thin rimmed glasses. I felt safe, and pulled out the address, "I'm looking for 768 Church Street."

The guy looked around, "Church ... oh, yeah, I know where it is." He looked at me, "You're not that close, want a lift?"

I looked at the guy again, and decided to trust him. I smiled, "That'd be great!"

He said, "Come on, then, I'm right up here," which turned out to be another block, where he checked a parking meter with a sigh, then pushed a button to open the doors.

I liked his car, a big Chrysler 300 like my father's. He brought me right to the door of Blaine. "Thanks," I smiled as I got out. "You didn't have to do that."

The guy, still nameless, smiled, "You're welcome, no problem," and he pulled away.

I looked around and whistled to myself. This was a big operation in anyone's book. Just the parking lot covered half an acre, and it was loaded with big equipment; loaders, backhoes, cherry-pickers, Bobcats, and everything looked well cared for.

There was a fair sized building in back, and I figured it was for maintenance, but I was looking for the offices. They were in an old-looking brick building one floor high. I walked in nervously, and found myself in a small, empty reception area. I put my bag in a corner and stood there waiting. Shortly, a girl walked in, good looking and probably in her mid-twenties. She was carrying a cup of coffee, so I guessed that she had stepped out to get it.

She asked, matter-of-factly, "May I help you?"

I said, "I'm Evan Smiley. I'm here to see Harlan Blaine."

She said, "Have a seat, I'll call him for you."

I sat down and heard her talking, then she said, "He's with a customer right now. Would you like a coffee while you wait?"

I said, "No, but I could use the men's room."

She told me how to get there, and I washed up and combed my hair. Not long after I got back, two men entered from where I'd just come. One was a heavy-set older guy, balding and with bushy eyebrows. He seemed to be pleased with something.

The other was a young man, tanned and handsome, dressed in jeans and a sports shirt. He shook hands with the older guy, smiling brightly, "Thank you very much, Mr. Fisher. I'll have a crew on site first thing in the morning."

Fisher smiled, "If you can make that happen, I'll be a very happy man. We have another development coming up in Middle Harbor, two hundred and fifty units. I'll see that you get the bid package as soon as it's ready."

They made a little small talk, then Mr. Fisher left and the other guy walked over to the receptionist and pinched her cheek, grinning, "Got it, babe!"

She smiled, stood up and kissed him, then he turned to me. "Evan?"

I nodded and stood up. We shook hands, and he said, "Come on in, Evan."

I followed him down the same hall, then it opened up into a big area, and a few people were there working on computers. He led me to a small office that was very plain and gray, crowded with files and papers everywhere, and the only decorations were a calendar and some pictures of old tractors. Harlan said, "Don't mind the mess," as he picked a bunch of papers off a chair, "it's always like this. Here, have a seat."

I sat, and he pulled the chair from his desk over close to me. He started talking before he sat all the way down. "Okay, Evan, here's how it is. You're sixteen, so all I can offer you is a laborer's position. We work a six day week, and overtime is required up to eighty hours. We provide company shirts and jackets, and you supply your own safety shoes, which are required. You get paid time-and-a-half over forty hours a week, not over eight hours in a day. There are no fringe benefits for the field force ... no sick days, no paid holidays, no health insurance, none of that. We work unless it's raining too hard to run the equipment, or if it's too dry to bother on the mowing end."

I was nodding all along, and when he paused I said, "Okay."

"You said you know about small engines, does that mean that you know how to fix them?"

I shrugged, "Yeah, pretty much." That was the truth, at least. I loved machines and I loved tools, and I'd figured out the internal combustion engine by the time I was ten.

"Good, if it rains too hard to work in the field, you show up here instead, and we'll put you to work in the repair shop."

I asked hesitantly, "What's the pay for a job like that?"

He smiled, "I can start you at seven-fifty an hour. With regular overtime you should do better than five hundred a week, though once the state and Uncle Sam get through with you, your take home will be a lot less than that. I'll shut up now, you probably have questions."

"Uh, what's a laborer do?"

"The jobs that are done with hand tools ... rakes, shovels ... well, I can let you use the line trimmers and blowers. It's mostly hand work as opposed to operating a machine."

I smiled, "Okay, I get it. Are you saying I have the job?"

He grinned, "Evan, if you want it, you got it. When can you start?"

I grinned back, "You tell me. I'm ready!"

He stood up, as did I, and we shook hands. "Can you be here tomorrow?" he asked.

Suddenly I had doubts. "I ... uh, I have to find a place to live first, and I need safety shoes? What, like steel-toed boots?"

He put some pressure on my shoulder and said, "Sit back down, Evan, give me a second."

He went over to his desk and pressed the button on a microphone. "Base to B9." There was no response, so he said again, "Base to B9,"

Again there was no response, and he looked at his watch, smiled at me and said, "Don't think for a second that they're actually working, something's wrong here." He looked under his desk, then chuckled, "Damn, had the volume off." He reached under to turn it up.

Then I heard, "Boss? You there Harlan?"

"Yeah, sorry, I had the volume off. Is that you, Kevin?"


"Are you still looking for a room mate?"

"No, boss, we got that Israeli guy in with us now."

Harlan's eyes lifted, and he said, "I forgot about him. How's he working out, anyhow?"

"He's okay."

Harlan looked at me, "Do you see what I have to deal with?" then he pressed the microphone again, "Okay, B9. Thanks for the information."

"You got it, boss."

He tapped my shoulder, "Let me show you the bulletin board, I'm sure you'll find something."

I stood and took a step after him, then the radio said, "B9 to base."

Harlan sighed and pushed the button, "Go ahead, Kevin."

"There's still another room, it just ain't finished off yet."

Harlan's face was funny, like he was exasperated. He pushed the button on the mike again, "Kevin, what's your location?"

"We're at the college."

"When's your lunch break?"

"Right now."

Harlan looked at his watch. "Why don't you ... just you ... come into the office? Make sure the other guys know to go back to work when break's over."

"You got it, boss, I'll see you in ten."

Harlan turned to me, shaking his head. He smiled, "I hate to say it, but Kevin's one of my best men. I hope I'm doing the right thing here."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He smiled, "You'll see," then bent down and opened a small refrigerator that was under a table, "Want a soda? I have iced tea and root beer."

I decided to take one, "I'll have an iced tea, thanks."

He handed me one, opening a root beer for himself. "Let's take a walk, I'll show you around."

He showed me around the office area, which wasn't much, but he was talking all the time. "We're the biggest landscaper in the area, Evan. There are thirty-two crews on the road just in maintenance, and we have a construction division, too. The guy you saw me talking to in the lobby just gave me seven hundred lawns to paint, and we do commercial work, too. Right now we're doing the groundwork and excavation for new office parks, a new post office, a school."

He led me outside, still talking, and I was amazed at what this guy had done. He told me that he started out mowing lawns when he was twelve, reinvesting everything he earned into better equipment, getting other kids to help. When he turned sixteen, his first 'car' was a dump truck with a plow, and he started plowing snow in winter. By the time he graduated high school, he was maintaining commercial grounds for a big development company.

He was showing me some of the equipment in the yard when a truck pulled in. It was sharp looking, a Ford F-350 with a plow mount in front, and all white and shiny. A big, dangerous looking guy got out. Big as in big in every direction. He was tall, wide and heavy, and had shoulders that didn't seem possible. He had black hair, cut really short, black stubble all over his face, a broken front tooth, heavy eyebrows, and hooded lids that made his eyes look downright scary. He said, in a voice too small for the body, "What's up, Boss?"

That's how I met Kevin McAffrey.

Kevin followed us back into the office, where I had to fill out a few forms, then they wanted photocopies of my birth certificate and Social Security card. I'd get an employee badge in the morning, simple as that. The receptionist got me ten company shirts, two baseball caps, and two jackets.

Harlan took us to a nearby diner for lunch, then drove us to Kevin's place so I could see the room, which looked as scary to me as Kevin. It was a porch to begin with, not a room in the house, and it had obviously been a dumping ground for many years.

I didn't want it, I didn't, I didn't, and a tour of the rest of the apartment only reinforced that. It was a dump, a worse dump than most dumps. Old to start with, and uncared for in who knows how many years, and it was also cluttered and filthy, and the place reeked. I wanted to get out of there until Kevin mentioned the price: fifty bucks a week, utilities included.

That made me think, because it was way less than I'd pay at a motel or a rooming house, and the math was instantaneous in my head. I could have a place to stay for around ten percent of income. Before we left, I gave Kevin fifty bucks, which is what he wanted, and Harlan gave him the afternoon off with pay to get the porch cleaned out.

Kevin and I worked all afternoon just to get the trash off the porch, making two dump runs in the process. There were a few salvageable things; a straight chair, a cabinet that would serve as a dresser, even an old stand-up radio that didn't work, but I didn't have the heart to just dump it. The dial lit, so maybe I could fix it.

Kevin's mother came up, and I met her, then she set to cleaning up the insides of the jalousie windows, saying I'd need a very long ladder to clean up the outsides, but the glass was opaque anyhow. She lent me her vacuum, and I got up all the dust I could, then Kevin found a mattress that he knew was in the attic, and we laid it on top of some garbage bags on the floor.

On the way back from our second dump run, we stopped at a K-Mart, and I bought what I thought I'd need; sheets, a pillow, some blankets, towels, toothpaste and soap, a can of room deodorizer that I naively thought would kill the musty smell in my new home. I got my safety shoes, too, surprised that they made sneakers with steel toes.

My home. That was a crushing thought. A dump, one that smelled horrible, and things only got worse when Kevin left to get 'the other guys'. I was on the verge of tears that whole afternoon.

Kevin frightened me. He was big and powerful, that much was clear to the naked eye. He had this 'don't cross me' look, and that's what made him really scary.

He left, saying, "I'll be back," and I sprayed the porch with deodorizer, then took a walk down the street to see where I was. It was an old neighborhood, but nice enough. The houses and yards were kept up, and there were lots of shade trees.

Most of the houses were single-family, though there were some two-family ones. No two were alike, which was nice, and some looked pretty interesting. It had probably been a ritzy area at one time.

The street itself was one long hill, level where Kevin's place was, but it went up from there in one direction, and down in the other. At the bottom, it teed into a main drag. I didn't walk too far along there, but there was a dry-cleaner, a Dairy Queen, gas stations, a liquor store, a convenience store. Not bad. I walked back up and saw the company truck in the driveway, so I steeled myself and climbed the stairs.

The minute I opened the door, I smelled pot, and there was a guy in the living room causing that smell, watching television as if it mattered to him. He didn't see me, and I took a good look at him, and I didn't like what I saw. Oh Lord, if Kevin was ominous, this guy was creepy. And filthy. He was scrawny, maybe almost as tall as me. He was unshaven, though he didn't have a beard, his hair was black and short, but it stuck out all over the place, and he was ... ugly.

Still, I had to say something, so I tried, "Um ... hi. I'm Evan."

He looked at me crossly and went, "Shh."

Well, excuse me! Wheel of Furtune was on, not even in the middle of a game. A commercial came on, and when he paid even closer attention to that, I turned to see how my porch smelled, which was awful. I sprayed it again with deodorizer, then went to sit in the kitchen. The chair was okay, but my elbows stuck to the table, it was so disgusting. I got up to find a sponge, and couldn't even find the sink! Then I spotted it, at the back of a dark little alcove, and it was so full of pots, pans and dishes, that I couldn't have wetted a sponge if I even found one.

I couldn't even find paper towels, and thought about walking back to the convenience store to buy some cleaning supplies, but I didn't want to. Instead, I went downstairs and knocked on Nan's door.

A little girl, maybe nine, opened it and stared at me for a moment, then turned her head and called, "Grammy, there's a man here!"

I heard "Who is it?" from another room.

The girl looked back at me, eyes narrowed, and demanded, "Who are you?"

I said, "I'm Evan, I just moved upstairs."

She called back inside, "It's Evan!"

"Ask him in, honey, I'll be right out."

The girl looked at me, blinking, "You can come in now," but she didn't move, and I smiled because she was cute.

She caught the smile, and her eyes danced in their sockets for a second, then she smiled back at me and backed up to let me in. She started talking before I took a step. "I'm Joanne," she said. "You can call me Jojo." Then she pointed a finger at me and said, "Don't call me Joanie Baloney! I hate that!"

I liked her, and I grinned, "Jojo it is, then. I just wanted to see if I could borrow a sponge or something."

"Hi, Honey!" I heard, and turned to see Nan approaching from another room, clad in about an acre of pale blue bathrobe. "Sit down, have a coffee with me!"

Nan had a grin, and she had an attitude I liked. I sat, and she poured two cups. In no time Jojo was on my lap, toying absently with the hairs on my leg. It tickled.

Nan could talk up a blue streak, and I learned a lot. For instance, Joanne was Kevin's daughter from a disastrous marriage, and she lived with Nan because her mother was no better a parent than Kevin was. Arnie had two kids, too, much younger; a boy and a girl.

She wanted to know about me, and I lied as vaguely as I could. She said, "You're going to be lonesome in this neighborhood, it's all old birds like me." She smiled, "It's a good neighborhood, but nobody ever leaves, so the kids are all grown and gone." Then she rolled her eyes, "Except mine, they came back." She looked at me, "I'll tell you, Evan, they're both just like their father, both smart as whips and both stupid to the ways of things."

She stood up, "I tried, mind you," throwing up her hands, "The Lord knows that I tried, but it was bred into them to be no-accounts." She suddenly smiled, "They're good boys, though, where it matters. They don't lie, they don't steal, they don't try to cheat people, they're just BUMS!"

She'd lifted her face to the ceiling for that last word, and I got the feeling she hoped they'd hear it. It made me suppress a smile. I hadn't even met Arnie yet, and wouldn't really meet him for several days, because I wasn't old enough for bars.

By the time I left it was too late for a sponge. I went back up the stairs and onto the porch, and the deodorizer had blended with the mold to create a sickeningly sweet smell, one that was overpowering. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep in there, so I picked up a blanket and pillow and headed to the living room, only to find that guy still there, still smoking pot, and still fixated on the television.

I didn't know what to do, so I went back to Nan's. This time the door was open and she waved me inside. I announced, "It stinks on that porch."

She looked at me blankly and said, "Why am I not surprised? Everything stinks up there."

I said, "I don't know what to do now. There's some guy in the living room, and I'm starting work tomorrow ... I need some sleep."

Nan lit a cigarette and smiled at me, "Well, Evan, there's always the summer house." She stood up, "I'll show it to you, and you can decide."

She walked past me, and I followed her outside. The gazebo was right there, just beyond the steps to the kitchen door. Nan opened the screen door to it and switched on the light. It was all old and gray in there, but there was a long slider that I could sleep on, and she moved things off the seat, then said, "Wait a minute," and went back in the house. She came back with a bottle of spray cleaner and a roll of paper towels and proceeded to give the seat a thorough cleaning. The seat was plastic-covered cushions, and she asked if I had a sheet, then sent me to get it.

When I got back, she was sweeping the floor, and she moved to the other side so I could make my bed. The space wasn't bad at all, and I was really grateful for it. Nan suggested that I wash the whole porch with bleach and water to get rid of the mustiness, saying that even then it would take awhile before it was liveable, but in the meantime I was welcome to the summer house.

"What time do you have to get up?" she asked.

I stared at her, because I didn't know.

"What time do you want to get up, then?" Then she smiled, "Oh, I see. You have to be to work at eight, and they'll leave at ten-til. If you want any chance at the bathroom at all, you'll have to be up before seven, so why don't I have Ron wake you up when he leaves for work?"


She nodded, "He lives with me. I'll tell him to wake you up before he leaves."

"Oh, okay," I said. "Thanks."

She smiled and brushed my cheek, "You're welcome, honey," then her look became more serious. "I don't know your story, Evan, but when you're ready to tell it I'll be right here. Until then, don't worry. We'll look after you."

I swear, I almost cried right then, but I didn't, instead croaking out my thanks and saying goodnight.

I went back upstairs one more time to change into some sweats and go to the toilet, and that guy was still glued to the television, and the pot smoke was so heavy in the air that I felt dizzy on my way back down.

It was a nice enough night, and I took my time, then went in the summer house and pulled the screen door closed behind me.

I climbed into my makeshift bed and switched off the light, aware of the sounds of nature around me, and the more distant sounds of traffic, the occasional whoosh of tires as a car went past the house.

It seemed nice at first, nice enough, anyhow, then I choked out a big sob, because I thought of my mother.

What must she think? She'd be worried at first, then I could see panic set in. I cried at my own heartlessness. I should have told her, at the very least left a note so she'd know I wasn't kidnaped or something. I cried more thinking about Chris, about all our plans for the summer, about the adventures we planned to share. I missed him already.

Oh God, I missed him, and I'd treated him just like I did my mother, except he knew the truth and would suspect worse things than she did.

I could picture him checking out our favorite haunts, just like he always did when we had arguments and he wanted to make up. Now he'd be looking for evidence that I still existed, and the thought of it tore me up almost more than I could bear. I'd promised him that I wouldn't hurt myself, and I prayed that he'd remember I never broke a promise I could keep, for then he'd know I'd just gone away.

Other people crossed my mind, too ... the rest of my family, my other friends. My dad would lead the Light Brigade, that was for sure, and he'd try to out-think me. He would until Bruce told him my secret, anyhow, then I didn't know what he'd do. Probably paper over the dining room ceiling, spend my college fund on something he always wanted.

I had friends beyond Chris, too, lots of them, and other close friends. Chris was closest to me, but he didn't satisfy everything, anymore than I did for him. We shared team-sports friends, skating and blading friends, but Chris also had bowling friends, for Christ's sake, and he was equally scornful of my intellectual friends.

I had lots of favorite places, and one of them was a big, privately owned bookshop named Readmore's. Chris would go with me sometimes, but if I did any more than have a coffee, if I started talking to the others there, if I headed for a sofa, he would be gone. Chris was smart, very bright, but he never felt the need to test it like I did. Myself, I loved to engage other people with whatever was the topic of the day, at least if I knew anything about it.

I so loved those talks. They helped guide my reading, clarify my thinking, made me feel good about what I could know. I read things I could learn from, and I read lurid novels. I liked histories of things ... trains, planes, anything mechanical. I liked biographies, too, especially ones about the people who advanced the world rather than trying to conquer it. Inventors, artists, musicians, writers, I loved learning about them all, and I could always find someone in that store to talk with about things, people who knew more than I did.

Now I was a landscaper, and I soaked my pillow thinking and crying about what I might have been.

But no: gay had to get in the way of it all.

* * * * * * * *

"Eric? ... ERIC!"

I stirred, rubbed my eyes, and saw a big, red-bearded man staring at me through thick glasses. He said, "Nancy told me to wake you up. Are you up?"

I looked, and mumbled, "I guess."

He smiled, "Hi, I'm Ron. Sit up or something, I don't want to be late for work."

I swung my feet to the floor, still half asleep, mumbling, "Thanks. And it's Evan."

Ron chuckled, rubbed my shoulder roughly, and said, "Good, I knew that," then he left.

I looked at my watch and groaned. It was ten of six.

No matter, I got up, fixed up the bed, and hurried upstairs to take a shower in the disgusting bathroom, then had to sit on the even more disgusting toilet. I decided right then that when I got home I'd at least clean the bathroom.

There was nothing ... nothing ... for breakfast, so I ran down to the convenience store at the bottom of the hill. There I bought a coffee, two pastries, and a little thing of orange juice. Over six bucks for that!

My world wasn't real anymore. Breakfast cost half that at McDonald's, and even that was no bargain. I didn't have to jog there to get it, either. If breakfast cost six dollars, what the heck were lunch and dinner going to cost?

I ate at the sticky kitchen table, then checked the level of stench on the porch, my porch, and remembered to add a gallon or two of bleach to my shopping list. I wasn't happy that I had a shopping list for domestic products, not happy that I had slept on what amounted to an unattached porch because the attached porch that I was paying for smelled like a sewer.

I wasn't happy at all when Kevin, who I hadn't heard come in, burped and farted simultaneously, causing me to jump enough to knock over my juice. I turned around quickly to see his hairy back disappear into the bathroom. By rote, I looked for something to clean the spilled juice up with, but there was nothing. I could add a sponge and paper towels to that awful list.

Once the day got going, it got better. I had seen Arnie and Shane, although they were in no condition for talking while Kevin drove us to work in the big truck. I went into the office to see Harlan while those guys hooked up their trailer.

I'd had time to eat and wake up, and I was feeling a little gung-ho, all resplendent like I was in the new company t-shirt, shiny jacket, and my steel-toed shoes. The receptionist, who I learned was Harlan's wife, led me to an unadorned conference room where Harlan was standing with five other guys. Those men turned out to be his general foreman, Pedro, and his crew chiefs.

I was nervous immediately, but Harlan introduced me around, "This is our newest hire, Evan Smiley . You guys will all get a crack at him, and you can decide where he fits in best. Keep in mind that he's sixteen, so no motors, but he's a smart sixteen."

He then sent me with Pedro, who seemed to be second in command. Pedro was a short, squat man, probably around forty, and he had dark skin, small eyes, a kind of triangular head that was little on top where it came up from his big jowls. Ugly at first, but he had a mile-wide smile, and he laid a comforting hand on my shoulder.

Pedro said, as we headed out to the yard, "Evan, I'll put you on maintenance today. I'm putting you on Tom's crew because they're the best. You listen, they'll show you. You watch." He grinned at me, "Don't let the guys scare you, either. They're gonna want to fuck around with the new kid, and that's all it is. Let it roll off, no matter what games they play."

Then we were at a truck, and three guys were checking the equipment on the trailer attached to it. They were all big, and they were all black, but they welcomed me with smiles when Pedro introduced me, saying I'd be their cleanup man. The biggest one of them pushed my shoulder and leered at me, "Whoo hee, a white ass! Thank you Pedro, thank you! This be a fine way to start the day!"

Oh, I was scared, ready to run, but when the guy who'd just spoken saw my face he laughed, and everyone of them joined in. He shoved my shoulder more gently, "I'm funnin' you, man!" He put his hand on the guy next to him, and pointed at Pedro, laughing, "I wouldn't fuck you with his dick!"

Well, that made me feel better, and we were soon on the road. Shortly, we pulled into a big complex of apartments. The two guys with Tom were Muhammed and Elvin, and they dropped the tailgate on the trailer and drove off on monster mowing machines, of which there was a third one. Tom led me up onto the trailer deck and showed me my weapons, both gas powered; a line trimmer and a blower. He spent about a half hour showing me how to use the trimmer, then let me off on my own.

I was intimidated, not by the machine, but by the magnitude of what I had to do. All the walks, both sides, the curbs, the islands, all the trees, all the personal items left out by tenants, I had to trim around them all, and it was a huge property, dozens of large buildings.

I was being careful, trying to do it right, trying to come up with some kind of system so I wouldn't forget spots. The work itself wasn't hard, just kind of numbing after awhile, but I kept seeing things in places I'd already been that I'd overlooked, and I got annoyed with myself. The other guys were whizzing around on their big mowers, sometimes near me and sometimes not, but they were never out of earshot.

I wasn't half done when I heard their motors quit, and I felt ready to give up. I'd get fired for sure if I held up a whole crew. I was heartened when I heard first one, then two more little motors fire up, then I saw Tom trimming like me, Muhammed and Elvin blowing clippings off the walks.

I wasn't dead yet.

I watched Tom when he was close to me, and he was going twice as fast as me, so I picked up my pace, still being careful to do it right. I got nervous when he strode over to me and signaled Elvin to come over, but he only wanted Elvin to show me how to work the blower, which was even more mindless than the trimmer, and I watched Elvin take over my trimmer and go even faster than Tom did.

The sun was out full. I was sweating, and I could feel my arms and the back of my neck getting burned. I didn't mind sweating, but all the stuff I was blowing off the ground would stick to me when the breeze was wrong, and it kept getting into my eyes. Add a pair of sunglasses to that shopping list. Big suckers!

I got through the day, though. We stopped at a Subway for lunch after we finished the first place, then did an even bigger complex in the afternoon, finishing around six.

I was tired and I was filthy, but I made it. They dropped me off at the house, and just as I was getting out of the truck, Tom held out a ten dollar bill to me, saying, "You done good, whitey. Get yourself a half-pint or somethin'."

I reached for the bill instinctively, then asked, "What's this for?"

Tom grinned, "Your cut, man. These yo-yos bet me twenty bucks each you wouldn't last the morning." He put the truck in gear, "Be outside here at quarter to eight," then they drove off.

I looked at the ten, then the disappearing truck, then at my green arm, and I smiled. I done good!

I did well every day, considering what I was doing. That first night I paid convenience store prices for bleach and a sponge, and I bleached the porch, and also cleaned up the bathroom. That Sunday, my day off, I tackled the kitchen, and when the guys came back from wherever they'd gone, I talked them into going to the supermarket and pooling money for food and supplies.

I worked hard for Harlan, and we all did. At first I was afraid I'd have to do all the cleaning at home, but the others kept it up, at least wiping up their spills, taking turns with the dishes.

My porch smelled like bleach for a long time, but when that started to fade it didn't smell of anything much, and I eventually started sleeping out there.

Of the guys I lived with, Shane was the most outgoing, and we became friends of a sort. Eli kept to himself, and I didn't really get to know him at all. Kevin and Arnie were brothers, but also buddies, and I kind of envied them that. They were also serious drinkers, and I tried not to worry too much about it, because as drunks they seemed pretty harmless. They got silly rather than belligerent, so I only worried about them driving.

It was a revelation to them when I suggested that they could just drink at home. Beer by the case cost a fraction of what it cost at the bar, so they started having their drinking buddies come over, and they'd start a little fire outside and sit around it drinking.

I'd go out and sit with them sometimes, listening to the jokes and the bullshit. It was better than sitting alone, and I developed a grudging liking for Kevin and Arnie, and the guys they called friends.

There was camaraderie, and they let me in, but I didn't get a lot from it except company. I wasn't 'the kid' anymore, I was just Evan, and they knew they could carry on with me there. I wasn't judgmental, I wasn't offended by their thoughts, I wasn't put off by their lifestyle.

The fact is, I wasn't anything. A discussion would arise on rare occasions, one that made all of us think, push a point of view, but that wasn't the normal thing. Most of the talk turned to the banal; sports, broken cars, women, stupid things that happened. I was included if I wanted to be, but I never felt connected.

Shane liked the movies. There was a second-run theater in town, and I went with him several times, riding there in his little Mazda 4x4 truck. It cost four bucks to get in, and the popcorn was good, and I never had more fun watching movies than I did with Shane. He was totally into them, took them personally, and was always exclaiming things like, "Did you see that? That motherfucker," or, "That little bastard! He'll get it, you just watch!"

God, he melted into love scenes, gouged my arm with his fingernails during scary scenes, jumped out of his seat when something exciting happened, and always watched the credits to the end. It was fun, because if I didn't like the movie I could always watch Shane. He'd talk about the scenes on the way home. Not the movie itself, not the acting or the quality of the production. He was only into the action on screen, and I found that very funny.

We saw some good movies and some bad ones, at least in my estimation, but Shane always had his reactions, and watching a movie beside him became an event in itself.

I spent more time with Nan and Ron than anyone. It was a soap opera downstairs, too, but a funnier one. Ron was an Accountant turned race-car driver, and when his racing career fizzled out he became a gas station owner. If there was a contest for the official laid-back guy of anywhere, it would have ended the second Ron showed up. He was big, funny, friendly, and as detached a person as I've ever met. He had a neat voice too, kind of cutting and raspy, perfectly suited for his sardonic humor. His official reaction to almost anything was, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Nan, on the other hand, was the CNN of Evergreen Street.

Whatever happened in the neighborhood got filtered through her, and as likely as not turned into a story that took much gesturing to pass on. She knew everything, and was thrilled to expand on things to anyone who'd listen. She wasn't bad with her evaluations of people, and that put me in an uncomfortable position.

I really liked her, liked to listen to her, but I dreaded hearing her judgment of me. So, while I liked talking to her, liked hearing her views, I always clammed up when she asked me anything about me. I didn't want to be part of the neighborhood news. I didn't know the neighborhood to start with, but I wasn't what I said I was either, and I was really afraid of tripping myself up.

That was my life. The people I lived with didn't care that I existed, though we got along fine.

The people I liked, the ones downstairs, I was afraid of opening up to, so I didn't. I learned way more about people I didn't know than anyone learned about me.

I was the boy upstairs, the one on the porch. Intelligent, hard working, likeable ... unknowable.

Then Huck Onwauzer and Billy O'Shea showed up in my life

Continued ...

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