Plan A: A Kiss at Night

by Driver

Chapter 10

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

After a wonderful weekend with Aaron and his family it was a little trying to go back to work, but I soon got into it. I had another week without Aaron to face, and I wasn't looking forward to the long weekend at all. Both Billy and Huck were going away to separate family things, so I'd have three days to basically fend for myself. I wasn't all that worried about it. I could spend some time in the book store, maybe find a pick-up game at the park. I knew some other guys now, I just wasn't really friends with any of them. Still, they were around, and they knew me to talk to.

Nan and Ron were having a picnic at the house on Labor Day Monday, and I was invited to that. I wasn't really excited about it, but at least there'd be good food.

I wasn't going to worry about it. I'd spent the month of June basically alone, and that had been hard. Now I had good things to think about instead of no things to think about, and I couldn't let myself get down about anything that hadn't come to pass yet, because that would just lessen the overall good feelings I had.

So I just went with the flow. I had fun working, and nights I spent with Billy, Huck and sometimes Dean. The humidity of midsummer was gone, but it was still warm, even at night. We'd either just hang around or go to the park and shoot hoops, then swim to cool off and clean up. Those guys were pretty excited about school starting back up, and I struggled not to think bad things about that.

By not going, I would be depriving myself of something I really loved, and probably be breaking the law at the same time. In my mind I'd made myself sixteen, but that wasn't the truth, so I'd be a truant. The best I could hope for was that I might be able to take some night classes, maybe even get my G.E.D. In addition to the university, there was a community college in town. I had the brochure for the fall session, and there were some interesting sounding courses. They led to nothing, of course, but all you had to do to attend was pay the fee, and that wasn't much. I didn't need transcripts or anything like that: I could go with no personal history, so it was at least an option.

I was really pleased with my job and my performance at the job. Some days were honestly like, "Work! Starring Evan Smiley." Oh, I had things that I struggled with, but not too often. For the most part I loved what I did and had a ball doing it, and at the end of the week I got paid for it.

I did feel like the star of the show on lots of occasions, and I got a lot of recognition for what I did, both from the crews and from Hokay and Harlan. I guess I went with the right attitude, did whatever it took to get something done, and exulted when things went right rather than bitching about all the extra work.

I got to play with all the big toys, fix them when they broke, then test them out to make sure I did it right. I was good with the paperwork and the computer, with knowing where any given thing was at any point in time, and I think I tended to show off a little. I was also good at accepting praise, and I truly liked getting it. It was nice when Harlan piled eloquent praise on me for something, even nicer when some crew member thanked me heartily for getting him out of a jam.

I was fifteen years old, and had been there barely three months. Hokay had started it, but now almost everyone called me, "Number Two." Harlan was number one, but I was the go-to guy when he wasn't around. Nobody had ever given me any authority, but I made some pretty big decisions when it came to the equipment. If something was iffy, I'd often have to decide whether to let it out or fix it, and the relative hazards or costs involved.

If, say, an excavator would only give half performance, then I could see where it was due to go next, etc. If it was threatening to do something that might endanger people, I could impound it on the spot, then decide to either switch things from another project or arrange for a rental.

It all came pretty easily to me, so the challenge arose from how many things I could do in a day, and how many simultaneously. I thought it interesting that I could accurately update the parts database in the computer while talking on the phone to a supplier or someone from the field, and not flubbing either one. And I could do both while watching the little television in the shop, and possibly eating at the same time. I loved it, too; all that productivity, and it came right from me.

I teased Harlan all the time about what a bargain I was, and he teased back, saying I was absolutely right, then hurrying off somewhere.

It was funny, but he'd pay someday.

I was storing it up, mentally, trying to quantify savings that were due to me, or money that was made because something had been fixed fast enough that a replacement didn't need to be acquired. In any week, it was a lot more than I was making, but I was content to just build a case for myself. I figured I'd give it a year, because I was on staff now and I'd work every day, right through the winter.

That was the important thing to me, the steady employment aspect. Unless it snowed a lot, most of the crews would be laid off most of the time from November until March, including the guys I lived with.

That had to be weird. They'd collect whatever the state gave them, which wasn't all that much, then suddenly have to go out and work eighty hours straight for a big storm, get one big check loaded with overtime, then go right back on unemployment.

The snow stories they told kind of fascinated me. I just could not imagine what it could be like to be sitting behind the wheel of a snowplow for so many hours at a time, only breaking for food, coffee, and the bathroom.

Chris and I had stayed up all night once, and I know how weird I felt when dark turned to light that next morning. To do that four days in a row seemed superhuman somehow, but those guys had done it several times, then turned around and done it again.

Well, if it happened that winter I wouldn't get much more sleep than they did. I'd be sitting in the shop following their progress on the radios, getting replacement parts ready when they called in about something broken. It sounded kind of exciting and dramatic in a way; a big storm pounding the area while big trucks tried to beat it back. Hokay said he napped on the first-aid cot during those storms, and I went to Walmart and bought my own cot to keep in the shop. I really doubted my ability to stay up anywhere near that long, and figured that I'd be worth more if I had a comfortable place to at least take a nap. I was a bit reassured when Hokay told me he stocked up on frozen meals before a storm, and I figured I'd do the same thing.

Bad food was better than no food, and some frozen things weren't that bad anyhow. I could convince myself they weren't, anyhow. If I knew a storm was coming, there wasn't a thing that could prevent me from picking up some salad fixings anyhow, or maybe just some celery and carrots.

I'm not a vegetarian, nor am I a health nut, but I'm especially not a junk food junkie. I could eat McDonald's, and happily, just not all that often. I really liked eating a varied meal, like my schooling about the food pyramid had paid off. I could envision, for example, enjoying a frozen chicken dinner from Morton or whoever, just not twice in the same month.

My own eating habits were changing things where I lived, too, for those guys had no imagination at all in the kitchen, much less any cooking skills. They learned to like their hamburgers with big slices of onion and tomato, forget the cheese. Kevin and Eli could taste the difference between butter and margarine, and they could appreciate toast with just honey on it.

We got Total instead of Trix, orange juice instead of chocolate milk, brewed coffee instead of instant. Those guys didn't really care what they ate, so they ate what I liked, and they were probably better off for it.

They drank less drinking at home than at bars, and I think they smoked less, too. The apartment still stunk from cigarette smoke, but they wouldn't light up in front of me indoors anymore. That didn't make a huge difference, but it showed a little courtesy on their part. They still all smoked, and smoked wherever they wanted when I wasn't there.

Because of my hours, I was always the first in the bathroom every morning, and avoided the claustrophobic smoke in there. That didn't mean it hadn't permeated every single surface. I learned to suffer with it, because I at least didn't have to follow everyone else making real stink in there.

I don't know what it was with me and smoke, but I was militantly against smoking. Both my parents had smoked at some earlier point in their lives, but neither had since I'd been born. We still had ashtrays in the house, and if a smoker came over smoking was okay, if not exactly welcomed. My brothers weren't as vehement as me, and there wasn't anything I could do anyhow, so I usually stalked out of the house into the polluted air outside.

I don't know how it all works, but some things bothered me and some things didn't. Smoke, exhaust fumes, and certain other things set me off. The smells in the shop sometimes got to me, but not many of them. I could deal with gas, glue, paint, all kinds of things, but smoke and engine fumes really did me in. Hokay didn't smoke, so we put big no-smoking signs all over the place. It took some time, but by the end of summer people remembered not to come in the shop with lit cigarettes, so that morning nuisance was a thing of the past.

That Friday was the last evening I'd get to spend with friends, so I took Billy and Huck out for pizza at a place that was pretty good. I asked Dean to join us, but he had already made plans, which was a good thing. Dean had rejoined the world with something of a vengeance, and nobody really understood why, but nobody was questioning it either.

Billy tried to give me the credit, but I hadn't done anything. It was Billy himself, then Aaron who pushed Dean off center, and I think he just ended up liking where he landed. I hadn't seen his sneer in a month. What I did see was a guy rediscovering that he knew how to enjoy life, and basically going for it.

That could describe me, too. I had a past that I wouldn't forget, but my present was of my own making, and I was enjoying it. I'd never forget my family, but it would be a few more years before I dared to contact them. My animosity toward my younger brother had dissipated, and I could get wistful feelings even about him.

The void was filled now, that was the big thing. I had people who weren't my parents, but who at least half-assed looked after me, at least to the extent that they made sure I was looking after myself. I had an easy relationship with the men I lived with, with Nan and Ron downstairs, with loads of people at work.

I had good friends in Huck and Dean, a very special friend in Billy, and of course there was Aaron, the real font of my happiness.

Of all the new things and new people, love was the newest and best thing, and the boy I loved was the most special person of all. I think the simple idea that I could go and have fun with him not there was a great testament to the trust and faith I'd developed for Aaron in such a short time. He wasn't there with me, but he wasn't loving me any less because of it, nor was I loving him less.

It's hard to explain, but my feelings for Aaron were so palpable, so intense and unfettered by what went on around me in his absence, that he never felt far away. I missed him, yes, but I could conjure him up so powerfully that the pangs came and went in only a moment, then I'd feel him again. I did it at night when I ate my kiss, but I could really do it anytime, candy or not. The little candies were more symbolic than anything, but they were a source of reinforcement, reminding me that Aaron was doing exactly what I was doing for that little bit of time, and doing it with me as if we were together.

Because of the direction we were going, Huck stopped at my house, then we walked to Billy's, then took the bus to downtown and the pizza restaurant, which was right on Main Street and extremely busy that night.

"Looks like I guessed wrong," Huck said. He had kind of promised that because of the holiday weekend we'd get right in, but it looked like a lot of people thought the same thing, and the line extended out onto the sidewalk.

Billy groaned, "Man, we should have brought lawn chairs." He looked to me and Huck, "You want to wait, or try something else?"

I shrugged, "I don't care. I'll wait, but if you don't want to ..."

Huck said, "Let's wait. How bad can it be?"

"An hour, probably," said the last lady in line. She did this little dance, a smile on her face, "It's worth it, though. Go somewhere else, you get blah!"

"Blah," Billy said, a smile on his face. "I can wait, it's up to you guys."

"Blah," said Huck.

I said, "No blah. Let's wait."

Decided like we were, we proceeded to wait nearly two hours, but we had a pretty good time talking among ourselves, listening to the cracks from the other people in line.

It was a colossal waste of a nice evening in some ways, but the ever more powerful aroma of pizza as we neared the door made a mind-change impossible, and by the time we got a table we were ravenous and way over-ordered.

It was torture in a pizza only place like that. You couldn't get a salad, not even a bag of potato chips, and the three of us were about ready to descend on another table when our pies finally came. Then we had to suffer the indignity of pulling the slices apart and waiting while they cooled enough to actually eat.

I spoke again when I thought I was going to explode, and I still had two slices left to go. "I'm stuffed," I burped out.

"It's good, though," Billy said. "We could have probably done one giant one instead of three mediums." He had three pieces to go.

Huck smiled as he picked up his last slice, "It's a matter of pacing, you can do it."

I looked at what I had left, then laughed. Huck had at least twenty pounds on me, and he was finishing up. I had a few slices left, and probably weighed that same twenty pounds more than Billy. "It's all relative, I think," I said as I dropped the crust I had in my hand, "I'm all done."

Huck finished his whole pizza, and between Billy and me there were five slices left. The waitress boxed them up, and when I settled the bill I carried the box out with me, past the line of envious looking people still waiting on the sidewalk.

"I should sell this," I muttered to the guys.

"What do you want for it?" asked a guy near the end of the line, and I laughed.

"Fifty bucks and it's yours!"

"Wise ass," the guy muttered.

I held it out to him, "You really want it? Take it if you do. I don't want to carry it on the bus."

The guy looked excited and reached, but the woman with him batted his hands away, saying "Don't be an idiot."

It was too bad, because we got to the bus stop just as our bus was pulling away, so we sat on the bench. It was a nice night, warm and clear, and we were really stuffed, so we just watched the world go by for a few minutes, then Billy said, "Shit! That was the last bus, guys. It's after eleven."

Huck and I both looked at our watches, and Billy was right. "Now what?" I asked.

Billy shrugged, "Walk, I guess, unless you can come up with cab fare. My Dad'll be in bed by now."

I'd made the walk a few times, and it was about forty-five minutes. "How much would a cab be?" I asked.

Huck said, "I'll call my father," and got up to find a pay phone. When he came back he looked smug, "He'll be right here."

I was relieved. I wouldn't have minded walking, but a pizza box wouldn't have been much fun to carry that far.

We waited, then we waited some more, then Huck called home again and his mother said his dad had left right away, so he told her exactly where we were in case his father heard it wrong.

Finally, just after midnight his father showed up. He'd been stuck in traffic at an accident all that time, and when he said that I could see how upset it made Billy. It was like somebody hit him, and he kind of shelled up against the car door opposite me, almost hugging himself.

I felt bad, and I got out at his house, thanking Huck's dad for picking us up like that, and wishing them a great weekend. I still had a pizza box, and Billy had headed for his front porch, so I set it down when I got there and stood right in front of him.

"Are you okay, Billy?"

He just shrugged, "Yeah, I'm okay. I get weird sometimes when I hear about accidents at night."

I smiled, "Want a hug?"

He got giant tears in his eyes and nodded, shuddering, then his head was on my shoulder, and I was patting his own. I didn't say anything because I didn't know what to say, even though I knew where his grief was coming from. I held on until he quieted down, then whispered, "Don't take this wrong, Billy, but I love you. Not like Aaron, but like you."

"Really?" he sniffed.

"Really, Billy. Picture this. Well, on second thought I won't get all dramatic, but just when I needed you, there you were."

Billy wiped his eye and chuckled, "I get it, you're leaving the drama to me? I thought 'drama queen' applied to the gay boys."

I giggled, sensing the same Billy in there. "I'm just saying it, Billy. I was here for a month. I was doing okay, I guess, but I felt like a big zero, then you came kicking sand in my mouth, and I've felt more alive every second since then." I looked into those round eyes, "I used to have a friend kind of like you, and I loved him, too." I hung my head a little, not in shame, but because I was opening up to Billy and I didn't know where it would lead.

Billy said gently, "You're a friend too, Evan. I'm not a mushy person, but you're really a friend of the first order, and I guess I love you, too." He smiled, "No, I don't guess it. I love you as a friend, Evan, and I mean that."

I understood, Billy understood, there was no point in continuing until one of us said the wrong thing. What Billy did say was, "You should go home, Evan ... back to your family. You didn't transform when you left, so there must be a lot of love you left behind, and a lot of people missing you too much."

It was my turn for tears, and I cried, "I can't, Billy, I just can't."

"You told me why, Evan. I don't know, I just don't believe you, I guess. I don't mean I think you're lying, I mean you're not the kind of person people would hate for anything. I think you stuck this colossal fear in your head and never tested it out. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but I just can't picture the people who raised you to be what you are, rejecting you because of ... what you are!"

I swallowed and said, kind of acidly, "I can picture it, Bill, and it's not a pretty picture. My parents are good people, good providers, all that, but they can't deal with a son who likes dick, and that would be me. I'm not trying to punish anyone here, just the opposite really. When my brother learned about me I left, simple as that. He couldn't deal with it, and he's a product of the same environment. I just left, Billy. I'm not proud of it, not ashamed of it, not anything about it."

Billy looked at me, "You miss them."

I got huffy, "Of course I miss them! Aren't you listening to me? I left for me and them!" I waved my arm, "Listen, Billy. I don't deny for a second that I come from a good family, that my parents loved me as a scholar and an athlete, but they would not ever be able to love me as a gay person, and that's what I am."

It was Billy's turn to give comfort, and we'd been standing the whole time. He hiked his butt up on the porch rail, and indicated that I should do the same. He didn't look at me. "Evan, now you're giving me shit. You are gay, but that's not what you are! This is your own argument, isn't it? Why is gay what you are with your own family if it isn't what you are with anyone else? Explain that to me, Evan. No, don't! Let me tell you! Your fear is about being a disappointment, not anything else, that's what it is!"

"What?" I asked, getting more annoyed.

Billy put his hands up, "I don't know what to call it, Evan ... projection, I guess. You're letting the whole world see what you're like, but when it comes to your family you're trying to be what you think they want. And you're projecting what you think they see in you." He looked at me, and nudged me so I'd know that he was looking, and our eyes engaged.

"That's fucked up, Evan, like totally fucked up!" He smiled thinly, "You know that. I know you know it; you just don't see it in yourself."

I took my time to think. Billy was telling me that I was being a jerk, basically, but trying to make me look at how and why. He was part right, of course, and I did sometimes talk out of both sides of my mouth.

Still, I thought there was validity on my side. If other people, people outside my family, people who hadn't gone through the trouble of conceiving me, birthing me, raising me for fifteen years ... if they knew I was gay, then so what? Billy was exactly right about the other thing, too, and it was just the other side of the coin.

My parents went through all of that for me and my brothers, and my being gay would surely disappoint them, if not devastate them. I was the athlete with three nerdy brothers, after all, and thus the most likely to lead a normal life. I had competencies that my brothers knew nothing about, that my father knew nothing about, yet I turned out to be the queer.

I suppose that if I was really a screwed up person I would have dwelt on the unfairness of it all, the unlikeliness of it all, but I didn't. Instead, when I got caught out, I left, and that's why I was on Billy's porch to begin with.

I said, "I can't fix it, Billy. You're right, I'm right, everybody's right, but we all think different things. I don't hate anybody, I just can't go back there again."

We were quiet for a long time, then Billy almost whispered, "They must miss you, Evan. I mean, it hurts me to see you stay away so long, even though I don't know anything about it." He put a hand on my shoulder and lowered his voice, "Look at it this way. If you just disappeared from here, I'd go looking for you. Forget me, Aaron would go looking to the ends of the earth!"

I didn't say anything, but I was feeling bad. Then Billy said, "I should go in, we're leaving early. You'll be okay?"

I nodded, "I'll be fine, Billy. You have a great time, okay?"

He stood, so I slid of the railing and stood looking at him. It wasn't a smile moment, really, but not an uncomfortable one either. I gave him a quick hug and said, "See you when you get back, okay?"

Billy grinned, "Okay, we should be back on Monday, probably in time for supper."

We looked at each other, both smiling, and I don't know of anyone I could have felt better about having as a friend. Billy hugged this time, quickly, and said, "Get on home. I'll be see you when I get back."

I smiled, "You're right, it's late. You have a great weekend, okay?"

Billy nodded, "Bye, Evan."

I turned to go, and Billy called, "Evan?"

I turned back, and he said, "Don't forget your pizza. And thanks for buying."

I picked up the box and kind of plodded home, pausing wistfully at Aaron's house, but not feeling bad at all. I had more time without him behind me than ahead of me, and that was kind of encouraging.

I had things I could enjoy by myself, and I knew I'd make it through the weekend, maybe even happily, but at least unscathed by loneliness or regret. I was, after all, myself: Evan Smiley. I laid no claim to genius or special prowess, just to pragmatics, and I wasn't hedging my bets. I was a decent person, not a criminal, and that was by virtue of my upbringing and my nature. I was, for the most part, a happy person, and that was strictly my nature.

I guess it's your positive qualities that pull you through things. A three-day weekend doesn't beg a lot of pulling to begin with, but I'd cope, and probably happily. Still, walking home I realized that I was a mostly-happy person, as opposed to whatever else I might have been. I could miss Aaron and be happy, miss my family and be happy, the two things didn't seem that connected to begin with.

By the time I got home, I was feeling proud of myself, and of my new life. I was still Evan, it's not like there was an old me and a new me, but I did have a new life, and I liked it a whole lot.

Most of the guys were out in back drinking when I got home, and I rarely joined in that, and I was tired anyhow, ready for bed. As usual, Eli was watching television, and right then Shane was sitting in the kitchen when I came in.

"Hi, Shane," I said. You need anything?

"Hm hm hm, little Dude. I'm okay, how about you?"

I walked around him to see if he was really alright, because he'd normally be with the drinkers. He was clearly sober, and he looked at me, his eyes the clearest I'd ever seen them. I asked, "What's going on?"

He smiled a small little smirk, "Molly's coming tomorrow, she's spending a few days here."

"Molly?" I asked.

He nodded and smiled again, "Yeah, my little girl." His forehead furrowed, "My ex doesn't let us spend much time together, but now she's in a spot. I'll be a babysitter, but I don't care. She's still my daughter."

I smiled. I knew Shane had a kid, but I'd never even seen a picture of her. "You're staying sober, then?"

Shane grinned, "Yeah, I guess. You don't see that very often, do you?"

That was the truth. When he first got home after the accident he didn't drink for awhile, but because he was already pretty high on pain killers. When he stopped those, he went back to the beer. Shane didn't drink the volumes that Kevin and Arnie did, but he still got pretty drunk every day. I was kind of glad to see that he had the self-control to abstain while his little girl was visiting.

It was late, so I said, "I'm going to bed. Do you need anything?"

Shane smiled, "Little Dude, you can stop asking that. When's the last time I needed anything?"

I nodded and turned towards my porch. Even when he was in the wheelchair full time, Shane tried to do things on his own. He couldn't clean his own wound because of where it was, and he needed help with other things until he figured out how to do them on his own, but after a few weeks he was pretty self-sufficient.

Now he used crutches most of the time, only using the wheelchair when he got tired, and he was pretty good at doing whatever he had to do. He wasn't in pain anymore, but it would be some time before that foot could take a full load. His biggest battle was with boredom, and that was one he had to fight on his own most of the time.

I went to bed, taking time to let a little kiss melt in my mouth while I thought of Aaron doing the same thing. It really was a neat thing for him to think up, and I went to sleep happy.

When I woke up to the alarm the next day, I thought about it, then rolled over and went back to sleep. I'd never been a sleep-late type person, but I had absolutely nothing else to do, so I tried it, and I liked it.

It was after eight when I finally got up, and I was not the first out of bed for once. Shane was back at the table in the kitchen, and seemed a little edgy. He had a coffee, so I poured one for myself and asked him what was going on.

"I haven't seen Molly since last Christmas, Evan," he said quietly. "I keep telling myself it's not my fault, but it is. Her mom can be a royal bitch, but I pay my support on time, I have the right, I just never push it." He looked up at me, "You know, it sucks when you don't even like yourself anymore. I need to change, Evan. I'm that little girl's father, and she should have me, whether her mother likes it or not."

I stared, "Why wouldn't she want that?" I asked.

Shane looked down, "Long story. We were kids, fucked around and she got pregnant. I would have done the right thing ... married her and everything, but her father wouldn't have it. He never liked me, and we went out behind his back, and when she came home knocked up he tried to put me in jail." He looked back up, a grim smile on his face, "We were never in love, Evan, not in any real way, but we were hot for each other, and now there's Molly." He slammed the table, "Damn! I can love that kid ... I do love her ... yet ... I feel so ... left out of everything. Not left out ... left behind, like I have nothing to do with it, nothing to offer."

I thought about that, and decided it really sucked, but it wasn't something I could help much with. "You have rights, though, don't you?" I asked. "If you want to spend time with your own kid, you must be able to."

Shane nodded, and hissed, "I do have my rights." His look brightened, "I'm a dumb dog, you know that? I never thought this out before, never talked it out, never did anything. This is my daughter we're talking about, my little girl. She's my chance to do something right in this world, and I'm gonna do that!"

The doorbell rang, and Shane grinned, "That's her! I'll get it!"

He scooted out of the room in his wheelchair, and I heard the lift going down. I took a gulp of coffee and went to the bathroom.

After my morning duties, I came out to an empty kitchen, so I had another coffee and a bowl of cereal with a slightly brown banana.

I wasn't sure what, if anything, was going on. I got dressed in shorts and a tee, then went down the back stairs to outside, and the whole neighborhood seemed quiet. I went to Nan's door thinking I'd have another coffee with her, but they were out, too.

Being alone wasn't exactly uncharted territory for me, and I had things I could do. I decided to go to the nearest coffee shop, which happened to have outside tables, and just watch the world go by, kind of vegetate for awhile. It wasn't far, less than a mile, and I liked the place and the people who ran it.

I got jumped by a car horn when Huck's family drove by me at the bottom of the hill, all waving and smiling, but trying to beat the light. I liked them. I knew black kids from school, but Huck's was the first black kid's house I'd been to, the first family I'd spent time with. I was a little nervous the first time I got invited in, not knowing what might be different, but the answer was that nothing was different.

A black family was exactly like a white family, at least from what I could see. Their house was nice enough, but Huck's room might easily have had an EPA sticker on the door, warning of possibly toxic contents. My room at home had one, Aaron's merited one. Billy was no better. It was just typical, when you turn twenty-one somebody would clean it all up. Simple.

Huck's parents got on his case for exactly the same reasons mine did and Aaron's did. "Finish what you start! Do it now! Don't say that! Okay, buster, you're grounded!" and when you're going out, "Have fun! Be careful!"

Their car disappeared, and I went on to the coffee shop. I bought the paper and sat outside at my favorite table. I put raspberry jam on my bagel for something different, then lazed away an hour, so content I almost fell asleep, jerking back to reality at the last moment.

That warranted another coffee, and I drank it down fairly quickly, then walked back to the house. I could say I was bored, but not all that bored. People knew me now, mostly from just seeing me around, so I got waves and hellos from folks working on their yards, others tooted horns at me as they drove by, and I waved.

I felt like a member of the neighborhood, if that's any way to put it. I had no real friends there, but there were people I talked to, people I waved to. I couldn't put names to more than a few faces, but I knew who went with which house by then, and it was nice.

I walked right by our house, because I'd started remembering the last weekend at the lake, and I didn't want my thoughts to be interrupted. I headed in the general direction of the park, not especially headed there.

* * * * * * * *

Saturday night had been somewhat a repeat of Friday, with a big lakeside meal, then singing and joke telling, and this time a bonfire next to the water. I so enjoyed sitting on the grass with Aaron leaned into me, the flames leaping in front of us, and conversations that ranged from whispered to boisterous around us.

The fact that Aaron and I were together like we were may have bothered Lilac and some others, but if it did they were silent about it. We weren't making out in public, but we were practically in each other's laps, and we did kiss and touch a lot. I was having the time of my life, and Aaron said he was too, and that's what counted.

We actually got left alone by everyone, even Billy. The only conversation we really got into with anyone else was when Aaron's grandfather walked over with a lawn chair, and plunked it between us and the fire, looking our way. "Hi, boys," he smiled, and Aaron and I kind of pulled apart. He waved his hand down low in front of us, saying softly, "No, no, I'm alright with this." He smiled again, and I noticed that he had really active eyebrows, "I know all the bad words about guys like you, I've heard them for many years now."

I didn't know where he was headed, so I just nodded, then looked at Aaron, who seemed apprehensive himself. His grandfather went on, "I've known lots of people like you, too, although I didn't always know I did." He smiled more brightly and patted Aaron's knee, saying, "Don't be frightened, child, I'm on your side here, just telling stories, as I'm apt to do."

Aaron giggled, "You're apt to, alright."

His grandfather smiled knowingly, "Hear me out here, then. It's not really a story, more like a body of knowledge, and it pertains somewhat to you."

I was curious, and Aaron more-or-less relaxed into me, so his ancestor took over. He looked down, then up, then right at us. "It was 1940 when I was your age. I was old enough to remember the Great Depression, too young to worry about the politics that led to the big war."

I smiled, thinking this was going to be good. I found Aaron's hand and took it in mine.

"I was old enough to be thinking about women too, and anticipating how they'd fit into my life." He smirked, "Aaron, you're far from being the first good looking Castle boy, let me tell you. I could get the girls, and although casual sex wasn't a term you ever heard, there were always certain girls who ... um ... well, you know. During that time in my life, I had a wonderful friend, and his name was Max Brandl."

He looked off into space for a moment, then went on, "Max was a great pitcher, and smart and funny, and he had a smile that could melt paint, not to mention girls' hearts. Now mind you, I had no idea there was such a thing as homosexuality in those days. For all practical purposes, there was no such thing, at least not for a youngster like me." He smirked, "There was no sex of any kind, to tell the truth, at least not in polite company. There was always another boy who knew the score, usually someone with an older brother. Between them and cheap novels, we managed to learn the basics, or at least a version of them."

Aaron smiled, "What about Max? You started talking about Max Brandl."

Grandpa Castle smiled, "That I did, and that's my subject right now, but let me get there my way, or I may not at all."

Aaron grinned, "Okay, sorry."

Grandpa hiked his shoulders, then let them relax, and continued. "Max and me, we had a lot of fun together. They lived near us in town, and they owned a house right down the lake here, so we were always together, ever since we started school." He looked suddenly serious, "That's another thing that's changed since those days. Back then you stayed with your own kind. There was very little leeway for interaction with people of different natures, only slightly different. We were probably in the middle of the pecking order, and we could get away with one class up and one class down, no more than that."

"What's that mean?" I asked.

"It means that our friends were all in similar situations. Similar incomes, similar living conditions, similar everything. When something new came along, we'd get it at around the same time, like television, because it would have to be affordable to our families. The rich people got things first, we got them in the middle, and the poor got them last, if at all." He chuckled, "Don't make a big deal out of this, because it's not one. That was the way things were, and it wasn't a snot-exchange then like it is now. Money separated people then, but not as much as it does now, and that's one of the calamities of this modern day."

Oh, I liked hearing him talk, but that was an arguing point if I ever heard one. "Hold on," I said. "I've read my history, and nowhere have I seen where things were ever much different between the haves and have-nots. You think it's worse now?"

He looked at me sadly and sighed, "It's worse. There used to be a saying, 'a place for everything, and everything in it's place', and that saying applied to both things and people. Our separation, our places, were gradual enough, but they existed almost everywhere but in church. The wealthiest lived in their places, and the poorest in theirs, everyone else in between, and that hasn't changed much. Don't forget, this was not long after the depression, and some of the poorest used to be some of the wealthiest right at that point in time. Nowadays, with lotteries everywhere, sports stars earning more than the President," he really grinned, "no matter how mediocre either of them is ..."

I laughed, "That's good! That's really funny!"

He smiled, "Funny words maybe, Evan, but it's not a funny situation. Any bad actor, any splash-in-the-pan musician, any pop writer ... they can all earn in a year what all the Presidents combined have earned since this country started. I don't know if that's a sad fact or not, but it's surely a fact that you should keep in mind. Entertainment is far more lucrative than leadership, no matter how entertaining any given leader may be." He grinned quickly, "Let me get back, else we'll be up all night."

I laughed along with Aaron, and he seemed as eager as I was to hear the point, if there really was one. If there wasn't, I wouldn't mind, because it was fun listening anyhow.

Mr. Castle suddenly looked sad, and he lowered his voice, "Listen, boys, this isn't a pretty picture I'm going to paint. I stayed friends with Max through high school, then it was spotty after college started, then he moved west and we lost touch. In the meantime, I did well, moved right up the ladder at the insurance company where I worked, and by the time I was thirty I was hiring people to work in our department." He looked at me, "Don't go thinking I was some big shot, because I wasn't."

Aaron said, "Don't let him fool you, Evan. He was the President of an insurance company right up 'til he retired. Believe it or not, my dad never worked for him, even though he got into insurance himself."

Grandpa smiled and patted Aaron's shoulder, then he sat taller and looked sadder, "One day, I interviewed a young man who I thought was perfect for a position, and I was pretty excited that he wanted to work with us. He was bright to the point of brainy, a good talker, amusing, interested in a wide range of things. I kept him in my office while I went to talk to my superiors. That's how much I liked the guy."

It wasn't that warm, but Mr. Castle pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow, or just maybe his eye. "When I showed one owner the resume, he said basically, 'show him to the door, we don't want his kind working here'. I was like, what? And I tried to argue, and that is the first time in my life that I heard the goods on homosexuals. This boss knew the family, and through his own son the rumors about that nice young man, and rumors were enough. It didn't matter that he was smart, educated, charming enough to rise to the top. No, the word was that he was one of 'them', and the word was all that mattered." He hung his head, "I had to tell him sorry, and I'll never forget the dejection on his face, although mine may have matched it."

"That's awful, " Aaron said.

"Yup," his grandfather nodded. "I was getting something that didn't taste very good shoved right down my throat, and a fine young man was getting rejected from a job he would have excelled at it, and it was all because of what somebody, who wasn't party to it in the first place, thought." He looked back up, "The honest truth. There wasn't one thing, not a mannerism or a word, that would have told me that boy was different in any way. He worked to get through school, excelled at tennis and football, had a sterling record no matter how you looked at it. But no, the rumor was out that he was different, and the rumor held sway."

"God," Aaron said, "is he okay?"

His grandfather snorted, "He's dead now, kid, but not from that experience. I carried that with me for a long time, the nonsense of it all, the waste of it, the stupidity of it. That one experience hurt a lot of otherwise good men. The fellow I had to send packing, of course, because he was being rejected from a job he was perfect for, and because of a reason that had nothing to do with his qualifications. It hurt me, too, because I had to deliver the rejection, and nothing was gained from it. It ultimately hurt my employer, because I lost much of my respect for that man, and I went elsewhere the first chance I got."

Aaron stated, matter-of-factly, "He didn't get the job because he was gay."

His grandfather nodded, "That's the reason, but it was really because someone said he was gay."

Aaron cried foul, "He wasn't?"

His grandfather patted his shoulder, "Of course he was, son. What happened was wrong, but it wasn't based on a mistake. And that rejection destroyed the moment, that particular possibility, not the man himself. He went on to make quite a name for himself in the business world, and died with more money in the bank than the bunch of us who sent him packing that day."

Aaron seemed to relax, and I grinned, "Is this a line of crap? Are you trying to make us feel good?" Aaron punched at me, and his grandfather smiled and shook his head no.

"It's a true story, Evan, and I've spent entirely too much time on it, because I actually have something to say here."

I snickered, "Okay, sorry."

Aaron leaned up against me, which his grandfather noticed with a smile. "Can I go on now?"

"Sure," Aaron and I said almost together.

Grandpa Castle looked at us, then continued his story, "I heard from my friend Max after a long time. We were both around fifty six then, and he called me out of the blue, and we talked for a long time just catching up, made plans to meet in person." He smiled, but not a happy smile, "It was something ... I don't know, I was really kind of scared. I didn't know if I was still a person Max would like, I didn't know if he would approve of me, I didn't know anything. Still, there had been that friendship once, so one Friday we met for a late lunch."

I was kind of squirming, I liked hearing this story so much, and I squeezed on Aaron while his grandfather kept talking.

"Anyhow, Max saw me coming and recognized me before I even saw him, then he was right in front of me, and even with gray hair, even with all the changes, those smiling eyes and that grin hadn't changed one iota. Now, we're not hugging men, not like your generation, but let me tell you, that smile was all the hug I needed."

"Then what?" Aaron asked excitedly.

His grandfather leaned to Aaron, patted his leg and chuckled, "Then we had lunch, son"

"Lunch?" Aaron asked, sounding almost dejected

Grandpa Castle smiled, "Then we had lunch, and we laughed about the things that always got us laughing, and we laughed about new things, and ... " his face got serious, "and then we talked." He put his hand on Aaron's leg and left it there, "There was a lot we missed, boys, about each other, and ... well, about each other. I mean, we missed the bulk of our lives, the parts that really counted, but we missed things we should have known from the outset, too, but we were too naive."

Aaron's eyes narrowed, and he said, "You're going to tell me he was gay?"

Grandpa grinned, "Well, he was! I certainly never knew that, never even suspected it, but when a man says such a thing, you tend to believe it."

I said, "Don't stop now. He lived his life as a straight guy?"

Aaron's grandfather nodded, "Exactly, and he's not the first to do that." He smiled at me and Aaron, "That's the whole point of this talk, boys. Max was of my generation, and unless you were extremely wealthy or extremely crazy, if you were born the way you two were, you buried that fact, and lived the life people expected you to. Max did that, and most gay people did that."

I said, "That sucks, you know it? Did your friend have kids? Did he ever get married?"

Mr. Castle was already nodding, "Oh, yes. Max was married for thirty years, and raised four beautiful children. It was only after his wife died that he looked at his life, and a lot of it came up as a lie. Not necessarily an unhappy lie, but he had this unsatisfied want in him all those years."

Aaron said, "That's really weird. He was gay, and he raised a family, got married?"

His grandfather smiled and nodded. "Yes, and he wasn't alone in his generation. That's why I'm telling you all this. You boys are doing things differently, and if you ask me, you're doing them the way God intended boys like you to do them."

He got off his chair and kind of pushed me and Aaron apart so he could sit on the ground between us, draping an arm over both our shoulders. "Don't be afraid, you two. Acceptance comes in dribs and drabs, then it's suddenly there all at once, and because of strong people like you. There has been the Anti-Defamation League, then the NAACP, and the ACLU. It's people who stand up and face the heat who make change, and you boys are up to it. We do what we have to, and that can cost us in a lot of ways, but don't ever get yourselves into the position where you'll have to deny somebody something he or she deserves, not for some trait, anyhow."

All I could think was 'WOW', but Aaron kissed his grandfather's cheek, then winked at me, and smiled out over the water.

Aaron was smart like that, because it was a perfect moment for not saying anything. We'd just heard a lesson that his grandfather had learned, it had been delivered in its entirety, and it warranted reflection, not discussion.

* * * * * * *

I had ended up on a bench in the park, and thought about trying to join some kids shooting hoops. It was a loud bunch, though, older than me, and they were playing pretty rough. None of that really bothered me, but I didn't feel in the mood, so I wandered back home, and now Nan was in the front yard pulling weeds. Shane was there too, with a little girl who could only be his daughter. I snickered because she looked just like him, and she was one cute kid, all blonde and bubbly.

Shane grinned when he saw me. "Evan, come and meet Molly." He picked her up and kind of pointed her at me, "Molly, this is Evan. He lives here with me."

She smiled, and she was missing a front tooth on top, but that just made her more cute. "Hi," she said.

I waved, "Hi, Molly. Having fun?"

"Yes," she said as Shane put her down, and she hugged up against his wheelchair.

I asked, "Is everyone up?"

Shane shrugged, "Yeah, check with Kevin, I think he wants to go to the grocery store today and get it out of the way."

"Okay," I said, and I patted Molly on the shoulder, "I'll be back. You have fun, okay?"

I talked to Nan for a few minutes, then went and looked for Kevin.

Kevin dropped me downtown after grocery shopping, and I hung out in the bookshop for awhile, then walked along the river, going farther south than I ever had on foot, past where the concrete levee ended and it was just riverbank again. There was a road along there, and a car parked here and there, but it wasn't a very nice area. There was a dirt bank down to the water on the river side of the road, and small, old industrial buildings on the other side. A few people had fishing lines in the water, but it was uninteresting enough that I soon turned around.

I was a little bored, but I didn't feel bad about it. It was nice to have things slow down, and without a lot on my mind, it was nice to just wander around like that.

The rest of Saturday and all day Sunday weren't any more exciting. I went with Shane when he took Molly out for an ice cream on Saturday night, then watched some television before going to bed early. On Sunday, I glommed onto the newspaper and read most of it, then tried the crossword. In the afternoon I went up to Billy's house and lounged around the pool by myself, then played cards with Nan and Ron in the evening.

Monday was the day. We'd have a picnic, then Billy and Huck and Aaron would get home, and then I could bitch about not having enough time with them.

The picnic was nice enough. It was us from upstairs, Nan and Ron from downstairs, Ron's son and his wife, who I didn't know existed until then, and they had a little girl. Then Nan's daughter, who I'd only ever heard rumor of, arrived, and she had a son and daughter, twelve and ten respectively, but no more husband. There were a couple of neighborhood people, a few couples who were friends of somebody, and a few more kids.

It was a nice crowd, tee-shirt and shorts type people with no agenda for the day except to eat, drink, and shoot the shit.

That's what we did, and I liked Nan's daughter Amanda from the outset. She was the oldest of her kids, probably thirty five. She was heavy like her mother and Kevin, but very short. What I liked was the fact that she was a natural born talker, and she had a great laugh. She also seemed to be a terrific mother, and with the way Kevin and Arnie studiously avoided their own kids, it was a relief to see.

She was close and loving with her kids, yet still clearly in charge. Everything that transpired between them seemed to happen with great humor on all sides. I watched almost in awe. Where my parents always seemed to be reaching for some non-existent rule book, Amanda appeared to have a ready supply of humorous guidelines for any given situation.

One thing bugged me, and that was that she seemed determined that she knew me from somewhere. I suppose we all look like someone somebody else knows, and I'd heard it on occasion, but Amanda wouldn't let it go easily. I was certain I'd never seen her before, so she could think what she wanted.

She did know how to argue with her brothers, and they seemed to do it often. They didn't do it right where everyone else was, so it wasn't that bad, but I'd see them in different parts of the yard going at it, but I couldn't really hear them. Things would calm down, then start back up. I just chalked it up to a chaotic family.

All in all, it was a nice day. I took the older kids to Billy's house for a swim, which wasn't really authorized, but I did anyhow. Then things broke up at around seven, and I sat out on my porch with the television on, not really watching it.

I was on my mattress awash in contentment. I'd gotten through the weekend on my own, had a nice enough time, and now it was time for my friends to come home.

Billy and Huck. Aaron. I was in love with Aaron, but Billy and Huck were both important friends, and my first friends in that place. Through them I met Aaron, through them my new life took on meaning. I was happy, and I wondered who would come first. We had no phone, so somebody would knock on the front door, or come up the back stairs and into my room.

Eli was watching television as usual, and when I went to use the bathroom Shane and Molly were watching with him. I could tell Eli was annoyed because he couldn't smoke pot with Molly there, but still he sat glued to the tv.

The doorbell invaded my thoughts when it rang, but I didn't think much of it. If it was Billy or Huck, they would have come to the top of the stairs and banged on the door. If it was Aaron, he would have come up the back stairs and called my name before coming in.

I went back to my reverie, and was surprised when there was a knock on my door.

"What?" I asked.

"Evan?" It was Eli's voice. "There's someone here for you."

My heart beat picked up, and I smiled, "Send him in, Eli. Thanks."

The door opened, and before I could turn around I heard a deep voice ask, "Evan Smiley?"

I spun around, and there was a Riverton police officer there, possibly their biggest unit. I just stared, totally perplexed.

"Are you Evan Smiley?" he asked.

I swallowed, not able to comprehend what was happening.

"Are you, son? Do you have any identification?"

I gulped again, and managed, "I didn't do anything wrong."

I started to stand, and he looked at me closely, "Tell me your name."

"Evan. Evan Smiley. What's going on?"

I was scared. My heart was racing, I had trouble breathing, my knees felt weak, and my hands were shaking. I had no clue what was going on, why there was a cop in my room, what he wanted, what he was going to do to me. My mind spun trying to think of something I'd done wrong, and the only thing that registered was lying about my age to get a job. And, Oh God, that had to be it. I'd put Harlan's whole operation in peril by being underage, and he'd somehow found out and reported my fraud.

I thought I was going to throw up, and the cop seemed to speak into his collar, "It's him, sarge. What do I do?"

His collar squawked back at him, and I realized it must be some kind of radio, but in the dim light I couldn't see it. Nor could I understand the squawk, but the officer seemed to. He looked at me and said, "Evan, if you'll accompany me voluntarily I won't arrest you."

"Where?" I squeaked, "For what?"

The big man shook his head slowly, something like a smile on his face. "The police station, Evan. I'm not here to hurt you."

I tried to read something that I couldn't find in his face, and my expression seemed to amuse him. I asked, "What? I didn't do anything!"

His look softened, and I noticed Shane and Eli at the door looking on in shock. The officer said calmly, "If you're Evan Smiley, then you're a runaway, and it's our job to see that you get home."

My mouth and throat had gone so dry that I had to try three times, cough up spit three times, before I could make a sound. "I ... I ... this is my home. This is where I live."

Shane asked from behind the officer, "Want me to call Harlan, Evan?"

Lord, that was my best bet. "Yeah, please!"

The policeman seemed surprised, "Harlan Blaine?"

I said, "I work for him."

That seemed to addle him a bit. Part of Shane's deal with the insurance company was a cell phone, which was for emergencies only, not his personal use. This clearly qualified.

I looked at the cop, "What if I don't want to go with you?"

He sighed, "You have to come with me, Evan. You can walk out with me, or," he reached behind him and came up with a pair of handcuffs, "or we can do it the hard way. Don't fight it, Evan. Running away is only a crime if we charge you with a crime. If you want to talk it over with someone, I can have a youth officer here in just a few minutes. The simple fact is this: you're not going anywhere from here except to the police station, and you can walk out to the car with me voluntarily, or I can cuff you and carry you there if I have to."

I mumbled, "I'm not resisting. I ... I just don't know. I'm all scared and surprised, and I just don't know."

He smiled, "Evan, your family has been looking for you for months. I don't know why you ran, and before we give you back to them you'll have your chance to say anything you want. If your situation was abusive in any way, people will help you deal with it. If you're afraid of your parents or anyone else in your home, all you have to do is say so. Until that gets determined, the law says you're a fifteen year old minor, so the state will look after you until things get sorted out.

I said, disgusted, "Let's just go, then. I'm not afraid, nobody ever abused me." I got angry suddenly, "Does anybody care that I want to be here instead of there?"

I knew the answer to that, and when he shook his head sadly it only got confirmed. He asked, "Do you want to bring any of your things?"

I almost said no, then grabbed a gym bag and put a change of clothes into it, my Discman and a few cd's, and my bag of Hershey's Kisses. I zipped it up, then said, "I gotta pee," and walked past the cop and into the bathroom. I don't know if he followed me or not, but I locked the door and took a leak, checking out my options.

The bathroom only had a window, and a small one at that, and it was two stories down to the concrete driveway. I had no way out, nowhere to go anyhow. I started washing my hands, then washed my face and combed my hair, taking my time. I felt like a zombie, only partly connected to what was happening. I'd felt like that only once before, and that was the day I left home.

Determined to get at least some control over my own fate, I opened the bathroom door, my shaving kit in my hand.

The cop, 'E. Alvarez', his badge said in the good light, was standing there.

I announced in defeat, "I'm ready."

Continued ...

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