A Summer Story (of Recycled Trash)

Four. (Dennis narrates)

We went back to Ronnie's tent. He was sure his mother would stay on the beach with Dickie. I'd ordinarily expect the same thing from Ralph and his folks, but with my parents there for the day there was no way to ensure that they'd stick to their routine.

We didn't jump on each other when we got there; instead we sat cross-legged and looked at each other. We did that for a long time, and I really liked that we could look at each other that way. I enjoyed Ronnie's face, the clarity of his eyes, the expressiveness I found there. Smiles slowly developed in both of us, then Ronnie held out both his hands.

I put mine out, but let him do the work of taking hold of them. He was much better at it than me. I grabbed things, Ronnie took them gently. I so loved the way he did that, but it wasn't really in me even to try. I was almost afraid to touch him, but I loved the way he touched me. We sat for awhile holding hands like that, then Ronnie smiled broadly. I asked, "What?"

He responded quietly, "I was just wondering what you're seeing, what you're looking at."

I grinned, "What're you lookin' at?"

"Not fair, I asked first."

I said, "Okay, I'm lookin' at you. What I'm seein' is a guy I like a lot. I could never just sit like this with anyone else, I'd get bored. You I could look at all day."

Ronnie frowned, "Do you see what I am?"

"I, um, I think I do. I see you, and I know you're a nice kid. You're funny and you're friendly. I think you're smart too, at least you seem smart."

"I mean, can you tell I'm queer just by looking at me? Am I that much of a fairy that it's obvious?" He shifted his eyes away from mine for the first time since we'd sat down, looking at the floor of the tent. "I hate that about myself, I hate bein' like this." He looked back up, "I try and I try to be like other kids, I just can't do it. I mean I walk like a girl, I throw like a girl." His look turned pleading, "Do you know how much this sucks?"

I put a little squeeze into my grip and said, "Ronnie, I wish you'd stop knockin' yourself like that. You're doin' it all the time, and it really bugs me. You're a good kid, Ronnie. You made a lotta friends this week and we'll make more tonight. If anybody thought anythin', they didn't say it because you're fun to be around. I'm queer too, you know, and I didn't ask for it either." Ronnie stared blankly at me, "I don't know how we got picked for this, all I know is we did. So did Eddie and Adam. You know what? Now they know each other and it's a lot better. There's still some assholes in school with big mouths, but you know what else? Most other kids don't give a hoot. At least if they do they don't show it."

Ronnie looked ready to cry, so I pulled him into a hug, "What's wrong?"

His chin was on my shoulder, "I'm not like you, Bax. Nobody would guess that you're gay, not like they can with me."

"Ronnie, if you're talkin' about me I didn't really guess! I saw ya checkin' out Ralph." I squeezed him a little, "You weren't the only one doin' it either," I giggled, "just the best lookin' one."

He groaned, "Oh God! What were the other guys, ugly or something?"

I said, "No, mostly older."

I could feel his silent giggle, "Dirty old men?"

I had to chuckle myself, "Yeah, I guess. More like wishful thinkers."

Ronnie pulled back and looked at me. "Is that what I'm gonna be? A dirty old man? A wishful thinker?"

I stared at him for exactly one second, then pulled him to me so we were nose to nose. I grinned, "Not with me around, Ronnie. Not a chance!"

* * * * * * * *

When we got back to where everybody had been, only my father was there. I said, "Hi Dad, where is everybody?"

He looked up and smiled, "Here and there I guess. I just got out of the water. Your mom took a walk with Ralph's parents." He looked at Ronnie and pointed toward the water. "Your mother and brother are building a sand castle. You should check it out. Half the beach is watching."

I asked, "Where's Ralph?"

"I don't know, haven't seen him."

"Did you, um, meet Darlene?"

"No, should I have?"

"The girl that was with Ralph."

Dad shrugged, "The last time I saw Ralph was here with you. I figured you were all together."

As Ron and I sat down I said, "We haven't seen him either. Um, this girl from school ... oh, you know her ... Darlene Rivicki. She's campin' here this week too; they just got here." I smiled, "She likes Ralph, and I know Ralph likes her. He's just so shy with girls. Joanie's always tryin' to fix him up, and he always chokes."

My dad looked at me, "Ralph doesn't strike me as shy. He seems pretty outgoing."

I said, "He is with guys. I don't know, Dad, he gets all speechless around girls."

My father grinned, "I knew a guy like that once. He'll get over it."

"Really? Who was it?"

My father smiled, "It was me. I was mister bashful with girls for the longest time. I don't know exactly where or when I got over it, but I did. Ralph will too, don't you worry." He looked at Ronnie, "I'm sorry, Ron. I didn't mean to exclude you."

Ronnie smiled, "It's okay. I like listening."

My father was something else in his own way. Ronnie didn't know him, so he didn't pick up on it, but I was certain that Dad had us figured out. I could tell that he was assessing Ronnie for a few moments. I really hoped he approved of him, but I wouldn't have cared if he didn't. I needn't have worried either. He flashed a big smile at both of us. "So, what's up with you two? Did you have a great week?"

Ronnie and I both started babbling at once. Neither of us shut up for several minutes, and I wondered how Ronnie sensed that my father was able to hear and understand both of us at the same time. Hear and understand he did, though. When we ran out of steam he smiled and said, "Wow, sounds like fun. I wish I could have been here." He turned his attention to me, "I'm sorry I couldn't get off to go somewhere this summer. I'm glad you're having a good time." He looked at his watch, "Listen, it's lunchtime. I'm taking a ride to get some lobsters later. Why don't you two go with me?"

I looked at Ronnie and he shrugged his approval, then I told my father, "Sure. Just give us some warning."

Dad grinned at us, "Okay, be at the Swanson's camp at four o'clock. The lobster pound's right down the road. It won't take us long, but I want to talk to you guys alone." He laid down and closed his eyes, saying, "If people don't come back pretty soon, I'm getting lunch at the hamburg stand."

I looked at my father for a second, wondering where the misplaced gene had gone. He was a confident man, a guy with lots of friends. He wasn't overbearing in any way, just comfortable with who he was. His friends were both business leaders and the construction laborers who worked for him. He knew how to dig the holes by hand, to run the machines, to run the company.

He was respected not only for his success in life, but for the type of person he was ... honest and dependable. That's where I felt I'd always failed him. I was neither. I'd hurt my best friend with a lie, then held onto that lie for an entire year until it bit me back.

My dad had been disappointed and I knew it, but he'd never deserted me, nor did he subject me to pep talks. He respected my person and my privacy, and I was trying to win his respect as a person. He'd never once said anything negative about me being gay. If there was anything positive to say, he'd have found it and said it. My mother was pretty much the same way, and I'd spent the entire school year trying to get them to like me again. I knew they loved me, and they used to like me.

I blew that myself. I was a weak person, and I didn't know where it came from. My folks were what you might call citizens; strong, caring and honest. I was strong enough physically, and I did care about things. I fell flat on my face with the honesty part. Nothing was ever my fault. It was always me blaming someone else. I was a weasel and I knew it. I was desperately trying to change that about myself. Being honest about my sexuality had gotten my ass royally kicked, and that gave me a real-life example of how Eddie's body must have felt when it happened to him.

I was lucky even then. Eddie had been shunned where I hadn't after our respective beatings. Eddie had to endure a year of harassment, further beatings and humiliation. I got my ass beat good, but that was the end of it. Eddie and his own friends saw to it that my last fight was the last fight. They had every reason to hate me, but they didn't. No. Instead, led by Ralph, Richie and Eddie, the guys who beat me are now among my friends.

I tried not to, but it was often enough very easy for me to hate myself. It wasn't for being queer, I had no control over that. It was for always falling away from problems, thinking they belonged to someone else. I was trying, I really was, and I was happy that I'd managed something with Ronnie. Neither of us really knew what that something was, but we'd both stuck with it because it seemed powerful and important.

We laid down on our towels and soaked up some sun for a while, then Ralph's parents came back and said it was time for lunch. Ronnie went to look for his mother and brother while I went to see if Ralph had ended up with Darlene's family. They were all gone, I guessed to eat lunch, so I walked back to the campsite.

When I got there, Ralph was sitting at the picnic table with everyone else. Ronnie's family had been invited, so I sat next to Ron and looked at Ralph. "So?"

He had a dreamy smile on his face, "What so? I mean, so what? I mean, what's so mean? That's no kinda question!"

"I just wanted to know how it went with Darlene. I think she really likes you."

"Yeah, so?"

I could see a change in Ralph, and it made me want to laugh. "I get it, so ain't a valid question when I ask it. It's a valid question when you ask it? C'mon Ralph, give! Did you guys talk?"

A persistent Dickie was looking for a comfy seat, and Ralph allowed him to sit on his knee. Ralph's parents laid out rolls and a platter of cold cuts, cheese, and fixings so we could all make our own sandwiches. Ronnie sat beside me and I got a little thrill when his mother made him shove over closer to me so she could sit. It was nice being squeezed together like that, and I hoped my father would invite them back for lobsters later.

I kept on Ralph as we made sandwiches. "C'mon Ralph, tell me what happened. Can you believe she's even here?"

He looked up and smirked, "It was a nice surprise I guess."

"You guess? Did you talk, or did you swallow a beach ball?"

Ralph smiled mysteriously, "Very funny, Baxter. When did you get so nosy?"

Dickie was anxious, "What? What's goin' on? Where were you guys, anyhow?"

My hands were busy fixing a sandwich, as were everyone else's.

Ronnie said, "That's what we're tryin' to figure out." He grinned, "Dickie, Ralph has a secret and he won't tell us. Why don't you stay with him this afternoon ... see if you can figure it out. I mean, don't let him out of your sight."

Ralph blanched when he considered that prospect, "Alright. Alright! We talked, okay? Is that what you wanted to know?"

Dickie twisted around and looked at Ralph, "Who's we?"

Ralph took Dickie's shoulders and twisted him back the way he'd been. "Never mind." He looked at Ron and me, and smiled shyly, "You win. We talked, okay?"

I protested, "That's it? You talked? Come on, Ralph, tell us more!"

He smiled, "No, you come on. I don't go buggin' you guys about ..." Ralph's expression suddenly changed completely and his face went red when he realized that Ronnie's mother was right there, "about ... um, about ... about anything!"

I could feel the heat in my own face, and I was afraid to look at Ronnie's. It was a close call, and Ralph's recovery hadn't been exactly graceful. We all took big bites of our sandwiches and shut up.

When we were done eating and the table had been cleaned off, we headed en-masse back to the beach. Ronnie and I had decided earlier to spend the remainder of the day with our families and Ralph's. We'd made something of a disappearing act out of ourselves for a few days and didn't want to seem to be unsociable.

It turned out to be a good choice. We didn't say a lot, but we enjoyed listening to all of our parents chitchat. Ronnie's mother seemed to fit right in, even though she didn't really know Ralph's parents and mine. Dickie was playing with a few kids his age near us, and Ralph had taken off in search of Darlene. We were full from lunch, and the weather couldn't have been more perfect.

It was hot enough to make everyone head for the water once in awhile, and Ronnie and I swam out so we could sneak underwater kisses on several occasions.

After awhile, Ralph came back alone and unresponsive. He was joined a little later by Darlene and her father, who knew our parents. It was soon decided that their family would join us for lobsters. After some discussion about how they'd all get cooked, my Father decided to just have them steamed at the lobster pound.

Ralph still seemed a little tongue-tied with Darlene, but he stayed close to her and just let her talk, smiling and nodding once in awhile. I kept my fingers crossed for him. Darlene was a nice girl and Ralph was a great guy. I was hoping that just being there with her would get him over whatever it was with girls. Ronnie and I were both gay, and we said more to her than Ralph did. I was hoping that our speaking would get Ralph to open up, and he did say a few words when he could direct them to us.

I felt bad for him. I didn't know how he could be so different just because a girl he liked was there. It took something sharp in the sand. We decided to all go into the water together and started walking towards it. Suddenly Darlene squealed in pain and sat down clutching her foot.

Ralph knelt beside her, asking, "What's wrong? What happened?" as he tried to look at her foot.

Darlene sniffed, "I stepped on something. Is it bleeding?"

Ralph inspected her foot and said, "It's not bleeding. It hurts?"

Darlene was rubbing it, and Ralph pulled her hand away from the spot to take a better look. I elbowed Ronnie and we grinned at each other when Ralph didn't let go of her hand. We edged backwards unnoticed by either of them, then turned and walked down to the water.

I started giggling halfway there. "Man, Ralph says he doesn't have any moves!" I grinned conspiratorially at Ronnie. "Wanna cut your foot so I can play with it?"

"Ha ha, You go hurt yours! You keep sayin' I have the good hands!"

I changed the subject. "I think my Father figured us out. He'll ask a lot of questions when we go for the lobsters."

Ronnie paled, "You think so?" He stepped into the water and looked at me. "You sure it's okay? He's not gonna tell my mom is he?"

Ron looked worried, so I said, "He won't say anything, don't worry. Um, are you afraid if your mother finds out?"

Ronnie's eyes got big, then he looked down at his feet. "She knows, I think. I mean, how could she not? Look at me! Listen to me! Do you honestly think anybody doesn't think I'm a little queer boy?" He looked away, "Come on, Dennis, tell the truth."

I stared at him for a few moments, gathering my thoughts and liking what I saw. I moved closer and said, "Who cares?" I narrowed my eyes, "I mean it Ron, who cares? If you think everybody knows you're queer, at least they like you anyhow! I like you." I blinked, "I like you a lot!"

Moisture filled Ronnie's eyes, then he said in a whisper, "Thanks, Bax. Thanks a lot. You're a real friend."

I grinned, then ran past him, whacking his butt with my hand and yelling "You're it!" and ran out to where I could dive in and swim. I got out to where the water came up to my neck and stopped to turn.

Ronnie was right behind me, and when he caught up he had enough momentum going to knock us both under the water. He was ready for it and I wasn't. I went under and got a ton of water in my mouth and up my nose and had to head for the surface. I spit and choked for a second, then took a breath when I felt myself being tugged under again.

When I could see, there was Ronnie with his lips pursed and his eyes shut, looking a bit idiotic but cute anyhow. His soft hair was drawn straight upwards by the water, and I headed toward those lips.

As we came together, something struck me. Ronnie and I were more than friends now, at least I was. I'm pretty sure Ron was too. He wasn't resisting me anymore, rather he was welcoming me, as at the very moment. He liked me too! Our lips met, knowing that we just had a moment before we had to come up for air, but this was a different kind of moment for me, an overwhelming one. I wondered briefly if fish fell in love, for I surely was falling.

We kissed, but couldn't hold it because I was giggling with happiness. I'd been in love with Eddie for a long time, but that had been stilted and repressed in both our minds, until it was too late. Now I was holding on to Ronnie, our lips pressed together as the very water we were in tried to bring us to the surface and expose us to the rest of the world. I frankly didn't care at that moment, but as we breached the surface Ron pulled away. I grinned at him and yelled, "Breathe!" then pulled him back under after we both gasped in some air.

With oxygen in our lungs, we got in a good kiss, a real good one. When we got to the surface again we were both grinning with happiness, just looking into each other's eyes. It felt right to me, and Ron's expression told me he liked it too. We would have taken another dunk, but my father appeared near us and said, "I'm going to the lobster pound in half an hour, you guys should dry off."

We said okay, then Dad winked at me. He winked! The son of a bitch WINKED at me, his own son ... who'd just been kissing another boy under water.

I was embarrassed, more for Ron than me, but my Father had us figured out from the get-go. I don't know how, but he did, and when he turned to leave Ronnie and I followed him until we could touch bottom and keep our heads above water.

I gripped him around the waist. "He knows," I said, looking at Ron.

"Um, you're really sure?" then his eyes almost popped out of his head, "Oh, God! He knows about us!"

I nodded and grinned. "You said us!" I grinned harder, "Yeah, Dad might be old, but he's not so dumb." I could see the concern on Ron's face, so I went on. "Don't worry about my father, he knows about me. He ain't gonna tell anyone about you, believe me."

Ronnie gulped, but seemed relieved. "You sure?"

"I'm sure. C'mon, let's dry off and go to the fish place." I smiled at him again. "You feel what I feel, don't you?"

"I, um ... yeah, I guess. What do you feel?"

I put my arm around Ron and headed to shore. "I think we're friends, that's all. Special friends."

The sun was on our backs now. It felt pretty awesome to me.

We pushed our way through the water, and I heard Ron say, "Yeah, special. I like that! We're special friends!" He grabbed a cheek of my ass underwater, "Real special!"

I didn't say anything, but I felt something inside me that hadn't been there for a long time. It was a happiness that worked its way up from my toes all the way to my smile. I used to feel like that when I was little, then it faded. I felt it again a lot with Eddie, but my feelings then always seemed wrong to me.

Now there was Ronnie. We didn't really know each other well, yet we did in a way. I would have been attracted to him if he wasn't gay, and I think the same would have been true in reverse. We would have been friends in either case, but I liked meeting the way we did. Everything that might have been damaging with anyone else had come out right up front. I was looking for somebody like me, anybody like me. I never really expected to meet somebody I'd like so much.

Now I had, and knowing that made me less afraid of how I was. I was developing real feelings for Ronnie, good feelings. There wasn't anything I didn't like about him, except maybe for his tendency to knock himself for what he called being girlish. To me, his delicateness was part of his appeal. I could teach him to throw a ball if he thought it really mattered, but I didn't want him to change from the way he was.

Ronnie was a beautiful person, and his mannerisms were part of his beauty. He had the personality to make people like him anyhow, and I didn't see what the problem was.

I was a little afraid of myself though, and as we walked to our spot I silently vowed to be completely honest with Ronnie, no matter what. I'd betrayed Eddie once. We were friends again now, but I knew neither of us could ever forget what I'd done.

Eddie was tough, he'd gotten through it, if not over it. I didn't know Ronnie well enough yet to know if he'd hold up that well, and I was determined to never cause him a problem like that. I wanted to be, if not his defender, at least his cheerleader.

I wanted Ronnie, wanted to be closer to him. We'd already kissed a lot, we'd brought each other off with our hands. It didn't seem far-fetched to me to take the next step, then the following one. It didn't seem gross anymore to think about doing the things I'd heard of. Scary maybe, but if it was with Ronnie I knew it would be okay.

When we reached our families we wiped off with towels, then ran to the showers to get the salt off. After that we hurried to our campsites to put clothes on, then met up with my father to go buy fish.

He was waiting for us by the parking lot and smiled happily when he saw us. "Ready, guys?"

We both mumbled out a yes, then followed him to the car. When Ron saw it, he exclaimed, "Wow! This is yours?"

My Father liked nice things, there was no doubt about it, and his red Eldorado convertible was his favorite possession at that time. It was an unimaginably huge car on the outside, but not really that big inside. He told us to wait a second while he got in and lowered the roof. I could tell by the way he was touching things that it was painfully hot inside, but when he nodded to us we climbed in, Ronnie in the middle.

My father started driving slowly out the long road to the highway. He glanced at Ronnie and asked, "Ron, does your mother know? I mean, does she know you're gay? Have you told her?"

Ronnie blushed something fierce, "Um ... ah ..."

My father said, "It's not something to be embarrassed about, Ron." He glanced at him again and gave him a smile. "My son's gay. It's not really a big deal, is it? I see how the two of you ... well ... there's almost an aura around you. You can't fool me, so don't try. I just want to know who else knows so I don't say something out of turn."

I could only see the back of Ronnie's head when he turned to look at my father, but I was sure his jaw was somewhere around his belly button. I put my hand on his shoulder.

Ronnie said shakily, "She doesn't know, she'd kill me. Only Bax ... sorry. Only Dennis and Ralph know."

Dad thought for a moment, then said, "Ron, I talked to your mother all afternoon. She loves you a lot, I could see that. She really adores you." He nudged Ron and looked at him briefly. "I um, I let slip that Dennis is gay ..."

I protested, "Dad!"

"Calm down! You are gay. I did it for Ronnie ... to see how she'd react."

Ron and I asked in unison, "What'd she say?"

"She gave me a look, then asked some questions. Like, how did me and your mom find out ... were we upset ... how do we feel about it?" He looked at Ronnie and smiled, "I think she knows, kid, at least she suspects." He winked a big corny wink, which I always hated, but now it seemed reassuring. "Ronnie, you can ask Dennis where lies get you. He got caught up in a big one, but if he didn't get caught he'd still be living it." Dad looked over at me, "Tell him, Dennis. It's true isn't it? It was hard to tell the truth, but once you did you could see other truths ... that your parents weren't in a conspiracy against you, that you could make friends again. Isn't it so?"

I smiled weakly, "Yeah, it's so."

Dad went on, "Ron, you have your own family, and you're your own person. I'm just talking from my point of view. You have people who love you. Don't get ideas in your head that they'll hate you for one thing that's nobody's business to start with. If you hide what you are, you might end up blaming your folks like Dennis did. He thought we'd hate him, and ended up believing we already did. It's an awful situation for everybody, and you don't need to put yourself in it."

Ron mourned, "My dad'll kill me for sure."

"What makes you say that?"

"I don't know. He's my father! He won't want a queer for a kid."

My father paused, drumming one hand on the wheel while he steered with the other. "I don't know your father, Ron. I didn't want a queer, as you put it, for a son. I just wanted a son, and I think I have a fine one now." He glanced at Ron, "You know your Father and I don't. Talk it over with your mother. I mean, there's no law that states you have to announce that you're gay. I'm not really suggesting you tell your mother, just don't live in denial. I'm sure you want to live a happy life, and people are going to find out sooner or later anyhow. It's just best that when they do, there's no lie lingering between you and the truth."

Ronnie was thinking, and we were all squirming from the heat of the seats. Leather was great looking stuff, but from a summer point of view it made no sense. The three of us were happy to arrive at the lobster pound, where my father found a parking spot in the shade. We all went inside and Dad ordered the lobsters, then we had an hour while they steamed them. We got back in the car and drove a short distance to a grocery store where he bought butter, french bread, ketchup and horseradish, then it was on to a clam shack to buy two pecks each of steamers and littlenecks.

The littlenecks came in a Styrofoam box full of ice, so we put the butter in there, then went back to pick up the lobsters. The whole back seat was full of fish, and my mouth was watering thinking about what it would taste like after a week of mostly hamburgers.

On the way back to the beach Ronnie asked my Father, "You really don't care that Bax is gay?"

My Father hesitated before answering. "Yes I care. That sounds wrong. I don't mind that he's gay, but I worry about how it may affect his life." He looked over at me, "I do! To me, being gay isn't anything you have any more control over than your eye color or the size of your feet. Gays are a minority, and there's just as many people out there who hate gays as who hate blacks, or any other minority. You boys will have to be careful, that's all."

Ronnie stared ahead with a pained expression on his face. I took his hand and whispered, "Don't worry. I'll look out for you."

He relaxed a little and squeezed my hand as we pulled back into the campground parking lot. We found a parking spot closer to Ralph's camp. It was a good thing, because we had to make two trips to carry everything to Ralph's waiting parents.

His father immediately started heating water for the steamers while his mother began mixing up cocktail sauce for the littlenecks, and Ronnie and I were dispatched to the beach to round people up.

We found Dickie pretty much where we'd last seen him, and he came with us to find the others. My mother was still on the blanket talking with Ronnie's Mother, and Ron was pretty hesitant when we approached them.

I guess he had good reason. When she saw us, his mother looked back and forth between us with the damdest odd expression I'd ever seen on anybody's face. She must have sorted out whatever was going through her head because she finally smiled. We told them that the food would be ready real soon. I left Ronnie to find the others while Dickie and I helped carry things back to the campsites. Most of the stuff was from Ron's camp, so we went there first. Our mothers were yakking along the way, but they didn't direct any conversation my way, and I was thankful for that.

I was a little afraid for Ronnie, thinking maybe my Father had gone too far telling his mother I was gay. There wasn't a lot I could do, so I kept my mouth shut and carried things. My mother and I left her and Dickie at their campsite to put their things away.

As soon as we were out of hearing range, my mother put her hand on my shoulder and asked, "Dennis, is Ronnie gay too?"

I blushed, "Um ... Jeez! What kind of question is that?"

She put a warning note in her voice, "Dennis? I just asked a question."

I resisted. "It ain't my place to know or to say, Mom. Why'd you ask something like that, anyhow?"

Her hand dropped from my shoulder to take my own hand. "Oh, Dennis, don't be so defensive. We just met Ronnie, and he seems like a nice boy. Your father somehow thinks there's something between you two."

"I know. He said. You know, I been here with Ralph all week. Nobody asks if he's queer! He's the guy runnin' around with nothin' on!"

I looked up to catch her with her own blush.

She said, "I won't comment, except to say that Ralph certainly seems to be fond of flimsy material."

She looked at me in exasperation, "Oh, Dennis, I'm not trying to pry. I just spent the afternoon with Alma, and she's a remarkable woman. She's very smart, and moving up in the world. She's also alone with two young boys; one with an illness and the other who won't confide in her. I don't know how well you know Ronnie, but won't you at least ask him to talk to his mother? I don't want them to go through a repeat of what happened in our family." She smiled, "If you're his friend, if you like him, you'll try to prevent that. I know you will."

"I ... Mom ..."

"Let's leave it at that. Did your father get the lobster count right?"

I grinned, "No. Most of us are gettin' two of 'em."

She smiled broadly, "I love that man! If it's not his party when he gets there, he'll make sure it is before he leaves!"

I smiled at the truth in that thought, then we were back at Ralph's campsite. Darlene's parents were there with her little brother and sister, but no sign of Ralph, Darlene or or Ronnie. Darlene's father was helping my father shuck clams. I didn't see Ralph's father, and asked his mother where he'd gone.

"Oh, to get some corn," she smiled, "You can't have a proper clambake without corn on the cob. Have you seen Ralph?"

"Not since earlier. Ronnie's looking for him and Darlene."

She smiled, "He likes that girl, doesn't he?"

"I ... um," I said, looking towards Darlene's mother.

Ralph's mother smiled and said, "Just spit it out, Dennis. It's about time he got attracted to something besides a baseball bat! He's always moaning about how bashful he is with girls." She nudged me, "So tell me, is this the real thing?"

I didn't know if she was kidding or not, so I laughed and said, "You're funny," when I meant to tell her to either mind her own business or just ask Ralph.

Just then I saw Ronnie heading our way, followed by Ralph and Darlene, who were walking side by side. As soon as he was close enough, Ronnie said, "Found 'em in the high grass!"

Darlene's father looked up, then when Ralph was close enough he glared at him. "You had my daughter in the high grass?"

Ralph looked stricken, then Mr. Rivicki grinned. "I'm just funnin' you, boy," he said as he put his hand on Ralph's shoulder, "At least I think I'm kidding. Just what exactly were you doing?"

Ralph turned eight shades of red, causing Mr. Rivicki to roar with laughter. His laugh was pretty infectious, and pretty soon we were all laughing at Ralph's expense, even Darlene, who took his hand and said, "Don't mind my father. He thinks it's his job to intimidate my dates."

Ralph gulped and blushed again, squeaking out, "Dates?"

Darlene took his elbow and pushed him past her father, sticking her tongue out at him on the way. "Yes, I consider this a date, and it's about time."

They got out of hearing range and Ronnie socked my arm. When I looked at him he just smiled, as if to say 'Mission accomplished.'

I looked after Ralph and Darlene, and they made a good looking couple. I don't think I'd heard Ralph say ten words all day, but I suspected I'd hear a lot when we went to bed. I was happy for him. He was a great person in my mind, and deserved to have something nice happen to him. He'd been good to me when I didn't deserve it. I was determined to be good to him always.

When Ronnie's mother showed up with Dickie, and Ralph's Father came with the corn, we started eating. First it was the littlenecks, cheese and crackers. After that, my dad served huge bowls of steamed clams. Most people knew how to eat them, but neither Ronnie or Dickie did. I showed them how to pull the black stuff off, then it became a huge joke that we were circumcising them. My Father heard us and started telling every joke he knew about circumcisions and foreskins, and before we knew it, it was a party.

We had a great time eating and telling stories. Even Ralph spoke up, which both surprised and gladdened me.

All of the parents were in good moods, maybe even a little bit tipsy on beer and wine. Dickie was on his best behavior, probably because Darlene's younger sister was cute and about his age. Her little brother, who was about six, just kept moving from lap to lap trying to figure out what was so amusing to everyone.

We ate and ate and ate, until it was all gone. If everyone else felt like me, then we were all on the verge of getting sick. I'd had two whole lobsters and parts of some other people's. Raw clams, steamed clams, corn on the cob, salad, bread and butter. I felt like I might burst, and leaned against Ronnie who'd had just about the same amount. He was leaning against me too. It wasn't Thanksgiving; there was no sofa to lay on and watch football, but it was the same feeling of being overstuffed.

There was only Ronnie as far as I was concerned. We sat together, if you can call it sitting, and burped at about the same time. That got a laugh from my Father, who said, "Look at these two! " then he looked at Ralph and Darlene, who were in much the same position as Ronnie and me, and said, "And them!" All the adults chuckled, then my father said, "Good luck kids," then more softly, "Have fun."

Mr. Rivicki said, a little drunkenly, "Yeah! Have fun before you grow up and hafta meet the real world!"

Ralph's father smiled and said softly, "That's right. Have fun. Stick with your real friends. You know who they are."

I looked at Ronnie and he smiled, then I looked towards Ralph and he smiled back too. I felt bloated, overstuffed with food, but those smiles told me who my real friends were.

I looked over at where Ronnie's mother was sitting, and she gave me what I took to be a hopeful smile, too. I nudged Ron and nodded my head her way.

He looked up and, if he saw what I saw, it was a rain of sunshine, a mother's love for her son. There was no innuendo in it, just pure love. I poked Ronnie and he got up to go to her, belching halfway there.

I leaned back in my beach chair, thinking it was a fine place to sleep for awhile, but it wasn't to happen. As soon as I closed my eyes, my shoulder got shook.

It was Ralph. "Aren't you going to the boardwalk to check out the new mea..."

He turned to Darlene, "I mean ... I don't know what I mean," then he grinned, and looked at Darlene again. "Come on! All the kids get together 'til they throw us out. It's always a good time."

Darlene wasn't arguing. She smiled and took Ralph's hand and led him away. I called after them that I'd see them on the boardwalk, but I could barely get the words out trying not to laugh at Ralph's red ears.

He didn't let her hand go, though, and before they disappeared I could see that they were looking at each other and talking. I could only smile thinking Ralph was on his way to getting over his shyness with girls, and Darlene was somebody we both liked, so it was a double treat for me.

I looked over to see Ronnie just standing up from talking to his mother. He came over to me looking a bit humble and asked, "Mind if I don't go right now? I'll catch up with you later."

His expression told me nothing, so I just shrugged, "Sure. I should stay 'til my folks leave anyhow. Anything wrong?"

He shrugged, "No, not wrong. I need to talk to my mom, so we're gonna take a walk." His expression firmed up, "I'm gonna tell her, Bax. I mean, why should your folks know and not mine?"

Ron looked kind of deflated, and I wanted to help him. "Want me to go with you? I mean, I don't know ..."

He shook his head, "Naw, she doesn't have a gun. Listen, if you could look after Dick for awhile I'd appreciate that." He eyed me warily, "I know you don't like my brother, but do it for me?"

I looked, but didn't see Dickie, then smiled at Ron. "Sure, man. Good luck."

I wanted to hug Ronnie so badly it hurt. I could see that he was scared as hell, and I felt helpless to help him. I looked around, and all of our parents were engaged in conversations or joke telling, so I did hug him, whispering, "Good luck, you'll be fine."

It felt so great holding him like that. I didn't want to let go, but he whispered back, "Thanks," and broke away to disengage his mother from her talk with mine.

When they started to walk away, Dickie appeared and chased after them. I yelled, "Hey Dick!" causing him to turn around.

"Wanna go to the boardwalk and hang around with the big guys?"

His eyes lit up. He said something to his mother and ran over to me. "Now? Really?"

I looked at my Father, trying to determine if they were planning to leave soon. As good as he was at figuring out others, he was pretty easy to read himself. If he'd been glancing around and gathering his things close to him I'd know he was about ready to go. He wasn't. He was having a grand time with Ralph's father and Mr. Rivicki, and my mother seemed to be engaged in a rapt gossip session with the other two mothers.

I had to ask, and went up to my Father. "Um, Dad?" He looked up. "Are you guys stayin' long?" I poked my toe around in the sand, "It's ... it's about the time the other kids meet on the boardwalk. Dickie never got to go and I promised to take him."

My Father grinned and stood up, pulling me into a quick hug. "You go, Dennis. Don't worry about us, we're well fed and happy, and," he released me and reached into his pocket, pulling out some money and handing it to me. "Here. Take care of your friends." He looked at me and smiled, "Go have fun, son. It's your vacation. Do what you want, okay?"

I smiled and gave him another hug, mumbling my thanks, then went and interrupted my mother to tell her I was going back to the beach. I got a kiss and a hug, along with many admonishments, then I snagged Dickie and we headed to the boardwalk.

We were almost there, having walked in silence, when Dickie said, "You don't like me."

I asked, "Why'd you say that?"

"Because you don't. I can tell. I like you though, you'n Ralph. Is Darlene Ralph's girlfriend now?"

I wheezed out a little laugh through my nose, then put a hand on Dickie's sweatshirt clad shoulder. "You're okay, Dickie. You just whine a lot, but you're gettin' better. Anyhow, you're Ronnie's brother, so you must be okay."

He looked up at me, "Howcum you like Ron so much?"

"I dunno. Howcum you like Ralph so much?"

He started, "Because he's so ..." he looked at me and smiled a smile I hadn't seen, "I get it. I like Ralph because he's nice to me. That's why you like my brother?"

I had to grin, "Yeah, that's why. That's why Ralph likes Darlene, too."

"Darlene makes Ralph happy?"

I chuckled, "My guess would be yes."

Dickie giggled, "That's funny, it rhymes! I wish I could make Ralph happy."

I almost choked on my potential answer, but managed to say, "You can!"

"Really? How?"

"Hang around with me and your brother when he's with Darlene, that's how. He doesn't need a little brother right now. He needs some time and space."

Dickie looked dejected, and when I realized how I'd put it I took his hand in mine. "I didn't mean it that way. Ralph likes you, he really does. Right now he needs ..."

"To get laid?" Dickie asked innocently.

I looked at him, "You know about that? Yeah, that's exactly what he needs. You been laid yet?"

Dickie said petulantly, "Not yet. You?"

I giggled, "Not yet, but I'm thinkin' about it."

We were approaching one of the kids who had been there the past week, Roland Stringer. He was okay, kind of a wise-ass, and he was leaning against the railing of the boardwalk alone as if he was waiting for someone. When I said hi, I didn't realize that Dickie was still holding my hand.

Roland said snidely, "Baxter! I see you finally found a girlfriend!"

I automatically flipped him the bird, then thought to give Dickie a big hug, saying, "Yeah, finally!" I grinned evilly, still holding on to a confused little kid. "I could'a done worse! I notice you're kinda by yourself."

Roland smiled and fell in beside us. "Yeah, everybody's took. There's one new chick who looks good, but Ralph beat me to her." He sighed dramatically, "Oh well, one more week of the silent hand, then it's back to the real world. Where's Ronnie?"

"He's coming." His remark suddenly struck me funny and I laughed, "The silent hand?"

Roland laughed too, "Yeah, well ... you know. Gotta get the pus out."

What a way with words! I started laughing and Dickie asked, "You guys jerk off?"

That got me helpless with laughter, and I couldn't respond. Roland, laughing nearly as hard, managed, "You still pulling your pud, Dickie?"

He was giggling so hard he was difficult to understand, "Most guys .. heh heh heh, most guys stop ... heh heh heh ... before they're six!"

We both started laughing out of control, and Roland went on when he could, "It's an evil deed, kid.," he wheezed in mirth, "You'll see, you're gonna grow hair on your palms!"

I bent over laughing when Dickie let go of my hand to look at his. He looked up, "You're full of it!" which caused Roland and me to laugh doubly hard. We were out of control and ended up on our asses on the boardwalk, too weak to stand.

Dickie finally got the joke and started laughing too, then he laughed too hard.

Suddenly he started choking, but it was hard to distinguish from laughter. Roland and I had both been choking on our own laughs, so it just seemed funny until I could see that Dickie couldn't breathe.

End of joke! I started desperately feeling where his pockets should be to find his inhaler, but I couldn't. All the while, Dickie was shaking his head no, which I finally understood meant he didn't have it with him. I stood up and tried to scream for help, but not a sound came out of my mouth because I was in such a panic. I wanted to make all the noise I could, and I couldn't make any.

I finally dropped to my knees and started holding Dickie, then saw Roland stand up and start yelling for help.

Yell he could, and it gave me the strength to get up and start running for all I was worth back towards the campground. I couldn't think, just act. I had no idea where his inhaler was, where his mother and brother were, nothing. I didn't know whether to go to his campsite or ours, and running myself to breathlessness wasn't helping my thought process.

I could still hear Roland yelling for help faintly in the distance when I found myself at Ronnie's tent.

I dove in and started rummaging around in the dark for either a flashlight or an inhaler, finding neither. My own helplessness brought tears to my eyes, but in a moment I decided it was hopeless where I was and backed out of the tent, then started running towards Ralph's place.

When I got there, things were winding down, people were getting ready to pack it in. I burst into their midst pointing towards the boardwalk and gasping, "Dickie! Asthma!"

Ralph's father took a look at me and asked, "Where? The boardwalk?"

I had dropped to my knees, but nodded and gasped out, "Asthma, he doesn't have his breather. I can't find it!"

My father and Ralph's sprinted towards the beach, but Mr. Rivicki pulled me to my feet. "Show us where, kid! You can rest later!" He turned to the stunned women, "Find his mother!"

I suddenly got some air in my lungs. I started running in a different direction, straight towards where I knew I'd left Dickie. Mr. Rivicki and I arrived at where Dickie was to find a group of kids huddled over him, all of them just gaping and staring at him.

Darlene's father knelt down beside Dickie, whose chest was moving while he gasped for breath. He picked him up and looked around helplessly, then stood him on his feet, holding him up with one arm while he tried to get him walking. "Come on, kid, exhale! Don't try to breathe in, push it out! C'mon EXHALE! It'll come in if you can get it out!"

My father and Ralph's came running up, but stopped short when they saw Dickie on his feet. Mr. Rivicki's help had gotten him breathing a little, and he looked less blue around the mouth, but I could tell that he was still in trouble.

A park ranger showed up with his radio, and I heard him confirming that an ambulance was on the way. He asked Mr. Rivicki how Dickie was doing, but didn't get involved in any other way other than to give them some space by getting the people around them to move away. Ralph and Darlene were there by then, and Ralph ran up to comfort Dickie while Darlene hugged her father.

I moved over between my father and Ralph's, and felt each of them put hands on my shoulders. It was a pretty hopeless situation as far as getting involved was concerned.

Dickie was on his feet and struggling valiantly to normalize his breathing, and he tried to smile at Ralph a few times.

Ralph was on his knees encouraging him and holding his hand.

By the time Dickie's mother ran up with his inhaler we could hear the ambulance siren in the distance. Ronnie was right behind her looking scared to death, but he stood behind Dick and also started trying to soothe the frightened boy. Child was the word that jumped into my mind. Dickie was still a little kid, and I'd been unfairly trying to judge him by the standards of a teenager. Watching, I could see how much Ron really cared for his little brother, even how much Ralph thought of him.

I felt like the dummy again, and wondered if my wisecracks and snide remarks about Dickie had hurt Ronnie. It had seemed funny to all of us that first day, but I'd failed to notice that I was the only one calling him Little Dickie after that. I was the sneering older kid while Ron did what he had to, and Ralph made a friend. A younger friend, but a friend who appreciated Ralph much like I did.

Okay, I knew I was a jerk, an idiot, but I'd just tried to be nice to Dickie for Ralph's sake, and look where it got him. Wadded up on a boardwalk amongst a bunch of teenagers who wanted to get down to business, but were somehow mesmerized by the emergency.

I could only look on, feeling that I was the cause, trying to make it not my fault. At the same time I had two grown men who had their hands on my shoulders, probably feeling as helpless as I did.

The ambulance was drawing closer, probably already in the park from the sound of it. Dick, hugging his mother now, looked like he'd be okay without it, but I knew they'd take him away anyhow. I suddenly felt bad for the little guy, felt a taste of what his life must be like.

I'd been blessed with good health, but I broke my ankle when I was in first grade and had to go to the hospital. I remembered how scary that was for me, and wondered how many times that experience had occurred in Dick's life. My little trip to the hospital was painful, to be sure, but I never felt that I could die. Dick must have felt like he would die, or could die, many times. How scary is that for a little kid, not knowing if he'd ever breathe again?

I'd made a lot of vows to myself in the last year, and I found myself making still another one. It's really sad that it worked the way it did, but my pathetic little mind wouldn't let it happen another way. Dickie did whine, and Ron and his mother did coddle him, but he was genuinely ill. Ralph had seen that right off and befriended the kid, while I continued my condescending ways.

When they loaded Dick into the ambulance and his mother climbed in with him, I realized that it was a scene that had been played out before.

Ronnie was looking after them a little helplessly, and I broke loose from my Father and Ralph's father to go to him. I wrapped my arms around him just as he began to shake and shed tears of fright.

Ronnie felt good in my arms, but I didn't feel the right to hold him like that while he cried out his fear. He clutched me anyhow, and I noticed most of the people leaving. The excitement was over. I looked at my Father and he nodded and winked before turning to leave with Ralph's father and Mr. Rivicki.

I called out, "Ralph?" and his voice came from right behind me.

"You guys okay?" he asked.

I felt his hand on my shoulder and said, "No! No, I'm not okay, and neither is Ronnie." I twisted to look at Ralph, "Stay here, man. I need help."

Ralph looked at me for a second, then took Darlene's hand. He said softly, "You don't need me, Bax,. It's your game now."

Darlene smiled and said, "He's right, Dennis, it's your game." They turned to leave, then Darlene turned back and smiled her pretty smile at me. "Nice catch, Dennis!"

I watched them go, then turned back to Ron, who had a half-scared, half-curious expression on his face. I don't know where the strength came from, but I smiled and asked, "You okay?" before I pulled him into a hug.

He laid his chin on my shoulder and whispered, "I'm okay. What was that about? I couldn't hear them."

I didn't answer right away, just reveled in Ron's presence, his scent, which was strong at the moment with fear and excitement. Mine probably was too, but it didn't matter. I whispered, "They didn't say much, just that it's you and me now." That thought made my cheeks flush while I smiled.

Ronnie paused, then giggled and asked, "Just you and me, kid? Where've I heard that before?"

Our hug wasn't especially comfortable, so we edged around until it was. I said, "I don't know where you heard it, but that's the way it is. You and me, me and you." I was as comfortable and content as I had ever been in my life. I pulled Ronnie closer and whispered, "You and me. Doesn't that sound good?"

Ron sighed and said, "Yeah, good."

"I love you."

Instead of pulling away, Ronnie snuggled into me and murmured, "Me, too. I mean, I love you too, Bax,"

I whispered again, "I love you."

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