A Summer Story (of recycled trash)

Six. (Ralph has the last say)

The times they were a-changing.

I guess the old saying that time heals all wounds is pretty valid. If you'd told me two years before that I could watch a gay guy dancing with my girlfriend, and find myself only wishing that I could dance as well as him, I'd have said you were out of your mind.

If you warned me that the gay guy would be my second best friend in the world, right after my girlfriend, I would have laughed until the sun came up. I'd have known you were bonkers for sure.

The suggestion that I might watch this strange act play out while yakking amiably with the gay guy's boyfriend, well, I would have certified you as demented: deranged.

I was there, though, and enjoying myself immensely. It was a back-to-school party at Bax's house, and there were a lot of people with me on the patio. Among them were not one, not two, not even three, but four gay couples. Baxter had gone to the bother of importing a bunch of them from another city. Maybe he didn't think two gay guys were enough for one town.

I was sitting out that particular dance beside Bax's boyfriend, Ron, who I'd liked from the moment I met him at the beach. I did what I could then to help Bax and Ron develop a friendship, then watched as it blossomed. They were an odd couple for sure; Dennis all brash and athletic, Ronnie kind of effeminate and hilarious. It worked somehow, and now they said they loved each other. That much was pretty obvious. They didn't go around smooching in public, but they felt free to demonstrate their mutual affection in a lot of other ways, at least around our circle of friends.

It wasn't always like that for me. I met Bax and the town's other gay boy, Eddie, when I was six and my dad signed me up for tee ball, which is the precursor to little league baseball. We became friends, though Eddie and Bax became closer friends with each other. I got invited to their birthday parties, and they got invited to mine. It was kid's stuff. We lived in different neighborhoods so, other than baseball and school, I mostly hung around with kids who lived closer to me.

Then, a few years earlier, it became known that Eddie was queer. He'd tried to kiss Bax at a beer party, and when Bax protested the other guys there kicked the shit out of Ed. After that, he was like a pariah around town. Everybody, sadly including myself, shunned him. Some guys picked on him relentlessly, always teasing, often picking fights.

I stayed out of that part, but I made no overtures to Eddie, and he was alone for the whole year. I think I was like a lot of other kids who had liked him before we knew he was gay. It didn't mean a lot to us, but unless he said something first, we sure wouldn't. Eddie said nothing.

Oddly, Bax kind of dropped from the scene at the same time. He didn't even go out for baseball that year, and he was one of the best pitchers in town.

He avoided people, and we just assumed it was shame about Eddie putting a move on him in public like that. Some of us tried for awhile, but it was clear that he preferred to be alone. There were other guys around, guys looking to have fun, so it wasn't a big deal if Bax didn't want to join us. We eventually stopped trying to talk to him. Some of the guys thought he was becoming a snob because his family had all that money, but I didn't think that was the case.

Then, when school started last year, my friend Rich announced that we were going to be friends with Eddie. I didn't protest. I'd known Eddie for a long time, and he never seemed weird to me. Richie had just met him, and he told me that Ed had been planning to commit suicide, which horrified me.

* * * * * * * *

I talked to my father about it the night before school started that year. He was sitting in his easy chair.

"Dad? Got a minute?"

He laid the Sunday paper on his lap and looked at me, "Sure. Qualms about the new school year?"

I sat, straddling the ottoman. "I guess." I paused, "No, it's something else. You heard that Eddie's queer, didn't you?"

I had his attention. "Yes, you told me that."

"I ... uh ... Richie says I should be friends with him again."

My father was staring at me as if he was trying to glean something from my expression. He didn't say anything, so I went on. "He says Eddie was gonna kill himself."

Dad's eyes bulged, then got cloudy with tears. "Are you serious? Oh my God, that poor kid. Oh, my God!"

It wasn't the reaction I expected, though I hadn't known what to expect to begin with. "Dad, I don't know what it's all about, I mean with queers. I always liked Eddie, now I feel like I'm supposed to hate him, but I don't."

My father looked at me, then stood up and indicated that I should too. He led me over to the sofa and we sat down again, beside each other this time. He put his arm around me, giving me a squeeze for a second. He spoke softly, "Ralph, you're a good kid. I don't want you to hate anybody, especially not because somebody says you're supposed to." He adjusted the way he was sitting, like he always did when he was talking about something uncomfortable, as if the discomfort was coming from the sofa cushion instead of his head. "Listen, homosexuality exists. It always has, and you're going to meet gay men in your lifetime." He paused, "They're just people, son. Just like you and me, and like everyone else."

"But ..."

"There are no buts, Ralph." He settled back into the sofa, pulling me with him. "You're going to encounter gays. Some you'll know right away, others you'll wonder about, still others you'll never guess." He sighed, "It's not worth the effort to even think about it." He squeezed my shoulder again, "You don't have to put up any shields, Ralph. Gay men are looking for other gay men, it's pretty simple. You're a good looking kid, and you might get someone interested in you, but when you're not interested back, they'll move on."

I thought about that. "So, it's okay to be friends with Eddie again?"

Dad smiled, "It's more than okay. In this case it's mandatory." He looked at me with a serious expression. "Eddie needs a friend, Ralph, and that's your job now."

If I'd been a cat I would have been purring. Normal for me and my father, at that point in my life, would have been arguing out every little detail of garbage, homework, messy room, my clothes, but, as usual, when I needed advice I got the good kind. I kissed his whiskery cheek for about the first time in a hundred years, and got up to get ready for school.

Dad said, "Tell Eddie I said hi when you see him."

I smiled at my father, probably seeing what I'd look like in about twenty five years. I grinned and said, "Thanks, Dad, I'll tell him." Then I sprinted up to my room to get my things together for the next day.

* * * * * * * *

Ronnie nudged me and grinned, "You must feel like you're in a fruit bowl!"

I laughed at the comment, although it was pretty far from the truth. Yes, there were four gay couples there, but there were eight other couples and a whole lot of unattached kids of both sexes. Eddie's boyfriend, Adam, had brought some of his friends from where he lived. I'd met them a few times before, and they were all great guys.

It had stopped seeming strange to me a long time ago that guys could love each other. First it was Eddie with Adam, and I guess they loosened me up to the idea.

It wasn't that they did anything in front of me; I could just see the closeness, the way they looked at each other, the way they tried to keep each other happy.

Those were things I did with my girlfriend, that Rich did with his Joanie, just the little smiles and courtesies, the extra tenderness that you reserve for somebody special.

Over the course of the last year, Bax had become my best friend. I don't know how it happened, either. I was really angry with him when I learned that it was his fault that Eddie had been outed and tormented like that. Then Bax got beat up himself when the truth came out, and it took me seeing Eddie, caring for him immediately afterwards, to consider forgiveness, to try to defuse the whole situation.

Out of it all emerged a new circle of friends for me. I still saw my old buddies, but that's all they'd ever really been. We hung around and had fun, but there was no real closeness with any of them.

It was different with these guys. I guess I learned a lot by watching Eddie tend to Bax's needs, knowing that Eddie had every reason to hate the kid. He didn't hate him though, and watching one rough-cut kid practically nurse another back to health, and into his own group of friends, really told me something about the decent nature of those guys.

I started hanging around with them, and also with Pete and Tyrone, who I kind of pulled into the package. Eddie had a boyfriend, Richie had a girlfriend, so it was frequently enough that Bax, Pete, Tyrone and I hung around together. All of us but Pete had problems in the relationship department.

Pete got dates. He was just having trouble finding a girl who he really liked, or maybe it was the other way around. He was playing the field and coming up empty.

Tyrone was a black kid in a town with a few black teenage guys, but only one black teenage girl. He was deathly afraid to ask a white girl out, so he was living a sad and monastic existence, at least on the relationship side. He had a lot of good friends, though, and knew how to enjoy life, even if it was a life with the temporary impossibility of a love interest.

Bax was pretty much in the same boat as Tyrone. Eddie was the only other gay kid any of us knew about, and he had a boyfriend already. Bax was left kind of high and dry, just like Tyrone. They could both only look and not touch.

That left me. Impossibly bashful me. I was bashful around girls, horribly bashful. I guess it started when puberty did, but when a girl talked to me in anything like a friendly way, I'd clam up. I had a bad enough time with one word answers to their questions. Sentences and rational thoughts escaped me entirely when a girl was at the front end of a conversation. There were girls I liked, lots of them; girls I dreamed about and fantasized over. Put one of them in front of me though, one on one, and I developed the personality of a tin can, kind of open-mouthed and hollow inside.

Darlene was a girl I'd always liked. She was cute, personable and sincere, and also very well spoken in class. Unfortunately, in class was the only place she ever heard me speak. She was friends with Joanie, and Joanie was always trying to push me toward one or another of her friends.

I went to some of the school dances, and the teen dances at the VFW hall. I even danced, if I was asked to. More often than not, Joanie would pair me up with some girl to dance with, and I liked doing it. It just made me horny, and even more tongue-tied than I'd normally be. The girl would be lucky if she got an audible thank you afterwards.

The real pity of it all was that I wasn't afraid to speak up in class, not even in assemblies. Talking at girls, even an auditorium full of them, didn't bother me a bit. There were two forces at work there. First, I had something to say, something prepared. Second, it wasn't anything personal. There was another thing, too, something fuzzier. Richie's girlfriend, Joanie, was another girl that I'd always drooled over and been unable to speak to, but when she and Rich became an item, I found myself able to converse with her easily. The fact that she was no longer available definitely had something to do with things.

I could relax now. Helping Bax with Ronnie at the beach had helped me. When Darlene showed up there for the second week, I was my usual tongue-tied self for awhile, but I was alone with her. As alone as you can get on a beach filled with a few thousand people, but we were alone in the sense that we weren't surrounded by family and friends.

I was speechless, maybe, but I was one hundred percent aware of how good Darlene looked in a bathing suit. We were there alone, and I suddenly realized that she was looking at me, too.

"You're getting a nice tan, Ralph." She giggled, "It looks nice with your hair."

MAAACK! Buk buk buk buk, duh, um "You think?"

"Oh, yeah," She touched my shoulder and widened her big, brown eyes, "You brown up nicely."

I squeaked, "I do?"

She smiled, "You look great, Ralph."

I went soprano, "You think?"

She smiled and stroked my shoulder a little. I was getting hot flashes, and I felt like an idiot.

Bax told me once that Darlene liked me, and I got all excited hearing that. Now, here she was, right in front of me, touching me, and I didn't have a clue what to do.

She did, though. She was a girl, and I was the deer in her lights, and it couldn't have happened at a better time, nor in a better place.

Darlene drew me out of my shyness that day, first with her niceness, then with her sense of fun.

* * * * * * * *

Bax and Darlene were smiling as they walked towards us after their dance. I said, "You two looked good out there."

Bax smiled at me and Ronnie in turn, then Darlene touched his shoulder and said, "Go ahead, Bax. Do it."

Bax blushed, but turned a hopeful look to Ronnie, gulped, and asked, "Will you dance with me, Ron?"

Ron's ever-active eyebrows headed skywards in amazement, his voice gaining an octave. "H-here? In front of everybody?" He looked around quickly, "I don't think so, Bax."

Darlene urged, "Oh, go ahead guys. It's time to break some new ground."

Bax looked at Ronnie, then nervously back towards Darlene, "Maybe Ron's right, maybe it's not such a good idea."

Darlene smiled, "Of course it's a good idea. It's your house. Nobody's going to mind if you dance with your boyfriend."

Bax looked for my opinion, and I gave him a helpless shrug, "Why's it a problem, Bax? It's your place, your party. Darlene and I can dance with you. Put on a slow one, then lots of people will dance. You'll just be another couple."

Ronnie's expression was changing about ten times a second, then he finally smiled helplessly and said, "Okay, why not? It's not too weird?"

Darlene gave Bax a triumphant shove towards Ronnie, saying, "It's not weird at all." She cocked an ear towards the music that was playing and said, "The next song's a slow one. Let me and Ralph start first, then come and join us."

I caught the look between Bax and Ron and wondered again at how lucky they were to meet, pleased with myself that I'd helped them along.

Since Ron had moved nearby, his house had become our summer hangout. Bax's place was closer and nicer, but Ron's house had the lake out back, and we'd set up our summer home beneath the pines there. We had a semi-permanent tent camp, a picnic table, a fire pit, and a canoe that Bax's dad had contributed.

We'd spent the summer having fun and getting closer to each other, and to Dickie and his little friends. Lots of people from outside our circle came by to join us, and we felt some sense of collective ownership there.

Ronnie had made friends with some kids from his own neighborhood, a few of whom were at Baxter's party, and I knew that was what he worried about. As far as he knew, these guys didn't know he was gay, and he had to go to school with them starting in less than a week.

It was a big move on his part, one that really had him nervous, but Ron had proven to have an inner strength and an advancing desire to live his life the way he wanted to. He was funny about it sometimes.

He threw a baseball like a girl, and none of our lessons could correct that, so he asked Darlene to show him the right way to throw like a girl, and it had worked. At least he could join our games, because he knew how to make the ball go where he wanted it to.

Now he was prepared to do what he really wanted, which was to be able to show his feelings for Bax in public.

When the slow song started, Darlene and I moved to the middle of the patio and began to dance. Rich and Joanie were right there with us, and a few other couples got up to dance. Then, over the volume of the music, we heard some mumbling from the people who weren't dancing. I looked and, sure enough, Bax and Ronnie were dancing, Bax leading and Ron's chin on his shoulder.

I heard the word 'fags' from someone nearby, but it hadn't been yelled out or anything. When I tensed, Darlene just pulled me closer and whispered, "See how it works out, Ralph."

It worked out well, and in a way that none of us expected. Adam and Eddie cut in on them. Eddie danced off with Bax while Ronnie danced with Adam, all of them grinning. The next thing I knew, there was a tap on my shoulder. I looked to find a laughing Pete standing there with his date, a girl named Roxy. When I let go of Darlene, I was dumbfounded to find myself in Pete's arms while Darlene went with Roxy.

It was all hilarious in a minute, everybody cutting in on everyone else's dance partners. Boys with boys, girls with girls, boys with girls, straight boys with gay boys, and all of us having a great time.

It didn't stop with that song, but continued right through a fast song and then another slow one, then sporadically through several more.

It was great in a lot of ways. It let the gay kids dance together in public, it got the wallflowers off the walls, and it ended up with nobody knowing or caring who was who ... just a bunch of kids being silly together.

Later on, when Bax's father came out to start breaking things up, nobody wanted to leave. He relented and gave us another hour, saying we'd have to cut the volume of the music. People still danced, but the party mostly broke up into groups of people talking and laughing together.

We were still sitting with Bax and Ron, joined by a bunch of others, including Ron's two new friends. Their names were Phil and Kurt, and they seemed to be nice guys. Kurt was the more outgoing of the two, and he was studying Ronnie and Bax. He looked like he was trying to screw up some courage, and finally asked, "Are you guys really queer?"

Ronnie looked a bit nervous, his eyebrows doing a little dance, then he asked, "What do you think?"

Kurt looked at Phil, who seemed worried about where things were going, then back at Ronnie. "I don't know what to think."

I said, "So, don't think anything. You're the guys who were sitting at the gay table all night. Maybe Ronnie should be asking you some questions."

Kurt and Phil both looked aghast. Kurt asked, "What? What are you talkin' about?"

I said, "I'm talking about the guys you spent all night with. Most of them are queer, as you call it. You didn't look like you were having a problem with them."

Old Kurt could be pretty expressive himself, and it would have been nice to have a camera right then as his face first screwed up, then both he and Phil looked back at where they had been sitting. Four of the guys they'd been with were headed our way.

Kurt looked back at me with a look of sheer horror on his face, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. Rafe, Brian, Dave and Tim came over to say they were heading out, and we all stood to say our goodbyes. Kurt was speechless as he shook hands, only able to nod when they said it had been nice to meet him. He kept looking back and forth between me and them, and it was only when they were halfway out of the yard that he called, "Wait up!" and chased after them, leaving an equally speechless Phil with us.

Darlene carried on for a minute with Bax about what nice friends he had, while poor Phil sat there with his mouth draped open. Tyrone kidded him about what a good dancer he was, and the kid looked like he wished he was anywhere else. Ronnie took mercy and talked to him, asking, "Does Bax know how to throw a party or what?"

Phil's eyes were darting around in their sockets, but he finally managed, "Yeah ... yeah!" He smiled, "Great time, Bax!"

Other kids leaving kept us busy saying goodbye, and I didn't even notice that Kurt had returned and gotten into a huddle with Phil. I don't know how long they'd been there together when Kurt asked, "Ralph? Can we talk to you for a minute?"

I looked over at him, and said, "Sure. What's up?"

Kurt looked serious, "Not here ... how 'bout out front?"

Darlene nodded at my questioning look, and I walked around the house with the guys.

We ended up in the driveway, Phil looking at the ground, and Kurt nervously stammered starts to questions that he never finished. He finally asked, "You don't care?"

I knew what he meant, but I wanted him to fill out the question. "Ah ... care about what?"

He hemmed and hawed some more, then finally blurted out, "They're all queer! That doesn't bother you?"

I looked at the two of them, knowing exactly what they were thinking, and hoping I could say the right thing. "Listen, Kurt ... Phil. There were sixty or seventy kids here tonight. You get a number like that and some of 'em are apt to be gay. I like those guys, and I know you did, too. You had fun all night."

They looked away at the same time, then at each other, then at the ground. I went on. "Does that mean you wouldn't have had fun if you knew they were gay up front? Now you know they're gay. Does that mean you didn't have fun? You breathe in, you breathe out, just like you always did." I snickered at Phil, "Didn't I see you slow dancing with a big black guy?"

They both looked confused, and Phil looked embarrassed. I took two steps over to the lawn and sat on the dewy grass. Phil and Kurt plopped down near me, where we could look at each other. I went on, "I guess I used to think like you guys, but let me tell you something. If they were assholes or liars or something like that, I wouldn't like them. If they were thieves or drug pushers, I wouldn't like them." I looked at Phil and Kurt to make sure I had their attention, then went on. "They're not like that, though. They're good guys. All different from each other, but still good guys. I like them because they're good guys and they're fun to be with, not for any other reason. I don't like them because they're gay, that doesn't even fit into the equation."

Phil said, "But ... "

I shook my head slowly, "There's no but involved, Phil. You can have fun with these guys ... I know you like Ronnie, and everybody does. Jeez, I went camping with Bax. I was bare-assed in front of him every day." I grinned, "I still have my cherry."

They both laughed nervously. Kurt appeared to be still thinking, but Phil said quietly, and kind of shyly, "It's weird though, isn't it? The things they do with each other?"

They both stared at me, waiting for me to respond.

I sighed, "I guess it'd be weird if I knew what they do ... if they do anything. Respect goes both ways, Phil. If those guys are having sex, then they are. They sure aren't gonna tell you or me about it ... no more than I'd tell you what I do with Darlene. I really hate it when some guy says he screwed such and such. It's just ... um ... well, it's personal to start with, and it ... it screws up the girl's reputation, even if it's true. What I'm gettin' at is, those guys don't tell me what they do in private, and they don't ask me what I do."

It turned out that Kurt had been listening as well as thinking. He smiled after awhile, and said, , "You're right, you know that? Ronnie's a lot of fun, and so were Dave and those other guys." He looked a question at me, "Why do you think he did that tonight? I mean the dancing and hugging."

I had to think about that one, then did the best I could. "I think Ronnie wants to be himself. I know he thinks you're his friends. I think he did it partly to let you know that he likes and trusts you, partly because he wanted to dance." I could see that I'd confused them again. "Listen, Ronnie likes you guys. He wants to keep you as friends. With friends comes truth, nothing to hide behind, no reason to hide anything. It's just him showing respect to you." I eyed them both, "Now you know. The ball's in your court."

I left them sitting there, knowing they wanted to talk, and went back to Darlene, who was turning into a real saint in my eyes. She saw me coming, and headed off into a dark spot where we could be alone. God, I loved that I could finally connect with a girl, and Darlene was coming to mean everything to me. We kissed, then she asked, "How'd it go?"

"I'm not sure, I think I did okay. They're talking."

Darlene pulled back a little, smiling while she studied my face. "I need to say something." Tears formed in her eyes, "I love you, Ralph."

I gaped, then blushed, then got my own dose of tears. "Oh God, Darlene. I love you, too!" We fell into a tight hug and a happy kiss, tears and love flowing from both of us.

Unfortunately, it was late, and she had to go home. I walked her there, which wasn't far. We kissed on her porch until one of her parents turned the light on, then I said goodbye and hurried back to Baxter's, which was where I was spending the night.

I couldn't get the idea out of my head, nor the grin off my face. Darlene Rivcki loved me. Me, Ralph Swanson. And I loved her back, so much that it ached. Good ache. Happy ache. Wonderful ache! I knew I was the happiest pre-car kid on the planet!

Everything was working right. I had a best friend, lots of other friends, a girlfriend who I knew I'd marry someday. I had good health, smarts, looked okay, had great parents. What's the term? Oh yeah, the world was my oyster, whatever that meant. My dad said it all the time.

When I got back to Bax's house, the crowd had thinned out to the people who were staying there. That included Kurt and Phil, Bax, Ronnie, me and Tyrone, and Eddie and Adam. Pete had planned to stay, but he'd really hit it off with Roxy. He walked her home, which was near his house, saying he might be back, but don't count on it.

I got welcomed back with words, winks and leers. I paid little attention, instead noticing that Kurt and Phil were in what seemed to be a very happy conversation with Ronnie. I looked at them for a few seconds, feeling kind of proud of myself. Ronnie was his own person, made his own friends, but I really thought I'd helped him to keep a few that night.

It had turned out to be my night in a lot of ways, and when I strecthed out in my sleeping bag beside Tyrone, alone together on the living room floor, I sighed so loudly and contentedly that he noticed.

He chuckled, "You be the boss, Ralph! You're not a bad dancer, either." Tyrone started giggling.

"You're pretty good yourself." I laughed, "You ever dance with guys before?"

* * * * * * * *

Tyrone and I talked for awhile before falling asleep, and the thick carpet on the floor was almost as comfortable as a bed. It was a luxury after a summer spent mostly in tents.

A little noise woke me early, and I stumbled into the bathroom to wash up, then went into the kitchen for something to drink.

Mrs. Baxter was in there cooking, and I guess it had been the rattle of pans that woke me up. She smiled, "Good morning, Ralph. Did you sleep alright on the floor?"

I nodded and smiled, and she asked, "Want some coffee?"

I said, "Yes, please. Is there any juice?"

"In the fridge, help yourself," she said cheerily. "Did you have a nice time last night?"

I got a glass and started pouring some juice. "Yeah, it was really nice." I turned around and grinned, "I'm in love!"

She stopped what she was doing and smiled at me. "Darlene? Good for you, Ralph, she's a darling girl."

I beamed, "Yeah, you got that right!"

She smiled and touched my arm. "Sit down, Ralph, I'd like to talk to you before everyone else comes down."

I sat at the table, her at the end and me next to her on the side. She put her hand on top of mine and smiled softly. "Ralph, I want you to know how much you mean to my husband and me, especially how much you mean to Dennis. You and Richard befriended him when he most needed a friend. You took the initiative to look beyond the evidence in front of you ... which was compelling ... and still stand by Dennis."

Her eyes got cloudy, and she put a little grip on my hand. "Ralph, my husband and I were as guilty as Dennis, choosing to believe his side even when we knew it was probably a lie."

I was getting embarrassed, "I didn't ... "

"Hear me out, Ralph. Don't say you didn't, because you certainly did." She smiled again, "You saved this family, Ralph. You and Richard did." She sipped coffee, and I picked mine up and drank some, "We were at our lowest point then. That's what lies do to people." She sighed, "We're intelligent people, but we all made some bad choices. As parents, we desperately wanted to believe Dennis, and that was one thing. I'm ashamed to say that we didn't want to believe our son was gay, and that led us to do some cruel things to some good people." She put a hand to her forehead, "Oh, Ralph! We were all out of control, then you and Richard appeared."

I sat up in surprise, "Me? Rich?"

She smiled sadly again, "Oh, yes. You and Richard, and Richard gives you the credit for looking under the surface, learning what really happened." She looked in my eyes, "Ralph, maybe it was a little thing for you, but it was the right thing for this family. You heard Dennis when his own parents didn't, stood by him when he was hated, when you had every reason to hate him yourself." Her hand slid up to grip my wrist, and her eyes burned into mine. "Don't discredit what you did, please don't. Our family is back together and happy with they way we are, and we owe it to three young men; you, Richard and Eddie."

I tried to stammer out something, but she went on. "You don't know what it's like being a parent yet, but you will someday. When we saw Dennis at Richard's house all black and blue and hurting like he was, it was a nightmare, and we should have known what to do. It took more than us, though. It took Eddie's willingness to forgive, Richard's diligence, and your wonderful way with what's really right to make it better."

She sighed loudly, and seemed to relax, smiling. "Ralph, I don't know what you think about all this, I just want you to realize the depth of our gratitude. We understand the position you've put yourself in as the friend of a gay boy." The tears appeared again in her eyes, "That's the kindest part of all." Her look softened into a real smile, "You're a good boy, Ralph, and your parents must be terrifically proud of you. I know I am."

She stood up to get back to making breakfast, while I sat there feeling stunned. How's that for a way to start the day?

Adam chose that moment to come into the kitchen looking for something to drink. Of Eddie's friends from out of town, Adam was the one I liked best. He was fun to be around, always cheerful, and always dreaming up new ways to play basketball.

Come to think of it, he couldn't be within arms reach of any type of ball without coming up with a game for it.

His hair was all mussed up from sleeping, and I asked, "Forget your comb, Adam?"

He looked over his shoulder as he poured a glass of juice, "Are you clairvoyant? That's what I did forgot it."

I reached into my pocket and offered him mine, "Here, use this."

He looked surprised. "You don't mind?"

I looked at my comb, then at Adam, "Why would I mind? It's just a comb."

He shrugged, smiled, and reached for it. "I just never used anybody else's comb before. Thanks."

He turned to leave, and I called, "Hey, Adam!"

He looked back at me with a question. "Why'd you guys cut in on Ron and Bax last night?" I asked.

Adam grinned, "It looked like a situation. You know ... people might talk. It seemed like the right thing to do."

I matched his grin and held up my thumb. "Nice move. Very nice move."

Adam smiled and slipped out through door. Of course, Mrs. Baxter had overheard that, and I had to explain, to her great bemusement, about Bax and Ron's first dance.

When I was done, she clapped her hands together and smiled at the ceiling, then at me. "Isn't this a brave new world? That is so amusing." Her eyes suddenly got sad. "You're making it easier, Ralph. Not just you, all of your friends too. It's one thing for us to accept that Dennis is gay, but we're his parents. We either accept him and love him the way he is, or we lose him, and that isn't an option for us."

She sat back down at the table, "You boys, though, you've looked beyond ... I don't know what you must think ... "

I interrupted, "I like Bax, I mean Dennis. Gay is kind of a foreign concept to me, but I still like him." I smiled up at his mother, "Bax is my friend, he always has been. I guess he's my best friend now. I see what he has going with Ronnie, and I don't think it's gross or anything. I think it helps me understand better, really." I shrugged, "I love Darlene, Bax loves Ron. That's simple enough, isn't it?"

She smiled. "There you go ... reminding me of the days when love was simple. I don't know why we let love get complicated, but it seems to be a part of the human condition." She put a finger against her cheek and thought for a second, then smiled broadly. "Thank you again, Ralph! It's up to us, isn't it? If we can make things complicated, then we can uncomplicate them. Why don't you wake the rest of the boys? After I have you all fed, I need to re-plan some things."

I checked the living room. Tyrone was gone, and both of our sleeping bags were rolled up neatly in front of the coffee table. I went upstairs and tapped on the door to Bax's room, hearing, "Come on in!"

Ronnie was just pulling a t-shirt over his head, and Phil and Kurt were sitting on the floor on top of their sleeping bags. They both looked dressed and ready to start the day. When Ron's shirt cleared his eyes, he smiled. "Hey, Ralph."

"Hey, guys. Breakfast is ready." I eyed Kurt and Phil, surprised to learn that they'd slept in Bax's room. I didn't want to ask anything, and they didn't offer anything on their own, so I figured there weren't any questions left. I just shrugged, "Where's Bax?"

Kurt said, "In the bathroom. He let everyone else go first."

"Where'd Adam and Eddie sleep?"

Ronnie said, "The room across from the bathroom."

When I got there, the door was half-open, so I pushed it the rest of the way.

I should have called on the phone. Eddie was in there by himself, wearing only a pair of shorts, and he had both the windows open and was fanning the air violently with a bath towel. He hadn't seen me, so I backed out quickly, setting the door to about where it had been.

God, the smell of sex in there had been overpowering, and I decided then and there that I knew more than I'd ever need to know about what two guys did together. I headed back downstairs, running into Adam on the way. He handed me back my comb, and I told him that breakfast was ready.

I stepped outside for a few minutes to clear my nostrils with some fresh air, then found myself beaten to the kitchen by Phil and Kurt, who already had plates of waffles and bacon in front of them. I got my own plate of food and poured some milk, then sat down at the table. "Everything okay, guys?" I asked.

Kurt swallowed, then smiled. "Things are great. Thanks for the enlightenment last night."

That was the last word said about the subject. Kurt and Phil liked Ronnie, they liked the guys they'd sat with the night before, and that was it. They slept on the floor in Bax's room while Bax slept in his bed with Ron. It wasn't an issue, never should have been, and I smiled. Ronnie didn't just know how to make friends, he knew how to choose them.

I dug into my breakfast, as did everyone as they showed up. That Saturday was kind of our last hurrah for the summer, and we were going to spend it at our little camp behind Ronnie's house, then pack everything up the next day. We all had our bikes at Bax's house. The ride to Ron's was only about five miles, and we were used to it. My dad was coming the next day with his station wagon to collect up all the things we'd gathered there, then that would be it. School started on Tuesday, and all of us were tied up with family things on Sunday and Monday.

I finished eating, but stayed at the table with the bittersweet thought that this might be our last day all together ... ever. We were all close to sixteen, the age where we could get driver's licenses and after-school jobs. Change was on the horizon ... big change. Kid to adult change.

I wanted that change. I wanted my license, wanted a car of my own, wanted money in my pocket that I'd earned by myself. I wanted to be old enough to do things with Darlene; things that we decided all by ourselves. At the same time, I didn't want to let go of what I already had. I had friends, and I wanted to keep them. I always had friends. With maturity came some appreciation for them, and I didn't want to lose them as a matter of course.

The breakfast table wasn't the place for it, so I figured I'd say my piece around the last campfire of the summer.

After breakfast, we gathered up our things and strapped them to our bikes or ourselves, then pedaled loudly and hilariously over to Ronnie's house. When we got there, Dickie and his team of teeny-boppers were waiting for us, and the whole group headed down to the lake.

With Adam there, we invented some new games and laughed at his rules. Rich and Joanie showed up with Darlene, then some more of Ron's local friends.

The weather was perfect for the first day of September, almost eighty and sunny. In most ways, it couldn't have been better, but I couldn't get rid of the nagging feeling that it was the end of something, maybe everything, and I didn't want that to be the case.

We all found amusement in the antics of Dickie and his friends; ten-eleven-twelve-year-olds trying to fit in with the big boys. The move to the hills, maybe just the move itself, had done wonders for Dick's asthma. He hadn't had a serious problem since he arrived.

Dick was a nice kid, a lot like Ronnie in the way that he drew people to him. He'd slimmed down a bit, too, now that he could do things without wheezing himself to death. Over the summer, he'd become my own little brother, all eager to know what the big kids did.

His horn pointed a different way than Ron's, though, and that became a thing I had to deal with. He had more questions about sex and girls than I had the experience to give him straight answers to, so I made up a lot of answers that sounded like fun.

He could usually tell when I was kidding him, but if he didn't catch on, I'd tell him when I was making it up. I didn't want to be the cause of any future dysfunction.

We couldn't have done much better for the last day of summer vacation. The weather was good, the company was good, the water was its warmest, and fun was in the air. We played volleyball without a net, swam, fished, took turns in the canoe. It was when I was out in the boat with Rich, Darlene and Joan that I realized what we had there, what Ronnie had created.

It was the exact same atmosphere as at the beach. Different surroundings, different people, but it was just the same way; no pressure, no competitiveness other than in games, and there were no sore losers even there. It was fun, a place to connect and learn your friends. Sure, there were angry words sometimes, but they were soon forgotten. It was a place to cement friendships, not fracture them, and that last day was perfect for it. As Richie put it, "No worries, mate."

We'd all chipped in to buy food, and at around seven o'clock Ron's mother came down with it. Just hamburger meat and hot dogs, some rolls and chips, marshmallows. What we had wasn't important. We fired up the grill and waited for the coals to get hot, then Ronnie and Bax did the honors of cooking, with help from Dickie and Joan.

We ate our fill, then played some kick ball game that Adam thought up, sort of a cross between tag and kick the can. Adam changed the rules and came up with new ones as they suited his needs, and it was both fun and funny. We played until the sun dimmed, then started a fire just before sunset.

I sat at the water's edge with Darlene to watch the colors of the sunset, probably as content as I'd ever been. She nudged me and murmured, "Nice day, huh?"

I put my cheek against hers. "Perfect."

We sat like that for awhile, then she said, "We have nice friends, you know that?"

I sighed, "Yeah, we do."

"We even get blessed with a sunset ... isn't that gorgeous?" she asked, gesturing broadly at the scene before us.

I sighed again, looking up at the red and orange clouds, "Yeah, it is," then thought and added, "You're gorgeous, too. I'm really happy, Darlene."

She snuggled into me, looking at the sky, and said, "Me, too." She suddenly poked my shoulder, "Get Bax and Ron, Joanie and Rich, Adam and Eddie. They should be here, too."

I barely budged before I heard Bax say, "We're here," then Rich ... "Us, too," and Eddie, "We're here."

I heard Adam giggle, then say, "You guys don't have a monopoly on sunsets. The whole town's here."

I craned my neck to look, and Adam was right. Everyone was there, in one position or another, looking at Mother Nature's handiwork in the sky, and she was giving us a special display of her talents. The sun was behind a hill, the sky still bright blue, but the rippling clouds were brilliant. Yellow at the bottom, orange in the middle, red higher up, and sort of purple above that. It was breathtaking, and it intensified and moved around before beginning to fade.

It provided a quiet moment for all of us, but eventually turned to near-darkness. That made the campfire look good, and we gradually retreated to it. When Darlene and I stood and turned around, this one kid, George was gaping at Ronnie and Bax, who were holding hands. He said, "What the fuck? They're fags?"

I stared at the kid, adrenaline beginning to pump, while Darlene said, "No, they're gay. Problem?"

It was a problem. George got up huffing, then blasted through the campsite saying, "I don't believe it! Fuckin' faggots, and I spent all day here!" He whirled around and yelled at Ronnie, pointing at him, "You wait, Ron. You're dead meat when school starts!" He looked at his friend, Ernie, and said, "C'mon Ern, we're out of this fag farm!"

Ernie looked around, then chased after George, following him up the hill. The rest of us looked at each other, kind of dumbfounded, then Kurt took off up the hill after them. I looked at Bax and Ron, who had stunned expressions on their faces. Rich was already there, and other people were on their way, so I left reassurances to them, while I looked at where George had been.

I was stunned, surprised, and momentarily out of thoughts. I had no idea how George could have not known, or at least not noticed, the bond between Bax and Ron, but it was pretty clear that he'd missed it entirely. I figured we'd intervene when school started, and teach old George how to keep his mouth shut.

Shortly afterwards, Joanie's father appeared, and Richie left with her. He hadn't planned to spend the night with us.

Nothing happened for awhile, and eventually Adam stoked the fire with some new wood. The sparks and flames got our attention away from the other thing, and people sat down around the fire. I could see that people wanted to forget George and Ernie, but they couldn't any more than I could. It was tense, and it didn't get better when Kurt came back.

He was out of breath, finally, "Sorry, guys. They're assholes. I ... I tried. George is gonna start shit at school."

Boy, did that screw up the night. Ronnie looked defiant, if a little bit afraid. Eddie, Bax and Adam were staring murder at Kurt, though it was directed at George and not him. Something had to happen, so I asked Ron, "You know where they live?"

He stared seriously at me, "No, guys. It's my problem, and I'll deal with it."

I said, "Bullshit!" and turned to Kurt, "Where do they live?"

Darlene pulled on my shoulder, "Don't, Ralph. It'll just cause trouble worse than it is."

I looked at her, and deflated a little, but I was still angry. "Darlene! It's not just tonight. Those guys are gonna give Ronnie grief at school. We gotta stop it before it gets there!"

I was trying to make forward progress, but Darlene's hands against my shoulders stopped me, else I'd knock her over. "Ralph, Ron can deal with it. He has real friends. Those two idiots won't make any difference."

I was about to argue when a big hand landed on my shoulder. A black hand. I turned to Tyrone, and he smiled, saying, "Darlene be right, Ralph. Let us take care of this. You do enough as it is." I looked at him, feeling helpless, then he said, "Let's go, boys. We got some visitin' to do."

Tyrone started up the hill in the dark, and he was followed by all the boys there except me. Darlene whispered, "Let them," and I listened, watching all the other guys leave, the younger kids included. Darlene pulled me to her, "Ralph, don't." She rubbed my nose with her own, then kissed me. "Ronnie's okay. Let them work it out."

I had to look at her, then I realized she was right. Ron had friends, lots of them. I was looking at my own friend, and I loved her. We leaned in to kiss, and we kissed and kept the fire going until we heard the others coming back about an hour later.

They were with us all at once, minus George, but Ernie was there, under the protective arm of Ron. I did a double-take. Ronnie?

Ron looked so smug and proud that it was almost like seeing a different person. I smiled at him, "I see you got one to come back." I faced Ernie, "What happened? Your brain take over?"

Ron rubbed Ernie's shoulder and whispered, "Thanks," before walking toward Bax.

Ernie smiled shyly, toeing the ground with his foot. "Yeah ... I guess. What George did doesn't make sense. I should'a stayed here, I was just kinda shocked, so I went with him." He smiled over at Ronnie and Bax, then back at me. "George can think what he wants, but he ain't thinkin' for me."

I grinned, and we shook hands. "Good man, Ernie."

I went back to Darlene, kind of wondering what had gone on, but nobody was talking about it. Adam had his guitar out, and was tuning it. His playing and Eddie's singing had become a regular part of our campfires when they were both there. They were good, and it was something the rest of us looked forward to.

We found a comfy spot and sat down, and I continued to wonder why nobody was talking about what had gone on with George and Ernie. When Adam started playing a tune, I mentioned what I was thinking to Darlene, and she just shushed me. We listened.

Adam was good on the guitar, and the thing he was playing was pretty captivating. Bax asked Eddie to sing, and everyone seconded the motion, so he started in on what Adam was playing, a Rolling Stones song called 'Lady Jane'. God, they sounded good together, and a few others joined them singing. It sounded nice. Eddie's voice stood out, and the ones who joined in could at least carry a tune.

The night went on like that for awhile, Adam and Bax providing background music, sometimes something you paid attention to, other times just strumming and humming. The hour that Darlene's dad would come for her was approaching, so we started making the most of it, making out with a new passion now that we were in love.

I never expected a lot out of my first girlfriend, but I got way more than I imagined I ever would. I don't mean sex; but rather the feelings that I once wondered if I'd ever feel, the connection I feared I'd never know. It was the most satisfying thing I'd ever known, that I could love, be loved like that. Real sex wasn't about to happen anytime soon. I knew that. I respected that, and I could deal with it. I had two perfectly good hands, and I could take care of myself like I always had until that magic moment came.

We held together for a while longer, then we heard her father calling for her from Ron's back yard. We hustled up there, then kissed goodnight in front of her father. "I love you, Darlene," I whispered, "I really do."

She pushed back a little and looked into my eyes, then pulled me back close. "I love you too, Ralph. You're mine," she grinned, "and don't you forget it." She kissed me again.

Her father tapped her shoulder, "C'mon, Pumpkin." He winked at me, "Bye, Ralph. There's always another day."

Right, I thought. I didn't relinquish Darlene in the back yard, but walked her out front to the car. While her dad was getting in, we kissed again. It was just a little one, but it felt like the best one yet. There was nothing left to prove, it was just goodnight, but it felt so real, so comfortable, so loving, so necessary.

We left it when her father started the car, one more quick kiss before I closed the door. I had visions of the future, though, and they included a lot more than kisses. We'd be parents, I knew that for sure. Little things, half-Ralph and half-Darlene, learning to love and be loved, accept and be accepted. I tripped and fell heading back down the hill, but it didn't matter. I was the happiest guy on earth, envisioning my future.

I curled up and rolled down the hill like a little kid.. I felt smart, lucky, and loved. I even made a soft landing, laughing and a little dizzy when I stood up.

I sat next to Bax and asked him what had happened when they all left. He shrugged, "Not much. We ran into Ernie, and he was on his way back here already. He brought us to George's house, but George wouldn't come out, then his mother said she'd call the cops if we didn't disappear. We walked down the street, then Ronnie wanted to try on his own."

I groaned, and Bax said, "Yeah, that's the way I felt, but you know Ron. We let him go when Ernie said he'd go with him. You should ask Ron what he said. I think it's pretty cool."

I looked around, "Where is he, anyhow?"

"He went to talk to his mom when you were up with Darlene. She needs to know what's goin' on."

"So, what did he say to George?"

"Basically the sticks and stones thing. Heh, he mentioned that it was a little gay boy who broke Pete and Tyrone's noses, and sent a third guy for some serious dental work. That's when George's mother kicked them out for threatening her little baby."

'Jeez, is the whole family morons?"

Bax shrugged, "Ernie got the last dig, tellin' George's mother that her son started the threats, and I guess she believes what he says. Anyhow, George gave Ernie a 'him or me' choice, and Ernie just said bye."

"Ouch. Have they been friends long?"

"Forever, from what Ernie says. He's givin' up a lot by stickin' up for Ronnie."

I stared at the fire for awhile, wondering about Ernie and George. They both seemed like decent guys, and it didn't seem fair that anyone should have to give up one friend just to be friends with somebody else. I wasn't even sure that Ernie had made the right choice, though I applauded him for it.

I didn't know enough about either of them to figure anything out. Friends forever, as Bax put it, and Ernie just walked when George didn't like gays? It didn't compute, not at all.

I looked around the fire, and everyone was either staring into it like I was, or in some private and hushed conversation. It was suddenly punctuated by Ron's voice calling Ernie's name from the hill, yelling for him to come up to the house. I watched Ernie jump up and run off in that direction. I was still next to Bax, and I said, "I wonder what that's about."

He mumbled, "I don't know," and looked nervously toward the house. "Think I should go up there?"

"I guess, if you're curious. I sure as hell am." I turned to face Bax, "Does this whole thing sound normal to you? Would you ditch an old friend because ... I don't know ... because he didn't like black people or something?"

Bax furrowed his brow. "I thought about that. I'm kinda hopin' Ernie did that to make George think. I mean, there were fifteen of us on the kid's lawn, and I don't think his mother looked at faces when she said she was callin' the cops. George has to know he's on the wrong side, but I can see his side, too."

I was surprised, "You can?"

Bax nodded. "Listen, Ralph. You and Rich ... you're different kinds of guys. So are Tyrone and Pete. You're able to look at different people and still find the person inside. I think Pete's like that because his best friend is black, or at least that's part of the reason. Tyrone knows about prejudice because he lives it, and the causes are all stupid. I don't know if you find any ... value, I guess ... in having me as your friend, but you're way past special to me ... you're a real treasure."

I stared at him. Bax's eyes were wet, and so were mine. I smiled, "Bax, you're my best friend. I ... I ... fuck it!" I pulled him into a hug that we held until we heard other voices approaching, one of them Ronnie's. I giggled, "Uh-oh, caught in the act," which made Bax giggle as we both turned around.

Ronnie was approaching, his arm across George's shoulder, and George's cheek was puffy, along with the right side of his lip. They were with Ernie and a guy who looked somewhat like an older version of George.

Ron looked absolutely triumphant, but it was the older guy who spoke. "Which one's Dennis Baxter?"

Bax raised his hand hesitantly. The guy smiled shyly, "I'm Dwight. My brother wants to talk to you alone, if that's alright."

Bax looked at me, then up at the guys standing there. Ron, Ernie and George all nodded at once, and he started to push up, then walked away with George, all eyes following their backs. Ronnie sat down where Bax had been, Ernie on his other side. Dwight remained standing. He looked around, rubbing his hands together nervously, then spoke. "Okay, an explanation. When I got home tonight, my brother was stomping around the place, cursing faggots and queers. I tried to make him shut up, but he kept going 'til I decked him."

There was a bit of a collective gasp. "He didn't know something that I did. Now he does." He started pacing nervously, "I ... our father was a gay man. He hid it 'til he couldn't anymore, then left us ... meaning our mother, I guess. We were little then; nine and six, and we didn't know anything, just that he was gone. I found out later, last year, just before he died. Nobody ever told Georgie 'til tonight."

He paced some more, "Listen, guys. George told me what he said, what he threatened." He looked off in the direction Bax had walked with George, "He's trying to make his peace with Dennis now. I hope you'll give him another chance. He ... he's been so happy lately, finally with some solid friends. Now he's fucked it up with his own mouth."

I almost said something, but held my tongue.

Dwight's face took on a pleading look, "Guys, give George that chance. He's just like the rest of you, trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong. He'll learn best from his friends."

He held his hands out, palms up, "Everybody fucks up. I guess what I'm asking is you don't dump Georgie without giving him a second try. He'll prove himself," he turned his eyes to Ernie, "right, Ern?"

Ernie's eyes were sparkling, a combination of wetness and the reflection from the fire. He half closed them, then his eyes opened wide as he smiled and nodded emphatically, saying, "George is my friend, he'll come around." Then his eyes clouded with doubt, and he looked at Dwight. "How could your father be gay? I didn't think gay guys could have kids."

Dwight looked around, kicking at the ground. "I don't know how it happens. I guess he was always gay. He lived with my mother for twelve years, fathered us. He loved her, too, he told me that. He loved us kids, too, and we always knew that." He shrugged, or maybe it was a sob. "It wasn't an illusion, that part was the truth, but his life was a lie. That's why he left."

Dwight's words were sad. I found myself unconsciously stroking Ronnie's shoulder, knowing that he wouldn't live a lie. It wasn't in him to do that. He was the genuine article, as my dad would say. I wasn't worried about George fixing things with Bax, either. Bax would forgive him, just because George was sorry.

Dickie moved over beside me, and leaned until I stretched my arm around him and pulled him to me.

Things were looking up. It was going to be a good year, a good life.

I wasn't crazy, not demented, not deranged. I was just Ralph. I could see that the future promised good things for all of us, as long as we took care to recognize those good things, whatever form they took.

Good people, at least in our neck of the woods, were popping up all over the place, and looking out for one another.

And the times, they were a-changing.