The Third Good Thing
The next few months really flew by. Our household was almost frantically busy with wedding plans. Once the setting was agreed on and the wedding party selected, there were travel reservations needed for Gretchen Kromer since the whole family couldn’t come to the wedding, but they were going to join us for a week at Whistler during Christmas break.
Lucero declined the wedding invitation, but he’d send Daniel skiing with us at Whistler if Daniel finished the school year with good grades.
The wedding party had been put together, at least the teenage element. Dan decided he could come after all when he learned his parents were hoping to scale back their Thanksgiving extravaganza. We just had to find a girl for his counterpart at the wedding, and when Bernie learned that we were having difficulty with that he offered up his daughter, Alana. I usually only saw Bernie when he was doing business with Dad, and hadn’t seen Alana since she was eleven. My mother assured me that at age fifteen Alana had turned into a dark-eyed beauty who was intelligent, athletic and fun-loving, not to mention poised. Well, she should be poised. She went to school at Miss Porter’s, after all.
Joanie had the okay from her parents and both Bridgette and Cheri Fournier were going with Tom and Shea. There would be a very nice looking party of bridesmaids.
Mom had even found a kilt pleater, and was negotiating with a second one because so many guys would need kilts. One thing I hadn’t known was that a man’s kilt is nothing more than a big rectangle of cloth that has to be pleated before each wearing. Experienced kilt wearers learn how to do this themselves, but it would be frustrating to a novice, and nearly impossible. That’s why we needed kilt pleaters for the wedding. Seriously.
Of course, a lot of other things were going on at the same time. School started, and we had to learn new bus routes and our new daily routines. The cafeteria lunches were reportedly healthier and soda machines had disappeared from the building, replaced with machines that dispensed boxed juices. A good percentage of the students qualified for a free school breakfast, and they found that bacon and sausages had been replaced by something like tofu sausage patties, that the only beverages available were juice, one-percent milk, and water. A fresh fruit cup came with every meal, and there were big bowls full of banana slices and berries for the cold cereals. There were also no more pre-sweetened cereals, and I suppose that meant no more with sugar coating on top of what’s already in the cereal itself. If someone wanted to add sugar they had to request some, and got just one packet that was half the size of a regular one.
The complaints were widespread at first, but the school held its ground. After a week or so of feeling hungry by second period, people started eating more and got used to it.
For the first few days, we tried to keep an eye on Gary to see if some boneheaded freshman was nuts enough to tease him. Gary was a big kid, though, and he was also beginning to conquer his lurch. He’d revert to it if he felt rushed or excited, but for the most part he’d begun to tame the beast. Having the adoring and extremely sexy Joanie with him most of the time sent any other would-be teasers to the boys room for a suddenly needed break.
While watching out for Gary, we did see a few younger kids getting picked on and just stepped in. That was normally all it took to stop it, but not always, and things aren’t always like they seem. Jim told me one day about a bigger kid who seemed to be picking on someone smaller, but it turned out that the smaller guy had been teasing the bigger one relentlessly for having a gay brother, and the bigger kid had reached his breaking point. Jim asked the smaller kid what his problem was and got a lot of dirty mouth from him. Jim couldn’t do anything then, but told the little guy to expect a visit, which earned him more lip.
He was livid telling us the story that day after English class, which several of us had together while Gary was two rooms down in the dreaded algebra class. There is not time for a discussion between classes, so Jim spit out what he could, and we agreed to hijack the creep from the lunch line to have a talk with him.
When we met, the cafeteria doors were already open. I asked Jim, “How do you know he’s not inside already.”
Jim said, “I don’t. You stay here and watch for him and I’ll go look inside.”
He started to leave and I tugged his sleeve, “Wait! Who are we looking for?”
“He’s a little punk in an ugly shirt. You can’t miss him.”
I laughed, “Give me a little more to go on here. What color is the shirt?”
“Orange, I think. Just say hi to everyone who’s under five-five in an ugly shirt. The one who says ‘eat my shit’ is the guy we want.”
I said, “I hope you find him, but we’ll give it a go.”
Jim disappeared into the cafeteria, and we joked about the skimpy description, but the kid wasn’t hard to spot after all. We heard him coming, telling someone, “That mother-fucker’s brother brought shit on me this morning. He’s gonna get more than lip this afternoon.”
Someone else said, “Shut up, Gil. That guy’s way bigger than you. How do you think you can hurt him?”
“I’ll take his head off with a rock, that’s what I’ll do. How the hell can he defend that faggot?”
They came into view and Jim’s description turned out to be pretty accurate. The kid was small even for a freshman; his shirt was indeed orange and ugly, and his mouth expelled vile things much like a broken sewer pipe would. I stepped right in front of him as he headed for the lunchroom and said, “Hi.”
He tried to side-step me, but Tommy was right there. I said, “You’re Gil, right?”
He said, “Who’s askin’?”
I said, “Don’t be rude. I’ve heard of you, and I think we have the same goals.”
He eyed me and asked, “Like what?”
I shook my head slightly and mumbled, “Not here. Let’s go talk.”
He had already moved out of the line. He looked at me curiously with most of the animosity gone from his face. He looked at Gary, Tom and Roger and asked, “They’re like you?”
I said, “In a lot of ways. Let’s go outside and talk where it’s private.” I looked at Roger and said, “Stick around till Jim shows up. We’ll be out at that monument by the student garden. You can fill him in on the way.”
I looked at Gil and said, “Let’s go.”
As soon as we were out of the building I said, “Listen, man. You’re doing this the wrong way. You can’t go around like a thug, shooting your mouth off about your plans. You’re the guy who’s gonna end up hurt or busted. We all have to change our tactics sometimes if we want to win the war.”
“What are you saying?”
“You have to wise up Gil. What’s that anyhow, short for Gilbert?”
After a moment he said, “No, Gilman: my last name.”
Tom asked, “Do you have a first name?”
I continued, “Anyhow, Gil, it’s getting very difficult to do anything to individuals, especially while guys like you still run their mouths about it. You know it’s a hate crime now, don’t you? You can’t just say such-and-such came on to me and that’s why I bashed his head in.”
We reached the Jamie Jenks memorial and sat on benches in the shade, the modest monument amid the flowers before us. I saw Jim and Roger coming and nudged Tommy. “Catch them up on where we are so far.”
Tommy shook his head like he didn’t understand, so I stood and we stepped off to the side. I said, “Don’t ask me what I’m doing, just trying to turn it around on this punk somehow. Bear with me.”
Tom socked my shoulder lightly and went off to intercept Roger and Jim. I gave them some more time by stopping for a long drink at the water fountain. Gil had tensed up when he saw Jim, but Jim came up to him smiling with his hand out. “Sorry about the heavy hand this morning, but that’s not our way.”
He sat on another bench with Roger and they leaned forward to participate.
I looked right at Gil and said, “Tell me one thing, actually two things. What’s your problem with gays? Is it religion, or were you molested, or what?”
He looked down and mumbled, “No.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I just always heard …”
“Always heard it where?”
He was barely audible, “My stepfather.”
“Why does he care, do you know?”
Gil was silent for so long that I found myself holding my breath. I could hear fallen leaves scudding down the gravel path and the whisper of the wind, but nothing else.
Finally Gil choked out, “He yells about gays and fags and queers all the time, but … oh, man.”
I prodded, “But what, Gil?”
There was another long silence before Gil whispered, “He does it. Sometimes when my mom has the night shift, he has guys over and they … they do those things.”
“Gay things,” I said, and he nodded.
I thought to ask, “To each other?”
Gil’s voice went into a mousy squeak and he said, “And to me,” and he latched onto Gary, crying and choking uncontrollably.
I mumbled, “Jesus.”
Gary surprised me with his gentleness, and he had Gil calmed down after a few minutes. I asked Tom in a whisper, “Now what? Shouldn’t we do something?”
Tom said, “Let me think. The kid’s in trouble and I don’t think we can do much about it. You guys try to cheer him up and I’ll go get the guidance counselor for the freshmen, and maybe the nurse.”
Tom set off running and I said, “I’m really sorry, Gil. Is your stepfather Gilman or is that your first father’s name?”
He choked out, “First. My stepfather is Lester Saunders.”
“I hate to ask this, but is he a threat to your mom?”
“I don’t think so. If she hears this, she might be a threat to him.”
“Will things get worse if he’s gone, in a money sense I mean?”
“Yeah,” Gil muttered. “Les makes more than mom and covers a lot of the bills.”
I took a good look at Gil, and he truly was a little grub. His hands were dirty, his fingernails full of goop. I could see the dirt in his ears, the grime on his neck, his unwashed hair and his yellow teeth. It was apparent that he hadn’t been well cared for, and didn’t know the basics of personal hygiene.
I saw Tom come out of the building with a teacher and the nurse, and quickly fumbled for a piece of paper. I wrote my number on it and said, “Call me here if things go bad. Promise?”
He smiled nervously and said, “I don’t even know your name.”
I said, “It’s Dunn. That’s my last name. I’m like you … I don’t have a first name.”
He shoved the paper in his pants pocket and asked almost slyly, “If Leland ever calls, who should he ask for?”
I snickered, “It depends on who Leland wants to talk to. If it’s me he could ask for Paul.” I poked his rib, “You know this Leland guy?”
He giggled and shook his head no, and then the authorities were there. The nurse leaned over Gil and made a face before she smiled at him and held her hand out. He stood, and she led him back toward the building.
The guidance counselor, Mr. Ballas wanted to talk to all of us, but not then and not together. We followed him to the office for late passes, and when the final bell rang while we were still there he said he’d take care of it.
I never said anything about the incident to anyone else and never ran into Gil at school again. It was soon forgotten.
+ + + + + + + +
We all got an invitation to Albany in early October for the Columbus Day parade, and we went for the day in several cars. The day was nice and the parade was fun because Italians have some zany ways of celebrating. There was a very sloppy pasta festival after the parade, and weak jug wine was available to anyone old enough to hold out a cup. It was still daylight when we left, stained pretty much from head to toe with tomato sauce and sloshes of red wine, even some long strands of pasta glued to a shirt or a pant leg. It was the kind of day where nothing mattered.
Dana and Elenora rode in the parade, in the back of a giant convertible with her parents. Grandfather Morassutti hadn’t been a senator for years, but he was still a popular man, right up there as a crowd pleaser with the Cuomos. We joined the Morassuttis at a Sons of Italy club for a spaghetti dinner and then headed out.
The ride home was beautiful. The air had cooled rapidly, and there was a light mist wafting through the foliage, which was only a week past peak and still brilliant. It was gorgeous through the hills, and I snuggled with Lisa all the way. Every kiss tasted like another bite of pasta sauce.
+ + + + + + + +
We were well settled into the new school year by then. I’d been surprised at my new popularity when a lot of clubs wanted me to join, but that was only for my fund-raising reputation. I was tempted by the Athletic Supporters, but they were made to change their name before that went very far, and the Athletic Team Supporters name dimmed my interest.
I did join the GSA – we all did. We were urged on by Jim McNaughton, and when we protested that we weren’t gay he said he wasn’t either, but we should consider what the S stood for. “We might not be gay, but some of our friends are.”
He was right. The first meeting we went to was full of nervous, edgy kids, and I was as nervous as anyone. Nobody had to identify as gay or straight and nobody did, and by the fourth meeting things had mellowed. Nobody was running around shouting, “I’m gay,” but nobody was yelling, “I’m not,” either. The first couple of meetings were like socials. There were brownies or cookies with coffee and soft drinks. The talks were about the club itself, its goals in general, and there was a lot of discussion. It got pretty good when they were talking about tolerance, because nobody wanted that. You tolerate dentist visits. You tolerate your friend’s bad breath. You tolerate cold, slushy days, barking dogs and screaming babies. Tolerance wasn’t on the agenda.
Acceptance didn’t have a better fate. Everyone wants to feel accepted, but nobody wants to have to be accepted. That still leaves you as a second-class member of society. That was also a non-starter. The discussion is ongoing, and everyone has been asked to submit their own version of the ultimate goal before the Christmas break.
People started to loosen up after the third meeting. There was a speaker there, kind of an ex-ex-gay, who had been led to believe at age fifteen that he could just shed his gayness, as if it wasn’t really part of him, and not what he wanted to be. Then he described the Hell he’d gone through, and it sounded like real torture, all paid for by his parents. It sounded worse than horrible, with repeated religious lectures by his ‘saviors’, starvation, solitary confinement.
He eventually escaped, but his message was a simple ‘Be who you are. Be what you are. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re as normal as the next person.”
He wasn’t a particularly eloquent speaker, but his message was sincere and well received.
On that day with Gil in the school yard, if his story had been different my plan was to have him infiltrate the GSA and pretend to befriend the members, to learn their plans for a gay world, and their insidious methods of recruiting new gays. I didn’t have any time to think that day, and it was off the cuff. I just thought if he saw those kids, not knowing who was gay or straight, he might learn that it didn’t matter. Seeing the kids at the first few meetings made me think I wasn’t far off the mark.
I didn’t see many guys I knew there, and nobody seemed gay in any obvious way, but some girls did hold hands with each other in the line to greet the speaker. Things were loosening up.
It was a few days later when a page three article in the paper listed the arrest of Lester Saunders for child abuse, second degree sexual assault of a minor, prostituting a minor child, and a whole lot of other things, twenty-two charges in all, including child neglect. Gil had never come back to school, and the article said nothing about him or his mother. I hoped the kid was in a better situation, but didn’t even bother to believe I could find out. It would be hard to picture him in a worse one.
+ + + + + + + +
Gary had a small party in their barn for Halloween, and it was huge fun. Most of us wore costumes, and the regular lights in the barn had been replaced with tiny ones, apparently placed to obscure all obstacles. If Gary charged a dime for every ‘Oof’, ‘Damn’, ‘Ouch’, and ‘Shit’ we heard when people tumbled over hay bales he’d be on his way to early retirement. He played some decent music, served cider, soda and water, and had chips and dips, popcorn, apples, lots of cheese, and homemade beef salami for munchables.
I made my own costume, with a little help from Tommy. I showed him a battery operated lantern and a pushbutton and asked if he could cause the pushbutton to make the lantern blink at my will. He said, “Sure. How far away do you want the button?”
I had to consider that, and mentally calculated the wire-distance from my hand to my shoulder and back down to where I needed it and said, “About six feet. Make it eight, a little slack won’t hurt, but one end has to be detachable.”
Tom looked at me, “A plug?”
I said, “Yeah, like that. This won’t be fat wire, will it?”
Tom said, “No, no. I can do it with bell wire. Shut up while I think about a plug. What’s this for, anyhow?”
I swore him to secrecy and told him. When he finally stopped laughing he said, “You’re nuts. We need to get something flat that doesn’t weigh six tons. Leave it to me. I’ll do this thing right.”
A few days and sixty bucks in parts later I had the finished product, and it was well done like I’d expect from Tom. When I did a backyard demo for Mom and Ally I thought they were going to die laughing right where they stood, and knew I had a winner.
I ended up at the party with the good White Witch Lisa, wearing an old trench coat of Dad’s and not a lot else except galoshes, although I had warm clothes in a bag. We came late. Well, I meant to show up late, but when Lisa saw my costume she laughed long and hard. She made me show everyone in her family one by one so we were late anyhow. When Hector dropped us off at the barn things were already rocking inside. We got out of the Jeep and I pulled my old-man mask down and asked Lisa, “Ready?”
She was lost in giggles “I guess so. Let’s do it.”
We went into the barn, and all heads turned to us. I took the push-button in my right hand and whipped the trench coat open, pressing the button on and off quickly. All I had on under the coat were the galoshes, a dark bathing suit and a small strap around my waist. Off of that strap dangled a big, round, strategically placed LED light that blinked bright enough to make everyone squint, so it effectively hid the bathing suit. The flasher had arrived, and people screamed with laughter.
It was a useful costume, too, as we found out after Lisa and I had stumbled into a few hay bales. I could just expose myself, so to speak, and turn the light on long enough to be sure we had a clear path to where we were going. People found that funny, too, but eyes adjusted after awhile and we could see well enough to get around.
I stayed in costume for the longest time because there were going to be prizes for the best ones. I thought I had most people figured out by size and shape, although some shapes had been altered. Some of the costumes were great. There was no mistaking Tommy, but his costume was improbable. He was dressed as an organ-grinder, if you’ve ever seen a picture of one, and Bridgette was his monkey, attached to the organ with a chain that went to a collar around her neck. She had a wooden bowl with some gold-wrapped chocolate coins in it, along with some bills from a Monopoly game, and she held out the bowl for donations while Tommy cranked his organ.
Gary, as Tarzan, was obvious just for his size and Joanie, his Jane, couldn’t have looked sexier, though she must have been freezing in her little loincloth and bra cloth.
I knew that Shea and Cheri were the two bugs, but only by their lack of height. Their green bodies were very nearly spherical, with large fluorescent dots painted on kind of randomly. Their faces were part blue, part green and all fluorescent, and they had made some kind of glasses with green cellophane for the huge lenses. They wore baseball caps wrapped in green foil, and the hats had springs on each side with what looked like a ping-pong ball at the end of each spring. The balls bounced around crazily with their tiniest movement, and I found it hard to take my eyes off them.
Lisa looked great, too. She made her own hat out of white felt and thin cardboard. It was covered liberally with glitter. She had sewn up her own garment. It was white, but had a kind-of Dracula like collar that stood up and was spiked. The rest was a gown that went all the way to the floor, with a sash around her waist. She had enlisted Tommy, too, for help with her wand. She knew what she wanted it to do, but didn’t have any idea how to go about it.
What Tom devised was a length of thin copper pipe a couple of feet long. At one end, he cross drilled some holes. He ran a piece of electrical wire up through it and soldered it to a bulb fitting for a mini-maglite, and soldered the fitting to the end of the pipe. At the other end, which Lisa would hold in her hand, he added a mount for two triple A batteries on one side, and taped a push-button identical to mine to the other side. Once he wired it up, Lisa could press the button, and the bare, high intensity bulb at the end would light up.
That was only part one. He attached plastic tubing to the hand-end, and found a plastic pouch that held lots of glitter that Lisa could strap to her arm under the robe. When Lisa pointed the wand down it filled with glitter. It took a little practice for her, but when she swung the wand up, glitter wafted out from the holes in the other end. Lisa’s backyard was a shiny place by the time she could make it work every time, but the effect really was magical. She finished the wand by wrapping it in white self-stick shelf paper and gluing on a lot of little fake jewels. The only bought part of her outfit was a cheap mask that Ally found in Boston. It was white, held on with an elastic thing, and it had the upward pointing ends that we couldn’t find locally.
There were a lot of less-creative costumes and some bought ones. We had a pirate, Harry Potter, hobos, a vampire and a chicken. Then there were people who didn’t wear costumes at all, and apparently they had the first vote. Gary’s sister, looking like herself but dressed as Martha Washington, stood on a hay bale and shouted over the noise, “We’ll pass ballots out in a minute. Our finalists are … The Bugs!”
Everyone cheered, of course, and they did after each finalist was named.
“Next we have the Flasher!”
I flashed her big time.
“The Tarzan family!” Gary held a boy doll by the feet and beat his chest with one hand, while Jane kept grabbing for the baby. They were really comical, and Jane Finally picked up a fat club and sent Tarzan staggering while she rescued Boy.
“Next, we have the organ grinder and his monkey!” Tom and Bridgette went into action for a few seconds, and they were funny too.
“Last but not least, we have the white witch with her magical wand.”
I was ready. I’d snapped the red lens cover onto my light. I knew it would show through the coat because I’d cut the lining out in that area. When Lisa swung her wand and began spewing glitter all around, I tried to mimic a heart beat with my finger on the button, and I still had a trick up my sleeve. Lisa didn’t know I was going to do this, but she noticed when people started laughing. She was good, too. She backed up a few steps and began flicking her wand up almost from the floor so a ton of glitter came at that part of me.
When she did that, I took the button from up my other sleeve. Tom had deliberately cut the battery power that I’d been using by separating a battery. When I held down the first button and then pressed the second the light would go brighter. When Lisa started showering me with glitter, I held the red light on, and by pressing the other button I made it pulsate.
That just about made the roof come down, and Lisa unmasked me to plant a big, happy kiss on my mouth. I pushed the buttons fast and randomly, and literally had a kind of electronic orgasm right in front of our friends, who were yelling out all kinds of comments. I didn’t care. I let go of the buttons and took hold of Lisa, and led her to an unoccupied hay bale. We kissed for a minute, and got hungry and thirsty at the same time, so we hurried to the goodies area, which was made of hay bales stacked two high.
Gary’s sister spoke up again. “I’m sorry. We were going to let you all vote for a winner, but my tiny little brother neglected to bring paper, pens, or pencils. There were no prizes anyhow, so I’m happy to declare you all winners. Crank up that music and have a good time!”
We cheered the best we could with stuffed faces. When I had some food in me, I found my bag and a dark corner and changed into regular clothes and shoes. It had gotten cold in that barn, but we heated things up in our own way, dancing and disappearing behind bales of hay from time to time.
It was kind of neat having the party in a barn. Someone had worked hard to get the smell of bulls out of there, and the fresh hay had a nice aroma. The dim lighting gave it a spooky enough feel, and I learned that before we got there the bats woke up and flew out en-masse. There were bats around our place, too. I didn’t know where they lived, but Tom set up a badminton net in his yard the year before, and if we were still playing just after dusk, bats would come dive-bombing our birdie just to make the game more interesting. I thought they wanted to play, but Tom said that our racquets and the birdies themselves made sounds like prey to the bats, so they actually thought they were coming to dinner.
There was a bathroom of sorts in the barn, and it was for the guys to use because it was pretty basic – just a john and a sink amid unfinished barn board. The girls used the facilities in the house, so I got to joke around with the guys when Lisa headed off that way, always with a few other girls.
We usually talked about our summers if it was someone we hadn’t seen, girls, the party, how things were going at school. Gary and Roger sat with me when Lisa left and I took the last apple to munch on. Gary asked if I was having fun.
“Do you have to ask? This is a great party and a great place for one.”
He looked at me, “Really?”
I looked at him, “Of course really; why would I lie? I’m having fun and I know Lisa is. I don’t see anybody complaining.”
I saw Gary’s doubtful look and said, “This is the best kind of party, man. No pretense … what you see is what you get, and what you get is good music, nice food, and no trouble. Everyone had fun; isn’t that what counts?”
Gary smiled a little and said, “I guess. It’s in a barn, though.”
I looked around, smiled, and said, “That’s cool. I like it.”
Gary said, “Really?”
Roger said, “Told you so, Andrews. Where could I ever have a party except in the yard? Drop it. It’s a good party and I want to talk to Paul. Go find Jane and work on your Tarzan yell.”
Gary shrugged and smiled while Roger turned to me, talking in his usual offhand way. “Your costume was really hilarious. Whatever made you think of a flasher in that way?”
I snickered, “It was an old movie I saw a long time ago. I don’t know the name, or what it was supposed to be about. It was in England somewhere. I was only half watching it, but there were these people in a house out in the country somewhere. The people were in there and one said he was a flasher, not exactly like that, but he did say it, and a little later he was standing on a moor or whatever. It was all foggy and rainy, and he’s wearing this huge coat and hat and holding a lantern, a gigantic thing, and it’s blinking on and off. I don’t know why he was out there, but he was holding that lantern just-so, and I thought it was hilarious.”
Roger said, “Tell me what you were thinking when Lisa was waving her wand. What made your, um, light go red?”
I said, “Roger, you’re sixteen. If you don’t know you might think about talking to your father. I’m sure he can tell you these things.”
Roger said, as seriously as ever, “Well, you’re right; I should do that. The old man’s been offering up that discussion since I was ten or eleven. It’s likely about time we had it.” He stood and said, “I’ll take your advice, and thanks for the story.”
Roger had to be laughing inside as hard as I was; he had to be, but he’d never show it, and I didn’t until he was out of sight. I knew he was as amused as I was, but he could keep that straight face as if we were talking about corn blight or heart disease. I didn’t see much of that at first when we came to Vermont, and I still don’t see it often in town, but the people making their living off the land can pull your leg till it’s ten feet long before you realize they’re actually playing with your head.
Shea sat beside me and asked, “How’d you like our costumes?”
I grinned, “I thought you looked great. What made you decide to come as insects?”
“That was Cheri’s idea. We were down by the river one day just sitting in the grass, and there were all these grasshoppers around. I caught one in my hand so she could see it and she thought it had a nice face.”
“Did she design the costumes?”
Shea said, “Yeah, she’s pretty creative. Her mother helped with sewing and I did a lot of the painting. The eyes were Liam’s idea, and they really made it work.” He looked at me and said, “I liked your flasher, too, especially your little show with Lisa. That was pretty sexy.”
I noticed movement by the door and said, “Here they come.”
Lisa, Bridgette, Joan and Cheri were back from the bathroom, so we split up. Lisa and I sat for awhile cuddling, and danced the rest of the time.
The party was supposed to end at twelve, and at about eleven-thirty Gary’s sister came in and turned the music down for a minute. “If you’re supposed to call for a ride, call now. If you don’t have a ride lined up tell me, and I’ll find you one. Meanwhile, if you notice any litter around, please pick it up.” She grinned, “If this place is a mess at midnight, I’ll let los toros in before I let you out. This is their home, and you can answer to them.”
She turned the music back up and the cell phones came out. Hector was coming for me, Shea, Tom and Lisa, while someone’s father or mother would bring Bridgette, Cheri and Joan home. I asked Roger if he had a ride, and he said he was staying over with Gary.
We danced the last few dances, and it was time for us to find our coats and belongings and give the barn back to its regular inhabitants, who I suspected had been downstairs all along. Gary was by the door when everyone was leaving, and Lisa and I stopped. I shook his hand and said, “Thanks, man. We had a nice time.”
Lisa gave him a big hug, and Gary was beaming when we left.
The party was the talk of the school on Monday, mostly because of the Tarzan and Jane costumes. Girls were in clutches talking about Gary, and the big question was, “How much did you actually see?” Groups of boys were asking the same thing about Joanie, and they were all seriously interested in the answer, though probably disappointed unless someone exaggerated.
Brattleboro isn’t a big town for trick-or-treating other than a few in-town neighborhoods. It would be impossible out our way, along a state highway with few houses and no sidewalks. There are some downtown events to make up for that. The main one is the Halloween Horribles Parade. Lisa’s family and Shea’s family took their younger kids in costume, and I went along. It was a cute event. It started just after dark at five o’clock. Everyone got lined up, sort-of, in the co-op parking lot and then walked haphazardly up Main Street. The ones in scary costumes were running around trying to frighten the parade watchers while the little Tinker-Belles, dancers and princesses tried to charm them the whole four blocks to the community center.
There were prizes for the best costumes and goodie bags for all the kids, and it was over in ninety minutes. A guy went through the crowd handing out scraps of paper that announced someone would be telling ghost stories on the community radio station starting at eight, another thing for me to love about my town.
I got a kiss from Lisa and rode home with the Luellens. When I got there I had a bowl of stew from the pot on the stove and brought a second bowl with me into the living room. Mom and Ally were on the floor doing even more wedding planning. I put the stew down on a table and laid a fire. When it was going, I said, “Wrap it up, ladies. It’s Halloween, and there be ghost stories coming through the air. Listen!”
I took the remote and spent too long getting it to FM, but found the station right away. Over Mom and Ally’s protests, I turned off all but a little lamp in the corner and we listened to ghost stories for an hour. There was noise on the station and I tried to clear it up. Ally said, “Leave it alone, Paul. They’re making it sound like old-fashioned late-night skip.”
I left it alone, and it did sound like the station must be far away instead of a few miles down the road. The stories were good, and the guy telling them was good. He used some sound effects that he probably did himself as he told his tales ... a bang here, a rattle there, some footsteps, a crash. The stories were g-rated, but they were creepy enough, and well-enough delivered to give me some goose bumps and a few real starts.
When the program ended we all giggled with relief, and the announcer came on and said who the storyteller was, and asked for donations to keep the station going. I smiled at Mom and Ally as I turned the lights back on, “Take note of that request.”
They smiled at me and got back to their wedding plans. I tossed a few more logs on the fire and asked, “Don’t you think you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment with all this?”
Their heads both jerked up to look at me. Mom asked, “What to you mean?”
Ally sat up and said, “Speak.”
I said, “You have your plans. Now you’re nit-picking every detail, and you’re setting yourselves up to be disappointed if the littlest thing goes wrong. You know something’s not going to happen according to plan, you have to know that. I mean, what if you get the hiccups just when you’re supposed to say something? What if the ring bearer pees his pants, or someone’s kilt comes undone and scandalizes all of western Massachusetts? The caterers know how to cater; the carriage drivers know what to do, Bernie knows what to say.” I looked at them and said, “If this is just fun for you, then get back to it. If you really think you can make it more perfect in your own minds I think you’re wasting your time.”
Oh, God. I’d shocked them. “I’m sorry. I just think you have it all together, so why don’t you look forward to the big day and have fun?”
Mom looked at me for a long moment and asked, not unpleasantly, “Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
I got up and left without a word, feeling rightfully chastised for my mouth once again. I went upstairs and got cleaned up for bed, turned my phone off and connected the charger. I was undressed and in bed a minute later. I was just getting settled in when there was a tap on my door.
“May we come in?” Mom asked.
I said, “The door’s not locked.”
Mom and Ally came in and Mom knelt beside the bed while Ally turned the desk chair around and sat.
Mom said, “I’m sorry I was short with you downstairs. You were right, and I really should stop being surprised by your insight and sensitivity.”
I turned quickly to Ally when she spoke. She actually giggled first. “I think you caught us up in a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl fantasy, and you were right to speak up. Whatever happens at our wedding, at the end of the day we’ll be married and that’s the purpose. We could do this at any lawyer’s office and still trip over the carpet.”
Mom put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I still hope nothing goes wrong, but you’re right, although I certainly hope I don’t get hiccups.”
I grinned, “Mrs. Timek will have a silver spoon in her purse if you do.”
Mom stared blankly at me, and Ally got up from the chair and did the same. “Goodnight, Paul.”
I must not have told them about Mrs. Timek’s magical hiccup cure. I fell back and pulled the covers up close to my chin, and dammit if I didn’t start remembering the hiccup fits I used to have. I had new nightmare material since then for sure, but the hiccups were once the bane of my existence, and that was before I knew what bane meant.
I dozed, thinking about constant hiccups, and it was for-real hiccups that brought me awake. Damn! I hoped they’d go away before I had to get out of bed, but they persisted until they annoyed me to my feet. I went downstairs to the kitchen, opened the drawer for the dinnerware and tried to remember if a fork worked any better than a spoon. In the end, I took a dinner fork, a salad fork, and a teaspoon and headed back upstairs trying to hit the right spot with the teaspoon.
My hiccups stopped before I was back in my bedroom, and I put all three utensils in the drawer in my nightstand for future reference. Then I put my head down, pulled the covers back up, and conked out.
* * * * * * * *
Finding a flight for Gretchen Kromer took them a lot of time. It turned out that the only non-stop from Stuttgart to anywhere in the Northeast landed in Newark. Eight hours was long enough to fly, and all the connecting flights took fifteen or more hours. It was a good flight, too, getting into Newark at one p.m. The problem changed to transporting her to the resort from Newark airport. That seemed to be a bigger problem than it sounded like. In the end, Dana asked Rhod if he’d mind bringing Gretchen along when he drove up, and he readily agreed.
Dan Paynter was a lot easier. The airport in Detroit is a hub, and there are non-stops to the smaller northeast airports all day long. He could get the train from Albany to Pittsfield and we’d pick him up there.
Tom and Hector had been working off-and-on creating a DVD with all the pictures and videos from our trip to Chile, and they had it ready for the weekend after Halloween. On Saturday night the Luellens were kind enough to let us use their living room and their big-screen television to premiere it. We didn’t invite the whole town, just our families, Lisa and Bridgette, and the McNaughton brothers. Hector came, but Arizona was at school and Dan McNaughton also had something going on at school. Our audience was rounded out when Shea brought Cheri along.
Hec and Tom did a great job on the video with music and captions with a humorous tone to them. For instance, the first read, “Day One. Valle Nevada, where Dana ruins brand new skis on the first run and Paul calls for a police investigation.”
I didn’t argue; I just laughed with everyone else. The pictures were generally better than I expected, and the videos were really good quality. Some of the music was funny, too. They had these guitars and flutes when the pictures were scenic, cartoonish stuff for regular skiing shots, and the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony every single time Dana was going to do something spectacular. Toward the end, when I’d shown the others wedeln, Tom had a great video of me, Hector and Daniel wedeln at La Parva in close time to the can-can song.
There were a lot of other shots, of course, and a caption on our day off after Tom hurt his knee where, “Paul and Hector sit naked in a sauna with equally naked ladies and a dead man. Tom is massaged with hot rocks.”
The videos of Dana on the downhill course at El Colorado were amazing. He came downhill so fast that from a tiny silhouette high up, he blossomed into an intent-looking Dana in no time. The pictures of him going by were just blurs a fraction of a second long. The best shots, the ones that really gave a sense of his speed, were the ones where he continued downhill and out of sight. Tom had an easy hundred-yard view downhill to the next steep, yet Dana disappeared so fast that you only had a fleeting idea that you’d seen him. Tom showed that several times slowed down, and it was still blindingly fast. I was looking at Dana’s technique right there, and couldn’t detect any snow at all kicking up from his skis.
The pictures of Mt. Aconcagua from Arpa were spectacular as Andean pipers playing “El Condor Pasa” faded in and out.
There were pictures of our crashes, too, with appropriate sound effects, and some pictures taken during meals, including the night of my encounter with Freddie. There were quite a few, but they were all flash shots, so people at other tables were just dim presences. When I had a chance I’d try lightening those up to see if I could pick out Freddie, or anyone for that matter. It would be interesting if I could see what he was doing and who he was with just prior to our encounter.
The last segment was called, “Our Extraction,” and it was the best video of all.
That helicopter must have had cameras pointing in all directions, and even the night shots were crystal clear. It’s first seen descending into the courtyard of the house we stayed at, and the video suddenly went to split-screen when Tom started his video from inside. You could see the helicopter at first in Tom’s video, but it turned into a blur of lights when the snow kicked up, and the view from the helicopter showed the other side of that.
Tom obviously pocketed his camera once it was time to go, and the next view was from the helicopter of us running from the house to get on board, and another view of Daniel getting in the other side.
There were just bits of most of the ride, enough to give an idea of our route, but Tom only showed longer segments when we were over Valparaiso with a good view of the harbor activity. Then the sun came up over the Andes and the music changed to something all digital while all the still shots were flipped through at probably less than a second each. It was beautiful in a zany way, till the screen went dark and the choppy music coalesced into a chord that faded. Then there was the video from the helicopter, and the sunrise was even more spectacular than I remembered. The color seemed to reach out from the sun in bands, from near white-hot through yellow, orange and red, but on the video the colors continued like faintly layered auras over the sun itself. The entire spectrum was there, with the beautiful Andes in the foreground, changing by the second as our perspective shifted.
The mountains really appeared to be on fire – a holocaust of epic proportions, yet in reality it was just another clear morning. Still, what a privilege it was for us to have that view of it.
That’s where the video ended, and Tom and Hector had thankfully not included any of our little boy pictures where we were in underwear or less, giving the photographer the bird, or sitting on toilets. Everyone clapped and cheered when the video ended, and I cheered too, but for the effort that Tom and Hector had put into that disk. They clearly spent more time on it than they let on to me.
Mr. Luellen poured wine for the ladies and produced some bottles of Irish ale for Mr. Timek, Hector, and himself. I was surprised that Hector accepted one, but I was glad he did. It was his day off and there wasn’t much he could do in Brattleboro. Tom and Shea’s fathers were older than Hector, but they were guys he could get along with, and all had a good time.
We followed Shea into the kitchen where he opened bags of chips, plunked a new jar of Cheez-Whiz in front of Tom, and offered us something to drink.
While he was busying himself, I pulled Lisa close for a quick kiss and turned to Tommy. “Did you wipe out everything that’s not on the DVD?”
He laughed, “I knew you’d ask that. Everything else is on another disk. All the out-takes, all your smut, all the blurry pictures and shaky videos.”
I snickered, “My smut? I seem to remember that it was an iPhone pointing in my bathroom door every time I turned around. You call that my smut?”
Tom said, “Well, it’s smutty and you’re in it. What else should I call it?”
I looked at Bridgette and said, “You watch out for this guy when he has that phone out. He can take pictures through the tiniest little cracks and keyholes. We learned about sexting in Boston, and we had our bare butts sexted to everyone in Java by some doctor’s daughter.”
“Fiji,” Tom said.
“Oh, yeah, it was Fiji, not Java. My bad.”
Lisa pulled me down onto her lap then, and immediately said, “Shut up! Let’s trade places.”
Bridgett was in Tom’s lap when I looked, and Shea was already occupied with Cheri, and I’ll note that they didn’t seem to have any problem at all entertaining each other. One day I’d ask about their shared vacation.
There was a lot of quiet emanating from the living room, and no view from there to where we were, so I proceeded to make out with Lisa, and Tom followed my lead with Bridgette. Some time later Mr. Luellen came in, and when we all started he said, “Carry on. I’m just here for more beer and wine.”
We did carry on after he left, and stayed with it until Tom took the lid off the Cheez Whiz. The chips and other things were devoured in no time, but before we did anything else I noticed that the clock on the wall said it was after one. I looked at Shea and pointed at the clock, “Is that thing right?”
His eyes widened, “Holy crow! Let me see what’s going on.”
He stood Cheri up off his lap and hurried off, leaving her standing there looking bewildered. He was back in a moment, and just stood in the doorway looking at us. I finally asked, “Well?”
Shea hesitated and said, “I think it’s a pajama party. They’re all asleep.”
Tom looked at me and I looked at Tom and said, “Let’s decorate!” and we both leapt to our feet. I said, “Shea, find your mother’s makeup. You girls get lampshades from other rooms. Where do you keep your hats, Shea?”
Oh, we had fun. Lisa and Bridgette put lipstick and rouge on Hector, Tom’s father and Mr. Luellen, and dark circles under all their eyes, including the mothers. We put hats on their heads and lampshades on top of the hats before we turned all the lights off and slunk back to the kitchen where we laughed ourselves foolish. The girls were probably already in trouble, so I called the security people across the street and asked the man who answered for a driver to bring them home. When he asked about Hector, I said, “Oh, he’s staying here. Tell the driver to be quiet when he comes up, the little ones are sleeping.”
We all got our coats and waited inside until we saw lights coming up the driveway. Shea kissed Cheri and I grabbed him. “Good luck in the morning. Take pictures if you can.”
Shea followed us out to say goodbye to Cheri again, and went inside when the car left. Tom and I swapped high fives and trotted down the hill to our homes and I had a ‘hee-hee’ in me all the way that lasted until I was in bed. I did think to lock the door to my room as a self-preservation measure.
When I woke up in the morning I remembered what we’d done the night before, so I was careful selecting my underwear for fear of itching powder, and even more careful in the bathroom. I had to make sure the soap was real soap and not a dye that would turn me orange, and that my vitamin pill wasn’t some laxative.
It turned out that I shouldn’t have worried. I went down to the kitchen and had just started a pot of coffee when Shea turned up at the back door. He tapped on the glass and let himself in, where he dissolved into laughter. He said, “You won’t believe it! The hats and lampshades came off, but I don’t think they even see the makeup. They sent me to ask you to come up for breakfast. I already went to Tom’s and he’s coming here in a minute.”
I said, “I’ll have breakfast here, thanks. They probably want to skin me and see how I’ll taste as bacon.”
“Maybe I’ll stay here, too. I think they’re just hung over, but they do look funny.”
Tom showed up after a few minutes, when the coffee was just ready. I poured three cups and looked in the fridge. There were sausages, to I got six of those going and asked, “You want eggs or French toast?”
Tom and Shea both shrugged, so I took the egg tray out. Eggs are easier than French toast. I put a lid on the sausages to hurry them along. They might not come out as good, but we could eat them the same day, and they’d brown up when I took the cover off.
I asked Tommy to set the table, saying all we needed were plates and forks, and started making toast. I said, “Oh, yeah. We need juice glasses,” and checked the sausages. They looked cooked so I turned the heat up to brown them and started the eggs.
I make a decent scrambled egg, and I cooked a dozen of them for the three of us. They came out soft, the way I like them, and we each got a pile of eggs, two fat sausages, and a couple of slices of toast. We were almost finished when Mom and Ally came in through the side door. When they heard us, Mom marched into the kitchen and pointed an accusatory finger at me. “You, Paul, are incorrigible! We spent all that money on Barent’s Academy when you would have learned more in reform school.” She turned that finger to Tom and Shea and claimed, “You two are no better. I hope your parents are a proud as I am right now.”
Mom turned and stomped off, and her irate face was replaced with Ally’s grin. She stuck her thumb up and said, “Good one! Don’t make any noise until tomorrow.”
I grinned back and stuck my own thumb up. “Gotcha. Not a problem.”
When she left I said quietly, “Finish up. I’ll clean up here. Let’s meet somewhere later.”
Tom asked, “Where? How about a bike ride?”
Shea nodded when I looked at him, and I said, “Good deal. Where to?”
Tommy shrugged and said, “We can just go to town. I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes.”
He and Shea took off out the back door and I cleaned up in the kitchen. I stepped out on the patio to see what the weather was like. It was on the chilly side, but a beautiful day. I tip-toed upstairs and got a heavy sweatshirt from my closet, made sure I had some money, and went out to the barn for my bike. By the time I freed it, Tom and Shea were waiting for me, so we headed down the driveway and turned toward town.
It was only possible to go single-file on that stretch of road, and even that could be scary. There were a lot of out-of-state cars, leaf peepers who came too late for the show, and they made it even scarier. There were lots of them, and they seemed angry that they had the wrong information, yet they were headed north where the foliage had peaked even earlier. We hadn’t had any snow yet in Brattleboro, but Dana had already been skiing once, though only some upper trails and a single snow-making trail to the lodge were open.
When we got near downtown, the road widened a little and there were sidewalks. We stopped when we got off the road and looked around. I asked, “What do you want to do?”
Tom said, “How about Memorial Park? Maybe we can join a game of hoops or something.”
That sounded good to me, and Shea said, “Let’s go.”
Memorial Park is the biggest public park in town, and the best equipped. They have an indoor skating rink, a little ski hill, baseball diamonds, gardens, hiking trails, volleyball courts, a big pool, a playground, and well-maintained basketball courts. There were four kids from our school sitting against the fence of one court. I recognized them all, but only one by name. I’d been in a couple of classes with Billy Baldwin, and he seemed to be an alright guy. I looked at him when I asked, “Do you guys have a ball?”
Billy smirked at me and said, “You come to play basketball without a ball?”
I smirked right back. “Douché, mon sewer. Aren’t you in my English class? How many times have you heard that you never answer a question with another question?”
He smiled, “First, whenever I hear that in English it’s directed at you. Second, I think I’m glad I’m not in your French class.”
I said, “I’m glad I’m not, too. As for Mr. Bolshevik, when he learns to ask a question that someone understands I won’t feel the need to offer to parse it for the class.”
Billy laughed, “You call Mr. Boylston Bolshevik? That’s funny.”
“Good. Do you guys have a ball?”
“Not really. There’s usually a game, but I think there’s a Patriots game on TV.”
“Don’t any of you live close?” I asked.
“No, we’re all down in South Brattleboro. I take it you’re not close, either?”
I shook my head, “Almost to Dummerston, and the road’s pretty bad today.”
While I was talking I noticed something and said, “I’ll be right back. I think I see somebody I know.”
I walked off, and as I approached the kid sitting on a bench I knew I’d been right.
“Hey, Gil. What’s up?”
He looked at me and frowned, “What do you want?”
I said, “I just wanted to see how things are going.”
He looked at me with disgust. “How’s this? I didn’t think anything could get worse, but it got worse.”
I was confused, wondering how that could be, so I stood there and said, “Tell me.”
He looked away, “You don’t want to know.”
I said, “I do want to know. I gave you my number; why didn’t you call me?”
Gil mumbled something and I asked, “What?”
“We don’t have a phone, okay?”
I sat on the bench beside him trying to think. I could tell he wasn’t pleased that I was there. “I left you with the guidance counselor and the nurse. Are you saying they didn’t try to help you out?”
“There was nothing for the nurse to do. That counselor talked to me for about two hours and I told him all that was going on. Then a guy from … I don’t know, some agency took me to his office and asked the same questions, and a cop came and asked for the same story. I mean, I missed lunch because of you and it was night before they gave me some crap to eat, and then they locked me up.”
I was startled, “You were in jail?”
“They call it something else, but yeah, a jail. It wasn’t like a regular one, but I was locked in until my mother came for me. They asked me shit for six hours, and she’s there for twenty minutes and I’m in the back of a police car going home. You know what? She said I’m nothin’ but a little liar, and everybody’s off the hook ‘cept me.”
I put my hand on my head and muttered, “Jesus. But wait, I saw your stepfather’s name in the paper. He got arrested.”
Gil scowled at me. “Yeah, he did, and that made things worse. We were poor before; now Mom’s totally busted. I been living on spaghetti and store-brand soup for almost a month.”
“Why didn’t you come back to school?” I asked.
“I’m in school. They changed me to the alternate school with the other rejects.”
I said, “You’re not a reject,” and a question occurred to me. “Why does your mother think you’re a liar? Does she really think you made that up about your stepfather?”
After a long pause Gil said, “I think she did at first. I never told her anything, and then I’m tellin’ half the town. She has call to say I’m liar because I lied to her all the time. I come home with things that aren’t really mine and say I found them, or some kid in school gave it to me. She knew it wasn’t so, and gave up fighting me over it a long time ago.”
I said, “I think I’ve heard this story before.”
I said, “Oh, not you. It’s my brother. Let me ask this. If your mother didn’t believe that your stepfather did this, why did he get arrested?”
“I don’t think she trusted Lester all the way either. When they wanted permission to do these tests on me, like hospital tests, I think she wanted to know. It was too late to prove it was him with the tests, but they could prove it happened to me, and Mom went nuts, and right through the roof when I said it was his friends too.”
I looked at him and asked, “So your mom is protective of you?”
Gil, maybe because he was so bony, had the most exaggerated shrug I ever saw. His shoulders reached his ears, and he said, “I guess so. She sticks up for me when she’s there.”
I looked off at the woods and said, “I’m sorry I made things worse. I guess that’s what happens when I leave things up to other people.” I looked at him and asked, “Will you trust me one more time?” I smiled, “I’ve done this before.”
“Fixed things … made them right, the way things should have been all along.”
“How do you do that?”
I said, “I find a way. Wait here, I have to tell my friends we’re leaving. Don’t go away, alright?”
Gil nodded. I called home and Ally answered.
“Ally! Are there a couple of those big hamburgers still in the freezer?”
She said, “No, but I’m making more right now. Should I leave them out?”
“A couple of them. Are there buns?”
“No buns,” she said.
I said, “I’ll get some. I’ll be there in about half an hour,” and hung up.
I went to talk to Tom and Shea when one of the guys with Billy asked sarcastically, “Why are you talking to that little slug?”
I said just as sarcastically, “Because that little slug, as you call him, is suddenly an important person in my life.”
I said, “Shea, do you keep your outgrown clothes around for hand-me-downs?”
He replied, “I don’t. My mother might; I don’t know.”
I held my phone out and said, “Call her. If she does, tell her we need an emergency delivery of last year’s things to my house like right now.”
Shea’s eyes were open wide in astonishment. “You’re serious?”
“Would I kid around?”
Tom and Shea both held up their first fingers like they wanted to answer that, but I was already extracting my bike from the heap. I walked it over toward Gil, who was still on the bench. I said, “You want the handlebars or the frame?” He just looked, and I said, “Just get on. If you want to change I’ll stop.”
He tried tentatively to get up on the handlebars, and I had to grab him by the armpits to make that action end the same day it started. His pits squelched like a wet sponge, and I had to swallow my revulsion. I pedaled off right away, saying “I’ll see you guys at my house,” and to Billy, “Call me sometime, Baldwin.”
We made good time into town, but the market I thought would be open wasn’t, and it was back the way we came from to a real supermarket. “If you see a store, Gil, holler. I need some hamburg rolls.”
“Where are we going?”
I said, “My house. It’s up this way.”
“I don’t get it. Why?”
I said, “I guess I can’t answer that. There is no why, but I can do something, and I want to.”
“What did you mean you can fix things? Fix what things?”
I said, after some thought, “The things you know need fixing, so your life goes the way you want.”
He asked with an edge in his voice, “You’re not another pervert are you?”
Fair question. I smacked his ear and said, “Don’t even think it! I don’t want to hurt you more than you have been. You’re dirty and you stink, and that’s the first thing we can straighten out. Then we’ll feed you and bring you home to mama, with some food for her, too. After that, I don’t know, but we won’t forget you.”
We rode on for a bit and I asked, “Where’s your father? Do you know?
Gil said, “I don’t know right now. He works out of town more than here, on bridges and things.”
“So you still see him?”
Gil said, “Not in a few years. He used to come see me all the time, but when Les came along everything changed. I know Dad brought me home one night, and I heard a big argument with him, Mom and Les later, and that’s the last time I saw him. He sent me cards on my birthday, but I only know because I saw them in the mail. I never saw them after that. I always thought Les took what was in them and threw them out.”
I was almost opposite our driveway, so of course there were long lines of cars going in both directions that we had to wait for, and it was a long time before we got a break that seemed safe. We were off the bike before then, and ran it across the road. A car came from the north going around sixty in a thirty zone and blared its horn. I gave his rearview mirror a big bird and yelled, “Fongoo Motz!”
Gil actually laughed. “What’s that mean?”
I snickered, “I don’t know. It’s what you yell in Boston when a bus or cab tries to run you over.”
Gil was looking up the hill at the Luellen’s place and asked in wonder, “Is that your house?”
I said, “No,” and pointed at our house. “This yellow one’s ours.”
I thought it was funny, because I could see his expectations dim immediately. Our house was old, but up to date as far as the kitchen, electricity and plumbing were concerned. It was well situated with a view across the river, and a lot of other views because of all the windows. Of the places we’d lived or owned, though, this house was the place that felt like a real home. The house was quirky and it was cozy. Our old place on Cape Cod was the same way, but it was gone. The house wasn’t as cockeyed as some old homes in Brattleboro, but living in it we could tell that nobody had ever used a real level or plumb line on it.
When we got to the top of the driveway I dropped the bike on the lawn and said, “Come on in. You have to clean up to eat, but I’ll give you the best burger you ever tasted.”
Gil asked, “What if I don’t like hamburgers?”
I turned around and said, “Don’t give me that shit. If it’s true you can have a salad or an egg or something.”
We went in, and I heard Mom ask, “Is that you, Paul?”
I said, “I’ll be right back,” and hustled Gil up to the bathroom that I used. I said, “Everything you need is here, so grab a washcloth and a towel. Do you use shampoo?”
Gil shook his head, and I said, “Maybe you should today.” I found a bottle in the closet and handed it to him. “I’ll get you some clothes.”
Gil gave me a
little smile and asked, “You don’t want to watch?”
I shook my head, and after the door closed I leaned into the wall wondering exactly what that kid had gone through. God, he asked me to watch him like I might want to. If this was my fate I’d opt out and leave it up to other people.
No I wouldn’t. I liked it up close like this, just like I did with Dana. Dana never talked about any abuse, and I think he would have. He’d just been poor, desperately poor, and did what he had to do to get by.
I didn’t know Gil’s mother yet, and suspected that she might be protective like Elenora, but maybe not as good at it. I could be wrong, but I thought Gil’s mother thought more about keeping the kid fed and clothed than building a relationship like Elenora and Dana had, imperfect as it was. That led me to wonder if Gil’s mother had a name for him, like when Elenora called Dana ‘Baby’. They had their fights and arguments for sure, but there was always that closeness.
I knew Gil as a creep first, and then as an abused kid, and if he had any trust anywhere it seemed to be with his mother. She wasn’t doing very well in my view, but I didn’t know everything, and probably never would. I met Dana because his mother locked him out on a wintry day, but at the same time he’d been dressed for the weather.
I hurried downstairs and asked, “Did Mrs. Luellen bring some clothes?”
Ally’s eyes shifted to a giant basket on the floor and I said, “Thanks,” as I hefted it and rushed back upstairs. I put the basket down on my bedroom floor, and wondered about the organization of things. Maybe an Irish mother’s idea of how things should go. There were two coats on top, one wool and kind of formal, the other a regular ski parka. Under that there were a few jackets, like you’d wear in spring or fall, and a down vest from Eddie Bauer. After that there were shirts, lots of shirts, like flannels, jerseys, tees, button-downs, and everything else there is.
If there was one thing for sure, it was that Shea dressed way better than I did, or Tom. There’s not much point in a town like Brattleboro. Levi, Lee and Dickey were the big sellers and nobody in Brattleboro would notice a little kid in designer clothes.
I couldn’t think too much; I had to find clothes for Gil, and there was underwear at the bottom of the basket, lots of it. That’s where I learned that Shea liked patterned boxers. Gil would have to live with that.
I pulled a pair of boxers out at random, an undershirt and a pair of socks, took my robe from the closet and carried it all over to the bathroom. Gil was still in the shower, and I told him I was leaving those things there, told him to wash his ears, and went back to my room to sort through the clothes Shea’s mother had left. I don’t know why I bothered because I meant to give him the whole pile anyhow. Some of the things were really nice, and hardly worn. There were Hilfiger and Abercrombie labels mixed in with Levi and Carhartt. There were fine, expensive-looking sweaters, and a fair collection of soccer and basketball shorts and shirts, but no shoes of any kind.
Tom and Shea appeared at my door while Gil was still in the shower. Shea said, “Jeez, those are my clothes!”
I said, “Not anymore. Your mother donated them to the cause.”
“What cause? Do you mean that kid at the park? What’s going on?”
I said, “Keep it down. We can talk later. It’s not your cause, and you can walk if you want, but the kid in the bathroom was in trouble and I got him in deeper. I want to at least undo the damage I caused, and hopefully turn things around.”
We all heard the bathroom door creak open, and I realized that Gil wouldn’t know where we were, so I went to my door and said, “Over here.”
He came to the door and looked in. I said, “It’s okay. It’s Tom and Shea, and nobody bites. You can tell them anything you tell me, and it won’t go any further.” I pointed at the bed and said, “Shea got you all these clothes, so why don’t you put some on and come downstairs to eat?”
He looked at the bed and asked, “These are for me? All of them?”
Shea said, with a big grin on his face, “I had to guess at your size. If anything fits, they all should.”
I said, “We’ll be downstairs. Just go to the bottom and yell.”
Tom and I left, and Shea stayed with Gil, not saying why. Going downstairs I asked, “Why do you think Shea stayed?”
When we were walking to the kitchen Tom said, “I don’t know. Maybe he wants the kid to know how expensive his clothes are. Thought number two is that he sees Gil as the new smallest kid in school and wants to make sure he comes back.”
I said, “You’re funny, Tom. Don’t sell Shea short. He might feel for the kid and want to help him.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I looked at Tom and we both said, “Nah!”
Mom and Ally weren’t downstairs, and I guessed they’d gone to bed already, but the clock said it was only four o’clock. That’s when I saw the yellow sticky note by the stove. Gone for buns. Get the grill hot. Onions and tomatoes sliced already, potatoes and vegs in the oven. Cook at 400 starting now. Back soon, Mom.
I looked, and the oven was already set to four hundred, so I pressed the bake button. Then Shea and Gil came into the kitchen. Gil was cleaner for sure, but he hadn’t brushed his teeth or cleaned his nails so I sent him back upstairs to take care of those details, and Shea went with him saying, “I’ll help you get it right.”
Tom asked, “Aren’t you going to start the grill?”
I said, “I put it away last week.” I took Dad’s big iron pan out and put it on the stove top. “This is the next best thing. We may as well sit and wait. Let’s see what’s on TV.”
Tom led the way into the living room and picked up the remote. I sat in my favorite chair while Tom perched on the sofa and proceeded to flip through the channels. The programming was typical for a late Sunday afternoon, with football games, golf, old movies and the like. We ended up watching a cooking show with some crazy blonde lady dumping whole fists full of salt into everything she made. I couldn’t imagine how horrible the food would taste, but there was a certain gruesome fascination in watching it.
When Shea and Gil came back downstairs, Gil was transformed. His hair was combed and he wore a nice looking sweater knit with rust and dark green squares. He had a white shirt under it, but all I could see was part of the collar. His jeans were slightly baggy but I don’t think they were made to be; he was kind of skinny while Shea was pretty solid.
Gil was staring at the television, but I think he was admiring the set itself, not watching what was on. I said, “So Gil, how is it so far?”
He turned to me with no real expression. “I don’t know what you mean.”
I said, “You can sit somewhere. I meant how does it feel to be all polished up? Do those clothes feel a little better than what you were wearing?”
He finally smiled, and said, “Yeah.”
I saw that his teeth were pretty straight, but still not exactly white. He’d probably need a dentist to correct that, and it wasn’t a priority if he didn’t have an active toothache.
There was a subject I had to bring up. “Gil, you know we sandbagged you that day at school. You were mouthing off about gays, so we only pretended to be like you. I hope you’re not really like that either.”
He looked from Tom to Shea to me and said, “I don’t know. I told you what my stepfather did, but he always said that same crap. I just learned it was something bad, and it was bad for me already. I don’t want anybody else messing with me like that.”
I said, “You were molested, Gil, probably because you were an easy target for Lester and his friends, not because you’re a boy. We all joined the GSA at school. Do you know what that is?”
“I never heard of it.”
It stands for ‘Gay-Straight Alliance’ but I don’t know how many of the kids are gay. I do know that a lot of us aren’t. That’s what the ‘S’ stands for … straight.”
I could see that he didn’t understand and said, “Never mind. We can talk about that another time. How about food? Do you get the breakfast and lunch at school?”
He blushed, “Yeah, now I do. We didn’t qualify when Les was there.”
I said, “Don’t be embarrassed by me; I’m not trying to pry, just to find out what you need. Can your mother cook?”
I felt Gil’s trust slipping away when he eyed me warily, “She knows how. It’s not so easy when all you get is from the food bank. It’s cans of this and boxes of that and it don’t all go together.”
“Doesn’t,” Shea prompted.
I said, “Not now, Shea,” and looked back at Gil. “Does your mother work? I know you said she’s on nights sometimes.”
“Ma works for a building maintenance company. She’s usually on days doing lawn work and like that. They have night crews that go clean the insides, and she takes a late shift when someone’s sick or whatever. It pays more.”
I heard a horn toot at the back door, so Mom and Ally were back and wanting help with groceries. I said, “I’ll be back. I have to help unload the car.”
Tom followed me, so Shea followed Tom and Gil came behind Shea. Ally was just lifting the tailgate when we came out, and said, “Oh! You brought an army. That’s less for me to do. Don’t put anything away, just put down it somewhere.”
She marched in past us, and Gil asked, “Is that your mother?”
I said, “No, she’s still in the car. Let’s get these bags inside.”
There were a lot of bags, and they had gone to the store that used paper bags with handles, so I was able to carry four in myself. When Gil struggled in with two heavy sacks I asked, “Are there more?”
He nodded, and I pulled out the last two bags, which were both heavy. I wondered if the store had added a cement department, but didn’t ask when I saw that Mom was still busy in the front seat. I grinned when I shut the tailgate and she jumped, but I didn’t stay around to gloat. I lugged the two sacks inside and kicked the door closed behind me.
Ally was in the kitchen, and she asked, “Why didn’t you start the grill?”
I said, “Because Mom made me put it back in the garage a week ago. It’s not exactly portable, you know.” I took the iron frying pan Dad used off its hook.
Ally frowned, “No, it’s not.” She looked at the frying pan and then at me. “Have you cooked them in this thing before?”
I said, “Lots of times. They come out just fine.”
She lowered her voice and asked, “What’s going on with this boy Gil?”
I gave her a much abbreviated version, and Mom came in from outside while we were talking. I could see that Gil’s story had an effect on Ally, enough that she shushed Mom when she asked what I was talking about.
Ally asked, “What do you know about his mother?”
I said, “Not a lot. She works for a maintenance company, but must not make much. Since her husband got arrested Gil says they’re broke all the time. He gets the breakfast and lunch at school, but I don’t think there’s much at home.”
“Rent poor,” Ally mumbled.
“Oh, that’s just a guess. When people bottom out, some of them tend to focus on one thing, like keeping a roof over their heads, or letting the house go in order to keep a car, or letting everything go just to eat. Let’s get this meal going. Do you know which bag the rolls are in?”
I didn’t want to look for them, and said, “I’ll make the hamburgers. What did you do with the other guys?”
Ally was looking into grocery bags, and said, “They’re searching the book cases for my How to Cook Hamburgers book.”
I grinned and said, “You’re evil,” and put a little oil in the pan. I suddenly felt a dumb question coming on. “Is there such a book?”
Ally produced a package of rolls and said, “I’m sure there is a book with that title, but I don’t have a copy. Do you want to toast these?”
I said, “The oven’s busy. They’ll be fine like that.” She busied herself putting things into the refrigerator and freezer, but left a lot other of things in the bags.
Tom poked his head in and said, “We can’t find that book.”
Ally told him, “You can call off the search. Paul claims he knows how to do this.”
Tom asked, “Do you need help in here?”
Ally said, “Ask Paul. I want to talk to Gil for a few minutes.”
Gill looked up guiltily, “Me?”
“Yes. Come with me into the living room. I want to learn some things about your life. I don’t bite, but you probably don’t want me sitting on you either, so come on.”
Mom started to follow Ally and I asked, “How much longer for the things in the oven?”
“Oh, just poke the potatoes with a fork. When they’re done everything will be ready.”
When I opened the oven door a fantastic aroma filled the room. There was a big baking dish in there full of roasted chunks of potatoes with the skin on mixed with big pieces of onions and red peppers. I poked a few potatoes and they were done already, so I left the oven door open for a few minutes after I shut it off so they’d stop cooking.
Then I got to work with the hamburgers while Shea and Tom set the table. I smiled at that. We ate at each other’s houses so often that we all knew the different routines and didn’t ask questions.
When the food was ready I called Mom and Ally, and they came into the kitchen behind Gil, whose face was kind of a closed book. Gil raved about the food while he ate, but nothing was said about the conversation in the living room. There were two extra burgers, which Ally wrapped up and gave to Gil to take home with him.
She and Mom drove Gil home after we loaded his clothes into the car; they wanted me to stay and clean up, so I did. I let Tom and Shea off KP duty because they wanted to get things ready for school the next day. I did a minimal job in the kitchen, but it was an easy cleanup to start with. I rinsed off the dishes and stuck them in the dishwasher, filled the frying pan and the baking dish with soap and hot water and wiped everything off.
I walked through downstairs turning off most of the lights, leaving the usual ones on, and then it was up to the bathroom and on to my bedroom. I put my school things into my book bag, and sat down to call Lisa. I’d been afraid to since I had her out so late the night before and didn’t bring her home myself.
I shouldn’t have been. “Paul? Where have you been? You can’t just be waking up.”
I said, “No, I’ve been up, but Mom was all mad when she came home this morning. Ally told me not to make any noise, so I rode my bike into town with Tom and Shea. We went to Memorial Park and I ran into that Gilman kid I told you about back when school started. Remember?”
“I remember. How is he?”
I told Lisa the story the way Gil told me, and that I wasn’t exactly his favorite person. I went on and told her everything I knew and that Mom and Ally left to bring him home.
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
I sighed, “Ally didn’t want me to. I know better than to ask why. I can’t imagine what they’re doing and I won’t find out until they want me to.”
Lisa giggled, “Well, when you find out make sure I’m the first to know.”
I said, “I will. Were your folks mad last night?”
“You got home pretty late, and I had a driver bring you.”
“They don’t really know that, and they trust me.”
“Do they trust you with me?” I asked hopefully.
“I think so, but I’m not sure they trust me with you.”
I laughed at her play on words, and we talked a while longer but we were both tired and yawning, so we said goodnight before long. It wasn’t nine-thirty, but I needed a good night’s sleep.
I got ready and climbed into bed, made sure the alarm was set, and conked out.
Mom and Ally hadn’t come home yet.