Almost Home

by Don Bellew

On Thursday, spring turned warm, hinted at the summer weather not far away.  I knocked off the writing early, about ten o’clock, and made a trip into town to pick up a few groceries and cigarettes. Heading into town I passed Nick’s place; his truck was in the drive. At the store, I grabbed a six-pack and stopped by his house on my way home.

Nick was a pretty sorry housekeeper. In spite of the fact he would work all day for somebody else, he just didn’t have much ambition about his own place.  Weeds grew thick in his yard and the porch was littered with beer cans and cigarette butts.  I knocked at the screen. The front door was open but it was dim inside and I couldn’t see beyond a few feet.  I banged louder. “Hey Nick! It’s Alan, you awake?”

“Yeah!” came a gravelly reply. “Come on in, it ain’t locked.”

The screen door squeaked and I stepped into the gloomy house.  A TV glowed dim in one corner, the sound shut off.  Nick was sprawled on the couch. He groaned into a sitting position as I entered.  His ragged white boxer shorts were stained and wrinkled. A morning hard-on pressed the faded cotton into a tent. He rubbed at his face. “Hey, what time is it? Come on in, sit down.”

I sat down next to him; the couch was warm where he’d been sleeping. “It’s about noon. Here, I brought you some lunch.” I set the bag on the floor and pulled out a beer, passed it over and opened one for myself.  I nodded at his lap. “Looks like I interrupted a good dream.”

He grinned. “Yeah, just in time.” He squeezed his dick through the thin fabric, tried to push it down. It didn’t stay down.  He laughed.  “What you looking at? You’ve seen it before, don’t you remember?”

“I try to forget.” And I laughed, too.
But I couldn’t forget. We grew up together. Best friends all the way through high school. We saw each other naked plenty of times, messed around a little as teenagers. Nothing serious, just jerking off together. Gave each other a hand a few times, shameful little touches that seared me with excitement.  I was always afraid he would realize how much I liked it.  It never seemed to bother him so much; he just did whatever felt good. Nick wasn’t bothered much about rules or conscience, I guess that’s why I fell in love with him, me being the opposite sort.  Oh, yeah. It was love.  I’ve been around enough, now, to know what it was but at the time, I couldn’t call it that.  If it hadn’t been for Nick I might not have known I was gay for a long time. In my teens I thought about science fiction and movies and monsters. I didn’t think much about if I was different from other boys or not.  It just didn’t occur to me. Well, not until Nick reached over in bed that night and began stroking my dick.  I never would have been the one to start it. I was too damn shy or too repressed, whatever you want to call it.  But I knew exactly what I wanted after that moment.  The whole world sort of came into focus.  All my blurry adolescent dreams came suddenly clear, too shockingly clear!  I knew I was just some kind of substitute for him, a practice dummy for sex; but he was exactly who and what I wanted more than anything else in the world.  It was painful.

It went on for several years after that. Not regular; I don’t mean we were lovers or anything like it.  Just every once in a while, maybe we’d be out hunting or fishing in the woods, alone … or maybe we’d be sitting in the car after a double date and after we’d taken the girls home. But it would happen.  I always waited for him to start.  I dreaded it in a way, because it usually left me shaking with fear and remorse .. but I couldn’t stop it once the mood was set.  I could usually see it coming. We’d be alone and in a private place and he’d be talking about girls and how big somebody’s tits were, or he’d be telling me about how he got some girl to let him touch her. Always his stories, never mine. I didn’t have sexual experiences with girls to talk about, anyway.  Nick seemed to build himself up with the stories; he would get more and more excited with the telling. When he began touching himself, rubbing at his fly, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the zipper came open and my dreams would be burlesqued in a crude, rough fashion.  We never kissed or got any kind of romantic. Never the whispered vows of loyalty and love I made up in my imagination.  Just a grasping and fast breathing, hot friction that brought quick climax and a mess to wipe off with a grease rag or dry leaves. He wanted release and I wanted passion. Funny, that it was the straight guy always seducing the gay kid.  I didn’t see the humor in that until much later, when I was living in New York, telling my therapist about Nick.  The therapist couldn’t believe we never went beyond mutual masturbation, insisted I was censuring the memory. But, hell, I’d remember, right?  So I sat there next to Nick, again, after all the years gone by, with the smell of his body all around me, only this time I was fully aware of the situation and its pitfalls.

“I remember too well!  Put some pants on, would you?”

He grinned at me and tossed back half the beer in one long swallow. “Yeah, I was thinking maybe once, for old time’s sake?” And he kept rubbing his cock.

I finally stood up and walked back to the door, leaned on the jamb and looked outside.  “Look at that. The daffodils we planted for your mother, they’re still blooming. What’s it been, now?  Fifteen years?”

“Yeah, Alan, some things haven’t changed.” He popped another beer. “How come you not working today?” I heard him moving around, heard the whisper of a zipper close and a brass snap click home. I turned back toward him.

“Got spring fever, I guess. Thought I might cut the grass, clean up the yard if I could get you to come help me. We’ll cut your grass, too. I need some exercise, anyway, been cooped up in that house all winter.”  He was searching a drawer, pulled out ancient white crew socks, one with red stripes and one with blue. His back was wide and hard looking, carved by work and bare of fat.  He was as slim as ever, probably wore the same size pants he did in high school. Hair grew down the back of his neck past his shoulders. I’d forgot that and the way the fine blond hairs grew in thick swirls at the small of his back.  The feel of his body fur came to my palm in a rush of textured memory.

He looked up at me watching him, “You ever think how weird it is for you and me to be living in our parent’s houses?” He put his feet into boots, picked up a tee shirt from the floor and carried it with him to the car. I carried the beer.

“Sure. I never would’ve believed it, myself.” I backed out and headed for my place. “I thought I could sell the house in a month and go back to New York. I had to actually begin writing there before I thought about staying.  Not much to go back home to, in New York, I mean.”

“Your dad was hoping you’d stay, he told me. That’s why he turned it over to you to sell.  I guess it’s easier for them to relax down in Florida while they know you’re here. They never liked you living in New York, you know it?”

“Well, yeah, they told me often enough. They think it’s a hell on earth, afraid I’ll get mugged or murdered every night.”

“But you liked it?” He lit a cigarette, passed it over to me and lit another. Something else I’d forgot. How many times had he done that for me?  Nobody else ever did.

“Thanks. Yeah, I liked it. It’s a very exciting place. Always something new to see, somebody new to meet. Too much for a writer. I’ve worked more here, in the last month than I worked in six months up there.  But I’ll have to go back, to close my apartment, tie up some business, move my checking account, you know. Why don’t you come with me? I could show you a little of the big city; we could spend a few days.”

“Mmm, sounds good.”  He left it non-committal, half-hearted. “You said not much reason to go back; didn’t you make any friends? No old lovers waiting up there?” I glanced at him, but he was watching the road. He didn’t look as though he was serious. I wasn’t sure how much he wanted to know. He still hadn’t put on the tee shirt.

“No, not to speak of.  In the city, you just don’t make friends like down here. I mean, I know lots of people, but it all feels superficial, everybody trying to be somebody else, or trying to hustle somebody, you know.”

“No lovers?  Nobody to miss you if you just suddenly rip off and move back home?”

“You want to hear about the lovers?  Careful what you ask. I might just tell you.”  He waited.  “Nobody will miss me, no.”  I didn’t like saying it and it came out with more bitterness than I expected.

“I sure missed you when you lit out of here ten years ago; did I ever tell you?” He still wouldn’t look at me. Now he faced the side window, away from me.

“I missed you, too, Nick.  Missed you more than my folks or anybody else.”  Having both said too much, we stayed silent.
“There’s a yard tractor in the garage. I haven’t tried to start it, don’t know what shape it’s in.”  I carried my groceries in the house while Nick went to check it out. I was changing into old jeans when I heard the roar of the engine.  He was zipping around the front lawn like a mad man, throttle wide open.  I watched from the porch and he waved and grinned.  I found a push mower and began trimming around the corners and along the fence.  The sun grew summer-warm and the smell of new-cut grass soaked into me like fine old brandy. I smiled as I worked, giddy on the heady pleasures. I sweat in great streams of warm, salty droplets, soaking my clothes to the skin.  Nick parked the tractor and used a leaf-blower to clear the drive and walkway.  I bent to pull dried weeds, last fall’s residue, from desiccated flower beds but the sweat ran into my eyes, stinging. and my back was aching with the unaccustomed exercise.

“Break, break!” I called to Nick, capping upraised fingers with a palm, “Time out!”
He killed the noisy blower and I heard his laughter across the yard.

“Whatsa’ matter, city boy? You give out already?”

“Beer break!  I got to cool off. I’ve been working, man. You’ve just been riding around on that go-cart! Come on up to the porch.”  I stomped off as much of the grass clippings as I could and headed for the refrigerator, grabbed a towel. We sat on the steps and I peeled off my wet shirt and dried my chest and face. Nick took the towel and dried his own face. He never had put his shirt on.

“Now I know winter’s over!” He snorted. “I hate winter. This feels good, Alan, thanks for stopping by for me. I’d been hoping you’d come over. I felt like I might disturb you if I came out here. I mean, you writing and everything.. . and thanks for the beer, did I say that?”  And he stuck his icy can against my belly.

“Hey!” I shoved his hand away with a laugh. “Wait, that felt pretty good.”

“I always knew how to make you feel good, didn’t I?” His sly leer was dumb and funny. “But what you need now is a shower. Me too, and I don’t know about you but I’m starving! Let’s go into town for steak and mushrooms at Sally’s. Anyway, I think you’re out of beer.”

“We’ll do it. A celebration for old time’s sake. You want to go back by your place or you can wear some of my clothes? I think I can find some pants skinny enough for your butt.”

“I donno’, lard-ass. It must be some mighty old pants!”  I punched his arm for that one!  “You go ahead, I’ll shave while you shower.” He kicked off his boots and we stood together looking at the yard, fresh and manicured. The surrounding pine forest vibrated in the afternoon sun. It was a rare good moment.
Before we got in the house I was wondering if I had let this go too far. It sounded innocent enough, but this meant getting naked with Nick and warm soapy water and steam and the bed right there, waiting.  Just how straight did I think I could be? This whole going-back-to- the-closet  act was beginning to wear pretty damn thin. Sometime, we had to talk. As usual, it was Nick that started things. We were stripping down in the bedroom when he picked up a copy of Advocate from my dresser, and flipped through. He shoved down his boxers and kicked them off as he skimmed the magazine. So he’s standing there scratching when he asks, “No pictures of naked men?  I’m disappointed!  What kind of a gay book is this?”

“Huh? Uh, it’s just a magazine, you know, like GQ or Esquire.” He watched as I reluctantly dropped my own shorts and stood naked before him. I wished he wouldn’t look so closely.

“Hey, you’re not as fat as I thought. What did you gain? Maybe ten pounds? You just need a little workout, burn it off you in no time.” He tossed the book down. “And it ain’t the same, Alan. Advocate is a gay magazine. You think I’m pretty dumb, don’t you? Just a dumb hick. I got it. Thanks.” He went on into the bathroom. I heard him opening cabinets and drawers.  I followed.

“Here, in the medicine chest.” I pulled down a new disposable razor and the can of foam.  The bathroom was suddenly small and we kept bumping bare limbs. “And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean I thought you were unsophisticated, uh, I was just hoping you were.” He laughed. I was glad.

He took the shaving gear. “Thanks; get in the shower, would you? There’s no room to stand up in here!”  I did. I worked on the temperature adjustment; Nick’s running water threw the blend off.  So he knew, huh?  Why did I think he would care?  I had talked about being gay to just about everybody in my life except Nick.  I tried, but never could get it right.

When we were changing places, me getting out of the shower, trying not to touch him as he got in .. “Wait, Nick, you missed a spot. I picked up the razor and he held still, one foot up on the tub, while I scraped away the half inch strip of whiskers he had left along the jaw line. His right hand dangled between us. I felt its heat and the stir of air around it.  I swelled slightly and the buoyant lift jutted against his hand. “Tell me that’s not what it feels like”. He was looking into my eyes.

“Whassa matter? You felt it before, remember?  Don’t make me cut you.”

He grinned all over his country face. “I never argue with a guy holding a razor at my throat.” I finished and tossed the razor on the counter, tried to step back from him but he grabbed me by my fast growing dick. “Come back in and scrub my back.”  I slipped away.

“You’re a big boy, now. You can wash yourself, and fuck yourself!” We both laughed, but only I knew how difficult it was for me to get out of that room still smiling. I laid out clothes on the bed and dried my hair. I heard him shout something, had to cut off the dryer to hear, “What’d you say?”

“Can I use your tooth brush?”

“No, Nick!” I went to the door, he already had it in hand. “No!” I calmed my voice. “Please don’t. There’s a couple of new ones in the chest. Take the red one; I never liked red.”

“When did you get so nervous, Alan?  You didn’t use to be so tense. Relax, it’s just me. Okay?” He was putting my brush back in the glass. I turned away, breathing shallow. I couldn’t answer him.

He came out drying his hair with a towel. I pointed at the dryer on the dresser but he just grinned at me. I was brushing off his boots. He couldn’t wear my shoes; his feet always were a size larger than mine. “Where’s my old clothes?”

“I put them in the washer because I was afraid you’d want to wear them. I’m not going anywhere with you in dirty clothes.  Friendship has its limits.”

He laughed at me, “Yeah, like no sex. What kind of friendship is that? I can’t even use your toothbrush anymore. Now, what was you going to tell me about Advocate? Oh, yeah, why don’t it have any naked pictures like Playgirl?” He pulled on the jeans but ignored the jockey briefs I had laid out.

“Gay is not just about sex (I was surprised at the sudden rush of heat to my face); its a political position. It’s a culture, a lifestyle.”

“Political position? I never heard of that one.  I’ve heard of the punk position, the sixty-nine position, the bent-over-the-arm-of-the-couch position …” He was laughing. “Guess I am a hick. You gonna’ have to teach me this new position, Alan. I want to try them all.” He ducked when I threw the shoe brush at his head. He didn’t like the shirt I picked out. He dug around and found a black tee shirt which boldly proclaimed “I love N. Y.” in big white letters with a red apple.

Just as we got to the door, I remembered to pay for his help. I passed him a couple of folded bills and he just stuck them in his pocket, never even glanced at them.  “I would argue but I know how stubborn you are, so thanks, I guess.  But I’d thank you more if you just let me be your friend instead of your employee.”

“And just let you starve? Yeah, that’s a great friend!”

“Sshsh!” He put his finger tip to my lips. “I’m not arguing, okay?”
Sunlight turned amber gold as we hit the county blacktop toward town. Something very right and true about an evening coming on and being home again.  I hadn’t felt much sentiment about being home until this day with Nick. He spoke up from the silence, “Hey, Gale said she went to see you when she was up there, that right? Nobody puts a lot of stock in her word, you know. Not since she started talking about the aliens and all.”

“She just said she saw a UFO, that’s not the same as an abduction story. But, yeah, she called and I had her over for supper one night.  She’s okay; I always liked her.”

“Well, I liked her pretty good ’til I married her sister. That kind of soured a lot of relationships, you know? But she came back and told folks you was living in sin with some fairy named Chris. Made you out to be a flaming sissy.”

“Why do you ask?” My voice grew tight. “Did that bother you, that I was your best friend and I turned out gay?”  I think I must have got a little testy. I was wishing we could have this conversation later, quieter and without the sarcasm.

“Nawh, the gay part didn’t bother me, it was the sissy stuff that scared me. I kept picturing you in pink satin shorts and a sequined tank top with an earring and a tattoo. I donno’, I guess getting turned on by it was what really scared me.”  He laughed, then, dispelling both the sincerity and the anxiety.

“Well, I think I did have an earring, just a silver stud and a small one at that. But I was as macho as I could manage. I knew she was going to be shocked by Chris, he’s way out there. He thinks butching up for the home folks means less mascara and going without a bra. He’s a genuine trip. You ought to meet him. He’s always on, a real showtime act.”

“Yeah, fix me up a date!  But tell me about the earring. You still got it?  I always wanted to do that, just never got around to it. Okay, dammit, I never was sure which ear it was supposed to be in, either. Once a hick, always a hick, right?”  He sat up, checking the road. “Over there, cut a right. See the sign for bar and grill?”
Sally’s was a pure country music roadhouse. A big old barn of a room with a dance floor down at one end and a band stand. Thursday was not a live band night, thank god, and we had to make do with juke box music that intermittently sprayed forth in high volume. Pool tables lined one side and booths shouldered up to the opposite wall with tables crowded between.  We took a booth near the kitchen door, hoping for fast service; it worked. It might have helped that the waitress knew Nick and was eager to please him.

“Hey Ginger, get us some meat out here! Two men gonna die on your station if you don’t shake your butt!” And that was just as we passed the bar, before we even sat down. Nick got a couple of beers and brought them over. A girl followed him with a little tray and two glasses, as though he might use one. But she got a tip, anyway.

“Hello, Nicky, Darlin’. Don’t you look all slick and clean! Did you really shave and it’s not even Saturday night? Your friend here must be having a good influence on you, I never could get you to comb your hair!” All this might sound like a put-down but as it was accompanied with much eye fluttering and fingertips at the tits, it came across looking more like high flattery than it sounds.

“Why, Ginger, girl, we both know you love it down and dirty. Raunchy is your middle name, sweetheart.  I remember how you always got horny just opening up the dirty clothes hamper.  Said they ought to make a perfume smell just like that!”

“God, you still talking the kind of slop I love to hear, you ol’ red dawg! What you fellows gonna’ eat with this here raw beef I’m fixing to bring ya’ll?  Hell, baby, what I mean is you want ’em fried or baked?” She smiled professionally, pencil poised over her little pad.

“I want fries and he wants baked, that right?” He looked at me and I nodded, not sure I was allowed to speak in the tight confines of this intimacy he and Ginger were sharing. “And catsup for me, sour cream and chives for him and two Caesar salads and we’ll have the fish stew first, okay?” He glanced back at me with raised brows. I nodded, again.

Ginger smiled at me with a soft sympathy, “He does that to me, too, honey. On a good night, why, all I can think to say is, Thank you!”  That last in a breathless whisper. I didn’t know if I should laugh but I did, even while I blushed. She left us a cloud of her White Shoulders scent to remember her by. I shook my head in dismay.

“She’s something, ain’t she?  One whole weekend, me and her and her husband all shacked up in a trailer with a case of beer and a gallon of Jim Beam. My god almighty, they had to burn that trailer! Never could get the musky smell out!  She don’t wear nothing but a brown leather dog collar when she ain’t working.” Now his head was shaking. “Not an ounce of silicone in there, bubba. I checked real close!  ‘Course, you got to provide your own Lysol, for dipping in.  She does live raunch to the limit.” His eyes lit on somebody at the bar. “Hey, Jimmy. Get your ass over here, baby! Somebody I want you to meet.” He shouted over the juke box but it went suddenly silent at the point he called, “baby!”  There was a thin crowd in the place but every single eye (some with double vision) in the place swung around to see who was shouting. Everybody smiled and waved at Nick. But Nick saw only Jimmy. Impatient, he jumped up and went to meet the guy, drug him by the arm over to our table. Jimmy seemed pleased but abashed at the attention. He kept looking around.

“Shit, Nick. You really got a big mouth, don’t cha’?” But he was giggling and taking tiny sips at his whiskey sour (smelled like) and batting his long lashes at Nick over the rim.

“Alan, this here is the best damn organ player you ever heard in your whole fucking life! He sets the Baptist church on its ass every damn Sunday, don’t you, Jimmy?”  Nick’s arm reached out to pull Jimmy close and leaned over the table in a conspiratorial huddle. “And he gives the best god damn blow job in the county, too, any day of the week!” His mock whisper was loud enough to start laughter at a table near by. Nick didn’t even look around but Jimmy squirmed in his seat.

“Nick, cut it out.  I don’t even know you when you’re drinking!  You swore you wouldn’t tell anybody!” His eyes were great round white circles, as thought he had actually had his trust betrayed.

“Ah, shit, Jim. This is my best friend, Alan. He’s been living up in the classified pages of the Village Voice for ten years. Now he might be just the man to know if your blow jobs are up to the national standards, hell, he might even know about what makes a world class cock sucker! You ask him, he won’t tell me about all that, he thinks it might soil my lily-pink ears or something.”

The people at the near-by table moved away. Jimmy’s face was not so much flushed with embarrassment as it was blanched with shock. Nick was about to go on but Jimmy stood up, “Nick, I gotta’ pee, real bad. I’ll be right back, okay?”  But he bee-lined to the exit, ducking the calls from the bar as he passed.  “I got it!” Nick shouted to the bartender, “I got his tab, don’t sweat it, Mike.” The bartender waved.

Ginger came in for a landing with a huge tray full of soup bowls and a bread basket, salads and catsup. I acted fast, got a five dollar bill out and stuffed it in her hand. “Ginger, could you keep that juke box going?  Play whatever you like, just keep it going.” I figured that gave us about an hour of enough music to keep Nick’s words more or less confined to our table.  I couldn’t believe this guy. He hadn’t drunk that much, must be some pills or something. I hoped the food would calm him down, maybe this was a low blood sugar reaction to the beer. He had always been less than cautious but never blatant as this. Who in hell was he trying to impress?  At that very minute he was looking around as though in search of a new target.  “This stuff is great.” I told him, “What’d you call it? Fish stew?”

“Yeah, kind of a gumbo thing. I can’t get enough of it.”  He was spooning it in. I wondered when he had last eaten anything.  We’d never seen a menu and I kept wondering how much the bill would be. I just gave him forty dollars for the yard work and I thought that left me with about thirty in cash. Would this place take American Express?  With the bar tab it had to break fifty.  They gotta’ take a card, right? It’s the law.

“Did you really let that guy blow you?”  The juke box was back on and I thought it was safe to return to the subject without the whole place listening in.

“Sure. You shocked because I was your best friend and all?”  He leered. “I’ll fix you up with him. He’s not so nervous when you get him in a motel room. You bring Chris, we’ll double date.” He laughed.

“Nick, just to keep the books clear, I never slept with Chris.  We shared the rent but had separate bedrooms.  He was a friend, not a lover.”

“Right. I got you.  Just like in high school, you and Dennis Carey. We’re just friends, Nick!  Whatever you say, Alan.”

“What?  Dennis Carey? What the hell are you talking about?” Now it was my voice getting loud. Must be something in the water, down here.

“Nothing, man. Nothing.  Not my business, sorry.”  He dropped his spoon and Ginger was there with a clean one before he laid it on the table. “Thanks, hon. That’s good service! Ask me for a date, tomorrow.”

“You won’t remember, Nick, but I’ll ask anyway.” She studied his face, glanced at me then smoothed Nick’s hair. “You boys okay? Everything all right?”

“Fine, hon. Bring the steaks, okay?” He grinned up at her.
The T-bones were a surprise; moist, tender and smoky. Nick’s mood lifted and I wished the damn juke box would move about a block away.  He spoke low and I leaned close to hear. “What’s that?”

“I said, it’s nice to see you eat. Good to watch your face light up. Great steaks, huh?”

“Unbelievable. I’ve never had a steak this good before, I swear.  Everything’s wonderful; the soup, the bread. I was amazed at the Caesar salad. I didn’t think I even liked blue cheese!” I laughed as he realized I let him order something I didn’t like.

“Why didn’t you say? Did I railroad you?  Everybody says I push people too hard. You, I try to never push and look what I do. I’m sorry, man.”

“Don’t worry, I’m happy!  It was amazing!” He was staring at me. “What? What you looking at?”

“Remember that day you came back home? I was disking Frasier’s hay field… you stopped at the intersection and I jumped off the tractor and waved you down. I kept thinking how amazing it was to see you. Amazing, that’s a good word. You amaze me, Alan.”

“Me? How? What’d I do?”

His gaze was intent for just a moment, then he brushed away the mood like a drift of smoke. “Ginger?” he shouted. He raised a beer bottle and pointed at it, held up two fingers.

“You really get me, Nick. Every time I think I got a handle on you, you shift gears and become something else. You’re still the same ol’ Nick, but not.  I try to keep you the same, in my head, but you don’t fit. It’s like getting to know a stranger who’s wearing your body.”  He propped his chin on a palm and stared back at me, wistfully.

“We both changed, everybody changes, but I wish we could go back to what we were. I wish I could still be the same for you, if that’s what you want.”  I was leaning across the table, smiling into his gentle smile, floating on this latest Nick, the man with longings and regrets.

“Well, glad to see you guys patched things up.” Ginger set the beer down and caressed the back of Nick’s neck, as quickly disappeared. But the mood was changed.
We were finished and sitting quietly. A slow ballad came on, the first of the evening. Nick lit a cigarette and passed it to me. A busboy brought an ashtray; his eyes lingered on Nick’s face until he spoke, “Thanks, Juan. You can take the dishes.” The boy smiled gratefully for his name from Nick’s lips; he bowed formally and removed the plates. Everybody loves ol’ Nick. That part never changed.

My real estate agent came toward the table. I stiffened up a little at his approach. Back when I wanted to sell the place I could never get him on the phone. He was impossible to catch. “Nick, how’s it going?”  He looked at me, again. “And Alan! Good to see you.”

We didn’t stand and didn’t ask him to sit down. But Nick was cordial. “Hollis, what’s up, man?  I been meaning to talk to you, can we get together tomorrow at lunch?”

“Sure, Nick. Uh .. here about noon?”

“Make it one.” Nick glanced at me with a lifted brow and a tiny smile, “I want to sleep late tomorrow. Alan drug me out of bed early today.”  I smiled back; it was noon when I woke him!

“Great. Could I ask you about…”

“Business tomorrow, Hollis. It’s after five, now.” The man laughed but moved away.

“You about ready to hit the road?” His voice was chest deep.

“Yeah”, I told him, ” Let me make a pit stop.”
When I came out of the rest room Nick was near the door and waved me over. Hollis was making another try at conversation but Nick patted his back and eased us out the door. We were getting in the car when I remembered. “Hey, the check?  How much was it?  I didn’t even leave Ginger a tip!”

“I got it. I run a tab in there.  It’s my home away from home.”  He slid in and slammed the door. “You want to go someplace else?  It’s early. Baskin Robbins is still open.”

“You must be kidding. I’m stuffed and I’m getting sore from the way you worked me, today.  I just want to get home and kick off these damn boots. I got ice cream in the freezer. How about a movie?  There’s a video store down the road I use every weekend.”

“Sounds good.  So, that’s what you been doing on weekends?  Renting videos?” He snorted.  “I’ve been hitting every bar and cafe around the county looking for you and you sitting home watching old movies. Probably some space invader stuff, huh?” He laughed out loud. “Hell, you ain’t changed, I take it back.”

“Did you think I’d be out two-stepping and cruising the beer joints?” I felt flattered he was out looking for me. “Why didn’t you stop by or call or something. Maybe I was sitting there waiting for you.”

“Yeah, why didn’t I think of that?” He bit down on the irony.

“This is the place. Anything special you want to watch?  Action, Monsters?”

“Well, I was hoping for a quiet little foreign film, maybe a romance about incest, but you pick out what you like.”  He teased me.

“I’ll get a space opera, then. You know I love them.”

He said, “Sure, we won’t watch it anyway. Five’ll get you ten we fall asleep before it’s over.”

“Huh? I’m not that sleepy!” I stepped inside as he held the door open for me.
“Alan, how’s it going?  Hey, is it Friday already?”  The clerk, Doug, was cute. A friendly,

jock-looking guy but his manner was decidedly more than friendly.  He always showed me just a little too much attention.  More than one night I caught myself before asking what time he got off.  Nick winked at me, “Okay, now I know why you hang out here.”
Doug cut his eyes to Nick with a quick chill. His brows went up and his lip curled in a distasteful snarl. “Blood Banner came in today, I put you a copy on hold, figured you’d want to see it.”  That was a celebrated film about the gay rights movement.

“Hey, thanks, Doug. Save it for tomorrow, okay? Tonight I want something light, something no-thinking-required.”

Nick smiled with perfect sincerity. “You see, Doug, he’s making allowances for me. He knows I’m not too fast on my synapses, wants something that won’t challenge me. He’s very considerate like that.”  The smile leaned toward leer, “Besides, I plan on attacking his body when we get home. We ain’t gonna be watching TV, I can tell you.”

“There you go, making plans without consulting me again.” I tried to go with this because I hated Doug from the moment he showed anger to Nick, when he should have laughed.

“Hey, I just spent fifty bucks on your supper! You owe me.” Nick’s eyes twinkled; he was enjoying this.

“You should have offered me cash, saved your time.”  I lost it, grinned.

“Shit, just this afternoon you was paying me!”  Then he grinned, “Was I worth it?”

Doug turned away, busied himself with stacks of videos. At least he knew when to quit. Nick put his arm around me and asked, “We don’t even need a movie, do we? Let’s just go home.”

“Sounds good.” He kept his arm around me to the car, opened my door for me. Just before I got in, he leaned in a few inches and kissed my cheek. I jerked away in shock.
We drove a couple of miles before I could speak; he didn’t help. I waited for him to start the explanation, or at least to say something to break the silence.  My cheek was still warm, remembered his lips.  The silence grew into tension.
He let out a huge exaggerated sigh, “Okay, okay!  Just drop me off at my place. I’ll forget the whole thing. It was just typical dumb-me shit. Forget it.”

“You lost me, Nick. I got no idea what the hell you talking about.”  I sort of thought I did know, in a non-verbal way, but I wanted him doing the explaining.  He wouldn’t have it.

“Fuck it. It don’t matter. Just drop me off. I miss my truck, anyway. I like being the driver. When I’m with you I never get to drive.”

I pulled to the side of the road, put it in park and got out. I went round to his side and opened his door, “Come on. Drive.”

He didn’t move. “Asshole. You know that ain’t what I mean.” He crossed his arms stubbornly, stared out the windshield.

“I don’t know what the hell you meant. You said I never let you drive?”

He came quickly out of the car and stalked around to the driver’s side, got in with a loud slam of the door. “Well? Are you getting in or what?”

I got in. He revved the engine and jumped back on the pavement, rounded a long curve about twice as fast as I was comfortable with. This was why I never let him drive. I remembered.  Now I was glad his place was close by, I wanted to be away from him. I wanted to be able to breathe without catching my breath. I just wanted some of that peacefulness that was boredom a few hours back.  He sped past his driveway without a sideways glance, turned into River Road and drove on in silence. I wouldn’t ask why.  Just past the bridge, he turned down an incline of dirt road and pulled to a stop at the old embankment. Here was the place we spent hours back then, summer swimming, and fishing and the place we came to after dates. Near as anywhere, it was our place.  He cut the motor off and got out.  I sat still just a minute, feeling the odd rush of excitement, the nostalgia, the silly sentiment of boyhood.  The sky was dark with clouds, the river only a ribbon of sparkles and a background mutter in the blackness.
“Nick?” I called.

“Over on  the rocks, past the table.” His voice wasn’t far, but came hollow and quiet on the night air.  I moved towards it, found the table, made out the lighter rocks that formed a natural set of steps down to the water’s edge.  I could see his form, shadowed and crouched low. He was sitting on the steps.  I went near, stood by him.   Then he lit a cigarette; the face that showed orange was fiercely scowled. It wasn’t my Nick. This was the other, new Nick. He held the lit smoke up to me and when I took it, he clasped my wrist and pulled me gently down beside him.  I sat close, touching with my thigh and shoulder.  He lit a smoke for himself and hunched forward, elbows onto his knees.

“This afternoon I thought we could go back …” he said, “I thought it was as easy as wanting it. I thought if you loved me again everything would feel good again, and I’d get a new start, make it happen right this time. But you ain’t the same, I ain’t the same and life don’t go backwards, does it?”

I leaned down, lay my face against his hard back, listened to his heart beat. “Nick. If me loving you was all you needed then you got everything.  Always did, always will.  It’s not something I give you, it just is.  It’s not something I can take away or hold back, it’s not something you have to work for. Right or wrong, I’ve always loved you, always will.”

He sat up and I had to sit up, too, but I kept an arm across his shoulder. He told me, “Yeah, I guess I knew that.”

We sat for quite a while. The river kept muttering to itself, of darkness and hurry. We listened and waited. I wondered what he was thinking about, but his profile showed no thinking.  He was cruising in some male ether, doing silent battle with whatever demons he carried, dreaming wordless dreams of conquest and victory and the price of defeat.

“Come on, my butt’s getting sore. Let’s go home.” I stood up and pulled at his arm.
He stood and gathered me in his arms, hugged me fiercely and quickly let me go. We walked to the car arm in arm.

“You drive; your car.” He got in on the passenger side.

“You still going home or you staying with me?”

“We got to cut the back yard. I’ll crash on your couch if you let me. Up to you. Whatever you want.”
When he flipped on the living room light I cut it off again. “Not the couch.” I took his arm and led him to my bed. He stretched out in his clothes. I pulled off his boots and mine, then lay beside him.  “When you kissed me on the cheek, it scared me.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Scared you or made you mad, something.  Sorry.”

I rolled against him, wrapped my arm across his chest. My face fit into the hollow of his neck. “What I thought was, it’s not the first time. I mean that guy, Jimmy … and Ginger’s old man? I think you’ve kissed a man before and it wasn’t me. It hurt.”

“Was I supposed to wait for you?  Was you up there waiting for me to come get you?”

“You were supposed to stay with your wife and live happily ever after. I was supposed to forget about you.”

“I figured you’d done that before you left.” His hand came up behind me and rubbed my back. “When you started hanging out with Dennis, that hurt me. Okay? You not the only one with feelings.”

“Why? Because Dennis was gay and everybody knew it?  Is that what hurt?”

“No, dumbass! Where did you get the idea I cared a god damn what anybody thinks? You the only one scared about being gay. I really don’t give a shit what I am, I just thought you liked Dennis and would rather be with him than with me.  I used to go out looking for the two of you, checked all the parking spots. Down at the river and everywhere. I figured you was doing with him what you was afraid to do with me.”

“It was easier with Dennis. I wasn’t in love with him. You made me want it but I didn’t think you wanted it to happen. I thought you just wanted to fool around until you found the right woman, got married and all that.  I didn’t want to get hurt, not any more than I already was.  I loved you all my life, Nick, every since I can remember and it was painful every minute because you were straight and I was gay…”

“Stop it!” He was harsh and shoved my arm away. “Don’t even start with that gay-straight bullshit, okay? Who put you in charge of judging people?  You think I never loved you? Is that what you saying?  You think it never meant anything because I was just straight?   You’re such an asshole, Alan!  You were a basket case, a certifiable idiot!  You were scared to death of feeling anything.  You had little wet dreams about passion but you couldn’t face the real thing!  At least I knew what the hell I wanted and I was willing to take the risk. But every time I touched you, you turned to tears and fears.”

“But, I didn’t know…” I began. He cut me off.

“How could you know? Wrapped up tight in your little shell? Shit! Don’t tell me about your poor broken heart, not when you ran off with Dennis and made a damn fool out of me!  I swore I’d never feel that much for another human being, male or female.” He sighed and calmed down. “That’s one promise I never broke.”

I lay still in stunned silence. Too much of it sounded true. Funny how history can turn around and become something different, just when you thought you had everything figured out.

I didn’t know what to say. Nick probably thought he’d said too much. We lay in silence so long it became impossible to break it. We slept, side by side, fully dressed and our hands clinched together between us. I dreamed of telling him about the disease that silently waited inside me. I woke, crying because I could never go back, undo the mistakes and make it right.  Nick pulled me to his chest and held me.  He sobbed, too. I guess he already knew. He would. He’d always known me better than I knew myself.
“If you die I’ll never forgive you.”  He growled against my face.

I raised my hand in the dark, cupped his stubbled cheek. “I can’t forgive myself … for living.”
I got up and made coffee. We sat on the porch as the sun came up. The day was sweet and unnaturally warm. Nick watched me as I lit a cigarette.

“The medical stuff, prescriptions and everything … must get pretty expensive, huh?” He spoke calmly, quiet and slow.

“Mmm, yeah. That’s why I should sell this place … my first book is selling pretty good and I got a big fat advance on this new one I’m writing … but my earnings are kinda erratic and the bills go on and on.”

“I want to help, Alan … listen, I got more money than I know what to do with … Remember the land Dad bought down on the river?  We got this big development going up, money keeps rolling in .. it’s crazy, man!”

“Really?” I laughed. “That’s what Hollis wanted to talk about last night?” I couldn’t take it in. “But you still live like a hired hand? Nick, are you insane?”

“Hell, I bought the roadhouse, okay? Sally’s? That’s mine. And I bought a strip mall down in Coalton, right off the interstate … fucking money just keeps piling up, man.” He shrugged, looked amused and confused. “But what am I supposed to do? Buy a big mansion and drive a limo? That ain’t me, you know better … the money don’t mean nothing to me, Alan … it just buys stuff … I don’t want stuff.  I pay three guys to decide what to do with it, I don’t even care. But if money can help you out? If you need anything?”

“Thanks, Nick.” I looked over at him; his intensity was too much to handle. I looked away.  “I’m fine right now. No problem. Don’t worry about me.”

He kept watching me. I could feel his gaze like a hot spotlight.

“How did you know about me? When did you find out?” I couldn’t face him.

“You dad told me.” I heard him take a deep, sighing breath. “Sitting right here on the porch.”

“When? How long have you known?”

“Last summer. When you called them to tell them about the test results.”

“Oh. All this time?” I glanced back at him. He was staring off at the road.

“You dad called me, right after you called them, I guess. He was crying, upset … I drove over here. He told me, wanted me to go up to New York and drag you home. Your mother took a sleeping pill and a couple of valiums. Me and your dad just got drunk.” His eyes darted back at me, accusing and angry. I had to turn away.

“He knew about us, did you know that? He said if I ever loved you, I had to bring you home.  I told him I loved you too much to make you do anything … I always did.”

I nodded. His emotion should have moved me, his depth of pain should have touched me. But the heavy blanket of resignation closed around me. I nodded again.

“I’ll have to go back, to the city.” I told him.

“Yeah, you said … close the apartment and all. I’ll go with you.” He rubbed his eyes.

“No, I mean, I’ll have to go back there to live. I can’t stay here, not now. I wouldn’t let my parents watch me die … do you think I could let you go through it?”

“You’d do that? Just run away, again?  Jesus, Alan … what kind of a bastard are you?” He reached across to grab at my arm, folded his head down against my shoulder and it lay heavy.

“Did you think I could really live in a hick town like this? Goddamn, Nick … I miss the bars, the guys, the crowd I belong to … people who understand me and know how to make me laugh.” I rubbed his long back, smoothed the curls that crimped under his ear.

“I have years left, man … medicine today is amazing. I want to enjoy the time I got left .. I want to work and play and party and forget about it, at least sometimes … Every time I look at you, buddy … I’d see it, be reminded. I can’t stand what I’ve done to us… that’s the worst part of all. Yeah, I’m a selfish bastard, Nick … I want to keep this all to myself and I wont share it with you or anybody I love, see?  I’m not that fucking strong, man.”

I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed tight, hard; fastened like a leech.  Just a moment, then I shoved him away with a grin. “Get off me, you big sissy. Stop your whining!” I lit another cigarette. “My coffee’s cold!” I got up.

“If you fuckin’ leave me again, Alan …?”  He stared up at me, eyes full of fear.

“You’ve got a business meeting … I’ve got a book to finish! Get off your ass, boy … Hey!” I turned back from the screen door. “ Let’s go back to the river landing tomorrow. You want to?  In frigging daylight, this time.” I laughed. “I’ll fill up a picnic basket. You got a cooler?”

“Yeah, sure.” He stood up, a slight smile playing across his face.

“I need more sun, I wanna get fried … we can still swim down there, right?”

Then, I managed to get Nick into my car and I dropped him off at his house, promised we’d cut his front yard over the weekend. He kept watching me, wary, but he let go the mournful face and managed a grin. “We still got to finish your back yard.”

“We will, man … we will.” I lied with perfect assurance and drove away.
Didn’t have much to pack, I’d not brought much when I drove down. I could phone Hollis to hire someone to clean up, sell the furniture, put the house up for sale. I realized that Nick had probably told him not to sell the house. I might have to find myself a new realtor. I was cleared out and on the freeway heading north by dark. This time, I wouldn’t mind New York so bad. It was a lousy place to live but a good place to die.

3 Responses to Almost Home

  1. Pingback: Melancholy | wildeoats

  2. dano1128 says:

    A Classic…always love a db story.

  3. Virgil Osborn says:

    Powerful. I can never get enough of db’s stories.

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