By Tim Mead
The usual disclaimers apply. Don't read this if for some legal reason you shouldn't. Remember the work is under copyright and thus belongs to me. No reposting without permission.
Ben did another, more thorough search of the house. Mr. Tibbs simply wasn't there. He'd probably gotten out while Hal and Chris were putting their things in the car. Ben couldn't imagine where he might have gone. Tibbs, who had been "fixed" as soon as he was old enough, had never been one to go "tomcatting." And because his front claws had been removed, it was dangerous for him to be running loose. He had very little way to protect himself and no way to climb trees.
"Damn cat!" Ben muttered. He pulled on a hoodie and went out to look around the yard, but Mr. Tibbs wasn't there. Ben had hoped to get in some serious writing time that day since his brother and nephew had used up the rest of his weekend. Now here he was searching for Tibbs, who'd never in his two years of life run away until now. As he walked, Ben's anger changed to concern. Not many people were outside that Sunday morning. People tended either to sleep in or go to church. He did ask a guy raking leaves in the next block if he'd seen an all-black cat wandering around. The guy said he was sorry but he hadn't. And so it went.
Two hours later a worried and frustrated Ben arrived back at the house after having walked all around his part of town.
"What am I supposed to do now?" he demanded of the absent feline.
After thinking about it for a while, he decided that he'd make up some flyers. He didn't have a picture of Mr. Tibbs, so he simply typed up a notice that the cat was two years old, all black, and missing. One couldn't very well say he answered to the name of Mr. Tibbs, for cats don't answer to anyone. So he simply indicated that the cat's name was Mr. Tibbs. He added his own address and phone number and printed out 25 of them on paper of a color they called "goldenrod" at the office
Before he shut down the computer so he could take the flyers around, he decided to check his email. The only thing new was from Trent. `You have to give the bastard credit,' he thought. `He's certainly persistent.'
Ben realized that the odds against gay couples having anything lasting were great, but he'd really thought that he and Trent were a couple, together for keeps. When he'd come home early from his work, he'd been stunned to see Trent and the blond jock going at it in their bed, the bed he and Trent shared.
Ben had been more emotional than he'd ever been in his life. He'd pitched a real fit. Trent had been paying half the mortgage to live there, but it was Ben's house. He told Trent he wanted him out right then.
Ben couldn't believe he'd actually said, "Get your things and get the fuck out of here."
The jock boy had fled, muttering something about jealous queens.
Trent had instantly been contrite, but in his shock at the betrayal Ben was having none of it. "Just get out. I can't deal with you. You can come back and pick up the rest of your things when I'm not here. Be sure to leave the keys. I don't want to see you again."
Trent had done as Ben had asked. He left. He came back the next day while Ben was at work and cleaned all his things out of the house. He left an apologetic note, hoping that when Ben had had time to think it over he'd reconsider.
Trent, a surgical nurse, found a place to live in temporarily, though after a month or so he emailed Ben that he'd taken a job and was moving to Sylvania. Although Trent had sent notes, flowers, and occasional gifts (which Ben promptly threw away), Ben never relented. He wasn't about to let himself in for that sort of grief again.
He sighed, signed out of his ISP, and turned off the pc. Trent would survive. The problem now was Tibbs.
The house had seemed so quiet after Trent moved out, Ben finally went to the animal shelter and was taken with a particularly aloof black kitten. It wasn't exactly love at first sight. More as if the little black fur ball had let it be known that Ben was acceptable. So Trent was gone, Mr. Tibbs was installed.
There was no one to kiss him when he got home. There was no warm body in his bed. There was no one to cook with, to go shopping with, to work out with, to make love with. There was just Tibbs, who, despite his independence, had acquired a stronger hold on Ben's heart than he would ever have anticipated.
He took the fliers to the nearest supermarket and to Walgreen's where he was allowed to post them. He'd have to try the dry cleaner's later because they were closed on Sunday. Then he fastened all the rest to utility poles around the neighborhood.
Realizing it was lunchtime, he had a cup of coffee and a Slim Fast bar. Too unsettled to write, he grabbed his gym bag and went to the Y, where he found the repetitious exercises calming. In the shower afterward he covertly studied a couple of gym rats, but he didn't really find them attractive. Too many bulging muscles, plus a kind of narcissism that seemed to go with the type, turned him off.
The waiter had just left their drinks, single-malt scotch for him, pinot grigio for her.
"So, my darling, were you terribly bored this afternoon while I was away?"
Sophie pouted. "I don't understand why you brought me along if you were going to leave me here while you played golf."
"But we have the entire evening ahead of us. And the night." Gilbert smiled and raised his glass to her. "I'm sorry you were bored. What did you do?"
"Oh, nothing. I worked on my tan by the pool, took a walk by the beach. It's all so tiresome. These places are all alike."
`Sophie's beginning to sound like Amelia from Coronado Affair. I'll have to be careful about that.'
He'd decided he wasn't in the right mood to work on the real novel, so he'd spent the afternoon on the Captiva story instead. He checked his email. The only message in his inbox was from Hal.
`Hal? What's he want?"
It turned out to be a thank you, of all things. The boy had said he'd enjoyed the overnight and that Tibbs was "cool."
`I wonder if his mother put him up to that.'
He shut down the computer. It had gotten dark. He looked at his watch. It was 7:00. No wonder his stomach was growling. He hadn't had anything since breakfast but the Slim Fast bar. He was surprised when he thought of going out to eat. He didn't do that often, preferring to heat up some soup or zap something in the microwave. But after his workout he was hungry. With Tibbs gone, he felt strangely alone.
He decided to go to Nelly's, the gay bar near campus. They had great fish and chips, and that sounded good to him. He put on his shoes, got his wallet and change, picked up his keys, and was shrugging into his jacket when the doorbell rang.
He opened the door to find Toby standing there with one of the gold flyers in his hand.
"Uh, Hi, Toby."
"Hi, Ben. Bruce says he saw you putting these up. We didn't even know you had a cat."
"Well, Tibbs is pretty much an indoor cat. And he shouldn't be outside on his own. He's been declawed."
"No luck finding him yet, then?"
"Well, Bruce and I'll keep our eyes open. And we'll ask around if anybody's seen him."
"Thanks, Toby. I appreciate that." Then, remembering his manners, Ben added, "Would you like to come in?"
Toby smiled. "No, thanks. Bruce and I are about to go get something to eat. Neither one of us got home in time to fix anything."
Ben momentarily thought about inviting them to eat with him, but he decided not to.
"So, um, well, thanks for your concern, Toby."
"Good luck finding your cat, Ben. I love the name!"
"You're old enough to remember those novels?"
"I don't know anything about novels, but I remember seeing reruns of `In the Heat of the Night.' Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, didn't he?"
"Yeah, he did."
"Okay, gotta run. Like I said, good luck." With that he turned and ran across the street to the house where he lived.
`Damn! I should have asked those guys to have dinner somewhere with me. It wouldn't have hurt. I didn't have to go to Nelly's tonight. But they wouldn't have wanted to eat with me. I'm ten years older than they are. What could we have in common?'
He locked the front door and went to the garage. `They're good looking, especially Toby. I wonder if they're a couple? Shit, they are probably both straight. No reason to think otherwise.'
A cold rain had begun by the time he got back from Nelly's. He worried that Tibbs was out in it somewhere, but he had no idea what to do to find him.
It rained for the next two days.
Ben worked for Colby County as the deputy Information Officer. His official title was "Technical Specialist," but everyone knew he was the chief assistant to Sharon Dunovich, the County's Information Officer. As such, his job was primarily to screen everything that went out from the county in a public sort of way, everything from websites to brochures, to press releases.
Trouble started Monday when he sent back to the Utilities Department a proposed new brochure on recycling policy because it didn't meet the county's guidelines for format and style. The head of the Utilities Department called and chewed Ben out. Ben replied that he was simply enforcing established county policy. That wasn't good enough for Tony Bustamente. Ben suggested he call Sharon, and the conversation ended.
The next day, however, Sharon stopped by Ben's cubicle and asked for Ben's version of what happened. He explained. Then he called up on his screen the proposed brochure and let her see for herself. She agreed with him that he'd done the right thing.
"But, Ben, he says you weren't very nice to him."
"Damn, Sharon, he talked to me like I was his servant. I wouldn't use that tone of voice with anyone. So I suppose I got a bit testy."
Sharon grinned. "Well, you know Tony. He tends to get pretty pompous when he doesn't get his way."
"Tell me about it. We have more trouble with them than any other division in the county."
"I know, I know. Okay, when they send the brochure back, why don't you and I look at it together?"
"Fine with me, boss."
"Meanwhile, I know Bustamente can be an infuriating son of a bitch. But he's a division head and we have to work with him, so try not to tick him off any more than you have to. Okay?"
"Yeah, I understand. I'll be a good boy."
She grinned, and left.
Ben spent the rest of the day reading stuff that was so poorly written he wondered how the originators had gotten out of high school. He felt like an English teacher – and thought again how much those poor souls earned their money.
It was still raining lightly as he drove home Tuesday after work, the windshield wipers of his four year old Taurus making lazy passes across the glass. Ben would have liked to have a nicer car, something more fun to drive and better to look at. Restauranteur Adrian Lynch, one of the town's most out gay men, drove a dark red Jag. Now there was a car! But Lynch was flamboyant, and Ben couldn't afford to call attention to himself by spending lots of money. His co-workers and his few friends would have wondered how he could afford it on what the county paid him. So he stuck with his dull but reliable Taurus.
He was tired, damp, discouraged, and out of sorts when he got home. The first thing he did was to check his voice mail to see if anyone had called in response to the flyers he'd put up. There was nothing. Wondering how he'd muster up any enthusiasm for working on the Captiva book after supper, he poured himself a glass of wine and looked through his mail. All bills, catalogs, and other junk.
Just then the doorbell rang. When he opened the door, Ben saw Toby standing on the stoop with a bundle in his arms, something wrapped in a towel.
"Uh, hi Toby, what's up? I guess you'd better come in out of the rain."
"I've got somebody for you," Toby said after they were inside and Ben had shut the door. He handed Ben his bundle, the contents of which said, "Yeow," jumped to the floor and ran toward the laundry, where the litter box was located.
"Guess he had to go and was too polite to do it at my house," Toby said, chuckling.
"You found Tibbs! I want to know all about where you found him, but how about a beer or a glass of wine?"
"A beer would be good, thanks."
Ben invited Toby to have a seat in the family room while he went to the kitchen for a beer. As he was closing the door of the fridge, Mr. Tibbs came over and rubbed against his leg, tail in the air, purring. Ben squatted and stroked the cat. "You're in deep shit, Tibbs, but I'm glad you're home. Now let me get Toby his beer."
Mr. Tibbs walked ahead of Ben and jumped into Toby's lap.
Ben gave Toby his beer, found his wine, and sat.
`Fickle slut,' Ben thought.
"Looks like he's grateful to his savior. Where did you find him?"
"When I got home from class this afternoon he was sitting on your front stoop, one very bedraggled, miserable kitty. I knew you wouldn't be home for a while, so I picked him up and took him home. I dried him off with a towel and turned on an electric space heater. I opened a can of tuna for him and gave him some water. I hope that's all right. He didn't seem to be very hungry. Anyway, he took a nap in front of the fire while I did some schoolwork. When I saw your car pull into the garage, I grabbed him up, and here we are!"
"I don't know how to thank you, Toby. I've really been worried about the bastard. He's never run away before. I try to be careful about leaving the door open, but he's never shown much interest in going outside. I think he probably got out Sunday morning when my brother and nephew were loading their car. If the door was closed while he was out there, he may have wandered off, exploring, I suppose."
"Well, I'm glad he turned up."
"Can I give you a reward or something? I'm really grateful, you know."
Toby took a swallow of beer and set the glass down.
"Yeah. I've been thinking. And there's something you could do for me."
"Bruce is going to be out tomorrow night. Why don't you come over and let me fix dinner for you? I'm not a bad cook."
"I dunno, Toby. I'm not a very social being any more. And how could letting you give me supper be a reward for you?"
"I'm not throwing a big party, Ben. It'll just be the two of us. And it's a reward for me because I don't enjoy eating alone. More important, I'd like to get to know you better. We're neighbors, after all, both single guys."
"Well, I'm not sure . . . ."
"Come on, Ben. What could it hurt? Would you hand me money for returning Mr. Tibbs but refuse to accept my hospitality?"
"When you put it like that, it would be churlish of me to refuse, wouldn't it?"
Toby chuckled. "Churlish. You sound just like Bruce."
"Yeah, he's a TA in the English department and working on his doctorate. He's got quite a vocabulary."
"I guess it goes with the territory."
"You want to explain that?"
"Oh, it's just that I majored in English, and my professors tossed off words I'd never heard before all the time. And they did it as if they expected everyone to know them."
"That's Bruce all right."
Toby was holding his beer in one hand and stroking Tibbs, who'd parked himself in Toby's lap, with the other. "So are you gonna come?" He smiled, and Ben realized once more that this was a very good looking guy. And all the old warnings went off in his head. But he couldn't refuse. It would be . . . churlish.
"Toby, you're, uh, really very kind. First you find that rascal, and now you're inviting me over for supper. I'd like to come, thanks."
"Great, see you tomorrow about six. And, of course, this will be very casual. I'll be in jeans, as usual." He finished his beer, looking for a place to put the bottle.
"Just set it on the floor. It won't hurt the carpet."
Toby gently set Mr. Tibbs down. "Goodbye, Mr. Tibbs. You'd better stay home, where it's warm and dry. And where there's a litter box."
Ben chuckled. "He'd better, or he's in big trouble."
At the door, Ben shook hands with Toby, thanking him again.
"No problem, neighbor. See you tomorrow evening."
Ben put out some food and water for Tibbs, nuked an individual serving of tomato soup, poured it into a mug, and went to the family room. He built a fire. By the time it was blazing, he and Tibbs had finished eating and the cat was ensconced in his lap, his motor running.
"I'm glad you're back, Tibbs. You had me worried, guy. Damned cat!"
Friday at work Ben called Leo Hartzell, the guy in Utilities who had written the recycling brochure, and told him the revised version was fine and they could go ahead and get it printed up.
"Ben," Leo said, "it's just the way I wrote it in the first place. It was Tony that made the changes. I told him they'd never get past you, but he insisted. Now he's pissed with you and me both."
"Sorry about that, Leo. If he'd just read the policy guidelines he'd know what to do."
"Yeah, I think Sharon managed to tell him that."
"Better her than me. I wouldn't want to have your boss."
"I can't comment for reasons you will understand."
"Someone on the other side of the cubicle?"
"Yeah. But thanks for letting me know we're good to go on the brochure."
Tony Bustamente was a perfect example of the Peter Principle, a guy who'd been promoted to his level of incompetence. That problem could plague any organization, but it seemed especially bad in the Colby County government. Oh, well, it was a job.
With a sigh he looked in his inbox and picked the next document that had been sent to him for review.
When he showed up at Toby's door that evening, Ben was carrying a case of Heineken's.
"You didn't have to do that!" Toby said as he took the box to the kitchen.
While he was gone, Ben looked around. The house was the same 70's vintage ranch as his own except that he guessed it had two bedrooms rather than three. Ben had done some fairly extensive updating in his house. Except for the carpeting, which looked new, this house seemed to be pretty much as it was when it was built. The owners, Gabe and Florence Hickerson, had gone to Florida for the winter several years ago and had decided not to come back to Colby. They'd had their son ship some things to them and then had rented it furnished to male CSU grad students. This was the second year Bruce and Toby had lived in the house.
He was startled from his reverie when Toby returned from the kitchen. "Ben, I've made a big pot of spaghetti sauce. I thought we'd have that and a salad."
"Sounds great, Toby. Lots better than I'd have had if I fixed for myself. And it smells great! I used to cook, but these days I usually just nuke something."
"Maybe later you'll tell me why you don't cook any more. Right now, though, I've got some merlot breathing. Would you like a glass?"
"Yeah, please. I remembered you took beer at my house the other day, so I thought I'd better not risk bringing you wine."
"I like both, so it's no problem. How's Mr. Tibbs? Any after-effects from his tomcatting episode?"
Toby led Ben into the kitchen where he poured wine for both of them. The spaghetti sauce smelled even better in there.
"He's in such good shape I can't help wondering if he was in somebody else's house for a while. I've decided to put a collar on him with my phone number on it in case he gets wanderlust again."
"That's not required by the city or the county, is it?"
"Nope. But I should have done it. I just figured he wouldn't like the collar. He'll probably be mightily pissed with me when I make him wear it."
Toby held up his glass. "To having Tibbs back safe and sound."
Ben touched his glass to Toby's. "I'll drink to that. And thank you for spotting him over there and rescuing him. If you hadn't he might have gone off again seeking shelter from the rain."
"I hadn't thought of that. You're probably right. Now, we can eat whenever we're ready. All I have to do is cook the pasta. Wanna go in the family room? I've started a fire in there."
Toby had put out a bowl of peanuts mixed with raisins. Ben sat in the sofa facing the fire and Toby sat in a chair at right angles to the sofa. They munched the snack and sipped their wine.
After the Trent debacle, Ben had been invited out by his friends, but he'd refused so many invitations he seldom received them any more. And that had been fine with him. He hadn't felt like being "up," being pleasant when he was still in the grip of bitterness. But he had to admit this was nice. He instinctively felt comfortable with his young host . . . .
Toby grinned broadly. "Man, you spaced out on me there. Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine. My mind did wander for a minute there. I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
"I said we don't know anything about you except you're Ben Moss, you live across the street, you have a cat named Mr. Tibbs, and a gray Taurus. Oh, yes, and a brother named Chris and a nephew named Hal."
"That about sums it up."
"No way! Where do you work?"
"I work for the Colby County government."
Toby waited. Ben didn't say anything.
"Jesus, Ben! Help me out here. What do you do for the Colby County government?"
"I work in the OPI, the Office of Public Information. Basically my job is to review all changes to the county's websites and drafts of everything new the county publishes, from brochures and pamphlets to press releases."
"Actually, it must be a little like what Bruce does."
"You said he was a teaching assistant in English?"
"Uh huh. He teaches two sections of freshman comp each semester along with the courses he takes toward his degree. He complains sometimes about having to mark all those essays."
"Yeah, I suppose that could be pretty awful. Looking back on it, I have a lot of sympathy for my freshman comp instructor." Ben took a sip of the wine. It was a perfectly acceptable red, probably from Australia. He didn't imagine two graduate students could afford the good stuff.
"Okay, now I know more about Bruce than I do about you. Where are you from? I know you're a grad student too. What's your field?"
"Same as everybody else, `puters. Only we call it Information Science."
"Well, you must be better than nearly everybody else, or you wouldn't be a TA."
Toby's smile was brilliant. "My grades are okay."
"I'll just bet they are. Now, you didn't tell me where you're from or how you met Bruce."
"We're both from the Indianapolis area, but we didn't know each other until we came to Colby. We went to different high schools, and he went to Earlham for his undergrad work. I went to Indiana."
"How did you happen to come here?"
"Same for both of us. This is the place that offered us the best financial/teaching package. And Colby's a lot better known now than it was 25 years ago. Or so my major advisor at Indiana told me." He paused to take a sip of his wine. "You know what, Mr. Moss? You're asking all the questions. Could that be because you don't want to talk about yourself?"
Ben stalled by taking another drink of his merlot. "I'm really uncomfortable talking about myself. Just a boring guy with a paper shuffling job, a guy who sits in a cubicle all day and comes home to his cat. Doesn't that sound pathetic?"
"Not if you're happy. Forgive me, but I sense you're not happy. But I also sense there's a lot more to you than you're telling me."
"What, you think I have some deep, dark secret?"
Toby stood. "Yeah, I kind of think I do. But I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I'm going to turn the heat up under the water. When it comes to a boil, I'll put the pasta in. Excuse me just a minute."
"Can I help?"
"You can keep me company. Come on and bring your glass."
In the kitchen Toby topped up their wine glasses and turned up the gas flame under the big pasta pot.
As he watched, Ben felt a pang.
"Maybe I there is something I should tell you. Something I should have told you when you invited me here."
Toby raised one eyebrow and grinned. "Yeah? So what is your dark secret?"
"Cool! But I knew that."
If you'd like to write me about this story, please do c/o firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put the name of the story in the subject line so I'll know it's not spam. Thanks. --Tim