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.
It took less than a half an hour to get to Gridley's Bar in Higgins. Toby did most of the talking, with Bruce and Ben responding or making comments occasionally.
Gridley's was bigger and nicer than Ben had imagined it would be, and at 10:30 on a Saturday evening the regulars were beginning to arrive. They were lucky to get a booth. After they were settled in with their drinks, Toby and Bruce on one side, Ben facing them on the other, Ben looked around the room. The crowd was mixed in age. It was mostly men, but there were a few couples, and it was obviously a place where a guy wouldn't worry about bringing a date. Or a spouse. Ben noticed a few people of both sexes he thought looked like college students, despite what Bruce and Toby had said earlier about coming there to avoid them.
As they chatted, he had a chance to study Toby's roommate. He'd seen Bruce occasionally before, but never more than fleetingly. He was about an inch taller than Toby when they stood, probably 5'10", but as they sat side by side they seemed the same height, which must have meant that Bruce was longer in the leg. He had brown hair and eyes, and he wore glasses. Sometimes he had a dreamy look, as if his mind was far from Gridley's bar. Yet he obviously was listening to the conversation and occasionally added a comment or two. He wasn't sexy in the usual sense, Ben decided, but he was attractive in his own way.
`Or am I just terminally horny?' he asked himself. `Maybe it's a mistake getting to be friends with these two.'
"Tell me, Bruce, are you at the dissertation stage yet?"
Bruce set down his glass, looking a little surprised at the question.
"Oh, yeah, Toby told me you were an English major."
"Well, creative writing, actually, but I knew a lot of English majors."
"I'm finishing my course work in June. I'll have comprehensive exams then, too. After that I'll start the research."
"Surely you have some idea by now what you'd like to write on."
"Well, I do, as a matter of fact. I've talked with Dr. Rademaker, who's agreed to be my director if I come up with a Faulkner topic."
"Well, one of the things we've kicked around is gay themes in Faulkner's novels."
"Interesting," Ben commented.
Toby chuckled. "And he claims to be straight."
Bruce grinned and elbowed Toby. "That's enough out of you, queer boy. I know you'll always want to take credit if I write on that topic, won't you?"
"Why not?" Toby asked, grinning back at him.
"What about you, Toby? Have you focused in on your doctoral topic yet?"
"I'm not sure I want to go straight on for my doctorate. I think I'll start looking for a job next spring."
Just then a young man walked up to their booth and said, "Hi, Bruce. What brings you to Higgins?"
They all looked up. The guy standing there was a few inches over six feet, about Ben's height. He had blond hair and blue eyes and held himself ramrod straight. Though not stunningly handsome, he had an attractive, boy next door look. His package was close enough to Ben's eye level to be noticeable, and his jeans were just tight enough to make it intriguing.
"Hey, Brody!" Bruce said. "Good to see ya! Wanna join us?"
"No, thanks, I'm on my way home. Just stopped by for a brew, saw you, and thought I'd say hello."
"Guys," Bruce said, "this is Brody Cox. He's in one of my classes. My star pupil, in fact."
"Awww, shucks, Bruce," Brody said, putting on his best country boy act, "I ain't nothin' special."
"I want you to meet my roommate, Toby Taba, and our neighbor, Ben Moss."
Ben and Toby shook hands with Brody without trying to extricate themselves from the booth and standing up.
"Nice to meet you both. Now, sorry to rush off, but I've gotta go. Have fun."
"What's your hurry, Brody?" Toby asked. The way he was looking at Brody left no question of his interest.
"Well, I've got this big essay due Monday for my slave driving English instructor. I thought I'd get started on it tonight."
"No way!" Bruce said. "Who works on assignments on Saturday night?"
"Well," Brody said, grinning, "I've got a big day tomorrow, and I don't want to leave it all until tomorrow night."
"You mean you haven't even started it yet?"
Brody's grin got even bigger. "Actually, I usually start on Sunday evening."
"Not the recommended procedure, but I can't argue with the results. So, thanks for stopping to say hello. See you in class Monday."
"Right. Nice to meet you guys," Brody said, smiling at Ben and Toby.
Toby and Ben watched Brody until he was out of sight.
"Okay, roomie," Toby said, "tell us all about Brody Cox."
"There's not much to tell. He's a good writer. But then he's our age," Bruce said, nodding at Toby. "He spent four years in the Marines, just got back from Iraq last June, and so he's a freshman. But the military experience and the extra four years give him a real advantage over his classmates. Besides that, he's smart. And, as you can see, a very nice guy."
"You left out one important bit of information," Toby said.
"Whatever can you mean?" Bruce asked with mock puzzlement.
"You know damn well what I mean!"
"Oh, that! He's openly gay. He's got a partner, too, or so I've heard. He never writes about himself in his essays."
Ben said quietly, "The cute ones are always either straight or in a relationship."
Toby was gazing around the room. Bruce looked at Ben, pointed toward Toby, and mouthed, "He's not."
Two things exploded in Ben's mind simultaneously. First of all, why would he be interested in the cute ex-Marine? He wasn't interested in anybody. He was content with his quiet, solitary life just as it was, thank you very much. Second, if Ben was correctly interpreting what Bruce had just done, Toby was not only gay but also unattached.
`And why would you care about whether Toby's gay or not?' a voice inside his head asked.
`Well, he's becoming a friend and it's better to know those things, isn't it?'
"Toby says you work in the Public Information Office for Colby County, right?" Bruce asked.
Ben jerked himself out of his reverie and responded to the question. "Uh, right."
"And you've written a novel?"
Toby smiled and said, "I'm sorry Ben. I hope you don't mind. Bruce and I don't have many secrets. I told him that you have an unpublished novel."
"Yeah, and it's likely to remain unpublished."
"What's it about?"
"Toby didn't tell you?"
`Give Toby good marks for discretion,' Ben thought
"It's about a gay man and his dismal attempts to find Mr. Right. He's not a slut or anything. He's not much into casual sex. But he does have a series of three partners, none of which works out."
"How does it end?"
"It isn't a mystery, Bruce. It really doesn't end. It just quits. Jake, the main character, is right where he's always been, still looking for a guy."
"Sounds a little depressing."
Ben smiled. "That's what my agent and all the publishers who've seen it have said. The unanswered question is whether Jake keeps looking or just gives up."
`Like you have,' that inner voice said.
"Well, I'd love to read it," Toby said.
"So would I," Bruce echoed.
"Oh, I don't think you'd want to."
"Yes we would," they said together.
They stayed at Gridley's until some time after midnight, Ben and Toby drinking beer, Bruce sticking with Sprite. The time passed so quickly that Ben was surprised when Bruce suggested they should go home.
As they pulled into the drive of the house across the street, Ben admitted to himself he'd had a good time. He thanked them for asking him along.
After locking the front door, Ben dropped his keys on the table inside the door and was hanging his coat in the closet when Mr. Tibbs wandered out to give him a sleepy greeting.
"Did I disturb your sleep, Tibbs? Sorry about that, guy." He picked the cat up and carried him into the bedroom, sat down, and began to stroke him.
Mr. Tibbs's response was a contented purring.
Later, when Ben had done his bathroom chores, stripped, and climbed into bed, Tibbs jumped onto the foot of the bed and curled up into a circle. Ben lay there thinking back over the evening. He decided he'd better not do that sort of thing very often. It was too tempting to get involved with attractive guys like Bruce and Toby. They were both bright, friendly men whom he found it impossible not to like. And he began to realize how much he'd been missing since he had become a virtual recluse.
That Brody kid (Ben couldn't help thinking of all three of the younger men as kids) had been really sexy, and he didn't seem to know how attractive he was. But he had nothing on Toby. That little fucker was a stud, and his dark eyes sparkling out of that great face were a real turn on.
"Sorry, Tibbs," Brody said, as he reached for his cock. That night for the first time in weeks he found himself really horny.
Ben woke up. Mr. Tibbs was standing on his chest. The clock said 4:23.
"Tibbs, what the fuck's up?"
"Go back to sleep. It's the middle of the night!"
"Yeow." Tibbs wasn't budging, so Ben pushed him away and sat up.
Tibbs jumped off the bed and went to the bedroom door. There he stopped, turned to look back at Ben and "spoke" again.
"Something wrong, buddy? You want me to come with you?"
Ben, naked, padded along after the cat, who was going toward the kitchen. Ben followed, flipping on lights as they went. When they got to the dining area, Tibbs stopped. Ben could see why Tibbs had awakened him. There was water on the kitchen floor and it was just beginning to soak the carpet in the adjacent dining area. The water seemed to be coming from the utility room, which was between the garage and the kitchen.
"Oh, Christ!" Ben said as he splashed his way to the laundry. He soon discovered that a hose connected to the washer had burst. Water was spraying onto the floor. He quickly disconnected the electric cords to the washer and the dryer and then shut off the valve to the broken hose. Then he used a mop to get the water up off the floor, squeezing it often into a scrub bucket. He had to use towels on the dining room carpet. Fortunately, Mr. Tibbs had sounded the alarm before much of the carpet had been wetted. The cat lay on a dining room chair watching the procedure with great interest.
By the time he was finished, Ben was shaking. His habit was to set the thermostat back at night, so he was both wet and cold. After he'd returned the mop and bucket to the garage, he threw the wet towels into the washing machine, even though he knew the washer wouldn't be usable until he'd replaced the hose.
He decided to take a hot shower. When he finally thawed out, he dried off and got back into bed. It seemed he'd just gotten back to sleep when Tibbs was on his chest again.
"What is it this time, cat? It can't be the other hose, `cause I turned off both valves."
Again Tibbs led him to the laundry, standing next to his litter box. Ben realized that all the litter had been soaked and that he'd failed to replace it.
"And of course, you wouldn't deign to get your royal paws wet, right?"
So he dumped the wet stuff and replaced it with fresh dry litter. He'd no sooner done that than Tibbs, casting him a reproachful look, used the "facility."
"Sorry about that, guy. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going back to bed. It's Sunday morning, after all."
He slept late, got up, had breakfast, and tried to work on This Petty Pace for the rest of the morning, though ideas came slowly. Just after noon he went to the gym where he spent an hour and a half. Then he came home and showered again. There was no new email, and he didn't see anything of his young neighbors across the street. Things flowed a little better as he worked on the novel for the rest of the day. He slept well Sunday night.
He arrived at work feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of the day, but he had no sooner sat down at his desk than Sharon called, wanting to see him in her office.
He tapped on the frame of her open door. "What's up, boss?"
"Oh, good morning, Ben. Please come in and close the door."
"I can imagine what you want."
She gave him a distracted smile. "Yeah, the big boss wants to know whether you're interested in my job. And I'm to relay another question. If you refuse to be considered for my job, would you at least be willing to do it on a temporary basis, as acting PIO while the county conducts a search for my replacement?" She got up and went to the table at the side of the room. "Coffee?"
Wanting to buy some time, Ben said, "Please."
Sharon allowed him to sip his coffee and think for all of three minutes before she asked, "Well?"
"Jeez, you're pushy."
"Sorry, Ben, but I have an appointment in ten minutes."
"And you can't let me wait until later to answer your second question? The answer to the first one is still no, by the way."
"I have to see the county administrator at 11:00. Can you come back at 10:45 and give me your answer?"
Ben stood and sighed, taking his still partly filled mug to the side table. "I guess I'll have to."
Back in his cubicle he turned on his pc and found that the Sheriff's Department wanted his approval of a news release, and of course they wanted it yesterday. And so the morning went. He really hadn't had time to think much about Sharon's question when he found himself back in her office.
Sharon really was a gorgeous woman, he thought for the umpteenth time. He couldn't imagine why some guy hadn't snapped her up. But then maybe after the unpleasantness of her divorce, she wasn't eager to rush into another relationship. Ben could certainly understand that.
She flashed him a brilliant smile. "Okay, Ben, I'm sorry to pressure you, but that's the way things are around here, as you well know. What do I tell the boss?"
"As I said, I won't even think about taking over your job on a permanent basis. But I think an outside search is a great idea. If we do that, somebody better than Massini is bound to show up. So I guess I'd be willing to fill in while the search is being conducted. But what would happen to my job when the new PIO was in place?"
"I hadn't thought about that. Let me mull it over a little. I'll bring it up with the administrator and see what he thinks, too."
"Well," Ben said, "here's the way I see it. Either I could try to do your job and mine both for a while, hoping that the search doesn't take long, or we could put Massini in my job temporarily. But I'm not really comfortable with that. He might not want to give it up when the new person takes over and I'm ready to go back to my regular spot in the pecking order."
"Yeah, I see what you're saying. I'll make sure the boss agrees that whatever happens your current job isn't in any danger. Okay?" She grabbed a folder, gave him another smile, and opened the door.
He'd seldom spent so much time in Sharon's office as he had recently, and when she called him back in after lunch that Monday some of his officemates began to whisper among themselves.
Sharon's news was that the PIO position would be advertised and that Ben would be appointed acting PIO for the interim. She said that the administrator asked him to reconsider applying for the position. He said Ben's taking the job would give them much-needed continuity. Ben told Sharon that he simply wasn't willing to do that. He had a pang because he couldn't tell her the main reason why, that he had another life as a successful writer of schlock. And, more important to him, he was writing "serious" novels that he hoped one day to publish, though he knew they'd never have the popularity of his romances. Taking over Sharon's job would drastically cut into his writing time.
That evening he stopped by Lowe's and picked up two washer hoses. He figured he'd replace both the hot and cold water hoses on his machine so as to avoid having the same thing happen again. `Just my luck, though,' he thought. `The other hose would probably have lasted ten more years.'
After his tv dinner that evening he replaced the two hoses. Then he checked his email. Finding nothing, not even something from Trent, he flopped on the sofa. He knew he should be working on Captiva, but he just couldn't motivate himself to do it. So with Mr. Tibbs purring loudly on his lap, he relaxed and let his mind wander.
"Sweet are the uses of adversity." `Really? I think you're wrong, Willie. Adversity is adversity. I'm alone. I don't enjoy being alone, but I don't enjoy having my heart ripped out, either, to put it melodramatically. I wonder whether writing all those tacky novels is going to ruin my ability to write decent prose. I sure as hell don't want Sharon's job, even for a little while. Why did I agree to do it while they look for someone else? To please her? To keep Massini out of the job? I don't know. If only Sharon would change her mind and stay here. Things are okay as they are.'
The phone rang.
"Good evening, sir. Is this the homeowner?"
"You are the homeowner?"
"Yes, I'm the homeowner. Who are you?"
"I'm calling from Rustlock Storm Windows. How are you this evening?"
"I'm not happy about being bothered in my home by a sales call. I'm on the national don't call list. You shouldn't be calling me."
"I'm very sorry, sir. But so long as I'm on the phone, why don't we talk about your storm windows?"
"No way." Ben hung up the phone none too gently. "Sons of bitches."
As he stood up, a startled Mr. Tibbs jumped to the cushion beside the one on which Ben had been sitting. Ben put a Warren Bernhardt cd on the stereo, kicked off his shoes, and sat down again. He put his feet on the coffee table, closed his eyes, and listened to the elegant music of the jazz trio. Tibbs climbed on to the back of the sofa and curled around Ben's shoulders. Soon both were asleep.
A day or two later it was announced at work that Sharon would be leaving at the end of the year (only six weeks away) and that Ben would be doing her job and his own if a replacement hadn't been found by then. He'd heard soon after that that Phil Massini had said he was applying for the job and expected to get it.
The thought of Massini as his boss was enough to make Ben think of looking for another job. Or simply working full-time on his writing as long as the books would sell. He did not give any serious thought to applying for the PIO position himself.
A week or so later he saw Toby as both were taking their trash to the curb.
"Hi, Toby. How've you been? How's Bruce?"
"We're okay, thanks. Busy, busy, busy. The first semester is rushing to a close, and that means lots of work for us poor academic types. But all work and no play, and all that. Why don't you come over for supper on Friday evening?"
Ben startled himself by saying, "I owe you a meal. I'm not as good a cook as you are, but I can rustle up something. Why don't you guys come to my house Friday?"
Toby's face lighted up. "Cool! I know I can come. Let me check with Bruce. Can I come even if he's busy?"
"Sure. Just give me a call after you've talked with him."
As he fixed himself some supper, he asked himself, `Why did I do that?' The Taba kid is too cute. I'll get to like him too much. And that's dangerous.'
`Oh for pity's sake,' that other voice said. `He's a nice guy. There's no harm in having friends. Have him over for supper. Or both of them if Bruce is available. You can't be a hermit all the time. Your writing will suffer if you cut yourself off from people. Just don't let them get too close. That's the important thing.'
The next evening Ben noticed that Mr. Tibbs wasn't wearing his collar.
"Okay, Tibbs, how did you get it off, and what have you done with it?"
"Smart-ass! When I find it, we're putting it back on."
Tibbs didn't respond, suddenly having discovered a matter of personal hygiene that demanded his full attention.
It was a day or so later when he was cleaning the litter box that Ben discovered the missing collar. Tibbs had managed to make quite clear what he thought of the accoutrement. Ben assumed that somehow the cat had managed to stretch the elastic enough to slip the collar over his head.
"Don't think you've won," Ben said, showing Tibbs the collar. "I'll just get something you can't get off, and you probably will dislike it even more than this leather one."
Mr. Tibbs walked majestically out of the room, the tip of his tail twitching.
The next day Ben stopped once more at Pet Palace. Surprisingly, he was able to find the same clerk who'd helped him before. When he explained that Tibbs had somehow gotten the collar off, the clerk replied,
"Oh, yes, I should have warned you about that. If kitty is determined not to wear a collar she can usually use her paws and slip it off. That's the disadvantage of the safety gusset. How about one of these handsome chain link collars? You can remove individual links to make it fit properly. What color is your kitty?"
"Ooh, a tom! Well, the silver chain should look splendid against his black coat, and I think the chain is just perfect for a male."
"Yes," Ben said, watching the clerk carefully. "Very butch."
Giving him an appraising look, the clerk asked, "Shall I ring it up, then? Will you want a name tag? Instead of the kind that clamps to the leather, I can give you a round one that will dangle from the collar instead."
"Oh, he's gonna love that! But yes, there's no point in the collar without the tag."
After Ben paid for his purchase, the clerk simpered and said, "Please come back, Mr. Moss. I'd love to be of service to you anytime."
`I'll just bet you would,' Ben thought.
Mr. Tibbs was mightily resentful of the new collar. He tugged and pushed at it for most of the evening, and he refused to come into any room where Ben was. It was several days before he finally accepted the inevitable. And the silver collar did look, as the clerk had said, "splendid."
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'llknow it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim