by Tim Mead
The middle of that week when Russ called, he told me the tour had been extended for a month. Another whole month!
"I guess that's good, huh, babe?"
"Yeah. That's four more weeks of concerts where people get to know us. And that could mean a tour of our own down the road." He must have realized what he'd said and chuckled. "So to speak."
"Are you still enjoying it all, or is it getting pretty old by now?"
He was quiet for so long I wondered if we'd lost our connection.
"I'm here. Just thinking. I love making music with the guys. When we're in a groove I could just shut my eyes and be in heaven. And the audience reaction is a rush. You can't know what it's like to be there on stage and have a huge crowd screaming for you. I mean, Bud's Place is one thing, but the civic centers and places like that hold thousands of people. To stand there and know they're doing all that for you is something I just can't describe."
I was about to say something when he continued.
"But, I really miss you, Bax, and I'm getting damned tired of being on the road, of having to do meet and greets, of being cooped up in that fuckin' bus." He sighed. "Listen to me! I shouldn't be complaining. This is what I've wanted for a long time. And no job's perfect, right?"
"When the tour's over, you can take some time to rethink your goals, gorgeous."
He was quiet for a moment before responding. "I thought you were behind me in this."
"Oh, I am! You know I want you to grab the brass ring or whatever. I just thought you sounded a little confused. But whatever you want, I'm with you." Except, of course, I wasn't with him physically, and that became a bigger and bigger factor in my life.
I heard someone calling his name. Well, they were calling "Rusty."
"I gotta go, babe. Love you. Talk to you soon."
"Love you, too. Bye."
* * *
I was feeling pretty depressed the next afternoon when our receptionist told me Dr. Keller was on the line.
"Mitch, how you doing?" How's Corey?"
"We're both fine, Baxter. More to the point, how are you?"
"Uh oh. That doesn't sound good. Measures must be taken. I'm assuming you're free this evening."
Why wouldn't I be? "Yeah, what do you have in mind?"
"You need to be with friends. And maybe you need to get blitzed."
"Can't get all the way blitzed, I've gotta work tomorrow. As do you and, I suppose, Corey. But I wouldn't be averse to bending the elbow with the two of you. Wanna come to my place?"
"No. I have a set of essays to wade through. We'll meet you at Sudz at 9:00."
"Yessir! I'll be there. And, Mitch?"
"Thanks. Give my love to the big guy."
"You can do that yourself in a few hours."
"Right. And thanks again."
Sudz had been a fixture in Fair Hills' small business district for decades. It had only become a gay bar shortly after I came to town. Apparently the owner wanted to retire and gave the business to his gay son. Ernie didn't set out to change the clientele, but he did encourage his friends to stop by, and as the local gay community grew, they found a place where they were welcomed.
I found Mitch sitting in a booth as far from the juke box as he could get. Ernie hadn't done anything to modernize the place, so it still looked like it had in the 1950's. There was a bottle of fairly decent cabernet on the table, and two glasses, one of them showing a splash of red.
He slid out, stood, and we hugged. He gave me a chaste kiss.
"Where's Corey?" I asked, after we had sat. ("Had sat" sounds funny, but Tim insists it's correct.) [Yeah, yeah, make me out to be a humorless pedant. –Tim]
"He got called in. An abandoned factory on the South Side. He sends his love."
Mitch poured me some cab and lifted his glass. I raised mine, and we clinked them together. I was pretty sure he was worried about Corey. I would have been. I was, in fact. I don't know how Mitch lived with the danger involved with his partner's job.
"To absent friends," he said.
"To absent friends."
"You want something to nibble?"
"No, I'm good, thanks. So what prompted this get together? Not that I'm complaining. It's always good to see you."
"Well, Russ asked us to look after you while he was gone."
"He did, huh? I didn't know that."
"Yeah. He worries about you."
"Present tense? Worries? You hear from him?''
"He's called a couple of times. But I decided to check on you in person when I heard that sigh on the phone this afternoon. What's wrong?"
"You really do know me, don't you, Mitch?"
"Never forget it! Now, are you going to talk about this or not?"
"Oh, I'm just feeling sorry for myself when I should be happy for Russ. The tour's been extended for another fuckin' month."
His pale blue eyes stared into mine. "And you want to be happy for him but you're disappointed because he'll be away that much longer."
"You should teach psych instead of English!"
He grinned. "You're not that complicated, Crouse, and, as you said, I know you."
I dumped on him for twenty minutes or so, managing to sound like a whining shit, I suspect. One of the things I'd been suppressing was that if Apex really took off, then Russ would be away most of the time. And I didn't see how we could have a relationship like that.
Mitch raised an eyebrow.
"When you do that," I said, "it means I'm about to get a lecture."
"Well, not a lecture, perhaps. But think of all the spouses and partners of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have to get along without their lovers for longer periods than you're going to be without Russ."
"Bad analogy, professor. If things go right for Apex, Russ will be on the road for years. God knows, it looks like the Iraq mess is never gonna be straightened out, but at least they rotate the troops. And with luck we'll be bringing them all home one of these days."
He put his hand on mine. "If Russ means enough to you, you'll suck it up and be grateful for the time you two can spend together. At least he's not in danger."
"In danger of being seduced by a fan . . . or a groupie, maybe."
"Do you really think that's likely?"
"I know he loves me, Mitch. I just can't help worrying."
"You have to trust your man. You know that!"
"Yeah, you're right."
Then we began talking of university matters, an upcoming performance by the U of Z drama department, and so on.
After we'd finished the bottle of cab, I offered to spring for another, but Mitch refused, reminding me that he had to drive back to Floral Heights.
I walked him to his car.
"Why was it we broke up, Mitchell?" I asked as I hugged him tightly.
He chuckled. "Because you have this silly notion that you're a top."
I held him at arm's length. "I am a top, you smartass little bitch."
"Who are you calling a bitch?"
I squeezed him again, not too surprised that both our cocks were now hard.
"Thanks, sweetie, for staying my friend. I love you."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, in mock exasperation. "I love you, too."
"Give Corey a hug for me. And let's get together again soon, the three of us?"
"We're both available whenever you need anything, Bax. You know that."
"I do know that."
And I did. We all need friends as well as lovers.
* * *
A few days after that I got another phone call at work. This one was from Eric at Pierce-Thompson. When I learned he was on the line, I thought perhaps he'd run across some sort of hot investment opportunity for me. Instead, he asked me to meet him for drinks after work.
He'd been pleasant company the evening we'd been to The Top, and I was in no hurry to get back to the empty townhouse.
Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. I was beginning to think I was measuring mine with cocktail napkins.
Eric and I met at Bergeron's, a popular watering hole for the downtown professional crowd. It wasn't a gay bar by any means, but the clientele were hip enough to make my sort feel comfortable.
We were able to snag a table because we'd left our offices a half an hour before the downtown office buildings emptied out. Bergeron's was convenient to the city's Justice Center, so there were always a lot of legal types in the mix. Sitting opposite Eric with all the lawyers around, I felt shabby in my $600 suit. I'd have felt even shabbier if the place hadn't also attracted a fair number of U of Z faculty members.
Maybe I was just in a bad mood because of what had transpired in Carol's office that afternoon. The university's oldest and most prestigious fraternity was planning a campus celebrity auction to raise money for some charity. They'd approached Carol about my being one of the "celebrities." Carol thought it was a lovely idea. I didn't. The fraternity president was there, so I couldn't be as honest as I'd have been if it were just the dean and me.
"Come on, Dean Crouse, all you'll have to do is have a date with whoever wins you. And you'll be helping a good cause. You don't even have to pay for it. You just have to squire the lucky, uh, winner, for drinks and dinner."
"Kyle, how many married people are you planning to ask to do this?"
"Oh, for obvious reasons we don't ask married people to be involved."
"Well, you could consider me married."
"But I thought you were single."
Carol sat there, making clear from the smug expression on her face that she wasn't going to help me a bit.
"I can't be legally married in the State of Winnemac," I said, "but if I could be, I would be. I have a partner to whom I'm totally committed."
"You're gay!" he said, the light dawning.
"Well, I'm sure a lot of gay guys would like to bid on an evening with you."
"Dr. Crouse," Carol asked, "why don't you talk with Russ about this and see what he thinks. I'm sure Kyle could wait until you've done that."
I think Kyle must have planned to walk out of her office with a commitment from me, as if I were some sort of trophy. He didn't look happy.
"We need to get our list set soon. Could you ask him this evening and let us know?"
"My partner is out of town and I don't know whether I'll be talking with him or not. I have to wait until he calls me. But I promise the next time we talk I'll run the idea past him." I planned to make damn sure Russ hated the idea.
Kyle actually rolled his eyes as he looked at Carol. She sat there looking like the sphinx. After an awkward pause, Kyle stood up, cleared his throat, thanked us, shook hands with us both and left.
"I really don't see what your problem is, Baxter," my boss said. "It isn't as if you were being asked to go to bed with whoever wins you in the auction. And it would be excellent PR for the administration."
I bit my tongue. And left.
So, as I said, when I found myself sitting across from Eric at Bergeron's, I was ready for a drink. I may have been ready for several.
When I ordered Jack on the rocks, Eric looked a little surprised but ordered the same.
We talked of trivialities, indulged in some people watching, and were soon on our second drinks. I had purposely not said anything about what went on in Carol's office earlier. No point in burdening him with my problems at work.
Then after a lull in the conversation he cleared his throat.
"Um, what do you hear from Russ?"
"Chace Biggs' tour is doing so well they've extended it for a month. And that means Russ and his group will continue to open for him."
"That's good, isn't it?"
"Yeah, good for Apex."
"How's Russ liking the tour?"
I didn't think I needed to fuel the gossip machine at Pierce-Thompson, so I merely said, "He seems to thrive when he's onstage and they're performing."
Eric was no fool. The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. "Getting a little tired of being on the road, is he?"
"Well, maybe, a little. But this is his dream come true, and I'm sure he's willing to put up with some inconvenience."
Eric took a sip of his JD. "I suppose he is."
After the second whiskey I remembered that I had to navigate myself home via the ZRT. "Well, Eric, this has been nice. It's good to unwind a little after a tough day at work."
He grinned. "You have tough days at the office?"
"Of course, doesn't everybody?"
"Well, you don't have to worry about quotas and shit like that. I thought your job would be very pleasant."
"Some days it is."
As we went onto the sidewalk from Bergeron's, Eric put a hand on my arm. "How are you doing, Russ? I mean, really? This must be tough on you."
I was surprised by the question, especially since it was coming from a straight guy. He was, after all, Russ's former colleague. He and I had only just begun to get acquainted.
"I miss him, Eric. That may be hard for you to understand, I know. But my life seems pretty empty without my guy."
"Why would that be hard to understand? I can certainly see how that would be the case."
I held out my hand and he took it. "Thanks for suggesting this. It let me postpone going back to an empty house."
"Hang in there, guy." He turned and walked away. I went home with all the others who'd stayed downtown for a drink before crowding the Rapid.
* * *
Russ called that night, waking me up about 1:00.
"Hey, babe. I know what time it is there, but I just needed to hear your voice."
"Never worry about what time it is here. Call me whenever you can, okay?"
"Deal." He paused. "I do have one bit of news."
"Hawk, our bass player, says he's leaving at the end of the originally scheduled part of the tour. He doesn't want to be away from his family for another month."
My first reaction was that I wished Russ felt that way. Then I reminded myself how much this tour meant to him.
"Will you have any trouble finding a replacement?"
He chuckled. "We're not big time by any means but a lot of guys would give their left nut to play with us. Chace's management is gonna help us find someone. We'll have to practice with him some before he plays one of our gigs."
"Well, I hope you find a good one."
We talked awhile about how we missed each other. Then I remembered the "celebrity" auction and told Russ about it.
"You don't mind?"
"Well, chances are it will be some woman who wins you."
"You think so?"
"Sure. How many gay guys are there in Zenith with money who'll openly bid on another guy?"
"I hadn't thought about that. But suppose it was a guy. How would you feel?"
"That would depend on how good looking he was, I suppose."
"Suppose he was really sexy," I said, trying to hide the grin in my voice.
"Bax, we love each other. And trust each other, don't we?"
"If I didn't think I could trust you, I don't know how I could stand your being away for so long."
"Works both ways, hon. So the auction's a good thing. For a good cause, I mean. And your boss wants you to do it. So what's the worst that could happen?"
"I could have to spend an evening with an ugly woman?"
He laughed. "From my point of view, that might not be too bad."
Then I laughed, too. "Okay, if you're cool with it, I'll tell Carol I'm available. But damn, Russ, I miss you. I miss your company. I miss having you to snuggle with in bed. And I'm getting damned tired of my hand."
"Yeah, baby, I know. Me too!"
* * *
I'd never been to one of those celebrity auctions before, so I didn't know what to expect.
The event was held in the University Theater, admission by ticket only. I couldn't imagine people paying for the privilege of bidding on "dates" with the likes of me, but what did I know? Until it was their time on the stage, the so-called celebrities had to sit in the green room where Kyle's fraternity had thoughtfully provided sodas, wine, and nibbles. Everyone seemed as nervous as I. We referred to ourselves as "cattle." I was one of the oldest guys there. Most of the others were varsity athletes and younger faculty members. There were also a couple of members of the Zenith City government. Kyle or someone in his fraternity obviously had connections. And it was, present company modestly excluded, a handsome group, too.
After one of the "cattle" was taken to the stage for auction, he didn't return to the green room. Rather, he met somewhere else in the building with the successful bidder. In the green room, however, we were able to watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit TV.
One of my fears was that no one would bid on me, that the auctioneer would wind up pleading with the crowd to make a bid. I could imagine him saying "Anything, folks, please, no matter how small!"
In fact, I did surprisingly well, not because of my looks or charm, but because I became the object of a bidding war. At first a half-dozen people were in the competition. When the amount was well beyond my hopes, everyone had dropped out except two bidders. One was a woman down front whom I recognized as June Earlly, the gossip columnist for the Zenith Examiner whose picture appeared beside her daily column. There was something hawk-like, predatory about her appearance, and I could only assume she was after me because she thought she could find something juicy about me for her column.
Ms. Earlly made a surprisingly high bid, and there was a lull. The auctioneer looked around and asked if there were further bids. It was quiet. As Tim has reminded me, it's a cliché to say my heart sank, but that's exactly the way I felt. [He's doing it again, isn't he? –Tim] Then, from the back of the room someone raised the bid. It was a male voice. June responded, and the two kept at it. Because of the stage lighting I couldn't see the bidder in the back, but his voice sounded vaguely familiar.
The rest of the audience seemed fascinated, perhaps because both a woman and a man were bidding for me. Finally, Ms. Earlly, looking pissed, shook her head no to the auctioneer, and I was "sold" to the gentleman in the back. Sold, I might add, for almost as much as the quarterback of the football team!
Joe, one of the fraternity members, escorted me from the stage to a room backstage so I could meet the crazy man who'd bid so much for me. I confess I was curious because I couldn't imagine who'd spend that much money just to spend an evening with me.
My curiosity was replaced by amazement when the man waiting in the room turned out to be a grinning Eric Fane.
"That was you?" I asked, incredulous.
"I see you gentlemen already know each other, so my job's done. Mr. Fane, if you'll stop by the desk in the front lobby, you can settle up and get the vouchers for your date with Dean Crouse."
"Thanks, Joe," Eric said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
When the kid was gone, I asked, "Why in the world did you spend all that money on me? It's my turn to take you to dinner, and I was going to call you about that soon anyway."
"Okay, first of all, the money goes to a good cause."
"True, but . . ."
"Second, I wanted to rescue you from that Earlly bitch. She would probably have spent the evening pumping you for information about your work or your private life."
"Thanks, Eric. I'd thought about that. If anyone doubted I'm gay, the fact that there were several guys bidding for me would have seemed to settle the issue. But what about you? Aren't you afraid everyone will think you're gay since you paid such an obscene amount to `win' me?
"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, Bax. But let `em think what they like."
"I hope you won't regret what you've done."
He smiled. "I don't think I will. But remember, now you owe me bigtime for saving your ass. For saving your reputation, probably, from the Earlly woman. Now, would you like to go to Bergeron's or somewhere for a drink?"
"Thanks, Eric. But I'm exhausted from all this, and I need to get home in case Russ calls."
He looked disappointed. "Cool, Bax. I'll call you soon so we can pick a time for our date. Say `hi' to Russ for me."
We shook hands and went our separate ways. I couldn't help feeling a tad guilty.
When I got home Russ had left a message on my voicemail. In my nervousness about the auction, I hadn't checked to see where the Chace Biggs group was performing that day. Turns out he was in Orlando, in the same time zone as Zenith, though nearly a thousand miles away.
"Hey, baby. Just calling to see how your auction went. Did you get snapped up by some superstud?"
I think he was actually worried. I could hear the concern in his voice.
"Call me on my cell when you get in."
I took time to pee and strip down to my boxers. Then I grabbed a beer, flopped on the sofa, and called my guy.
"Hi, gorgeous," I said when he answered. "How was tonight's gig?"
"Fantastic! These Florida people really like country music."
I was about to say there were a lot of rednecks in Florida, but I bit my tongue. "That's great. So how do you feel? Up? Wiped? What?"
"I'm fine, Bax. But I want to know how the auction went. And how you're feeling."
"I'm fine, too. But the auction was weird."
"I started a bidding competition between the gossip columnist for the Examiner, who's female as you know, and a guy."
"Oh, that Earlly woman! She didn't know you're gay?"
"I imagine she did. I suspect she wanted to spend the evening trying to elicit my deep dark secrets."
"From what you've said, I'm guessing she didn't win."
"That would be correct. The guy won."
"Uh oh. Did you get to meet him? What's he like? Am I gonna have to come home and talk seriously with him?"
I chuckled. "You won't believe this. The guy is Eric Fane."
"Fane? You're shitting me!"
"Nope. The very one."
"But he's straight!" He paused. And paused.
"Russ, you thinking again?"
"Uh huh. I'm wondering why Eric would pay a lot of money to have dinner with you."
"Dunno. So far as I can tell, he's, as you say, totally hetero."
"So far as you can tell? Have you seen him since that night at Bud's Place?"
"Well, yeah. He's my broker now, thanks to you. So he asked me to come in one day to talk about my account."
"Okay, that makes sense. But there must be more."
"He's a nice guy. We've had dinner once and have met at Bergeron's for drinks after work."
"And now he's dropped a bundle to have supper with you?"
"That's what doesn't make sense. It's my turn to take him to dinner anyway. I need to pay him back for the evening he took me to The Top."
"The Top? He took you to The Top?" His baritone had turned momentarily into a tenor.
"Um, well, yeah."
"I don't understand this. Eric Fane, the straight guy I used to work with has taken you to The Top? And now he's spent a big wad of cash for the privilege of taking you to dinner again?"
"Russ, sweetie, relax. He said he did it to save me from having to spend the evening with June Earlly. And he pointed out that the money went to a good cause."
"Baxter, why would he have been at the auction in the first place? Were there any women up for bids?"
"No, there weren't. But there were a lot of women in the audience, and almost all of the `cattle' as we called ourselves were purchased by women."
"And you don't see anything weird about Eric Fane bidding on you? Even though you say it was your turn to take him to dinner anyway?"
"Maybe he wanted a tax deduction and saw a chance to do a good deed for me?"
"Yeah, didn't I just tell you he said he wanted to save me from an evening with La Earlly?"
"Oh, that. It all sounds fucking weird to me. You've got to promise me something."
"Keep your legs crossed. I've always liked Eric. But something doesn't add up about all this."
I laughed. "I don't think my virtue is in any danger from Eric. He's a nice guy, very mild-mannered."
"Actually, I think Eric's a great looking guy."
"Oh, you do? Well then, I'm glad you're not working with him any more." (Did I just say that???)
"Yeah, I think he's sexy in his way. But, Baxter, he also has some kind of belt in muay thai. You think he's coming on to you, get the fuck out of there."
I chuckled. "Lover man, that's just not gonna happen."
Thanks to Drew, Mickey, Tinn and Bill for invaluable help with "Lonely."
This story is my intellectual property. Do not post it to another site without my express permission.
If you'd like to email me, please do so at email@example.com, being sure to put "Lonely" in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks! --Tim