Author's note - Sorry for the long silence -- I guess I just needed a break. Future chapters should be forthcoming in a timelier manner! G
Friday morning I ran Evan into town, dropped him at the office, made a quick stop at the donut shop, then went back home to wait for the insurance guy to show up. Kenny and I talked on the phone for a bit, debating whether to unload a customer who was becoming a total pain in the butt, demanding more and more of our time for programming tweaks that made no sense. Kenny wanted to keep the guy, saying who cares what he wants us to do -- he pays on time, but I was all for dumping his ass and spending our time on more interesting, productive clients. Our conversation was heating up when the insurance guy rolled up in front of the house. He stepped out of his car with a clipboard in one hand, shaking his head as he looked at the crumpled car. Gray hair, a jowly chin and a serious paunch put him at somewhere past sixty, and he looked like he'd seen every possible sort of disaster in his career as an adjustor.
"Boy, Evan wasn't kidding, was he?" he asked when I came out onto the porch. "Looks like a direct hit." He chuckled as if flattened cars were just the funniest thing and then looked up to study the pale scar on the trunk of the big tree where the branch had torn away. "Well, no arguing with this one. I just need to take a few pictures and have you sign off on the claim. He'll have a check in about a week."
While he wandered around muttering to himself and writing on his clipboard, I went inside and called a salvage yard to come get the car. They showed up just as the insurance guy was pulling away, and dragged the limb off the car using the winch on the front of the truck. It slid loose with a horrible screeching noise as it tore a fender the rest of the way off. I stood watching from the porch with Chewy peering from behind my legs as they put Evan's poor sedan on the hook and disappeared down the drive, leaving behind a $100 check that I put on the table just inside the front door.
Back in my office, I tried to get
into work mode, but finally gave up and logged onto Call of Duty. Seemed like a
lot of guys were starting the weekend early cause the
game I joined had more players on each team than I'd ever seen. It was a map I
hadn't played before, so I got killed a dozen times before I started getting
dialed in on where the snipers hung out and where the good hiding places were.
After blasting the shit out of the bad guys for an hour, I went to the kitchen
for some lunch. When I came back, I went to a different map to try my luck and
noticed that one of the guys on my team was logged in as `bwnf.'
That looked familiar, but it didn't ring a bell for about ten minutes. Just as
I jumped off a ladder and was sprinting for cover, it hit me: `bwnf' was Brendan's email. If that was him, what was the
kid doing playing
Just then Callie called for a garden update, and by the time we'd talked for twenty minutes, I'd forgotten about Brendan. While I was outside (Callie had made me go out to the garden and tell her how big the tomatoes were), the sun broke through the clouds and I gave up on work all together. I threw a stick for Chewy as I walked slowly down to the mailbox, thinking that working for yourself definitely had its benefits. Bill's organic corn was doing well, growing tall and beginning to form small ears. At the mailbox, I was leafing through envelopes and idly wondering if I'd ever eaten organic corn before and how it might taste different from regular corn, when Chew came hauling ass toward me followed by Bill trotting down the road on one of his horses.
"Hey," he greeted me as I came closer to scratch the silky brown neck of the horse. "I was just coming over to leave you a note. I'm gonna take the horses out of the field today, but the mares'll be back tomorrow or the next day. Time to wean the foals." I must have looked blank because he added, "Gotta separate them for a few weeks, so I'll keep the babies at my place and put the mares back in your field. They'll all raise hell for a few days, but after a month they won't even recognize each other."
That was a weird thought -- not recognizing your own mother after a month, but I figured I wouldn't recognize mine if she rose from the dead and knocked on my door. My father, probably not either, although I didn't know if he was actually dead or not; might as well be for all the good he did me.
I glanced up to see Bill looking at me expectantly. "What?"
"I asked if you guys mind if I put a donkey in the field with the mares. My wife rescues every critter that comes along, and I guess there's an old donkey that needs a place to live out its days."
"Sure," I replied. I wasn't even quite sure what a donkey looked like, exactly, but we enjoyed having the horses around, so as far as I was concerned, the donkey was welcome, too.
"Great. I'm not sure when she's picking him up from the vet's, so he'll prolly just show up in the field one of these days."
He headed back up the road, and I walked back to the house, thinking about my family. Dead mother, absent father, estranged sister, delinquent nephew. And me -- Jeff the queer. Actually, when I thought about it, I came off pretty well compared to the rest of them. I owned a home and a profitable business. I was in a solid relationship and had some good friends who cared about me. I wasn't in therapy, didn't cheat at cards or pool, paid my taxes on time. I wasn't terribly well educated, but I loved to read, and since Evan had declared a scholarship in my name and I'd seen the joy in the recipient's face, I'd been toying with the idea of going back to school. I hadn't said anything to Evan, but I'd checked out the local community college, and even gone so far as to print out the application, although it was currently stashed under a pile of papers on my desk. No one in my family had gone to college, and it seemed unlikely that I'd be the first, but I was definitely thinking about it.
Evan seemed to be in no big hurry to buy a new car, so we spent Saturday morning doing stuff around the Farm. First on the list was getting the huge tree limb out of the middle of the damn driveway where the tow truck had dropped it. I hauled out the chain saw, fired it up, and hacked the branch into firewood lengths. We stacked it neatly at the side of the house and put the smaller stuff through the chipper before dumping it in the garden for mulch. The garden was growing like crazy, but the storm had done some damage to that, as well, so I spent a couple hours out there tacking the trellises back up on the side of the barn, pulling weeds, pinching runners off the tomato plants, and admiring the neat rows of seedlings that promised a bumper crop later this summer. Evan picked up the larger debris from the lawn and swept the porch clean before we broke for lunch. The day was clear and warm, and it was as if the Thursday night storm had never happened -- except for Evan's car, of course.
We went into town in the early afternoon, got a Starbucks, and wandered through the grocery store picking odd items off the shelves and showing them to each other. I laughed at Evan's look of disgusted amazement when I stuck a jar of pickled pig's knuckles in his face. We had a good time, and as we were loading the bags into the car, I realized that my previous relationships hadn't been near as well-rounded as my life with Evan was. Something as ordinary as grocery shopping was more pleasurable simply because we did it together. I enjoyed his company no matter what the situation, and I knew that was a good thing, that our companionability would help get us through the inevitable lows of our relationship.
I'd finally figured out that life wasn't all about fucking, but being best friends with the guy I was sleeping with, hadn't been much of a priority until Evan came along. I glanced at him now, settling a bag of potatoes into the back of the Jeep. He felt my gaze and swung his head to look at me. After a moment, he gave me a slow smile and I knew that he felt it, too.
On the way home, we spotted Sonny halfway up a ladder sawing off a broken tree limb, so we stopped to say hey. As he came toward us, the posse of dogs swarmed around his legs, hiding his feet entirely. He leaned down to rest his crossed arms on Evan's window ledge.
"You boys survive the storm all right?"
"Evan's car was the only casualty," I replied. "It got flattened by a tree."
He nodded, grinning at Evan. "Heard about that, even saw the pictures." He pronounced it `pitchures.' "Insurance man's my cousin. Gonna buy you a hot rod with the check?" He wheezed out a chuckle and gave Evan a little shove on the shoulder.
"Actually, I'm thinking about a truck," Evan replied with a nod at Sonny's beater slouched in the driveway under a coat of mud. "Something to fit in with the locals down at the feed store."
"Huh," Sonny huffed. "One o' them designer trucks, I suppose?" He glanced at me for confirmation, but this was the first I'd heard of it, so I just shrugged. "And you ain't got nothin' but one dog to feed. Why the hell would ya be goin' to the feed store?"
I was dying to know what Evan's answer to that would be, but just then a large hen came streaking around the corner of the house, squawking like mad, with another chicken half her size hot on her heels. The one in the lead headed straight for Sonny, and as the dogs surged forward to meet her, I thought for sure they'd tear her to bits before Sonny could grab her, but he yelled at them and caught her as she practically leapt into his arms. The second hen slowed once she spotted Sonny and then sauntered off toward a flower bed like that'd been her plan all along.
"Goddamn chicken," Sonny muttered as he turned back to us, the huge hen clamped firmly under one arm.
"What the hell was that about?" I asked.
"Aw, just jealous women. This here," he thrust the hen in the window of the car, "is Hetty, a hen I raised by hand. T'other one," he jerked his head back toward the small hen pecking at something in the dirt, "come from a neighbor and thinks she runs the place."
Evan was gliding the back of a finger down the hen's plump chest and smiling. "She's soft."
"Friendly, too." Sonny plopped her down in Evan's lap. "Chickens make good pets. You boys need some chickens."
Hetty made herself comfortable, nestling down on Evan's legs with a contented cluck-cluck, like she sat in cars every day of the week. Knowing Sonny, maybe she did. Evan stroked her feathers, ruffling them gently backwards to see how they caught the light, and I thought that after today it might not be too tough to talk Evan into owning a few chickens.
Sunday we slept in a little. Actually, we woke up at the usual time, but stayed in bed another hour playing around. Evan tortured me with his mouth and a finger for a while, then I returned the favor, and we finished with a mutual jack off, something we didn't do very often. As we were getting in the shower, I wondered about that. Like most people who have sex together a lot, Evan and I had fairly quickly found a handful of things we liked, or were good at, or both, and stuck with them. Jerking each other off wasn't on that list, although it had felt pretty good this morning. I filed that away as `interesting', and turned Evan around so I could scrub his back.
After breakfast we set off through the woods to visit the dog cemetery. We hadn't been back there in a while and it took us twice as long as usual to get there because of all the downed branches. We dragged most of them out of the way, but then we came to an entire tree that had fallen across the path and we ended up climbing over it cause it was too heavy to move. Another project for the chain saw. As we jumped off the other side, I wondered how much the woods had changed since the day Ed had bought the land and built his home here. In the shadowy depths of Becky's mind, did she remember the woods, the Farm, her life here with Ed? Thinking that made me wonder about the inevitable day Evan or I would be alone. I reached for his hand, got an answering squeeze and held it snugly as we hiked along.
The cemetery was in good shape with only a few branches here and there. We brushed leaves off the chairs and sat down to enjoy the quiet of the forest. The little tree in the center of the circle was in bloom, pink flowers that gave off a pleasant scent. Around the base of each stone, stiff little pale green shoots were pushing up through the dirt, daffodils maybe, or crocus -- I didn't know enough to tell until they bloomed -- and I wondered if Becky had planted them. Or maybe Becky and Ed had come back here together years ago, planting bulbs while they visited the dead dogs.
As always, the little graveyard had a quieting affect on me, and today I finally realized that it was the sense of permanence, of the continuity of life, of a time gone by when other people had sat here, enjoyed this place just as I was doing now. I had never had that in my life, that sense of belonging somewhere, like I did here on the Farm, with Evan.
I turned to find him watching me with a faint smile.
"What are you thinkin'?" he asked softly.
I wanted to tell him, but I couldn't find the words to express what I was feeling without sounding foolish, so I just shook my head and put my hand over his where it lay on the arm of his chair. He looked at me for a long moment, then looked away, but turned his hand palm up and laced his fingers into mine, squeezing hard for a second before easing up.
We stayed an hour or so, finally walking back to the house when we got hungry, and just as we opened the back door, Kenny called to see if we wanted to meet for burgers and pool.
"Burgers and pool?" I asked Evan. When he nodded enthusiastically, I told Kenny we'd be there in fifteen.
We changed out of our muddy boots, tugged on clean flannels and jumped in the Jeep. They were just at the door when we pulled into the lot and stopped to wait for us.
"You didn't get a car yet?" Raf asked Evan.
"Nah. It's getting nice -- I may just ride the bike for the summer. We can use the Jeep when we need to shop or whatever."
First a truck, now the Fat Boy. Evan had a different answer every time someone asked him about it. If it had been me, I'd have been the first guy on the car lot the next morning, but Evan simply didn't care that much about his mode of transportation. Weird.
We ordered food, then Raf and I played Evan and Kenny. None of us were on our game, so it wasn't pretty, but we won just as our burgers showed up at the table. We ate while we watched two local farm boys show off for their chubby girlfriends, and then played a couple more games before calling it a day.
A week passed. As the anniversary of the accident drew closer, Evan grew more quiet than usual, and sometimes I'd find him sort of just paused in the middle of something. One morning it was making instant oatmeal - the kettle of hot water in one hand, a spoon in the other, both poised over the bowl -- while he gazed out the window. He didn't seem sad, exactly; more like preoccupied. Another evening he took carrots out to feed the horses while I put pasta on to boil. When he hadn't come back in a few minutes, I went out the back door to find him sitting on the porch steps staring off into space. I sat down behind him, squeezed him tight with my knees, wrapped my arms around him, and put my chin on his shoulder.
"You're kinda far away lately."
He reached up to hang onto my arms. "Just thinking about next week."
"Yeah, well... since you brought it up. You want me to... take off for the day or something? Give you some space?"
Evan twisted around to look at me, his eyes wide with surprise. "Is that what you think I want? For you to leave?"
I shrugged, a little irritated at being forced to voice my insecurities. "Fuck, I don't know. You're pretty quiet lately. I know it's a tough time for you, and I thought... maybe..."
Evan turned back around and gripped my knees with both hands as he leaned back into me. "I know. Sorry. No, I don't want you to go away. I guess..." He sighed deeply and chewed on the inside of his cheek for a minute. "I want you there. With me and Raf and Kenny. I asked them and they're cool with it. We go out to the cemetery for a while, just hang out, talk about... whatever. Usually we don't talk about the accident at all; we end up telling stories on each other. Or on Luke. He was --"
I waited a moment, but he didn't continue. "He was what?"
"I still feel weird talking about him to you."
"Doesn't bother me, honest."
He gave my knees a squeeze before speaking. "He was a real practical joker. Nobody was safe on April Fool's Day. The first year he bought about thirty alarm clocks and snuck in my room with them. They all went off at and scared the shit outta me." He chuckled at the memory and fell silent for a few minutes. "The next year we got my mom really good. Luke dumped like half a box of baking soda into the pancake mix at my house, and the next morning we begged for pancakes. She poured the first ones onto the griddle and went to get plates out. By the time she got back to the stove, those pancakes were poofed up like balloons and then they started bursting and splattering pancake batter all over the place. She was so pissed. We ended up cleaning the whole damn kitchen. It was pretty funny, though. The expression on her face..." His voice trailed off and after a moment, he dropped his head back onto my shoulder. "You would've liked him."
We sat there until the stove timer went off, and then went in to dinner.
The following week was busy enough to keep my mind off next Saturday. Monday the annoying client emailed a whole laundry list of little crap he wanted tweaked on his site. Most of it was stuff that fell under Kenny's purview, so I just kept quiet as he worked his way through it, patting him encouragingly on the back when I went to the kitchen to make lunch.
Tuesday we got a second email canceling part of Monday's list which Kenny had already completed. As he stared at the screen, I could see the muscles in his jaw working, and I figured he was just waiting for me to tell him I told you so. The temptation was huge, but the bozo wasn't worth fighting over, so I just kept working on building a database for a new client.
"Fuck it -- I'm billing him for doing it and then undoing it," he said as he pounded out the invoice, his fingertips whacking the keys hard enough to jiggle the surface of the coffee in my cup. I knew the guy wasn't gonna go for that and sure enough, after lunch we had a third email moaning about the cost of our services and implying that he didn't plan to pay for changes he didn't want.
"You did fucking want them, you idiot," Kenny yelled at the screen. When I snorted Dr. Pepper all over my keyboard, Kenny spun his chair around to scowl at me. "All right, fine, you're right.... let's ditch the guy, but you have to tell him."
My email ending our contract provoked first a placating reply asking us to reconsider, and then a nasty email telling us how much we sucked at our jobs and how happy he'd be with someone else `who knows what the fuck they're doing.'
"That's why you want us back so bad, right?" Kenny muttered as he hit `delete.'
That evening Sharon called and invited herself over for dinner on Thursday, so Wednesday I worked from the house again, trying to catch up on laundry and a few other things that I'd ignored over the weekend. When the dryer buzzed, I scooped it all into a basket, threw the next load in, and then headed to the bedroom. As I dumped the laundry on the bed to sort it out, I smiled, thinking about the first time I'd done our joint laundry after we moved into the Farm.
Before Evan and I lived together, I'd dump my clean clothes on the bed, open the top two drawers (socks on the left, underwear on the right) of my dresser and lob stuff into the correct drawer from the far side of the bed. It was a great system, and it served the dual purpose of honing my shot, but that first time at the Farm, when Evan saw me doing my socks that way, he put his hands on his hips and stared at me from the doorway until I felt his eyes and turned around.
"What?" I asked.
"I know you're not gonna do mine like that."
Although this was a couple months before the Great Crest/Colgate Incident, I already knew he was fussier about this kind of stuff than me, but I still thought, Jesus, it's just socks and skivvies. I mean, who cares how they get in the drawer as long as they do, right?
"What, you want me to iron the damn things?"
That got an eye roll. "No, but I'd like the socks matched up, so I can just reach in and get a pair. And if you fold the underwear, you can actually fit more in the drawer. One row of briefs, one of boxers, one of boxer briefs." He tugged open his underwear drawer to show me the tidy rows, waving his hand over them with a flourish. My turn for an eye roll.
I looked down at the big pile of socks on the bed. "But you've got fifty pairs of socks that all look the same, but aren't. Why don't you buy the stupid things in twelve-packs, like I do? Then you don't have to match them up at all. See?" I grabbed two of my socks at random and dangled them in his face. He snatched them out of my hand and tossed them at me. I flung them back at him, which led to a wrestling match, which led to sex, which led to having to do that batch of laundry again cause we got cum all over everything.
And it also led to me matching up Evan's damn socks like I was doing right now, except that by now it was second nature, and it gave me a quiet sense of pleasure, doing this little something for Evan that I knew he appreciated.
On Thursday evening, Sharon showed up with pizza just as Evan roared in on his bike. She watched him with a grin as he glided past her to park in the barn.
"I want a ride on that thing," she called as he walked toward the house. "I used to date a guy who had a bike, but he dumped me before I ever got a ride. On the bike," she added with a smile when Evan raised his eyebrows at her.
"He dumped you?" I asked
as I looked her up and down. If I were so inclined, I'd've
been all over
"Yeah, he was looking for a wife and I wasn't. Looking to get married, I mean. So, one day he called about an hour before he was supposed to pick me up and said it was over. He got married three months later and divorced two years after that. Jerk."
"Jerk," I echoed with a grin. She gave me a shove in the chest as she went past me into the house, then came back and groped my pecs a little. "Wow, been to the gym, huh?"
"Do I get to do that to you?" I asked as she gave my shirt a final pat.
"Sure," she threw over her shoulder with a snort. "Like you'd even wanna."
"I don't know," I said as I followed her into the kitchen. "Never did it before and you got a great set of hooters. I might like it."
"Hooters, what a goofy word." She gave me a speculative look as she grabbed three beers from the fridge. "You never felt up a girl?"
"I never anything'd a girl."
"Really? Gay all the way, huh?"
"Thank Christ," Evan said as he planted a noisy smooch on my neck on the way to snagging a beer from Sharon.
Friday we met Evan's folks at the country club for dinner. As you might imagine, country clubs hadn't played a real big part in my life up to now, so this was the first time I'd been to one and I was a little nervous. I made Evan shower first so that by the time I got dried off and into my underwear, he'd be dressed and I could follow his lead in what to wear. Two pair of slacks, two button-down shirts and two sport coats later, we set off in the Jeep to the land of rich white men playing golf and sipping cocktails while they compared stock portfolios. Obviously my take on country clubs had come from old movies on TV.
The Club, as Evan referred to it, was on the outskirts of town, along the river out past the house Kathryn had bought from Sharon not long ago. The parking lot was full on a Friday night, and the Jeep looked only a little out of place among the BMWs and SUVs. Evan's folks were at the bar when we came through the door and waved us over to meet the couple they were talking with. My palms went sweaty at the thought of being introduced to their friends. Don and Maggie were cool with Evan being gay and the two of us being together, but I couldn't imagine that attitude applied to the entire town of Patterson and I was right. I got a cool `pleased to meet you' from the woman while her husband gripped my hand hard enough to hurt. I gave it right back to him, smiling through gritted teeth as I squeezed until he let up and pulled his hand free. As they walked away, Maggie rolled her eyes and sighed, then took my arm and led the way to dinner.
From that unpromising start, it turned out to be a really nice evening. I relaxed enough to enjoy myself and the food was great. They had golfed that afternoon and Don kept us laughing with stories of ball stealing squirrels, bottomless, soul-sucking sand traps, and various other hazards that had conspired to keep him from making par. I'd never played golf in my life, and the way he moaned about it, I wondered why anyone would bother, but he was playing again Sunday, so there must be something to it.
Seeing Evan so comfortable in these surroundings, watching him greet friends and acquaintances, gave me a whole new look at him. A child of wealthy parents, growing up playing tennis and golf at the Club, he was as unlikely a boyfriend as I could have imagined for myself, yet here we were, one year into what felt like a really solid relationship. He was unselfconscious about letting people see that we were together, laying a hand on my arm to get my attention at one point, then leaving it there for a while, little things that marked us as a couple and made me feel really good.
We had dessert and then stayed for drinks in the lounge, gathered around the big stone fireplace while a live pianist played softly and we listened to more golf stories told by Don's buddies. By the time we rolled in our driveway, it was close to eleven. Chewy ran out as we came in, and I stayed out on the porch with him while Evan went in to take a couple aspirin. He came back out a few minutes later and stepped close behind me as he looped his arms around me. I reached back around his butt and pulled him even closer as I leaned my head back on his shoulder.
"Tonight was nice. Your dad's a funny guy."
"Yeah, him and his golf... Sorry about that couple right when we got there. Did he do the `this is how a real man shakes hands' thing with you?"
"Yeah, but I won."
Evan chuckled into my ear. "Good."
Chewy got done running around, so we went in the house, but instead of going to bed, Evan wandered around the living room, looking at the pictures on the mantel one by one, and then poking his finger through the stuff on the table by the door. He picked up the heart-shaped stone, smiling at it for a moment before putting it back down. I watched him for a few minutes, wondering what was going on with him, before remembering that tomorrow was the anniversary of the accident.
"Bed?" I asked, after he had completed his third tour of the room. He stopped walking and looked at me. "Not going to bed isn't going to keep tomorrow from coming, Evan."
He swallowed and then nodded at me. "Yeah, I know."
I turned out the light as he walked past me toward the bedroom, wondering what tomorrow would be like. I was even more nervous about tomorrow than I'd been about the country club. I wanted to say the right things and be of whatever comfort to Evan and Raf and Kenny that I could, but I would always and forever be the new guy, and I wasn't any crazier about tomorrow rolling around than Evan was.