There was a smattering of applause as Jake took off his glasses and shoved them into the breast pocket of his jacket.
"Thank you, Dr. Handley, for your very interesting paper on the Jarrow March and its lingering effects on British popular culture. I found your use of the memoirs of some of the Jarrow participants particularly effective." The moderator turned to the group. "Are there any questions?"
After Jake fielded a couple of questions and listened to a self-serving comment or two, the moderator declared the meeting adjourned and most of the attendees trooped off for lunch. A few remained behind to chat with Jake about his presentation. When he decently could, he went back to his room, where he used the bathroom, changed into jeans and a sport shirt, grabbed his valise and went to the lobby of the conference hotel. After checking out, he jumped into his rental Sebring convertible, put the top down, and got onto Kennedy Blvd. At Willow Avenue he took the Cross Town Expressway to its end in Brandon, where he stopped for lunch. Then he continued east on State Road 60.
As he drove through the flat pasture land, punctuated occasionally by small towns, he thought back to his high school days when he and Doug Curtis had been boyfriends. Dougie had been adorable with his light brown hair and dark brown eyes, his thin, wiry body. They'd thought at the time they'd spend their lives together. But they'd both left Tampa for the North, gone to different colleges. Though they'd remained in touch with the occasional letter and more recently by email and telephone, they hadn't seen each other since Doug's parents had been killed a few years back and Jake had flown to Tampa for the funeral.
Now Doug was living with a lawyer. He'd given up teaching and was helping his partner in the law practice. They'd bought a big old house and were having fun fixing it up, Doug had told him. Doug sounded happy on the phone, and Jake was happy for him. He was looking forward to seeing his old friend again and to meeting Stan.
About an hour and a quarter after he left Brandon, he pulled into the driveway of a big old two-story frame house on Lakeside Blvd. in Lake Polk. He noticed that all the windows of the house were open. He'd barely gotten out of the Sebring when Doug came through the front door, across the wrap-around porch and down the steps.
"Jake," he said, his arms open, "it's so great to see you!"
Jake held out his arms, and the two embraced. Then Doug gave him what started to be a perfunctory peck on the lips and turned into a little more than that. Just a little.
"Dougie, it's so good to see you. How are you? How's Stanley?"
"Come on in." Doug put his arm around Jake's shoulder and walked him to the door. They had to separate to get through the doorway.
"Have you had your lunch?"
"Yeah, I stopped in Brandon and grabbed a burger."
"How about some iced tea?"
Jake grinned. "I'm surprised you didn't say `sweet tea.' That's what we always called it."
"They still do. But Stan has to watch his carbs now, so we make it without sugar. We're using Splenda these days. But you can have all the sugar you want in yours."
"I'd love the tea, but I'll have Splenda in mine, too. So where's Stan? At work?"
Doug sighed. "Yeah, he's still at the office. `Scuse me a minute and I'll get the tea. If you need to use the lav, there's one off the entryway."
A few minutes later they were on the big porch, sitting in rocking chairs and sipping their tea. The view of Lake Polk was perfect. It was as if no time had passed since he and Doug were high school lovers. Neither of them had come out back then. That didn't happen until they were both in college. But they'd been as intimate as two men can be throughout their last two years of high school in Tampa. And they'd fooled everyone.
They'd stayed in touch off and on through the intervening years, managing to keep up on each other's lives. Doug had been an English professor at Cranmer College, not really all that far from Colby State, until he'd retired. They'd been involved in their careers and their various lovers, feeling guilty that they hadn't seen each other more often.
When Doug's parents had been killed in an accident, Doug had taken early retirement from Cranmer and moved to Lake Polk, where he'd met Stan, his partner. Jake had heard there'd been some sort of unpleasantness at Cranmer which helped Doug make up his mind to leave the profession, but he'd never wanted to ask.
"You sighed when you said Stan was at work. Is there a problem?"
"Not really. He's just a workaholic. Most of his clients are low-income people, so he's not making any money on his practice. It's a good thing we're not hurting for money. But he throws himself into the work just as he does everything."
"Did you tell me once that you were helping him?"
"As much as I can. I've been learning by doing. Most of the standard legal forms are on the computer, so I can get those filled in, printed out, and ready. I usually answer the phones, schedule appointments, see that he gets to court on time when necessary, and things like that."
Jake sipped his tea and enjoyed the view of the lake. A stately great blue heron was wading slowly along the shore. Two cormorants were drying their wings in a tree near the water. He felt as if he were home. He could have drifted off, but he remembered his friend, his host.
"Doug, do you feel as if you've wasted your education, all that scholarship, just basically being Stan's paralegal?"
"Nope. No way! For one thing, this old house is almost a full-time job. It was a mess when we bought it. Now it looks pretty good. And you'll get the tour after a bit. Besides that, I've almost finished another book"
"Biography? Criticism? Literary history?"
Doug grinned. "Promise you won't laugh."
Doug's grin was as appealing as ever. Jake remembered Doug as being quiet, shy. But his smile in high school, as now, was sweet and sexy.
"It's a novel."
"Really? That's interesting. Want to tell me about it?"
"Maybe later. Let's get your things up to your room, and I'll give you the tour. So I can brag about my skills hanging drywall and useful stuff like that."
Suddenly emanating from Doug was the principal theme from movement 1 of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Jake smiled, recalling that in music appreciation they'd put the words "You can ride in my red wagon" to that melody in order to remember it.
"Oh, excuse me a minute," Doug said. He pulled his cell out of his pocket and opened it.
"Hey, how's the hottest lawyer in the county?" He chuckled. "Okay then, in all of Florida." Pause. "He's here. We've just been having some tea." He listened for a minute and then chuckled again. "I won't promise anything. He's still as hot as ever. If you're concerned about my virtue, you'd better get your studly ass here and protect me."
Jake had never met Stan, though they'd talked on the phone occasionally. He was curious to see the guy who obviously made Doug so happy.
After getting the tour of the house, Jake said, "Dougie, I never would have guessed you were so good at DIY stuff."
"Neither would I, but it's been fun learning, and it's satisfying, you know? At the end of the day you can see just what you've accomplished." He grinned. "Of course, when you've knocked out a wall, the results sometimes aren't too pretty."
Just then they heard the screen door downstairs close. "There's my guy."
"I didn't hear a car pull up."
"Oh, he walked. His office is just a couple of blocks away on Center Street. You passed it when you came in from Highway 60."
Stan Mason didn't look like the stereotypical image of the lawyer. No three piece suit. No suit, in fact. His muscular body nicely filled out the red short-sleeve polo shirt and khakis he was wearing. He was shorter than Jake and Doug, perhaps 5'9", with short, curly hair that was a mix of black and gray, a goatee that was all gray, and very blue eyes.
Jake held out his hand to Stan, who brushed it aside, grabbed Jake, and kissed him. It was a lot hotter kiss than the one he'd gotten from Doug.
"Woohoo," Jake said. "Now there's a welcome to Lake Polk!"
Doug said, "You'll have to forgive him. I need to hit him with a rolled-up newspaper sometimes."
The three talked until it began to get dark. At some point the tea had been replaced with Sapphire and tonic. Jake thought he might feel awkward around Doug and his current – and apparently permanent – lover, but Stan was relaxed and charming.
"Anybody hungry?" Doug asked.
"Sweetie, I'm always hungry, as you know."
"I've done all the prep, but supper won't fix itself."
The ground floor of the house had obviously been extensively remodeled. Apart from the half bath Jake had used earlier and a closet adjacent to it, the rest was all simply a great room with a living area, an eating area, and a spacious kitchen.
Jake was handed a glass of pinot noir and told to sit at the table while Stan and Doug turned preparing supper into a graceful ballet. They both loved to cook, Stan said, and they usually did it together.
"Yeah, except when he is working late or up in Tallahassee or somewhere," Doug said.
Stan stopped what he was doing and gave Doug a quick kiss. "Yeah, and then when I come home my very own tame Florida boy has a scrumptious meal waiting for me."
"Flatterer!" Doug said, swatting Stan's butt.
During the supper of pork medallions in mushroom gravy with risotto, salad and crusty rolls, Stan asked Jake how the paper had gone that morning.
"Ohmygod," Doug said. "I'm sorry, Jake. I should have asked about that first thing."
And so supper passed. The three talked until after midnight, when Jake, trying to stifle a yawn, excused himself. He had to get up early to get back to Tampa International, turn in the Sebring, and catch his flight back to Detroit.
As he drove to Tampa the next morning he felt lonely. He'd pretty well gotten over Sandy's death. After all, it had been eight years. And their relationship was getting to be a bit strained even before that. Sandy, who was five years younger, was, Jake suspected, beginning to feel "the itch." Nevertheless, he still missed having a partner, someone in the place to chat with, cook with, and sleep with. He and Digs, who'd been great after Sandy died, had tried the partner thing for a while, but it didn't work. Seeing his old friend and his lover together reminded Jake of what he didn't have. Had never really had, despite all the men who'd come and gone in his life.
So it was partly from a lifetime's habit and partly from his intensified sense of being alone that he paid particular attention to the good looking man in the seat next to him on the plane. Mid fifties. Nice green eyes. Jake suspected the guy wore contacts. How many guys that age didn't need some sort of help for their eyes? A couple of inches over six feet. He wore his black hair short, almost a crew cut, and there was just the beginning of a bald patch in the back (though no sign of recession in the front).
Except for the short haircut, nothing about Jim Grant, for that was his name, suggested he was a policeman, a detective. He could have been a banker or lawyer. And Jake was most surprised that the guy had been listening to Franck on his headset. Imagine, a cop who loved classical music! Colby's own Inspector Morse!
The Tampa-Detroit flight had passed quickly as the two visited. Jake's gaydar, such as it was, binged lightly from time to time, but other than that Grant lived alone, he had no solid information at the end of the flight to suggest his seatmate was gay. But gay or not, Jake decided he'd like to know the man better. He was disappointed when Grant refused his offer of a ride back to Colby. But he was impressed that the Colby P. D. had sent a car to pick him up.
It was a beautiful late October day. Most of the leaves had fallen, but a few of the trees still had brightly colored leaves which glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. He was relieved to be back. Conferences like the one he'd just attended were a professional necessity, but not something he enjoyed. It had been good, though, to see Doug and to meet Stan. Thinking about them, however, he felt that pang again. He found his teaching fulfilling. And he had music, his passion. He went to most of the concerts on campus, traveling occasionally to Detroit or even Cleveland to hear their orchestras. But there was always that emptiness, that need . . . .
He stopped to pick up some milk and a few other items to tide him over until the weekend. What with the luggage and the groceries, he had to make two trips up to his condo in the elevator. `Man,' he thought, `I do get tired of schlepping stuff up here all the time.' Schlep had been one of Sandy's words. And again he felt the loneliness.
He'd turned the heat back before he left, and the place felt cold. By the time he had the groceries put away and the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, it was warmer. He went back downstairs to the mailbox, retrieved its contents, and threw them on the kitchen bar. He opened a bottle of cabernet and poured a glass, which he sipped occasionally as he sorted the mail, most of it catalogs, advertisements, and requests from charities. He had enough return address labels to last the rest of his life, and there was another envelope full of them in this batch of mail.
When he'd finished that chore, he checked his voice mail. There was only one message.
A bass voice growled, "I've got a big pot of brown beans, and I'm fixin' corn bread. Haul your ass over here whenever you get back, and you can tell me about your trip while we eat."
Jake grinned and punched the speed dial.
"Hello," the same voice answered.
"Hey, stud!. Got your message."
A deep chuckle. "Hi, baby. So when you comin' over?"
"The beans sound wonderful. But I've got some work to do to get ready for my classes tomorrow. I can either do it now, or leave right after we eat."
"Come now. The smell's been drivin' me crazy."
Jake realized he was famished. They'd only had a snack on the plane, and he hadn't eaten anything else since his early breakfast with Stan and Doug.
"I'll be right there."
Toussaint Gautier was big: tall, muscular, with the beginnings of a paunch. He hated his first name, so everyone called him by his middle name, Digby. He could turn off the gay bit, or at least ramp it up and down. He did the same with the African-American dialect. He taught saxophone in the Colby State music department, along with some courses on jazz. And he played in a local jazz band. Jake had first met him, not on campus, but at Nelly's, the local gay bar.
He meant it when he said "come over," for his condo was just across the street from Jake's.
"Jakey," he said, giving Jake a bone-crushing hug, "I miss you, baby."
Grinning, Jake said, "Jeez, Digs, I've only been gone four days."
Digby pretended to pout. "So I suppose while you've been gallivantin' `roun' you ain' miss me."
Jake gave him a kiss on the cheek and said, "Of course I missed you."
Digby beamed. "That's better. Now to the important stuff. What you want to drink? Wanna stay with the cab you started at home?"
"How'd you know I've been drinking cab?"
"I can smell it on your breath."
"I've heard of having a nose for wine, but you can actually tell from my breath?"
Digby flashed a lot of teeth and said, "No, I lie. But I knew it was red wine, and you like cab best of all, so I made an educated guess."
There were chilies in the cornbread. Heaven.
"Oh, man, Digs, this is so fine."
"Yeah, baby. Soul food. So how was the conference?"
"Not when you were readin' your paper, I hope."
"Well, there wasn't much of a turnout for my paper, the moderator damned it with faint praise, and most of those who were there were more interested in lunch than anything I had to say."
"How about seein' your frien'?"
Jake smiled. "Oh, that was nice. I hadn't seen Doug in a long time. It was good to see him again and meet his partner."
"Shame we lose touch with folks that mean a lot to us, ain't it?"
"Yeah." He sighed and took another bite of the cornbread.
"Honey, what's wrong with you?"
"Don't give me that shit!"
"Well, okay. Doug and Stan were so happy together. I guess I'm missing Sandy. Or at least missing having somebody in my life."
"Jakey, you've always got me."
Jake looked at his friend. "Yeah, but we tried it and it didn't work. You know we're not meant to be a couple."
"You right. It didn't work that way. But you know I love you. And I'm handy. So whenever you get lonesome, all you gotta do . . ."
Jake grinned. "You aren't gonna break into a James Taylor song, are you?"
Digby rumbled, "Indeed not. But you just remember what I'm sayin'. You need to talk, you call me. Or get your cute ass over here."
"Thanks, man. You're a great friend. I know I'm lucky to have you."
Digby flashed the teeth again. "Yeah, bitch, and don't you forget it!"
As he was leaving, Jake hugged his host and got a kiss in return.
"I really do love you, you know."
"The food was a lifesaver."
"I notice you seemed to like it. Oh, chill a sec!" Jake admired Digby's corduroy-covered ass as went to the kitchen. The big man came back with a brown paper bag. "Here some beans, an' cornbread, an' one of those apple fritters you like."
"Oh, man!" He hugged Digby again.
"If you decide you need an ass to pound, you know where to come, don't you? No strings attached?"
"Yeah, Digs, I know. And one of these days I might just take you up on the offer."
On Friday morning of that same week as Jake paced around in the front of his classroom explaining something about Stanley Baldwin's role in the abdication of Edward VIII, a thought popped into his head. `Yeah,' he told himself, `great idea!'
That evening he made a phone call.
He got the answering machine, so he left a message:
"Hi, Jim. This is Jake Handley. Remember me from the plane the other day? Look, I usually hate plane flights. I try to sleep through them if I can. But I really enjoyed talking with you. I was wondering if you'd like to meet me for dinner, my treat, tomorrow evening. It's short notice, I realize, so if you're busy, I'll understand. Give me a call, please, at 555-6839."
He'd changed into an old pair of jeans and a clean but worn tee shirt when his phone rang.
"Jake, this is Jim Grant. How are you?"
"I'm great, Jim. How are things with you?"
There was an awkward pause.
"Thanks for returning my call," Jake said, mostly to prompt Grant to continue.
"Uh, yeah, about that, I was a bit surprised that you wanted to have dinner with me. I'm not sure . . . "
"Look, I enjoyed chatting with you on the plane. I'd like to get to know you better. We share an interest in music, and we're about the same age. I thought we might explore other things we have in common. But if you're not interested . . ."
"Jim, your hesitancy isn't because I'm gay, is it?"
"No! Of course not."
Grant cleared his throat. "I'd like to have dinner with you. Where and when should I meet you?"
Jake thought about Adrian's, but he didn't want Grant to think he was trying too hard to impress him. So he suggested The Faculty Club, which was a private place that had nothing to do with the University. But it was perhaps Colby's second-best restaurant.
They agreed to meet there at 7:00.
He suspected Grant had been about to refuse his invitation. Then when Jake had said something about being gay, Grant had suddenly accepted. And that didn't bode well, not if he'd done so only to prove he wasn't a homophobe.
Then he worried that Grant would think maybe he was too cheap to spring for a meal at Adrian's. Jesus. Maybe they should have just gone to Carrabba's or Damon's or some place like that. Oh, well, it was already decided.
What was it about the policeman that he found so intriguing? Surely the attraction wasn't based just on his loneliness. Surely not.
* * *
He was glad for the usual Saturday business. He went for a run first thing, then came back and showered. He needed to go to the grocery store and the dry cleaner's, and then he decided since it was a nice day he'd wash his car.
That afternoon he tried reading for a while, but he found he couldn't concentrate. He kept seeing the good-looking man with the dark hair and the green eyes he was going to have supper with. So he turned on the campus radio station and listened to the Colby State football game. He became aware at some point that commentators were analyzing the Cougars' performance against the Akron Zips, and he realized he didn't even know who'd won.
He decided to have another shower. And then he dithered about what to wear. He ultimately decided to put on a turtle-neck rather than a shirt with a tie. He didn't want Grant to think he was making too much of the occasion.
He decided not to wear any aftershave or cologne. As it was, he probably smelled of soap, shampoo, and deodorant. Maybe he should see if any of that came in fragrance- free varieties.
On his way to the car he asked himself why he was so nervous. `Because there's something about this guy that gets to you, that's why,' an inner voice told him.
To Be Continued
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