by Tim Mead
The slow-moving front had passed through, and the oak outside his back windows had young, pale green leaves that seemed to glow in the early sunlight. A fat squirrel was helping itself to seed from Mrs. Brill's bird feeder.
It had been a short night. Roger had left about 1:00 and Joe was up at 6:30 to shave, shower, and dress. His ass was a bit tender when he sat to eat breakfast, but it was a good kind of sore. His thoughts were a muddle. Why, after years of being deep in the closet, had he allowed himself to be pulled out?
He still felt warm, contented from the sex with Roger. Thinking about it made his cock twitch. He'd never had sex with a grown-up man before. At eighteen cousin Bill had been nothing like Roger. And then there were the few girls he'd had sex with, but that didn't even count.
He wiggled a little, feeling empty.
It had been great with Roger. He realized how much he'd been missing. He wished he and Roger had talked about what it was like to be out. It would probably be different being gay on campus. But what about in his own life? Well, that consisted mainly of going to work every day and then coming back to his apartment to watch television. He made occasional solitary trips to Gridley's. That was the routine he'd stuck to for over three years. But why had he done that? And why did he now feel like changing the routine?
Everybody at work knew the boss and Brody Cox were living together as lovers. Joe, like most of his co-workers, had been surprised when, not too long after his divorce, Dave had paired up with Cox. A couple of guys had quit after that, claiming they wouldn't work for a "fuckin' queer," but most of the others had merely shrugged and carried on as usual.
He clenched his fists. Whose fucking business was it if a guy liked other men?
Maybe he and Roger could do it again? There had been an awkward moment when Roger was ready to leave. Joe had thanked him. Roger had grinned and said, "No, Superman, thank you!" Then with a "See ya," he'd left. Joe didn't even know where Roger lived or how to get in touch with him. But then he probably wouldn't do that even if he could. It wasn't his way.
He looked at the clock. Christ! If he didn't hurry, he was going to be late for his meeting with Cromer.
"Ow! Damn!" Every spring the county road crews were faced with a new batch of potholes to fill, and they hadn't gotten to the section of two-lane highway between Higgins and Colby. Joe and the rest of the lawn crews worked out of the equipment building in Higgins, but the company's main office was on the outskirts of Colby.
At that hour of the morning there was lots of traffic headed toward the larger city, and Joe couldn't swerve to avoid the potholes. The suspension on his old truck did little to cushion the shock, so Joe's tender bunghole complained every time he hit one.
"'Morning, Joe. Thanks for coming in."
"No problem, boss."
"Have a seat. Would you like some coffee?"
"No thanks, I'm good."
Dave Cromer was a couple of inches over Joe's six feet, with green eyes and dark brown hair which he wore in a crew cut. Not as big in the chest and shoulders as Joe, he was nevertheless well built. It was well known among the crews that the boss would still go out and work alongside the men from time to time, and that he wasn't afraid of getting dirty.
This morning, however, he was wearing crisp chinos, a blue oxford button-down shirt, and a navy tie with green and white stripes. Joe figured his boss was in his mid- to late twenties. A good looking dude. Brody Cox was lucky. But then Cox was sex on wheels, Joe thought. He imagined the two of them in bed and he felt his cock twitch.
After crossing his legs and shifting his weight to the other buttock, he was trying to think of some way to make conversation when Dave sat down at his desk.
"Joe, you look tense. Relax. Take a deep breath. I promise this won't hurt."
"You're not gonna chew me out for something?"
"No way!" Dave took a sip of his coffee, grimaced at the mug, and set it down. "You've been working here for about three years, right?"
"Yeah. A little over, actually."
"In that time, you've done all kinds of jobs for us, haven't you?"
"Well, I don't do any design work. That's your department. But there's not much about the grunt work I don't know."
`Exactly . . . what?' Joe wondered. He waited for Dave to go on.
"You're just the man I want to replace Ed Johnson."
"What's happening to Ed?" Ed had been his supervisor from day one. He was kind of stiff, but he was fair, and Joe had always respected him.
"Ed's mother has moved into a nursing home in Florida, and he's moving down there to be near her. He's got a job as supervisor of the landscapers at a big golf course and resort near Fort Meyers."
"Oh." And then it sank in. "And you want me to . . . ?"
Dave grinned. There were nice crinkles around his eyes. "Yep. I can't think of anyone better qualified."
"But, boss, I don't know. I mean, yeah, I know how to do all the jobs the crews are asked to do, but Ed takes care of paper work, and I don't know how I'd do with that."
"You know that hours and payrolls and that sort of thing are handled by the bookkeeper, don't you?"
"So the most important paperwork would be filling out requisitions for equipment and supplies and scheduling the work of the various crews. Most of that can be done on the computer, and Ed will show you how."
Joe's mouth went dry. He didn't know what to say. He'd been moving along in his rut, not thinking much about the future or getting ahead or anything like that. Still, it would be nice to have a little money left over at the end of the month. And it felt really great that Dave had so much confidence in him.
"Sir?" Sir? Where did that come from? Dave was only a few years older than he was, and he wasn't in the habit of calling anyone "sir." Still, since Dave's dad retired, Dave was the head of Cromer Landscaping, the big boss. So "Sir" seemed appropriate.
Dave chuckled. "Since when did you start calling me `sir'? Nobody calls me that, not even Brody, and since he got out of the Marines he `sirs' everybody."
"Sorry. You were about to say . . . ?"
"You don't need to make up your mind right now. You can talk with Ed if you'd like. He knows I want you for this job, but he'll be honest with you about what it's like."
"Thanks. I'm still just surprised that you'd pick me. But if you think I can do it, I'd like to." He was thinking about being able to tell his mother about the promotion.
"We haven't even talked about the nitty gritty yet. You'd be on salary instead of hours, you know, and we have pretty good fringes."
"I haven't had any experience managing people, you know."
"You get along well with the guys. They all like you. And I know you're good at teaching the new ones how to do things."
Well, yeah, that was true. He liked making new guys on the crews feel at home, liked showing them how things worked at Cromer's.
"Dave, I hope you're not making a mistake. But I promise I'll work my butt off for you."
Dave grinned, leaned back, and clasped his hands behind his head. "Joe, you always have. So, that's settled. Now, there's another matter I want to talk with you about."
"Oh?" He was still trying to process the idea of the new job. "Okay."
"First of all, this has nothing to do with your new job. You can say no if you want, and I'll understand."
Joe's brow wrinkled. What was this about?
"My spies tell me that you used to be a damn good center fielder."
"How did you know that?"
"Oh, I have my sources," Dave said, raising an eyebrow. "It's true, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess I was okay."
"You know about the summer amateur baseball league in Colby County, don't you?"
"I've heard about it."
"Been to any of the games?"
"Can't say I have."
"Well, look. Some of us have been playing for the Higgins Hardware team the last few years, the Hammers. But the owner is retiring, and his son isn't interested in underwriting the team any more. So I've agreed to sponsor the team. We'll still be the Hammers, though the name isn't as appropriate for a landscaper as it was for the hardware store. The reason I'm mentioning this to you is that I was hoping you'd be willing to play for us. We could use a good outfielder, and I hear you can swing the bat, too."
"I'm bound to be pretty rusty by now."
"You're obviously in good physical shape. And I'll bet you'll be as sharp as the rest of us after a couple of weeks. We start practicing soon and the season starts just after Memorial Day. Like I said, there's no pressure for you to do this. But I'd like you to think about it. You know some of the guys on the team, and the others are good men."
This seemed to Joe to be a momentous time in his life. He'd been given a fantastic promotion, he'd been invited to join the company-sponsored baseball team, and he'd had great sex the night before.
He stood up and stuck his hand across the desk. "I don't need to think about it. I'll do it!"
"Great!" Dave exclaimed as they shook hands. "Ed's leaving in two weeks. Until then, I don't want you going out on any jobs unless there's some kind of emergency. You'll shadow him the whole time. You'll be changed on the books to start drawing your new salary as of today. If you have any problems, let me know, okay?"
Still a bit overwhelmed, Joe said, "Right. And Dave, thanks. I don't know what else to say. But, well, thanks!"
"Just show me I'm right about you. Now, you'd better get to work. Ed's expecting you."
As Joe stepped from Dave's office into the outer office, he almost bumped into a hunky blue-eyed blond with a short haircut.
"Oh, hi, Joe!"
"Hey, Brody." Joe felt a twitch in his pants. The ex-Marine was a stud.
"So how'd it go in there? I hope you took the job."
"Yeah, I did. I'm still a bit stunned."
"Don't be. He thinks you're just the man to take over from Ed."
"Thanks for telling me. Now, I've got to get to work. Good to see you, Brody."
They shook hands. Brody's grip was firm and dry. Nice. Brody was only the second "out" gay man he'd ever shaken hands with, Dave being the first. So far as he knew.
After they shook hands, Joe turned to leave. Brody opened the door to Dave's office.
`Damn,' Joe thought. `That sounds nice.'
* * *
He was nervous about the new job. All that responsibility! Since he'd come to work for Dave Cromer he'd settled into a routine. He didn't mind physical labor. In fact, he enjoyed using his body, keeping himself in good shape through honest work instead of spending time and money going to a gym. But could he do the record keeping and the other "paper work"? Dave had said it was mostly done on a computer, but he didn't know whether that would be any easier. He didn't have a computer. The old one he'd brought to college had crashed a year or so ago, and he couldn't afford a new one.
It would have been easier to just stay in his rut, let Dave find somebody else to do the foreman's job. But Dave had been good to him, and Dave thought he could handle it. Besides, his mother would be proud of him. And the raise was enough to help him overcome his reservations about accepting the job. Now if he could only carry it off!
As it turned out, he picked up things more quickly than he'd expected. During his three plus years with the company he'd learned a lot about how the work crews were organized. Ed, though not given to small talk, was a patient teacher. They worked together checking the equipment, and Ed showed Joe how to requisition supplies via the computer. It helped that most of the high school and college guys weren't around yet, so Joe got some experience working with the two crews that were currently on board.
Because of the late spring rains and mild weather, grass was growing luxuriantly, so Joe and even Ed occasionally had to take care of some lawns. But that would all change after school was out since the summer crews were made up mostly of high school and college guys.
* * *
One evening as Joe was having supper his phone rang. He almost never got phone calls. Could it be Ed with some problem at work? But he'd just been with Ed all day. Maybe it was his Mother. He hoped she didn't have a problem. He relaxed when he heard Roger's voice.
"Hey, Clark Kent. What's up!"
"Hi, Rog. I'd, uh, been hoping you'd call."
"You could have called me."
"I didn't know your number."
"I'm in the phone book. You know I live here in Higgins."
"Well, duh. I didn't think of that. Anyway, I was thinking we might . . . get together again."
"Yeah, I was, too. That's why I'm calling."
Now that was good news! He was adjusting his cock when Roger continued.
"I don't think getting together is going to be possible. When I told my bud I'd been with you, he was really pissed. He said I couldn't wait to get rid of him and that if I'd cared about him as much as he thought, I'd never have done that."
"Fuck, Rog. I'm sorry."
"So am I. But I'm thinking maybe he's right. I do care about the guy, and I don't want us to go our separate ways on bad terms. So we'd better cool it until school's out."
"Yeah, I can understand that. Well, good luck. You're a nice guy. Thanks for . . . well, you know."
Roger chuckled. "Yeah, I remember `you know' very well. It was hot! But listen, he's leaving right after commencement. I've promised I won't fool around with anybody else as long as we're together. But I'm not going to Pittsburgh until August. I'm working full-time at Dillard's for the summer. So if you'd like, I can give you a call. Or maybe we'll bump into each other at Gridley's."
"I hope so, Rog." Joe wanted to ask Roger to call him, but he didn't. He was still too new to the game to know what he should do, but it seemed rather desperate to plead. "Thanks for calling. And congratulations on graduating."
"Thanks for understanding, big guy. See ya around."
`Hmmm. Roger's "out." If I'm seen with him very often, people will know about me, too. But that wouldn't be so bad, I guess. I wouldn't get much grief at work. I'm kind of the boss now. And everybody that works there knows the big boss is gay. I wonder if anybody else is. Oh, yeah, there were those two cocky kids last summer. What were their names? Todd. Todd what? He isn't from around here. Was staying with a relative. Todd Nielsen. And that cute little fucker he worked with, Justin Quinn. Mouthy but hot . . . if you like the type. Everybody knew those two were getting it on every chance they got. Gossip around the shop was that they got caught by some farmer doing it in his field. On their way back to Higgins from a job somewhere out in the county. I guess Dave reamed their asses over that. I wonder if they'll be back. They're too young to get involved with, but it would be nice to have some "out" gay guys around. Come to think of it, there's a lot of eye candy during the summers, even if they're all straight. Or mostly straight. But I'm the foreman now. Can't get involved with anyone on the crews. . . . Oh, well, maybe there's a chance Roger and I can get together again . . . Listen to me. I guess I've changed some since that night with Rog.'
* * *
The weekend after Dave gave him the new job, Joe went home to Bryant. Except for weather-related emergencies, Dave never asked his guys to work on weekends. So since coming to work for Cromer Landscaping Joe had tried to get home every other Saturday. Most times he drove over to Bryant after breakfast, spent the day, often doing little repair jobs around his mother's house, and then either driving back to Higgins after supper or occasionally spending the night in his old room and driving back after breakfast on Sunday morning.
It was sometimes pretty boring. He loved his mother, and she loved him. But there often wasn't that much to say to each other. She had her work, her bridge group, and church.
This time, however, she was thrilled that he'd been promoted to a job with so much responsibility.
"I'm so proud of you, Joey," she said as she hugged him. "Now if you could only find a good man. You're old enough to think about settling down."
"Geez, Mom! It's not like I'm a player or anything!"
She put a hand on each of his shoulders and pushed him back so she could look into his eyes.
"Joseph Hill, I know you aren't a player, if that means you're sleeping with a lot of men. But I know you're lonely. I see it in your eyes. I'm your mother, and mothers know things like that. All I meant was that you need someone to share your life with. I wish you could find a nice girl and give me grandbabies, but I know that's not going to happen. So keep your eyes open, okay?"
He kissed her on the forehead. "Yeah, Mom. I'll do that."
"So," she said brightly, changing the subject. "What's the first thing you're gonna buy with your raise?"
"Well, that truck of yours is pretty old. I worry every time you drive over here in it."
"I think I can make the truck last a while longer. What would you think about me getting contacts?"
She grimaced. "The very thought of putting those in my eyes makes my toes curl. But such a handsome boy as you, I can see why you'd like to get rid of the glasses. Why not?"
So he resolved to make an appointment with an eye doctor as soon as he felt he could ask for a half day off.
* * *
Joe knew there were some gay bars in Colby. He'd heard Nelly's mentioned most often. One evening he decided he was going to check it out. He'd never been in a gay bar before, and he was curious. That he would venture into a place like that was a change, he realized. Was it because of the night he and Roger had hooked up? Did his promotion give him more confidence? He didn't know. But he was going to do it. Not cruising. Just to see what it was like. And maybe feel some comfort from being around other gays. So what if someone saw him? You didn't have to be gay to go to a place like that, did you? Fuck `em. Let `em think what they want! Nobody was going to hassle him at work. Not as long as Dave was the boss. Not as long as he was as big and tough as anyone on any of the crews.
Joe had been to an eye doctor in Colby, who'd done a refraction and had written a prescription for contacts. They were to be ready the next week, when Joe would go not only to pick them up but to be shown how to use them. He wasn't too keen on putting things in his eyes, but the specs were a real nuisance for anyone who did manual labor, especially if it was outside in the rain or snow. And they tended to slip down his nose when he was sweating. Sure, he was going to be working mostly inside now, at least for the summer while there were work crews to supervise, but he still thought the contacts would be worth getting used to.
* * *
He was indulging in people watching, as usual, only this time the people were a lot more interesting than at Gridley's back in Higgins. The twenty-mile distance between the two places might as well have been an ocean.
Four college-age guys were playing darts. You couldn't tell by looking at them that they were gay, but the shrieks and giggles left no doubt. A pair of youngish women were holding hands across a table and not saying much. Two older men were sitting together but more or less ignoring each other. Joe figured they had probably been together for a long time, like an old married couple. Otherwise there was a lot of conversation. A couple of guys leaned against the bar and surveyed the room with predatory looks in their eyes. Joe had seen guys do that in "regular" bars, too, but obviously here the prey would be different.
One booth had two hot looking black guys. The older one looked to be somewhere between 40 and 60. He couldn't be sure. Taller than Joe, he wore corn rows and some bling. Dressed all in black. Big guy. The other was smaller, about 5'9". Looked like he could be a college student. Shaved head. Trim mustache and goatee. He had on a black polo and black chinos. No bling to speak of except for a diamond (well, what looked like a diamond) in his right ear lobe. The two seemed to be comfortable with each other, but Joe guessed they were friends or father and son, not lovers.
He let his eyes travel around the room slowly. His attention was attracted to the door as a pair of new arrivals appeared. It was his boss and Cox. Uh oh! Busted! They didn't notice him, apparently. Instead they spotted the two guys Joe had been watching and went to their booth, where greetings were exchanged and there were handshakes all around. No one hugged or kissed, Joe noticed. They might have been straight guys meeting at Gridley's.
Not wanting to stare, he took a swallow of beer and recommenced looking around the room.
"Joe, I've never seen you in here before."
He looked up to see Dave Cromer smiling down at him.
Joe stood up and the two shook hands.
"Yeah, this is a first time for me."
"Well, come on over here. I want you to meet some friends. "
Dave led him to the booth where Brody had sat with the two men Joe had been surreptitiously watching.
"Guys, this is my new crew foreman, Joe Hill."
Brody stood and shook hands. "Yeah, Joe and I know each other. Congratulations on the promotion, Joe."
"And," Dave continued, "this is Professor Digby Gautier, who is on the music faculty at Colby State. He's also a fantastic jazz musician."
Gautier, the elder of the two strangers, couldn't get out of the booth, so he extended his hand up to Joe.
"Glad to meet you, Joe."
"Nice to meet you, sir."
"And this is Marcus Londeree," Dave said. "He's about to graduate from CSU. He's a musician, too. You wouldn't believe what an amazing bass voice comes out of a guy this size."
"Why is it all you tall dudes have to make some comment about my size?" Marcus asked, but he was grinning at Dave.
"Uh, sorry, Marcus."
Marcus stared at Joe for a minute. His eyes narrowed. "Damn! You do look like Clark Kent."
As the two shook hands, Marcus, like Digby, remaining seated, Joe said, "You know, Marcus, I like being compared to Clark Kent just about as much as you like people calling you short."
"Yeah, whatever." Marcus's attitude had suddenly turned cold. And Joe wondered about the Clark Kent remark? Something was up with the guy, and Joe had no idea what it was.
"Guys," Brody said, putting a hand on Marcus's shoulder, "there's a bigger booth over there, that circular one. Why don't we move to it so we can all sit together?"
Naturally shy, especially around strangers, Joe's first instinct was to say he needed to start home. But he didn't want to offend his boss, so they all moved to the banquette.
Brody and Dave seemed to know the professor, though Joe couldn't figure out what the connection was. Marcus and the prof were obviously tight, but he didn't seem to know Dave or Brody very well. It was as if they were merely acquaintances.
And Marcus was clearly pissed about something. Something to do with Joe, it appeared. He wondered again what it could be.
He found out a little later that evening. He had excused himself to go to the men's room. As he stood at a urinal, the door opened and someone came in, closed it, and leaned back against it.
"You son of a bitch!"
It was Marcus.
"Excuse me?" Joe shook off his dick and put it back inside his jeans.
"You're the guy that seduced my man. What did you do, wiggle your ass at him?" Then, his anger apparently changing to something else, he continued, "How'm I supposed to compete with someone who looks like you?"
Realization came quickly. Bass voice. This had to be Roger's former boyfriend, lover, whatever he was.
As he washed his hands, he said, "Rog told me you two had broken up."
Marcus's demeanor continued to change. Tears came to his eyes. "Well, we'd agreed to see other guys after we graduated. But I just said that so I wouldn't look like a possessive bitch. And I never thought he'd go out looking for dick before I moved to Rochester."
The smaller man looked so unhappy Joe's first instinct was to hug him. But he wasn't about to do that. Not in a public restroom. Even if it was in a gay bar. What was he supposed to do? He actually felt sorry for Marcus. But Roger had said he and his boyfriend were splitting up.
"Dude. I'm pretty new at all of this. I've, uh, been in the closet for a long time. I don't wanna make things worse between you and Rog, but he's the one who came on to me. I think he was feeling kind of lost at the idea of you two being so far apart. So when he . . . . Well, shit. I'm sorry. I don't know what I should have done."
Marcus pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. Then he put the handkerchief away.
"I'm sorry, Joe. I've been so upset ever since he told me, and I guess I just tried to take it all out on you. He could at least have waited until after commencement, the bastard!" He stepped back and looked Joe up and down. "But he does have good taste! He had a thing for Brody Cox, you know. But then he helped Brody hook up with Dave when he found out how much those two cared for each other. And I can see why he came on to you. Who wouldn't? You're gorgeous!"
Joe blushed. The night with Roger had been literally life-altering for Joe. But now he felt bad for Marcus.
"Marcus, I don't know what to say. I'm sorry what Rog and I did hurt you. If I had known how you felt about Rog, I'd probably have said no. But I didn't."
"The others are gonna think we're having a quick fuck in here," Marcus said, trying to smile. "We'd better get back."
"Look, man. I really am sorry about my outburst. Roger's the one I'm pissed at."
"Maybe you and Roger should talk some more. I admit I'd like to have seen him again, but if you two decide you're gonna stay a couple, I won't. Fair enough?"
"More than fair. I should have known you'd turn out to be a nice guy. It was easier when I could hate you."
Joe didn't know what to say.
"Now," Marcus asked, giving him a faint smile, "can I get a hug?"
Joe though about it a moment and then grabbed the smaller man in a bear hug. Right there in the men's room.
To Be Continued
Big hugs to Drew, Tinn, and Mickey for all kinds of editorial advice and encouragement.
Emails encouraged at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you email me, please put the story title in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim