by Tim Mead
Joe was getting used to the contact lenses. He got so he could put them in each morning and not think about them until he got home in the evening. And he thought he looked less geeky without the glasses, which he still wore to watch TV after he'd taken out the contacts.
He was growing more comfortable with the new job, too, which was good because all the responsibility would soon be on his shoulders.
A day or two before Ed Johnson was supposed to leave, he sent Joe out in the country to talk to a new client.
"This guy's a cop. I think he may even be the Chief of the Colby Police. But he's crippled up now and can't take care of his lawn. So you go out there and meet with him and see what he wants done. Then tell him how much it will cost him."
"Okay," Joe said.
The man who owned the property said his name was Jim Grant. He was a good-looking fiftyish man, a couple of inches taller than Joe's six feet, with green eyes and close-cropped black hair. And a little bald spot toward the back. He walked with a decided limp.
Grant had about an acre of yard with lots of bushes and shrubs that would need to be pruned from time to time, plus beds of perennials that would have to be weeded and mulched regularly. And, of course, there would need to be regular applications of fertilizer and weed killer.
But when Joe figured the monthly charge Grant never batted an eye.
"That's fine. I've always done all of that myself, but with this gimpy leg, I can't anymore. Besides, I may be doing some traveling this summer with my partner. So I'll count on your guys to take care of things."
"Sure, Mr. Grant. We'll do a good job for you. And if you ever have any problems with the work, please call me." He handed Grant a newly-printed business card with his name, "Crew Foreman," and the work number printed under "Cromer Landscaping."
Back at the shop, Ed told him he'd quoted exactly the right amount for the work and gave him some rare praise.
"You've caught onto everything, Hill. I admit I always thought you were the reliable but slow type, but I think you're gonna work out okay."
`Slow, huh? I guess because I'm quiet people think I'm stupid.'
"Thanks, Ed. I'll try not to screw up."
"Good. By the way, the boss wants you to assign Quinn and Stone to the job out at Chief Grant's."
"I know Quinn. Who's Stone?"
"They're a package deal, I guess. Dave says for them to take care of Grant."
`So Justin's got a new boyfriend,' Joe thought. `Well, he's a cute little bastard. Wonder how long he'll stick with this one. Last year he was busy messing around with that Nielsen kid.'
"Okay, Ed. Justin's kind of a smart ass, but there was never any complaint about the work he and Nielsen did."
Ed seldom smiled, but the corners of his mouth turned up a little. "I'm guessing Grant's one of the boss's gay friends. I hear he's got a partner who's moved in with him, somebody who teaches at Colby State."
"Didn't you say Grant's the Police Chief?"
"And he's gay?"
"Well, I don't know for sure, but it figures. He has this professor living with him. And he seems to be tight with the boss. You know how those guys stick together."
Joe shrugged, not knowing what to say. Ed was leaving, so there was no point in starting a ruckus about what he'd said.
Then he wondered. Had Dave guessed he was gay? Is that why Dave had given him this job? He hoped not. It was a lot better to think he'd gotten the job because the boss thought he could do it well. And he was determined that he'd justify Dave's confidence in him.
The contacts and the new job were but two of the changes in Joe's life that spring. He decided to get a crew cut. He'd always worn his wavy hair fairly close on the sides but longer on top. The crew cut would be practical for the summer weather, but it might also cut down on the Clark Kent/Superman jibes. He'd always hated those. It made him feel like a piece of meat.
Justin was the first to comment on the haircut. It was the day he and his boyfriend reported for work.
"Hey, Joe! Congratulations, man. I hear Ed's left and you're the new crew foreman."
"Yep." He held out his hand to Justin.
"A new `do,' too. Looks good on you." He turned to his friend. "Joe, this is my lover, Bailey Stone. Babe, meet Joe Hill."
Joe gave Stone a quick once-over as they shook hands. The guy was about Joe's height, equally muscular, and dark. He was good looking, though not strikingly handsome. Joe thought he had kind eyes.
"Nice to meet you, Bailey. You're gonna have to watch out for Quinn here. He's a pistol."
"So I've discovered. It's good to meet you, too, Joe." Bailey had a nice smile.
Later, as the two younger men were climbing into a Cromer truck, Joe overheard Stone saying, "Geez, Jus, you don't have to tell everybody about us! It's not their business."
The noise of the truck starting kept Joe from hearing Justin's reply, and he couldn't help wondering. Bailey Stone was right. People's sexual preferences were nobody else's business. But then he'd always had Justin pegged as kind of a loudmouth. . . . And there was that trouble he and Nielsen had gotten into the previous summer.
What seemed at first to signal the biggest change in Joe's life was the night he'd spent with Roger Norton. But time passed, Roger didn't call him or show up at Gridley's, and Joe's life once more became celibate. But once the beast had been awakened, it wouldn't go back to sleep.
* * *
It was late afternoon, and the first of the crews had obviously arrived back at the shop. Joe was in the cubicle that was euphemistically called his office. The voice came from the area out front, but with the overhead doors up, he could hear it clearly. He didn't recognize it, however, so it must have been one of the new guys. He stood up to go see what the problem was, or rather, who was about to cause a problem. But then he heard a voice he recognized.
"What is it they say, Bail, the noisiest homophobes are all closet cases? What's the matter, Harper, ya jealous?"
That was Justin Quinn, who'd been out and "in your face" since he'd first come to work for Cromer. Joe guessed Quinn and Bailey Stone had done something to call attention to their relationship. He decided not to rush outside. No, he'd see how the guys handled it. He could always step in if needed. Quinn was a feisty little bastard, but Stone, though quiet, was big and had muscles to spare. Joe didn't think the two were in any danger from Harper.
"You smartassed little cocksucker, I'm gonna "
"Back off, Harper!" That was from Stone.
"We don't need fudge packers like you two here."
Quinn chuckled. "We were here first. Or at least I was."
"Still . . . "
"You don't have a clue, do you, shit for brains?"
"What . . . ?"
"The boss is gay. You won't have a job here long if you go around dissing guys like us."
"Joe's gay? No way!"
Quinn chuckled. "I didn't mean Joe, even though . . . . Well, what I meant was that you must be the only guy in town who doesn't know that Dave Cromer's gay and lives with his lover . . . an ex-Marine, by the way."
"You're fuckin' lyin!"
Joe could almost see the grin on Justin's face. "If you don't want to find out the hard way, you'd better back off. You don't hassle us about being gay and we won't hassle you about being terminally stupid."
Harper was grumbling as his work partner, who'd apparently been doing something with the equipment they were returning to the shed or locking up the truck, arrived.
"Problem here, guys?"
"Nope," Quinn said. "Everything's cool. Right Harper?"
Joe didn't hear Harper's muttered reply, but the tense moment had apparently passed and he'd not had to step in.
He sauntered out into the equipment storage area just as Justin and Bailey were clocking out.
"Oh, hey, Joe. Whassup?"
"Everything's cool, Justin. I heard that exchange between you and Butch Harper."
"He's an asshole!"
"Yeah, but you handled him well. I'd have been upset if the boss and Brody weren't out, but since they are, I guess you did Harper a favor, telling him."
"Speaking of that, when Harper thought you were talking about me, you said something like `I didn't mean Joe, even though . . .' What was that all about?"
"Well, come on, Joe. You're one of us."
"Jus!" Bailey said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You've got to overlook him, Joe. Justin thinks he's got this marvelous gaydar, and one of these days he's gonna get the shit stomped out of himself."
"Look, Quinn. I can understand why guys like Harper piss you off, but your buddy's right. Sometimes it's a good thing just to keep your mouth shut. Especially when you don't really know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, yeah. So he tells me. But you are, aren't you?"
"I am what?"
"Gay, of course."
"Listen to your buddy, Quinn. Your mouth could get you in trouble."
`So,' Joe thought later, `now Roger and Justin and his partner know about me. And Marcus. Am I that obvious? What am I doing wrong? I've been able to fly under the radar since high school, and all of a sudden people are figuring me out. Of course, if Roger hadn't guessed or understood we'd never have had that great night together. Wonder if he's still around? Oh, well, even if he is, he won't want to get back together with me after the hissy fit that cute little black stud Marcus pitched.'
* * *
He was wrong about Roger, as it turned out.
One Saturday in June Joe was watching baseball on ESPN when his phone rang.
"Hey, Joe. It's Roger."
"Hi, Rog. You still in town?"
"Yeah, man, I told you I wasn't going to grad school until fall. I'm still living with Mom."
"So what's up?"
"We need to talk, but I'm at work right now. Don't get finished until 9:00."
"Wanna meet me at Gridley's after?"
"Would it be all right if I came to your place?"
"Uh, sure, I guess."
"Cool! It'll take me 45 minutes to get home, change, and get to your place, so see you a little before ten, probably."
Joe wondered what Roger might want to talk about, but the mere idea of having him there again produced familiar tingles. He'd been stroking off to images of his sex with Roger ever since that night.
Roger arrived wearing a baggy tee, baggy shorts, anklets, and sneakers. Joe knew he wore a suit at work and wondered what he looked like when he was dressed up. But he looked pretty good just as he stood there, and Joe had no trouble remembering what his new friend looked like in the buff.
He didn't know exactly how to greet Roger. After the kind of intimacy they'd shared, a handshake seemed too formal. And they were both too old for the fist tapping ritual. A hug? Was that assuming too much?
Roger rescued him from having to make the decision by handing him a sixpack of Corona.
"Thanks, Rog. Go have a seat. I'll put these in the fridge. I've already got some cold, and I'll bring `em."
After they were both sitting in Joe's living room, Roger grinned and said, "What happened to Clark Kent?"
"Um, you mean . . . ?"
Gesturing with his beer bottle toward Joe, Roger said, "The specs, the hair."
"Oh, I decided to go with contacts. And the short haircut is a lot easier to deal with in this weather."
"Lookin' hot, dude."
Roger thought he looked hot? That was good, wasn't it?
Joe's glance strayed to the dark brown hair on Roger's calves, and that caused him to remember a little patch just above his ass crack. But he shouldn't let his thoughts go there. The situation between them was still muddy.
"Thanks. You look pretty good yourself. But you said we needed to talk?"
"Yeah, I wanted to apologize about Marcus."
"Why? He apologized for blowing up at me. So that's over."
"Well, I guess I'm feeling guilty."
Roger held the sweating beer bottle against his forehead for a moment, then set it down on a magazine. Joe realized he didn't have any coasters. And there were rings on his living room tables to prove it.
"Guilty about what?"
"Oh, shit! I dunno. Apparently Marcus and I didn't have the same understanding of what we'd agreed to about sex with other guys. And I probably shouldn't have told him about you and me."
"Look, I'm sorry about the issue between you and Marcus. But you two had agreed it was okay to be with other guys, hadn't you?"
"Uh huh. But it hurt him that I didn't wait at least until he'd left town." He paused. "And I can understand that. Marcus is a great guy, and I'll miss him. But we were never `in love' with each other. And you gotta move on."
"So you think it would have been better to lie to him?"
"Well, maybe a sin of omission."
"If I just hadn't told him about you and me, he'd have been none the wiser and everything would be fine with us."
"I can see that might have been better. I mean, in the long run, what difference would it make to him whether you and I had sex the week before he left or the week after?"
"I think he just felt hurt that I couldn't wait until he'd left town."
"Well, like I said, I'm sorry Marcus got his feelings hurt, but I'm not sorry about what you and I did."
"To be honest, I'm relieved to hear you say that."
The two looked at each other and grinned.
"I put fresh sheets on the bed."
"Then what are we waiting for?"
Joe stood and pulled Roger up. This time it was Joe who led Roger to the bedroom, where he began to pull his tee over his head.
"Stud, wait up."
"I've learned my lesson with Marcus. I want us to be clear. I like you. You're not only a sexy hunk, but a nice guy. I hope we'll become good friends. But I don't love you. And what we're about to do is just sex. Okay?"
"Um, yeah." Joe hadn't really thought beyond the sex anyway.
When Joe got out the fresh linens, he'd put only a bottom sheet on the mattress, leaving the top covers and pillows aside. Roger was looking at the ready-for-action bed and grinning.
Roger chuckled. "Man, you must have been sure of yourself."
"Well, I kind of hoped." Joe could feel himself blushing. He cleared his throat and asked, "Now, are we through talking?"
Instead of saying anything, Roger took the hem of Joe's tee and began to lift it. It took only moments to get him stripped, for, like his guest, Joe was wearing only the tee , long shorts, and boxers. Unlike his guest, he was barefoot. When Roger was naked except for his footwear, Joe pushed him down on the bed and removed his sneakers and socks. After which he lay down beside Roger.
"What do you wanna do now?"
"That's good, Joe. Sex shouldn't just be about two guys banging each other. So for starters, you stretch out on your back and let's see if I can make you feel good."
Joe glanced at his erect cock. "You've already started." Then he lay on his back as requested.
He was surprised when Roger stood up.
"Where are you going?"
"Just a sec." Roger went to the switch by the door and turned off the ceiling light. Then he turned on a small lamp on the dresser. He looked around the room. Then he bent to pick up the blue tee he'd just taken off. He draped the tee over the lampshade, and suddenly the room was dimly lit and everything had a decidedly blue cast.
"Nothing like setting the stage," he said, giving Joe an evil grin.
"I can see having sex with a theater guy is going to be an adventure."
"You know it, stud! Now, you just relax."
Roger lay beside Joe and began licking his neck. Joe shivered. He was just beginning to relax as he'd been instructed, when the tongue moved to his ear. He shivered again. His cock was saying "Me, me, lick me!" but something else inside him was saying, "This is amazing. Go with the flow."
His cock had to wait. A long time, in fact. While it jerked and twitched and leaked.
Roger made a slow progress from ear to nipples to navel, with grunts of encouragement and approval from Joe, whose limited experience with sex hadn't involved the leisurely approach. He was lost in a haze of good feelings, never wanting the moment to end while at the same time thinking he might explode.
When Roger quit licking and nuzzling his belly button, Joe opened his eyes to see what was happening. Roger was smiling at him as he moved to the foot of the bed, where he bent down and began licking the inside of an ankle. Again, Joe jumped. He'd never realized that an ankle could be an erogenous zone. Once more he relaxed under Roger's ministrations, returning to his fog.
Roger worked his way slowly up the left leg. When he got to the inner thigh, Joe practically squealed, a sound he didn't remember ever making before.
"Oh, God, Rog! You're driving me crazy. I've gotta come."
"Patience, Superstud. I'm not finished yet." He returned to what he was doing. By the time he'd done both legs and was slurping on Joe's balls, Joe was practically incoherent, pleading.
"You're an evil bastard, you know that!"
"Uh huh! Rog, I gotta come!"
"Oh, okay." Roger grabbed Joe's hard cock and began to lick it like a Popsicle. At about the third lick, Joe came. Copiously.
A few minutes later, when his breathing and heart rate had returned to something like normal, he said, "Man, that was awesome. But you didn't get off."
Roger, lying propped up on one elbow, grinned down at him. "Not yet, but you're gonna take care of that now, aren't you?"
"What do you want me to do?"
"Well, if you can remember, you might try doing just what I did to you."
"I don't think I'll ever forget that. Scooch over."
Joe found it a little strange to be licking someone's neck and ear, but Roger had shown him how good it felt, and he wanted to make his new friend feel good, too. So he worked as slowly and carefully as Roger had.
Roger coached and encouraged him.
"Aw, yeah. Just like that." Or "Do that a little more, stud." Or "What's your hurry?" Or sometimes "Ohmygod." Once even something that sounded like "Nnnngggg!"
Joe got the idea he was doing it right. And the more he used his tongue and nose on Roger's various places, the more Roger vocalized his pleasure, the more Joe got into it.
When he completed the circuit he embellished a little by rubbing Roger's pucker with the tip of his middle finger. Roger approved.
"Joe, you gotta fuck me, man!"
"Don't you need to come?"
"Eventually. But there's no rush. I want to feel that nice cock of yours inside me."
"We aim to please," Joe said as he reached for the condoms and lube.
He loved the look of Roger all splayed out, eyes closed, smiling.
As Roger assured him that he had was indeed pleasing, Joe's feeling of being rusty at all this began to diminish. His previous evening with Roger had been his first sex since he was in high school and had gotten it on with his cousin. But it all came back: he knew almost instinctively what to do. Besides, Roger had just shown him some new tricks.
When Roger had scattered his seed all over his stomach and chest, when Joe had come for a second time, this time inside Roger, they lay together, sated. Joe was beginning to think this was something he could get used to. The quiet, gentle period after the rockets had gone off was comforting, supportive. Back in the day when he and Billy had had sex, Billy was ready for something else as soon as they'd both come. Something other than sex. As if to say, "Well, that's over. What'll we do now?"
Joe was beginning to doze off when Roger asked about taking a shower.
"We could do it together. It'll be crowded, but that's okay, isn't it?"
"Yeah, Superstud, that would be fine."
Joe had never showered with another guy, except of course in gang showers in high school. Never had he been washed by anyone since his mother did it, and he couldn't even remember that. Washing Roger, being washed by Roger that was warm, intimate, reassuring. He knew what he and Roger had wasn't really love. But it was good. Something he needed. He loved the give and take of their sex, wanting and fulfilling.
He was sad that Roger dressed and left after their shower.
"Gotta go, guy. Thanks for tonight."
"It was great, Rog. Uh, what are you doing tomorrow?"
"I'm off tomorrow, for a change. I promised Mom I'd go to church with her." He rolled his eyes. "And she's been saving some little repairs around the house for me to do. The batteries in the smoke alarms need to be replaced, things like that."
"Oh, well, okay." Joe wanted to ask Roger if they could get together again Sunday night, but he didn't for fear of being rebuffed.
Roger put a hand on Joe's face. "This has been great, Joe. I'll call you again, real soon." He smiled. "That is, if you want me to."
"Yeah, Rog. I'd like that."
* * *
It hadn't been really late when Roger left, so Joe got up the next morning about 9:00. Knowing she'd be awake, he called his mother.
"Joe, honey, is anything wrong?"
"No, Mom. Everything's fine."
"How's the new job going? Are you getting used to the contacts?"
"Like I said, everything's fine. I just called to see if I could take you to Sunday dinner."
"You couldn't get here in time for church, could you?"
"No, I'm not cleaned up yet, and church starts in an hour, doesn't it?"
"That's right. I could fix you dinner, but I don't have anything special in the house."
"I thought maybe you wouldn't. Why don't I take you to Houston's?"
"If you met me there about 11:30, we might beat the Sunday crowd."
"Okay, that's what we'll do."
It had been three weeks since he'd seen his mother, and he found himself looking forward to it. So far as he was concerned, his mother was the best. She worried about him, but she didn't try to manage his life. And at 45 she still looked great. He wondered, not for the first time, why she didn't have more male friends.
Houston's was a place where he knew he wouldn't stand out because he wasn't wearing a jacket. They'd been in Bryant as long as Joe could remember, and the food was good. Nothing really fancy, just good Midwestern cooking. Most of the servers were women his mother's age or older.
When he parked his car and went inside, he was greeted by Bud Houston, with whom he'd gone to high school.
"Hey, Joe, it's good to see you."
"Yeah, Bud, how's it going?"
"You working in the family business, huh?"
Bud smiled. "Yep, third generation. I'm the greeter today." In Bryant one would have been laughed at for calling himself the matre d'. "So, I'll bet you're meeting your mom, right?"
`Yeah,' Joe thought. `Why else would I be back in Bryant at noon on a Sunday?'
"That's right. She's coming here straight from church."
`Straight. Wonder what straight Bud would think if he knew I'm gay?'
"I can go ahead and show you to a table, and I'll bring her when she gets here."
Elizabeth, known to her friends as Betsy, arrived a few minutes later. Joe stood, hugged her, and received a kiss on the cheek.
"You're looking great!"
"So do you, sweetie. So different! I'm glad you could finally get the contacts. Don't know about the haircut, though."
"Well, at least I don't get teased anymore."
After they had ordered their Sunday dinner, Betsy looked her son in the eye and asked, "Are you sure there's nothing wrong?"
"Yeah, trust me. Everything's great. I just wanted to take my best girl to lunch. So how are things with you?"
Elizabeth looked a little nervous. "Well, actually, I've met someone."
"You mean a guy?" Joe didn't know whether to be pleased or suspicious. "Who is he? Where did you meet him? What's he like?"
She smiled. "You're sounding like the parent. I met Kevin at church. He's the new vet in town and he lost his wife a year and a half ago."
"How long have you known him?"
"I've known him for about six months, since he moved to Bryant. But we've only been dating for a little over a month."
"Then you were seeing him the last time I was home?"
"Yes, dear, but I didn't want to say anything until I saw how it worked out."
"And how is it working out? Are you really serious about this guy?"
She took a sip of iced tea and set the glass down. "I think I might be."
"Well, is he serious about you?"
"It's too soon to tell, really, but I think he may be. Neither of us has dated anyone else since we started seeing each other."
"What does he look like?" As soon as he said it, Joe realized that question sounded gay. A straight son would probably have never asked.
"Kevin's a couple of inches shorter than you and thin. Brown hair and sort of gray eyes. Wiry build. Looks great in jeans, but he cleans up good, too, if you know what I mean."
"How old is he?"
"About five years younger than me."
"Does he know how old you are?"
"Oh, yes. I've teased him about dating an `older woman'."
The conversation was put on hold for a while when the waitress brought their meals. Then Joe said, "Mom, you know I want you to be happy. But be careful, please. Don't let this guy hurt you."
"I can't imagine Kevin hurting me, Joey."
"If he does, I'll make him wish he hadn't."
Betsy looked astonished. "Joe! It's never been like you to be violent!"
He had a serious look on his face when he said, "I'm not, usually. But I don't want nobody jerkin' my Mom around!"
"I'll be careful, I promise. But, now, it's your turn. How's the new job?"
"It's goin' great so far. I was a little nervous, but Ed was a good teacher, and the guys on the crews are getting used to me, I think. Dave came by the other day to say he was pleased that things were going smooth. Oh, and he also said to be sure to come to him if I had problems."
"Dave sounds like a good boss."
"Didn't you tell me he has a . . . a what? A partner?"
"Yeah, Mom. A partner. Brody."
"Which one's the, well, the, uh, `woman' in the relationship?"
Joe tensed. His mother's question was insensitive, but then he realized she didn't know any better.
"That would be a hard question to answer. Brody's an ex-Marine. Served in Iraq. He's as big as Dave and even tougher, I imagine. I don't know what they do in bed, but they seem to be equal partners. Dave more or less owns the company, along with his dad, and Brody's going to Colby State. But the way I hear it is that he'll be joining the business when he gets his degree."
"That seems so . . . civilized, I suppose. Not like everybody's idea of what a gay couple would be like." She buttered a piece of dinner roll and put down her knife. "What about you, baby, any great men in your life?"
He had known the question was coming, as it inevitably did when he and his mother were together, but he had to take a minute to think how to answer it. After pretending to be preoccupied with his chicken breast, he said, "I know all the guys on the crews, but as far as I know only two of them are gay, and they're partners. I'm just not good at figuring out who's gay and who isn't."
She gave him a sympathetic look but said nothing.
"I have met this one guy who's really nice. But he's only going to be around for the rest of the summer and then he's going to grad school in Pittsburgh."
"What's his name? What's he like?"
"His name is Roger. He's good looking. And he's into theater, the backstage part of it. That's what he's going to be studying at Carnegie-Mellon."
"Too bad he's leaving Colby. You need more friends."
"Yeah. I'm beginning to think I've been too much of a hermit."
"Are you and Roger having sex?"
"Jesus, Mom! I didn't ask if you and, uh, Kevin were having sex!"
"Sorry, dear. I didn't mean to be so blunt. But I want to remind you about two things. You're being safe, aren't you?"
Joe sighed. "Yes, Mother."
She smiled. "A mother worries about these things. Now, I want to give you the warning you gave me. This boy's leaving town. He's going to be in graduate school. You're a landscaper. White collar and blue collar don't often mix. Don't get hurt, Joey, please."
"I won't, I promise. Roger and I are just fuuh, just friends. It's not like I'm in love or anything."
"That's reassuring, though I don't think I want to know what you almost said and didn't. But you need to get out more. You know, look for a good man, somebody you can settle down with."
"I've been thinking the same thing lately. Looks like we both need to find a good man. I hope Kevin is the guy for you."
"And I hope you find your guy, too, sweetheart."
To Be Continued
Big hugs to Drew, Tinn, and Mickey for all kinds of editorial advice and encouragement.
Emails encouraged at email@example.com. If you email me, please put the story title in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim