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The contents of this story are fictional. Any resemblance of characters to living or lived persons is strictly coincidental. Certain characters engage in sexual acts which may or may not be legal in the state or country in which a reader may reside. Any reader with objections to graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between males who may not have reached the legal age of consent, or whose local, regional, state or national jurisprudence prohibits such descriptions, should not read further.


Chapter I -- The Meeting


I was listlessly picking at the fries on my tray, thinking about the upcoming work that afternoon, planting the six large Chinese Pistachio trees on the Rancho Cielo. That was the pretentious name that Mr. and Mrs. Harrison gave their new home, just built on a three acre parcel of land they had had assembled for themselves in the Hills. The land overlooked the entire Bay, from San Francisco to the salt ponds on the south, with views of Mount Diablo as well as Mount Tam. Hell, on a clear day, you could probably see the Sierras.

I suddenly realized that I was staring at this guy across the eating area of McDonalds. Not ugly, but not handsome by any means. Big flaps of ears, like Perot, but this guy was a lot bigger, so his ears jutted out that much more. Grey gone silver over the ears, but the thatch on top still dark, almost mahogany, except for a streak of silver that fell over his forehead. Why was I staring at him? Lord knows. Not my type at all. I'm attracted to guys younger than myself; this guy is over fifty.

Then he looked at me, and I almost jumped. Caught! There was the flicker of an expression on his face, but I couldn't tell what it was, and I looked quickly away, feeling my face go hot. Damn!

I hadn't meant to look. I don't look at men that way. Not now. I mean, I'm past all that, aren't I? Almost fifty, forty pounds overweight, my mate not five years gone. Must have been an aberration. What WAS I doing, staring at him anyway?

I stuffed the now inedible fries back in the cardboard thingy they come in, and balled up in its wrapper the remains of the half-eaten Jumbo Mac or whatever they called it that month. After I verified that the iced tea was, indeed, exhausted, I headed for the door, tray in hand like a good little boy. My mind raced back to Rancho Overkill, monument to the lucre of Silicon Valley -- or the stock options senior executives got.

"Do we know each other?" Came this Voice from my right. I looked over into the kind of eyes you can dive into and swim laps, sparkling from the harsh overhead fluorescents, the pupils indistinguishable from the iris, a deep mahogany, a shade or three darker than the hair on the top of his head. The Voice was the kind that silenced the clatter of trays, the calls for "dos cheezeburguers" and "nueve nuggets." My ears heard it, but the little buzzer in the nape of my neck felt that Voice.

"Sorry?" I asked, the picture of innocence as I turned and took a detailed photograph of his face. Teeth white as drafting paper, not perfect, just irregular enough to be perfect. Eyelashes that curled out impossibly thickly, eyes with whites clear as parchment, a button nose (at his age!) prying apart the high cheekbones you associate with American Indians. Skin bearing witness to the agonies of adolescence before the discovery of the right antibiotics, and always the ears, hovering like an albatross behind him. Maybe five twelve to my six feet, a smidgen shorter at eye level, but a taller forehead.

"I thought from the way you looked you knew me somehow," he said in The Voice. Deep, masculine and resonant, it reverberated somewhere in my chest cavity, just below the shoulder clavicle or whatever it's called.

"Sorry," I said again. I could feel the crinkles at my eyes fold up from the pressure of my stupid grin of embarrassment. "I was thinking about the job I'm on and lost control of my eyes."

`Oh, great. Good explanation. Couldn't be more obvious that you're probably queer as a three dollar silver certificate,' I thought to myself. 'His shoulders are wide enough to land F-117s. He's wearing a high-neck T-shirt and heavy cotton button down. No pocket protector. Flat belly under slim but protruding chest. A small mole under his left ear, a "John Thomas beauty spot" on the left cheek. A blackhead in the crease of his nose, tiny as a pinprick. A hair weaving out the side of one nostril. A couple of grey hairs in the dark thatch on his head, so I knew it wasn't dyed.

"Work around here, then?" was all the brutality I got for my frankness. His eyes drew me, somehow, and I turned a little towards the door. He turned with me, and we walked out together, I thought `and they went together into the cave in a solitary way,' reflexively, for no reason.

`Up in the Hills, t'other side the freeway," I said as we walked into the crisp air, warmed by the Spring sun, a couple of birds having it off in a duet on a tree limb somewhere nearby, daffodils still in bloom in the little parking bay separator. "You?"

"On a project over at Moffat," he almost laughed. I think it might be called a chuckle, but that word sounds strange, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. Besides, the Smile was on his face, and Laugh goes better with Smile.

"Small place, California," I said inanely. "Maybe we'll run into each other again."

"Don't generally do lunch," he winked. I mean actually winked, in broad daylight! Nobody winks anymore, do they? What was that supposed to mean?

"Never know," bounced feebly back.

"See ya!" came the response, as he continued on towards his . . . car? Truck? I watched him retreat for a second or twenty, watching the muscles of his butt play a minuet through the worn fabric of his jeans, neither too tight to be provocative nor too loose to be unflattering. One of those butts you don't forget, once seen. The tiniest of love handles over the loop of his belt, and a "V" from there to his shoulders. He walked like a soldier and a dancer, all at once. Not a move that wasn't needed, not a hint of anything other than pure male confidence. He was magnificent in retreat.

I unlocked the door of my battered F250. As I got in, I let my breath out. How long had I been holding it? The engine caught on the first stroke, as usual, and I backed out, to see him already waiting to let me out, perched on the saddle of his big white Ram pickup. I waved a salute at him and pulled out onto El Camino Real, noting that he stayed right behind me.

As I signaled to turn right on El Monte, he flashed his lights once at me and went straight on. He threw a wave when he was right behind me that I caught through the rear view mirror. I realized I was holding my breath again for some reason, and let it out in a long sigh.

"What the hell was THAT all about?" I quizzed myself. I looked down at my gut when I stopped at the light on Foothill, and wondered from whence it had materialized. I'd never weighed anything but 170 from the time I was eighteen until Sam checked out, when I was . . . geez, forty-four. Too much MacPower and Taco Swell. I looked at myself and wondered if I was . . . maybe still just a little bit attractive.

I'd never have made a model in the first place. Yeah, I got the high cheekbones of my Cherokee great grandfather. Or was it Great Grandma? I never could remember -- it was all lost in the fog of the telling. It was on my Dad's side, `cause he has that same Indian look you see in old paintings, but white. And my Granddad looked like a pale version of a painting I saw once of Sitting Bull. I was attractive as a young man, I think when I look at the old pictures, but too coarse to be thought handsome. Still, there were lots of girls and not a few men that gave me looks that made me know I was interesting then.

I'd not even thought of that since I met Sam.

We met when I was twenty-eight and he'd just turned nineteen. He was drop-dead handsome, shy as a mouse, and virgin as they came. He worked as an intern at the insurance company I'd joined after college, planning on saving money to start my own business. Somehow, we became pals, then friends, then more, and after a year, we'd fallen in love, "done the deed" and there was no turning back.

He moved in with me the weekend after we first made love, and my life took on real meaning. I started my business a year later, when he graduated, and he went into TV broadcasting. Never in front of the camera, always behind it, but his artistry made many a lousy newsreader look like a pro.

We'd been together maybe seven years when I got the big boost, a million-dollar job down in Carmel, and it went spectacularly well. My work got written up in most of the gardening magazines, and most special of all, there was a three page spread in Sunset, touting me as a master mixer of California native plants. Business boomed after that. Office parks, private homes, a junior college, a state office building. I got bigger and bigger, had a staff of thirty, landscaping contracts all over the Bay area, picking and choosing the jobs I wanted to do.

Sam got some special assignments that showed how good he really was with cameras and production, and he got an offer to take over as production manager of the morning news. He was making big bucks, all of a sudden, and working longer hours, but he was excited and pleased. They gave him a shot at the evening news when the producer went on long-term disability, and he did so well he was named producer in less than a month.

Everything was turning out like it was supposed to, American Dream come true. Sam and I bought a big place in Sausalito, with a spectacular view of the City and the Bay. Nothing like Rancho Cielo, of course, but nice for the two of us. He commuted into the City and I had my office down by the Marina.

Sam never got sick. Even colds seemed to be allergic to him. Me, I'd catch the flu every year, be sick as a dog for a day or two, and he'd never catch it from me. Then he came a cropper a couple of years later. At first we thought it was the flu - the same temperature, chills, diarrhea, the usual. After three days of being really the worse for wear, upchucking pretty regularly, getting lots of cold sweats, I convinced him to go to Kaiser and get a checkup. The Doc told him it was probably a stomach ulcer, which is what we'd suspected. They took a bunch of tests, and put him on a special diet and antibiotics, which seemed to be doing the trick. The diarrhea disappeared, and he felt a lot better. We even made love one night when I got home, right on the carpet in the living room. It was pretty hot stuff - we'd been saving up for almost a week, so it was just a flurry of clothing flying in every which way, and we were rolling on the floor, our lips glued together, our tongues coiling around each other like snakes in their mating ritual.

I moved to take him in my mouth, to taste his sweet nectar, but he wouldn't let me.

"I need you now, Will. I want you inside me NOW, man. Oh, God!" I was on him and in him in less time than he took to say it, his legs drawing his butt up towards me, pulling me down towards him, lifting his asslips to meet my dick in mid-air, opening to me, sucking me into his warmth, drawing our bodies into a single fusion of passion. It had been so long, we both came before we got a chance to establish any rhythm, and as always, when he started to have his orgasm, it drew mine from me. He never even touched himself the first time, and wouldn't let me take his dick in my mouth while I fucked him. Said it was great, but he wanted to look into my eyes as we came together.

We stayed locked together for a half hour after that, just nuzzling and whispering the usual love sonnets to each other, the kind that no one would find intelligible if they were to be written down. Eventually, we relaunched the ships, and brought each other to another wonderful climax, the extra lubrication of my first ejaculation making the fucking particularly nice, letting me penetrate as deep as I'd ever got into my man. He let me suck him almost to the point of climax, but lifted my head up again as he got close, holding tightly to me, lifting his entire body from the carpet as he wrapped his arms around my torso and hunched his butt into me. We never cooked dinner that night, just nuked something from the freezer in the microwave and went to bed, exhausted by our loving, but still ravenous for each other physically. We fell asleep in the spoon position, me deeply embedded in him, his right leg thrown over my hip. We were still linked when I woke at dawn, desperate to pee, and I had to really pull to get out of him.

The next Monday he went for the follow-up appointment. I wanted to take him, but he said he felt fine, and wanted to go on his own. I had a big job going on over in the East Bay, down Pleasanton way, that was just getting started under a green manager. I wanted to spend some time with her to make sure she had the "feel" of the job, so I was a little relieved that I didn't have to take Sam over to the clinic.

The job was a big one, for a new headquarters building for a software company I'd never heard of -- but that didn't even quibble when I put in a bid for just over half a million for the re-landscaping of their four acres. The new girl, Susan, was every bit as good as I'd heard, and had everything pretty well under control when I got there. The crew was hard at work, the plans were corrected where we'd talked about modifications, and Susan had a couple more suggestions on the bedding layouts.  Green, though, all the same.  Too interested in flowerbeds.  Didn't know how much fuel was in the Cat. We got along good, and the day evaporated.

I got a call on my portable phone (that was before the little gadgets we use today) from Susie, Sam's sister, around four-thirty. When I answered, she didn't say `Hi!' or anything, just launched in.

"Will, where are you?" Her voice was tense, nervous, and husky like she had a real bad cold.

"Down by the Bernal Office Park," I said. I was sitting on the tailgate of my pickup, away from the noise of the `dozer as it built the new mounds of soil that were going to be part of the screening for the air-conditioning plant.

"I need to see you right away, Will. It's important."

"What's up? Anything wrong?"

"Can't tell you on the phone. Will, can you swing by on the way home? Leave a little early, maybe?" She sounded really bad.

She and Tom live in Lafayette, near her and Sam's parents in Orinda, so it was no big deal, right on the way to the Richmond Bridge.

"Yeah, no problem Suze," I said over the din of the Cat. "Got everything done I wanted. Take me about half an hour. Wine?"

"No, just your body." That sounded a little better. Probably one of the kids is sick.

"Ok. See ya."

It took forty-five minutes. CalTrans was widening the freeway -- only by enough to accommodate last year's traffic, since they seem to get no value from their highly paid planners and never actually build for the future. The traffic was awful.

When I pulled into Susie and Tom's drive, I knew something was really, really wrong. Tom was home -- or at least his car was -- but he never got back from the City before seven. John and Louise's Caddy was out front. Susie and Sam's parents never went anywhere separately, even Christmas shopping, because he drives so badly and she needs a navigator to go around the block. The kids didn't rush out to attack; the dogs were nowhere to be seen. As I walked up the steps, the door opened before I could ring the bell, and Susie was there, her face a landscape of grief, her eyes red and swollen from crying, nose running, face grey.

"Susie, what's wrong, honey?" I said, folding her in my arms. I suspected maybe something dreadful had happened between her and Tom, or maybe someone in the family was hurt . . . or worse.

"Oh, Will," she sobbed. "It's Sam." A cold vise gripped the inside of my chest. "He's gone."

"Gone?" I asked. I watched myself ask -- I was no longer really there. I wanted to hide from it, from the truth I knew I was about to learn, the one that would take away forever the glow of my love. Sam had left me, for another guy, dumped me.

"He's dead, Will." Now she held me, kept my feet from slipping away, and Tom was there, holding the other side. Sam's Dad was there, too, and I couldn't cry, it hurt so bad, that huge lump that suddenly appeared inside my chest.

"How? When?"  I asked numbly. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. Did I want to know? Would it help? Please, God, let me wake up from this awful nightmare, let my Sam hold me and kiss away my cobwebs.

"The police say he apparently killed himself -- with a shotgun," Tom said. He was crying, too. Everybody was crying.

"Shotgun? My skeet gun?" It was the only gun I felt to be safe in the house. It was always broken, never loaded, locked up in the study office. "Why? What did I do?"

"We don't know yet," said John. "We just got the call a couple of hours ago."

The next days were a fog. I managed to make the funeral arrangements, but only by writing a huge check to a funeral home that handled all the details. They even arranged for a service to transcribe Sam's address book and mine for the announcements and invitations. I stayed with Susie and Tom that night. No way could I go home, face that bed where our love had been consummated so many times, where it could never be so again. I wept myself to sleep, but it wasn't really crying. I woke every few minutes, reaching over to find Sam, but he wasn't there, and I felt the dread of being alone for the rest of my life.

We drove over to Sausalito the next morning. The house was cordoned off with yellow tape. You can't see much of the house from the road, though, so they didn't have to use much.

We parked on the street and walked down the steps. "Like guests arriving at my own house," I said to no one in particular. The garage was shut, the main door to the living area was open. There was a detective there to meet me. We went through the house, and I answered some routine questions about where I'd been the day before, was Sam depressed about anything in particular, that kind of stuff. He asked me not to go into our bedroom, "to preserve evidence." He assured me that Sam was no longer in there.

As best as the police could reconstruct, Sam got the news from the Doctor that he had something called Thrush and KS lesions inside him, that he had AIDS.  They let him go home after he assured the Doctor that he was alright, and would take the AZT right away. He drank a half bottle of bourbon, then used a pair of wooden kitchen spoons and his feet to paint the ceiling of our bedroom with his brains.

"Sam can't drink that much, it makes him throw up," I said as Susie read me the report. Stupid. Susie looked at me like I had sprouted antlers.

Who cleans up that stuff? It was all gone when I went home the Thursday before the funeral. The yellow tape was gone, the house looked just like it always had. Sam's ten year old 500SL was in the garage next to my old MGB. The last of the chromed bumper models.

His clothes were still in the closet next to mine, and someone had changed the bed linens. His smell was still in the underwear in the hamper, tire tracks and all, but it was stale, dusty, not the same smell as my man. The old winter duvet had been replaced with the summer one. Sam and I could never again cuddle under it and make that special, slow, langourous morning love that we had perfected over the years -- so intimate, so tender. Much different from the explosive gut-wrenching sessions we had sometimes in the evenings when I got home.

He left me a note. The police didn't give it to me right away. I got it the day before the funeral. I made sure the police officer had gone before I dared read his lines, fearing some awful truth I didn't want to know.

"My dearest Will -

I have always loved only you -- I always shall have loved only you. Please forgive me for being so weak and foolish, for being such a disappointment to you. I couldn't bear to tell you, to lose your love, to never again have the intimacy we've shared all these years. Your love has given me happiness beyond what any man can hope to have."

I wept silently for hours, sitting in the middle of the carpet where we'd made love only four days before. Feeling sorry for myself, my frustration, my helplessness.

The service was held in our church in Sausalito, and he's buried in Lafayette. I didn't really cry it out until the coffin pulled into the cemetery. It wasn't him anymore, I knew, but I hated for him to be in the dark, to go into the ground, alone, without me to hold him and keep him warm. I bawled like a baby, till it hurt behind my nose and under my Adam's apple, right in front of the whole crowd, and I didn't give a shit if they thought I was weak or not.

After the funeral, I got shit-faced on brandy, and left in the MG before Suze could commandeer my keys. Big mistake. I got done for DUI at the Richmond Bridge Toll Plaza, spent the night in jail until David Fosters, our lawyer and friend, got the papers signed for my release. They impounded the car. I didn't give a shit.

I didn't want to stay in the house any more. It wasn't our home any longer, just a house we used to live in. I sold the house to pay half our estate to Sam's parents (John decided I was to blame for it all, having debauched their son), and almost lost the business through my lethargy, my guilt.

See, I fooled around a lot before Sam, always ready to jump any butt that would stand or lie still long enough to get a good dollop of KY or butter or whatever applied so as to allow me entry to Paradise. We tested me again and again for HIV once the danger became clear that AIDS was an STD. Always negative. So we carried on as always, never using those awful balloons that made me lose my hard the instant we put them on, secure in our fidelity.

But Sam got it. He could only have got it from one person -- I had given the disease to Sam. Neither of us did anything with anyone else, me from sometime six months before we first made love, when I knew he was going to be my mate. He never had sex with anyone else in his entire life. Somewhere inside me lurked that dreadful plague that no doubt struck fear and morality into the peoples of the past, that made virginity and fidelity a necessity for survival. It was from me that that awful curse had sallied forth into the loins of my beloved man. I, cursed of men, brought him to take his life from himself, from me, from all those many who loved him. I almost enjoyed the guilt trip.

Then Susie told me. It was an attempt to bring me out of my funk, but just made it worse. Sam had had a dalliance with a guy in a sauna bath in San Francisco while I was away in Carmel. Never knew the man's name, just that he was a model in New York. Felt awful guilt at deceiving me, even discussed with our pastor and Susie whether or not to tell me. They both said no, to spare me that agony. So my beloved had gone, convinced that he would be the source of my death as well, and never let me shoulder part of his agony, his guilt, his remorse, never let me tell him I loved him no matter what, no conditions, no restrictions.

Another part of me died, then. I hated his father for depriving me, even hated Sam for a while for dumping me like that, thinking I could not forgive, could not love him still. I lost the business to drink and indolence, and almost lost my will to go on. Why strive, when there was no Sam to please, to take pride in me?

Only after a couple of years more, after long sessions with my brother Gary, my sister Jean, with Susie and Tom, did I sort of come to the surface, start rebuilding my life, take on a few jobs. The last year had seen me recapture some good business, and my company started at last to take wing again. Sam would have been proud of the way it was going. Sometimes I prayed to him, told him I was trying to get it back together, that I wouldn't let him down this time.

My cell phone rang, waking me from the morbid thoughts just as I passed under the Freeway. I pulled over to a layby before answering. I will not talk on a cellphone in the car while driving. I used to -- thinking it was cool to be able to do something productive while imprisoned in a metal box. Never mind that after a conversation, I could remember the talk, but not the walk -- not what I had done on the road, how far or fast I had gone.

Then I witnessed a bad crash -- a Range Rover wandered over the lane stripe and sideswiped a little Golf off 101 into a small ravine north of Petaluma. It was only a few hundred feet in front of me. The Golf rolled once, then slalomed into a fence. I stopped -- most cars didn't -- and ran down the embankment to the car. It looked fine, just a few dents. The windshield was intact. I went to open the driver's door -- a blonde lady was slumped over the wheel, and I thought the worst. I felt for a pulse -- okay, she was alive. Then I saw movement out of the corner of my right eye, and looked into the back seat. A tiny arm was waving from the middle of an unrecognizable mass of raw meat. A fencepost had snapped and smashed through the side window, turning the child's safety seat into a mass of gore. It wasn't alive -- the parameds told me there was nothing I could have done, it's head had been severed, among other things.

The guy in the Range Rover may not have been on the cellphone when he strayed, but he was when he passed me a minute earlier at high speed. I had cursed at his custom license plate as he almost cut me off, holding his cellphone in one hand, and gesturing with the other, steering no doubt with his knee.

I will never forget that young mom screaming at the Range Rover Man after I testified in court. He only got a year in jail, despite it being a case of hit and run. He was some bigwig in the wine industry. His lawyer said he hadn't felt the crash, the Golf was too small, and no, of course he had had nothing to drink. Yeah, right.

"Will Baker," I answered on the fifth ring.

"You don't mind me calling?" It was The Voice. The guy from McD's.

"Not at all," I said. Truthfully.

"I took your number off the truck." He explained. I have magnetic signs on the doors reading `Baker Landscaping, Inc." with my logo, the website address, and telephone number. "What time you quitting tonight?"

"Five, maybe five-thirty."

"Feel like a drink to wind down?"

"Don't know . . . your name yet," I half-stuttered.

"Sorry," he laughed. "Got in front of myself there. Mike. Mike Michaels. My folks stuttered when they named me."

I laughed, naturally. Weird that he should say that, after I almost reverted to the awful stutter I had as a kid.

"So, ya on for a couple a cold ones after sweatin' all day?" he pressed.

"Sounds good to me," I said, a little numb. A date? Was he asking for a date?

"Meet ya at McDs' at six, then," he said, and the phone went dead.

`Okay, Will, don't read any more into this than there is,' I told myself, putting the truck in first and easing back onto the road to Mandalay. Or Rancho Cielo, whatever.

- - - - - - - - - - -

The afternoon went too fast. I tried to slow it down, but it wouldn't cooperate. Usually it's the other way `round. Couldn't wait for something to happen, and the seconds would pass like hours. What could we talk about? I know nothing of Baseball since my Heroic Dodgers left Brooklyn, shattering the dreams I had of going to a game not a mile from our home. Even when we moved to California as well, but the Bay Area, who wanted to see the New York Giants, those reviled rivals of my cherished team? Former cherished team. Football just makes me think of Rome and feeding the Christians to the lions, except now it's the Christians' money that buys the hulks on the field, and their love of the sport is measured only in dollars, never in glory. Basketball and Hockey are too marginal. And too many bucks going to the Spreewells of this world. Hunting? Not since I junked the shotgun Sam used to . . . Women? Ha!

So it was with dread that I saw my Hispanic team rattle off in their old Chevy pickup, off to make babies, go to church, relish their wives' rellenos and frijoles, play with their kids. Mrs.  Harrison had come and clucked and cooed as always, jiggled with giggles at the new trees with buds ready to pop, and retreated to her coddled life in the twenty thousand square foot home. There were two maids and a handsome young Polish chauffeur who was serving both his mistress and one of the maids with great gusto, to hear him tell it. For his employer's wife, he performed like a stallion but never planted his seed, as he put it, but with the maid he hoped to make beautiful babies even though she was on the pill. Discrete he was not. And not my type at all - big and sort of soft around the edges, if you know what I mean, with heavy thighs and bowed knees. But his basket was big enough for two, so I supposed he was hung heavy. I wondered if her husband knew or even cared that he was being cuckolded. He struck me as being too intelligent not to figure something was going on.

At five-thirty, I had my nails clean, hands washed up to the elbow in the wash-up pail I keep in the Knack box, overalls off, and neck and face scrubbed with the washcloth. Pity about not having a spare shirt and singlet in the box as well, but I'd used the one in there last week when I went to Tom and Susie's party for Billy's high school graduation, and forgotten to replace it. I brushed my mop of short hair as best as it would go, given the curse of wiry hair, and it was time to go. I rehearsed at least six scenes on the way to McD's, ranging from the meeting of two super-straight blue-collar guys through embarrassing revelation that one of us wasn't what he seemed to be, and on to the thought of a quick  visit to his hotel . . . but that was ridiculous. Grownups don't do that.

I got in the Ford and drove down from the Hills as slowly as possible, given the situation, but still got there at five fifty-four. `Darn! Early ain't chic,' I thought to myself, so I pulled around the back to kinda wait until six before I went into MacLand. He was already there in the back, smoking a cigarette, leaning up against the tailgate of the Ram. `Marlboro Man' was writ large at the top of the sheet, and there was no Surgeon General's Warning at the bottom of the page as far as I could tell. He nodded at me as I pulled up and lowered my passenger window. Stunning.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," I said back. "We takin' both trucks, or you wanna come with me, I drop you on way back to freeway?"

"Where we goin' to?" he said through those neat teeth. I'd forgot there was one that was chipped on the bottom, just on the corner. "I don't know the area yet."

"Over on Moffat," I said. "Good joint, ale on tap, quiet until the night crowd comes to dance."

"I'll hitch with ya, then," he said, swinging the door open. "Stayin' just up Camino a bit."

"Motel?" I asked, idly, watching the graceful entry he made.

"Rickey's," he responded. "It's okay."

The Hyatt Rickey is about the best around, from what I knew. "They let Clinton stay there, but only after he promised to be chained to his wife while on the premises," I joked lamely.

"Yeah," he said. "I know. Bastard."

Whew! I got through that one okay. I mean, the guy could have been one of those rabid supporters you hear about all the time in the media. I never met one myself, but I guess I must live in an aquarium. Everyone I know - Democrat or Republican - holds the guy in much lower esteem than the national polls say. Goes to show how ignorant we are, I guess.

"Nice inside," he said softly. "Never know from the outside."

"I'm cheap," I laughed easily. "I get a truck with great mechanicals, all the fixtures and fittings on the inside and under the hood, but with enough superficial body damage that the dealers won't make more money by repairing than by selling it to me. They pocket the insurance money, I get top quality transport cheap, and a low risk of it getting stolen by joyriders."

"Hmmm," he mused, but said no more.

The drive over to the bar was pretty short. I can't remember the name of it anymore -- besides, it's gone, to make way for what I call upscale rabbit warrens, but who am I? By the time we got there, we knew we were both not into professional sports, hated television but had VCRs for movies, ate anything put on a plate, and had college degrees from back east. He didn't mention the name of his school, and nobody out here ever heard of Villanova, so I didn't either.

As we walked into the club, I had to stop to let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting from the bright afternoon sun, just setting over the hills to the Northwest. Mike did too, but not after brushing against my side. I hoped he didn't think I did that deliberately.

"Sorry," he said, laughter in the Voice. "Me eyes don't always adjust quick enough."

"Me too," I said. "Used to be I could go full sun to bunker and have no problem at all." I thought idly of that day of the mortar attack, when Phil bought it. I made it to the bunker. He was on the flight line. A mortar hit the bomb he was attaching to a pylon. They only found little pieces of him. I lusted after his body for as long as I knew him, but we never made it -- I was too shy, too worried the Air Force would find me out, throw me away.

"Nam?" he said quietly.

"At the very end," I said, almost in a whisper. "Not the real thing."

"Sure," he said, also near whispering.


"Sixty-six to sixty-eight," he said.

We saw a table on a wall on the other side of the empty dance area, and headed over, calling out to the bartender for a couple of big mugs of ale.

"Why so long?" I asked, almost afraid of the answer.

"Needed the money," he said. "Wanted to go back to school, and my folks didn't have much."


"Both years," he said. "I was a groundpounder. Saw a lot of ground grunt meat."


"Chu Lai, Da Nang."

I'd been at Da Nang. Air Force, non-flying. Grunts and Jarheads called us pansies, 'cause we never went off base, only sat as targets for mortars once in a while. A few guys in my unit bought it, but we were just Air Force, so they didn't count. My cube mate took half a mortar through his shoulder. Lived, but better if he hadn't he told me a few years later. A guy with one lung, one arm, one ear, half a mouth and no teeth wasn't as popular as the movies said.

By the time the ale got there, we'd finished the topic entirely. Who enjoyed serving their country as their commander in chief directed, only to be spat upon by some of those whom they swore to protect and defend? Who relished the vilification by minorities egged on by an undignified media seeking not truth but ratings? Who dares speak with pride of their sacrifice? I wonder sometimes if other veterans have the same reticence to discuss it. I looked at it as the theft of two years of my life, four if you count the non-Vietnam time I spent in the service, making less than two hundred bucks a month, even at the end, learning squat after the first few months.

Three hefty beers later, we knew a lot about each other, at the same time very little. He was born in forty-one, eight years and a week before me. His dad was a factory supervisor, mom a homemaker. Both jobs long made obsolete by global competition, I thought but couldn't say. Two brothers and a spinster sister, all still in Pennsylvania, north of Philly. Not married, no kids -- the profile fit.

"You looking?" I asked indiscreetly.

"No more'n any other single guy, I guess," he answered non-commitally. I didn't dare look him in the eye when I asked or when he answered.

I was aware that my pits reeked whenever I lifted a glass, and at one point I noticed my trousers were giving off the unmistakable odour of my musk. My doctor says it's genetic. I have very powerful scent in my genitals, always have done. Sam used to love it when I came home after a sweaty day. He'd bury his face in my crutch, pulling my shorts down and rubbing his face in me, then draw me into him, sometimes right in the middle of the big Chinese carpets we had in the hall and living area, no lubrication, no nothing. It got him super excited, he said, and his climaxes were testament to that -- the stinkier I was (up to a point) the more excited and lusty he became, and the more intense his orgasms. When Sam had a powerful orgasm, I knew it. The jaws of his butt would close down on me, pull my orgasm from me like a giant Hoover, and lock me inside him as he drew my seed into his body, at the same time giving me an overdose of love and affection.

"Private thoughts?" said the Voice, breaking my sudden silence.

"No," I lied easily. "Just thinking I have to get going, wishing we had time for another beer or three," I fibbed again. "But I don't want to get done for DUI. Been there, done that."


"Yeah, a few years ago," I started. "I lost my . . . best friend," I stumbled. "He . . . took his own life, and after the funeral I got stinking drunk and left the wake before anybody could stop me." I remembered the tears, the fears, the loss, the haze of alcohol, but I said nothing if this to Mike. Too heavy.

"The cops stopped me for driving with my parking lights on, not my headlights," I said truthfully. "I was falling-down drunk, and they put me in a cell for the night. Not nice people you meet there all the time."

I remembered the big black guy who raped a slim Hispanic guy right in front of six other guys in the same cell. I started to call out when the big guy started making the move on the Hispanic. I could see what was coming, but two of our tankmates -- the big guy's buddies, I guess -- had me cowering in a corner before I could say more than "H . . ", the breath knocked from me with one simple but very hard blow to the stomach or solar plexus, or whatever. The little guy was so terrified he didn't even scream when the club entered his body, the black guy's hands around his neck as he stabbed at his prize with his bludgeon until it smashed through the barrier of his innocence.

I never slept. The black guy glowered at me the whole time, and kept his arm over the shoulder of the Hispanic guy, sort of maintaining control I guess. The Hispanic kept his head down, trembling, saying nothing when the guard went through.

He raped him again before breakfast. I didn't need to be told to keep out of it -- a look was enough. Two of the guys in the tank looked like they wanted to tear off a piece as well, but the Black guy wouldn't let them near his toy.

Later that morning, David told me to keep my mouth shut about it. My address is in the telephone book, he warned me. I was drunk; a jury would never believe me. The guy that got raped would lose face to his wife or girlfriend, his family, and his friends. The guy that did it would get off, for sure. And I would have to move. I said nothing.

"Cost me ten thousand, after all the lawyers' fees and things got figured in," I said. "Plus, my insurance quadrupled for five years. I still pay double what I used to."

"Yeah, I know what you're talking about. I never got done, like you, but if I'd ever been stopped, on a lot of occasions, I'd have been in that boat," he said.

"My brother in law got pinched by the CHP a few years ago," he said. "Same story -- a night in jail, some really not nice people, lost his job `cause he couldn't get to work without a car, lost his wife and kid, lost his house, lost it all."

"God, that's awful!"

"He was coming home from his brother's wedding party. Another car ran a stop sign, hit him pretty hard. Cops came, and he was the one who went to jail, even though witnesses said he'd been in the right. He had no right to be driving drunk like that, but he didn't hurt anybody else, and then he lost it all because of it."

"He all right now?" I asked, hoping things had got better for a fellow sinner.

"Oh yeah, sorta," Mike said a little funny chill going up my spine for some reason. "Moved out of state, doesn't keep in touch with us much no more. Sends his kids' child support like clockwork, and presents and stuff for them. He never comes back."

"Sorry to hear that," I said and I meant. "What's money in comparison to love and affection?"

"Yeah," Mike said. He gave me a look that I couldn't interpret. Sort of surprise mixed with . . . anger? No, not anger, maybe just aggression.

"Guess we better get moving," I said. "Else we'll have another beer and end up in the tank." I cracked.

"Dinner tomorrow night?" he said easily, tossing a twenty on the table next to mine.

"I want that," I said without thinking. It was true,

"So do I," he said.

The drive up El Camino was easy. Most of the traffic had dissipated by the time I dropped Michael at McD's. We talked about where to eat the next evening, and settled on a Thai place I knew in Mountain View. When we shook hands as he was getting out of the Ford, there was a slightly long period after the "big squeeze" when his hand and mine remained in grasp. Nothing overt. You couldn't say it was suggestive, but it was slightly intimate, more friendly than just a casual 'so long.'

"See you tomorrow at six, then," he said as he opened the door to step down.

"Yeah," I said. "Looking forward."

He gave me a quick, almost shy smile. A guy in his fifties, shy. Nice.

I drove up the peninsula in a haze, almost on autopilot. Usually, I enjoy the glory of the views from I-280, but now I could only think of dumb stuff, like whether I should take a motel room in Mountain View for the night, just so I could shower and change before our "date." What clothes should I wear? How did my hair look -- need a haircut? That sort of stuff you never expect to feel again after . . . after . . . I had to pull over on the side after crossing the Golden Gate, pulling into the Vista Point, parking all the way at the end so as not to have to deal with the all-year crowds that come over the bridge to look back at the City.

"What are you doing?" a little voice asked. "You're fifty fu**ing years old, asshole!" it went on.  "What about Sam?" That was a low blow. Right in the ballls.

I sat in the truck ruminating until the cold fog crept through the spaces around the windshield, the door frames and stuff, and threatened to give me pneumonia. I'm not sure what I thought about. Sam was there a lot, but abstract, sorta. Like, I felt I needed to keep Sam in my heart, but he was somehow . . . more distant. I felt guilty as hell.

"Jerk," my voice said to me. "It's not like you're going to jump into the sack with him. You're too old for that."

Like hell, I am, I thought back at myself. Like hell.