by Tim Mead
Jesus! Busted! But what am I supposed to say to him? That was before he and I were more than just friends.
"Seriously, Jeff? Is that all you have to say?"
"You know what? I don't think I even want to hear it. I can't believe you'd do that. Especially with Paul!"
With Paul? What's special about Paul?
"Sam, it wasn't the way you think. Let's get together and I'll . . . ."
"Forgive me, Jeffrey, but that's what they all say."
Before Jeff could say something calming, Sam had hung up.
Jeff's first response was anger. The guy he was beginning to care for a lot had simply cut him off without even waiting to hear Jeff's explanation. He thought Sam was over-reacting. But what was he supposed to do now?
He was about to call Sam back, but he figured that would be pointless. And maybe counter-productive. Sam was still upset because Paul's little gambit had happened that afternoon. But after he'd had a chance to cool down, he'd be more reasonable. Surely?
He put the phone in the breast pocket of his shirt and flopped onto one of the matching recliners facing the TV, something icy cold squeezing his stomach.
He'd shared Phil's grief when Buddy died. Buddy had been more of a parent to him than either his mother or father. Since he'd come out to them back in high school, they'd done little but disapprove of him and belittle his friends. No wonder he'd preferred to spend holidays and summers in Lake Polk.
And no wonder he hadn't hesitated when Phil invited him to move in with him. Career-wise, the move to UbiCo's Southeast Regional Headquarters in Cypress Haven was a step up for him, but returning to Lake Polk was like coming home.
With Phil gone now, however, he felt alone. He'd made casual friends in Lake Polk over the years, but most of the ones his own age had moved on. He had colleagues at work, but the ones he knew best had families and were wrapped up in soccer leagues, church, service organizations and the rest of modern life. Macey was the only one he spent any time with.
And then he'd met Sam. Sam of the incredible gray eyes. And firm little butt. And mind full of interesting, off-beat information and ideas. And, until now, sweet disposition.
He huffed out a sigh and stood up. As he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, the old house seemed enormous.
Macey nudged his foot under the table.
"Jeffrey, where are you?"
"You've spaced out, sweetie. You haven't heard a thing I've been saying."
Jeff straightened up, took a sip of tea, and tried to smile.
"Oh, sorry Mace. You were telling me something about your plans for the weekend?"
"Wrong! I'd gotten past that. I was telling you that Cypress Haven has a cruise-in on the third Saturday of each month. I thought since we've missed the January one, you and Sam might like to bring your cars to the one coming up in February. You might even bring along that puppy who's so love-struck with you."
"Ian is most definitely not love-struck. In fact he's hoping to move to Gainesville and major in linguistics at U of F."
She smirked. "Good to know. But somehow I doubt you were thinking of Ian when you tuned me out. What's got you so depressed?"
"You think I'm depressed?"
"You didn't say anything in the car on the way here. You haven't said anything but "yeah" or `uh huh" since we got here. Besides, you're just picking at that salad. And when you aren't eating, baby, I know something's wrong."
"Sorry I've been bad company, Mace. It's probably not a big deal."
She crossed her arms over her bosom. "What isn't?"
"Oh, Sam and I've had a, uh, misunderstanding. We'll get it straightened out."
She leaned forward. "You're not acting like you'll get it straightened out. You look like it's the end of the world. Tell me about it. What's he done to you?"
Jeff wasn't about to tell Macey what he'd done to anger Sam. How he'd somehow wound up letting Paul fuck him as he leaned against the kitchen bar. No way was he going to allow her to have that image of him.
"He's pissed at me. But this isn't the place to talk about it."
She humphed. "I'd like to know why not."
Jeff tried to smile. "Trust me."
Then the light obviously dawned. "Oh, it's about . . ." She mouthed the word sex.
Jeff nodded and then busied himself with his napkin.
"Well," she said, "you can tell me all about it in the car on the way back to the office."
"That's less than ten minutes. Besides, I don't think I want to tell you about it."
"Because it's about sex? Sweetie, I know you get it on with guys. What's the problem?"
"Mace, give it a rest, okay? I appreciate your concern, but this is something between Sam and me. And . . ." His voice trailed off.
"And? And somebody else? Have you been screwing around on Sam? How could you? He's perfect for you!"
"Just . . . just never mind. I don't want to talk about it."
So when he got home that evening, it was with the knowledge that both Macey and Sam were pissed with him.
Macey asked him the next day if he'd called Sam.
He hadn't. He wasn't sure Sam would even talk to him. Besides, he still wasn't ready to admit that he'd let Paul fuck him. Even if it was before Jeff and Sam had become boyfriends.
Silly word, boyfriends. Sounds like a couple of kids. We're grown men. But what are we? Not partners. Not yet, anyway. More than fuck buddies . . . .
And Sam hadn't called him. And that just wasn't like Sam. Not the Sam he knew.
But they'd only been "seeing each other" for three months. Maybe Sam wasn't as easy-going as he seemed.
For Sam to act like that, though, there had to be something in the equation Jeff didn't know. But what could it be?
And what was he supposed to do in the meantime? He wasn't about to let the hunk with the lupine grey eyes and tight little butt get away.
But he managed to find reasons not to call Sam . . . who, after all, had been the one to break things off.
On Thursday evening he called Ian.
"Hi, Jeff. Whassup?"
Jeff chuckled. "You sound like someone from the `hood."
"Sorry. My Mom says the same thing. But `whassup' is pretty general these days, at least with the college crowd. My African-American friends usually say something more like `whaddup'."
"Thanks for the lesson. Is that linguistics?"
"Uh huh. We haven't gotten to the unit on regional and social dialects yet, but there's a free question-and-answer session every day. It's awesome how the class has gotten into all of this."
"Dude, I'm really glad you've found something in college that turns you on."
"Yeah, me, too. But you aren't calling to talk about linguistics. So, as I said, what's up?"
"Saturday's the car show downtown. If you're free, I could pick you up."
"Man! Like in a date?"
"Uh, no, Ian. But if you'd like to ride to and from with me, I'll pick you up."
"Cool! When should I be ready?"
"A few minutes before four. I know your address, but you want to give me directions?"
"Don't you have a GPS?"
"There's one in the BMW, and I have one for my Subaru, too."
"Well, duh! Can't you put the Subaru's gps unit in the Auburn?"
"Duh is right! See you Saturday. Hope it doesn't rain."
"This is the end of January. Does it ever rain?"
"Yeah, you're right."
The weather turned out to be clear and cool. Jeff was glad he'd worn a sweater, especially with Agatha's top down.
Ian's neighborhood, which was surrounded by a wall but had no gate, had been built in the late 90's. The homes, mostly two-storied, suggested the builder had perhaps a half dozen floor plans and three or four different looks for each floor plan. But the neighborhood gave the appearance of being established, with tall trees and luxuriant plantings. It's amazing how big things in Florida can grow in twelve to fifteen years, Jeff thought.
When he pulled in the drive, Ian bounced out of the house looking collegiate. He had on light blue plaid shorts, a plain light blue collared polo, and a Haven State hoodie. His muscular soccer-player's legs ended in ankle socks and some fancy brand of sneakers.
After they had exchanged greetings, Ian began to grope around. "Oh, I forgot. No seat belts."
"I'm glad you automatically looked for them."
"Thanks . . . Pops!"
"I'll try not to run into anything between here and downtown. Kiddo."
"I suppose Sam will be there with his uber-cool Oldsmobile."
"I suppose he will."
Ian gave him a puzzled look but didn't say anything.
When they arrived downtown, Jeff was shown where to park the Auburn. He was disappointed to note that there still weren't any similar cars in the show. But a space had been left on either side of his just in case.
"You gonna go find Sam?"
Ian had gone to high school in Lake Polk. He knew Sam and the hardware store, had learned recently that Sam and Jeff were more than friends.
"No, I think I'll stay with the car for a while. So people can ask questions if they want."
"Okay. I'll wander around and check back with you later." He pulled his camera out of the pocket of his hoodie and gestured with it.
"Come back when you're hungry and we'll find something to eat."
"I could just get a hot dog from that stand over there. You'll wanna eat with Sam, won't you?"
"Probably not. But even if I do, you can join us."
Ian's look brightened. "Oh! Cool!" With a wave he turned, went to the middle of the street, and wandered away.
Jeff had been only partly honest with Ian. Another reason for staying with the car was that, though he thought bumping into Sam at this event might be inevitable, he wanted to avoid any sort of confrontation if he could.
"It's good to see the Auburn again." The voice belonged to a fifty-something guy with a receding hairline who looked familiar.
"Oh, uh, hi."
The guy stuck out his hand. Jeff swiveled under the steering wheel so they could shake hands.
"I'm Blaine Koontz. I'm sorry to hear about Phil. The wife and I just got in town last week. We stayed in Michigan for the holidays."
"Thanks, Mr. Koontz."
"It's just Blaine. And you're Phil's nephew, right?"
"Yeah. Jeff. So do you have a car in the show, Blaine?"
Blaine grinned and nodded. "Got rid of the old beast and have a new custom. It's down at the other end. You'll have to come down and see it."
"Okay. What should I be looking for?"
"A '96 Impala."
Jeff wondered, not for the first time, what was the difference between a collectible and an ordinary used car. He'd been a teen when that Chevy body style was new.
"I'm gonna stick around here for a while, but I'll definitely come by and check out your new wheels. Thanks for stopping by, Blaine."
Jeff was just stepping down out of the Auburn when a couple in matching khakis and windbreakers walked up.
"Oh, this is classy! What is it?"
"It's a '35 Auburn Phaeton."
"Never heard of Auburn before," said the woman. She leaned into the backseat. "Lovely upholstery. That's real leather, not vinyl, isn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am. I don't think they had vinyl back then."
"You say this is a phaeton?" the man asked.
The man gestured up the street. "There's a '31 Ford Phaeton over there. But it has side curtains, like on an old Jeep. Your car has real windows."
"Well, the Auburn was a step up from Ford. And Auburn was part of the company that made Cords and Duesenbergs, too."
The two looked at the car from all angles. Then the woman pulled a camera from her pocket and took some pictures. They thanked Jeff and, holding hands, strolled away.
"Is this a '34?"
Jeff turned to see a stocky guy about his own age with curly auburn hair. And a nice package showing through his jeans. And, Jeff noted, a wedding ring on the appropriate finger.
"Close. It's a '35."
Putting out his hand, the stranger said, "I'm Tom Cassidy."
"Jeff Elder. Do you have a car in the show?"
"I have a car in Parkerville. This is my first visit to your show here."
"What is it?"
"A '29 Chrysler Roadster."
"Awesome!" Jeff realized he sounded like Ian. "I hope you'll bring it next time. Agatha needs company."
"Agatha?" Tom looked puzzled.
"Sorry. That's what my uncle called this car. He left it to me when he passed away last fall."
"Sorry about your uncle. But this is a fine car. It stands out in this crowd. You should bring it to our next cruise-in."
"I'd like that. But seriously, as you can see, except for that Ford Phaeton up the street, there are no classic cars from the twenties and thirties here."
"Could I see the engine? I've heard about those Lycomings, but I've never actually seen one."
Jeff put up one half of the hood so Tom could look around inside.
When he'd finished peering and making comments, Tom handed Jeff a card. "This has our website info on it. You can look us up. And I hope you'll bring Agatha soon."
"Thanks, Tom. I'll do that."
He hoped he'd soon have his rift with Sam settled so they could go together.
After a while he found himself alone. He put a sign in the window of the car identifying it as a 1935 Auburn Phaeton with a supercharged eight-cylinder engine. That was more than most of the other owners had done.
Like everyone else, he began to walk slowly down the middle of the street, so he could see the fronts of all the cars. He stopped to look and chat several times, but eventually he found himself approaching the row of muscle cars, by far the most popular vehicles in the Lake Polk club, at least judging by the number of them in relation to all other kinds of classics and collectibles.
The cars themselves were deserted, for which Jeff was grateful. But then he spotted a cluster of owners standing beside the dj's truck. One of them was, of course, Sam, who looked up. He gave Jeff a look more of pain than anger, and then he nodded. Jeff nodded and walked on.
"Jeff, dude! There you are." It was Ian. "You gotta come see this awesome car, yo."
Happy to be rescued from the awkward situation, Jeff chuckled. "Okay, okay, I'm coming. What's got you so excited?"
He had to walk rapidly to keep up with his young friend. They passed Agatha and kept going. Then Ian hauled up in front of what Jeff instantly recognized as a mid-90's Impala. Obviously Blaine's car. But it wasn't like any Impala he'd ever seen before.
It was a four-door, of course. The SS Model. But it had been painted a dark spruce green that certainly wasn't a factory color. And, like Paul Moretti's truck, the surface looked as if you could stick your arm down into it.
The exterior hadn't otherwise been modified except that it had modern chrome wheels.
They had to wait for some people to step away before Ian could show him the inside, which was entirely redone in very upscale leather about the color of light brown sugar.
"Ian and Jeff. I didn't know you two knew each other."
"Oh, hi, Blaine. This is the friend I told you I was going to go find."
"Yes, we met a while ago when I was admiring his Auburn."
"Wow, Blaine, this is a fantastic custom job. Really an eye-popper!"
"That's not all, though," Ian said, sounding as if he were about to pee his pants.
"What else?" Jeff asked.
Blaine chuckled. "I think he means this. Blaine pressed a button on the key fob and the hood release clicked. He stuck his finger through the crack above the grill and hit the release. Inside the engine bay was a twelve-cylinder engine. When Jeff leaned in to get a better look he saw that it was a BMW power plant.
"Oh, dayum. The beauty here is more than skin deep! I'll bet it really goes."
"Oh, yeah, lots of torque. And with the weight and wheelbase, you can cruise at any speed you can get away with all day and end up relaxed." Blaine made a wry face. "But, of course, you'll pay a pretty penny to refill your gas tank."
"I bet you don't drive it around town much, either."
"You're right. Not because of the gas mileage. I just don't want to risk getting it dinged in parking lots."
They chatted a few moments longer and agreed they'd see one another at another show soon.
That evening's event was supposed to last until 8:00, but a number of people began to leave at 7:30. Ian was holding his stomach and pretending to be dying of hunger.
Jeff laughed. "Okay, okay. I can take a hint. You don't have to hit me with a sledge hammer. Where do you want to eat?"
"Well, the downtown places will be packed, probably. And I don't want to wait."
"Will a burger do you?"
"There's a McDonald's over by highway 27."
"Okay, but if you get food on my car, you're dead."
"I'm house trained."
They went to the drive-up window.
As he handed Jeff his change, the guy at the window said, "Sick wheels, man."
Jeff thanked the man. Funny language, he thought.
Jeff ordered a crispy chicken BLT and fries. Ian had an Angus bacon and cheese with large fries and a chocolate shake. He laughed at Jeff's diet Coke.
"You think after all the grease in the meal the lack of sugar in the Coke's gonna make a difference?"
"Probably not, but it makes me feel less guilty."
They drove to the park at the west end of Lake Polk, not far, actually, from Stan and Doug's house. There they found a picnic table where they sat to eat their food.
"Something wrong between you and Sam?"
"Nothing serious, I hope."
"I hope not, too."
Jeff's admiration for the younger man went up a notch when Ian discreetly said nothing else about that topic.
By the time he had dropped Ian off at home and then returned to his place, Jeff was shivering. It had turned really chilly after the sun set, and riding with the top down wasn't as pleasant as it had been that afternoon.
Jeff checked the mail when he got home after work on Tuesday. In addition to the junk mail, there was an envelope of heavy cream paper. The return address indicated that it was from the Charlotte Island Concours d'Élégance with a P. O. Box in Jacksonville.
He put down his bag, kicked off his shoes, poured himself a beer, and sat in his recliner. He pulled a letter opener from a mug on the bottom shelf of the coffee table and cut open the envelope.
At the top of the page was a fancy heading, again proclaiming the Charlotte Island Concours. The letter was obviously printed from a quality machine
The writer began by addressing Phil by name, saying he hoped that Phil was coping well with the loss of Buddy and that "everyone" had missed the two of them at the previous Concours. Then he went on to say that he hoped Phil would bring his "gorgeous Auburn" to this year's event.
"The application deadline has passed, as I'm sure you know. But I've stretched the rules a bit. Some of the board members might be a bit starchy about it, but I've reserved you a place, pending receipt of the paperwork. I doubt you'll want to drive here, especially without Buddy, but please consider using our "reliable" carrier. Oh, by the way, I've also reserved a room for you at the Hilton. Let me know soon, though. A great many people would be delighted to have your spot. All the best, my friend." It was hand signed by Gordon Beck, chairman of the Concours.
Well, Jeff thought. That would be showing Agatha off to a properly appreciative audience. And it would be fun to see all those other really great classic cars. He was sure muscle cars wouldn't dominate at Charlotte Island.
Another point in favor of going was that he was pretty sure the terms of the will specified that he had to enter the car in important regional or national shows. Although he'd have to check it out with Stan Mason, he was pretty sure he couldn't get by just taking the Auburn to the Lake Polk or other Imperial County shows.
But he didn't really relish the idea of going by himself. And what did Beck mean by a reliable carrier? Were there companies that just hauled cars?
Sam would know. And going to the show with Sam was an appealing idea. A very appealing idea. But how was he to patch things up?
Swallow his pride and make the first move? Why not? If he could only get Sam to listen, he was sure he could explain. It was really only a matter of timing. That scene in the kitchen with Moretti happened before Jeff and Sam had started dating, after all. And they'd agreed on their first real date not to talk about their exes. Still, Sam had questioned him about Moretti. And Jeff had said there was nothing going on with Paul. And there wasn't.
He reached for the phone. But then he let his hand drop. What if Sam wouldn't talk with him? If they did talk, how would he explain what happened that night in the kitchen with Moretti?
By the end of the week, though he berated himself for being a coward, Jeff still hadn't called Sam. And he hadn't responded to Gordon Beck's invitation.
On Friday evening he'd just finished putting his dishes in the dishwasher when someone knocked on the kitchen door. Only Sam would come to the back door. Or perhaps Ian. He hadn't heard a car in the drive, so it was probably Ian.
His heart fell when he opened the door and saw Paul Moretti standing there with his customary smirk.
"What the fuck do you want?"
Moretti stepped back and put his palms outward. "Easy, dude. I come in peace."
"So you say. But why should I believe you? You're a troublemaking snake!"
"Oh, that's cold. Seriously, I've come to apologize. Aren't you gonna let me come in?"
Jeff's heart was pounding. He wasn't used to confrontations. He didn't like Moretti. More importantly, he didn't trust him. But his upbringing was to at least try to be civil.
Stepping back, he said, "Oh, all right. Come inside. I wouldn't want the neighbors to hear what I may say to you." So much for civility.
Jeff closed the door of the dishwasher, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back against the kitchen counter.
"Say whatever it is you want to say."
"Can we at least sit down?"
"I suppose if I say yes you'll want a beer."
Again the placating motion with the hands. "No, I'm good thanks."
Jeff pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and nodded to another. They both sat.
"Word is, you and Sam avoided each other downtown Saturday night and the looks that passed between you weren't particularly friendly."
"So?" Jeff was aware that he was being a prick, but he didn't really care. The guy parked in his kitchen was responsible for breaking up the most promising relationship he'd ever been in.
For the first time since they'd met, Moretti's eyes lost their devilish gleam. "In case you hadn't figured it out, I'm a guy who likes to yank people's chains. I don't really mean to do any harm, but sometimes I do. Sometimes I get in trouble."
"If you do it much, I'm surprised you have any friends."
Moretti's smile was rueful. "Yeah." He paused. "I'm guessing you don't know Sam and I used to be together."
Gobsmacked was a word Jeff had seen in some of the stories he'd read on line. And that's the way he felt. Like he'd taken a punch in the face.
"I had no idea."
"Well, I'm sure Sam would have gotten around to telling you."
"We agreed on our first date not to talk about our exes, and then the subject just never came up again."
"Well, Sammy's a good guy. We just figured out we didn't want the same things. He was a great fuck buddy, and that's all I wanted. He wanted something more and I couldn't give it to him. So we broke up. But it was in a friendly way. We didn't fight or anything."
"So when you fucked me here that night last fall, it wasn't to get back at Sam?"
"No way. Best I can figure, that was before you two had become anything more than casual acquaintances. I fucked you because you're a hot dude and you seemed willing. You were willing! I didn't rape you. I wouldn't have done that"
"Yes. Well. I still haven't figured out what happened to my self control that night. I should have sent you packing."
"Look. I still think you were just as horny as I was. And I recall askin' at one point and you said yes. But the thing is, that was all before you and Sammy were together. You were just a hot, horny new guy in town. You ain't exactly a troll, you know."
"Thanks, I think."
"But look, Jeff. I'm sorry to make trouble between you and Sam, especially if you guys were workin' on somethin' serious."
"How about that beer?"
"I wouldn't say no."
Jeff pulled two cans of Miller Lite from the fridge. He'd been saving the Dos Equis for Sam.
He couldn't quite believe he'd come to such a détente with Paul, but the guy seemed genuinely contrite.
After each had taken a swallow of beer, Moretti asked, "You haven't told Sam what happened between us was before you guys were gettin' it on?""
"He just doesn't want to listen to me say anything at the moment."
"Would it help if I went to Sam?"
"Depends on what you'd say."
"I'd just flat out tell him that what happened was before you two started dating and that you showed no interest in any kind of follow-up."
"You'd do that?"
"It's the truth, isn't it?"
"Sam's a pretty understanding guy. He'll probably come around." Moretti took another large swallow of beer and then stood.
"Thanks for the beer. I'll see what I can do with old Sammy."
Jeff stood up and walked to the door with the other man.
"How come I didn't hear you drive up?"
Moretti grinned. "Come see what I'm drivin'."
Jeff put on the driveway floodlights and they walked out together. He saw a glistening black convertible with the top down, but it was a woody!
"Oh, that's so cool!" He was aware he was sounding like Ian again. But he'd never seen a car like that before. "What is it?"
"'47 Chrysler Town and Country. We did a complete body-off restoration. It's got the original Chrysler engine, rebuilt so it runs smooth as butter. And the appropriate exhaust system, which is why you didn't hear me pull in your drive."
Jeff forgot his negative feelings about Paul as he walked around the car, looking at it from all angles, leaning inside to see the interior, which Paul said was restored, not customized.
"Want a ride?"
"Um, no, thanks. Not tonight. But, look, I, well, I appreciate you coming tonight and offering to try to set things straight with Sam. Thing is, I do really like the guy. And he won't even talk to me." Shut up, Jeff! You don't need to be whining to Paul about this.
"Okay." Paul stuck out his hand, and Jeff took it. "I'll make a point of seeing Sam at work tomorrow. If what I say does any good, you should be hearing from him."
He got in the car and started it up. The motor purred as he backed out of the driveway.
When Jeff went to bed that night, he had a lot to think about. As he drifted off to sleep, he was feeling mildly optimistic. If Paul did as he'd promised, maybe Sam would at least be willing to talk, so Jeff could explain . . .
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