Whatever damage the bullet to Chris Russo's brain had done, it hadn't affected his memory. That had ben pretty clear when a young Chicago cop from the detective division and a police sketch artist had shown up at Chris' hospital room not long after he had regained consciousness, before Chris had gone to the condo to stay. He had given the two men a complete description of the man who had shot him on the Eisenhower Expressway: Latino, 5'10" tall, about 160 pounds, brown eyes and hair, dark complexioned with a small star tattooed on his left temple. When the detectives ran their drawing through the National Crime Information System (NCIS), they immediately found a match. The man was already wanted for murder and armed robbery in California, and his new crime in Illinois was added to the information that went out on the wire to all police agencies country-wide. Tony Angelo had been relieved that the perpetrator had no connection to the skinheads, because it seemed less likely that anyone was gunning for the Broman family members as a result of the arrests on Halsted Street.
Meanwhile, Mike had been as good as his word. Two days after he had told Chris at the hospital that he'd like to have his Aunt Carole's condition and her meds re-evaluated, a para-transit vehicle picked her up from her little bungalow, wheelchair and all, and delivered her to the osteoarthritis center at Northwestern Hospital. Mike met her at the ambulance entrance, and wheeled her to the appropriate lab for tests. Despite her chronic pain, Carole had been excited because it was the first time she had been out of her house in months. Staff at Northwestern had given her a complete physical, drawn blood and administered tests for mobility in her joints.
The results were available within a week after she had been tested. Mike had been right. There were better and more up-to-date meds available for Carole's condition than she had been taking. He had picked up new scripts from the head of the clinic, procured the new meds for her and dropped them off at her house the next time he shopped for her groceries.
By the time he had come back a few days later, he hardly knew it was the same woman. The lines in her face from chronic pain had eased, and she was out of her wheelchair and moving around the house very well, if not at top speed.
She had given Mike a big hug, Italian style, and kissed him on both cheeks when she opened the front door and saw who it was.
"Michael! You're a miracle worker, you know!!" she had told him immediately.
Mike had grinned. "I wish I could take the credit, Carole, but I can't. You look good, though. I take it the pain is better."
"Oh, my yes. I know it's still there, but it's nothing I can't handle. I feel like a new person, and that's your doing, you sweet boy! What a good friend you've been, Michael, you and Matthew!"
Another sign she had been better was that she had accompanied everything she said with hand gestures, in true Italian style.
"Well, thank you," Mike had said, a little embarrassed at the praise. "I hope you know we feel the same about you."
"Come in, come in. Don't even think about running off. Sit down. Would you like some coffee or tea?" she'd said, pulling him in the door.
"Sure, I have time for a cup of coffee," Mike said, slipping off his jacket and sitting down on the couch.
"You sit. I'll warm it up right now. You drink this coffee, and you'll be awake half the night!!" Carole had laughed raucously and made a beeline for the kitchen.
A few minutes later she came back carrying a tray with with coffee, sugar, cream, and a pastry on it. She put the tray in front of Mike and went over and sat in an overstuffed chair opposite him.
"Eat, eat!" she had instructed. "Now, to important things. How is Christopher today?"
"He's a little better every day," Mike had said. "It's just going to take time and patience."
"I know. He's such a good boy. I've been so worried about him."
"Don't worry. He's improving right on schedule. Listen, I wanted you to know that Matt and I have invited him to come and stay with us for awhile after he's released from the hospital, and I think he's going to do that. He won't be able to stay alone for some time."
Carole had looked surprised. "Oh, my. That's so nice of you boys, Michael! He can come here, you know. After all, he's family."
"We've talked about that," Mike had said. "But we think it might be better if he stayed with us, at least for right now. First of all, we have two ladies who are nurses who live with us, and that kind of expertise is good to have around. And second, he'll have a bedroom and bathroom all on the same floor. He can't climb any stairs until he's off his crutches. And third, I know you're feeling better, but you need to increase your activities gradually, not jump into things with both feet. Taking care of Chris is going to take a lot of energy. You know without a doubt he'd want to come here if it were the best option, Carole."
"Hah! After what you've done for me, I should tell you you're wrong? I don't think so. You're almost a doctor! If Christopher should stay with you, then that's where he'll be. Can I come and see him?"
"Of course. Just let us know, and someone will come and pick you up."
Carole had been satisfied with that. The two of them had chatted some more until Mike had to leave, with Carole telling him about the old ethnic Italian neighborhood surrounding the house they were sitting in where she had lived in most of her life. He got the clear impression that as her mobility increased, Carole would once more become the eyes and ears of her neighborhood when it came to knowing everything that was going on. Everything.
Mike liked this woman a lot. He had never met anyone quite like her. He sensed she had a good heart. A big heart.
* * *
Matt's mood began improving by leaps and bounds. After conferring with Dr. Landry, the surgeon who had operated on Matt after he had been stabbed, Mike let his partner start exercising on the beach again on a restricted basis. Matt was to jog, not run, one mile at a time, and then walk a mile, starting out with a two mile maximum for the first few days. Mike knew he was probably being overly cautious, but he just didn't want to take a chance that Matt's lung wasn't as healed up as it was supposed to be. Mike stuck right with him on the beach during the whole first week of the new regimen, making sure Matt got back to the condo in good shape every day before he turned himself around and headed out for his own run, full out, Breakers at his side.
The mid-December weather was cold and unpleasant, with Chicago living up to its sobriquet "the Windy City." There was some snow on the ground. The joy of getting back into his exercise routine was so great, though, that Matt paid no attention to the weather at all. The rest of the condo runners, which now included all the adults but Mary and Chris, kept at it faithfully, but they noticed that they didn't have a lot of company on the beach most of the time due to the wind and cold.
Everybody picked up on the improvement in Matt's mood right away, and it was good to have the "old" Matt back in their midst. No one was impervious to one of Matt's good moods no matter what their current problems were. He put the whole condo family in a positive frame of mind without even trying, even Chris, whose spirits had generally not rebounded the way they should have as he had started the healing process.
Matt was sitting at his desk studying in his and Mike's bedroom in nothing but his jockies one night when Mike came back from a run on the beach with Stan. Going to his room, Mike got his partner's undivided attention when he stood behind him and ran his very cold hands down Matt's bare chest and into his shorts.
"AAAARRRRGGGG!! You miserable piece of shit!!!" Matt yelled, jumping out of his chair to get the offending digits out of his crotch. "What did you do that for, Fuckstick?"
"I was just following medical instructions," Mike responded meekly in his best professional tone. "Dr. Landry told me to make absolutely sure I checked your reflexes. They're good. Very good, in fact. You pass."
Matt grabbed his partner, still wearing his running clothes, and wrestled him down on their bed.
"You think you're pretty cute, doncha?" Matt demanded, nose to nose with Mike. "Well, you are, but payback will be a bitch, I can promise you that! Count on it!"
"I thought the Bible says, 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.' "
"It does. But sometimes when something totally unwarranted has happened, He delegates. This is one of those times."
"Well, as long as God is watching, we may as well be entertaining," Mike said with an evil grin. "So it's story-time!"
"I want a divorce! Right now!! This marriage isn't going the way I thought it would at all," Matt said, rubbing noses with Mike. "You're a bad person, and you have a mean streak. No judge in the world will make me stay with you. And the Church will give me an annulment in 10 seconds."
"Heh. Shut up," Mike said.
"There was an old couple who were planning to go on a second
honeymoon for their 50th wedding anniversary. The old woman
said, 'We'll go to all the same places that we did on our first honeymoon.'
"'Uh huh,' said the old man.
"'We'll do all the things that we did on our first honeymoon,'
said the old woman.
"'Uh huh,' said the old man.
"'And we'll make love like we did on our first honeymoon,' said
the old woman.
"'That's right,' said the old man, 'except this time I get to sit
on the side of the bed and cry, "It's too big, it's too big!"'"
Matt couldn't help himself, and burst out laughing.
"You dweeb!" he said. "I'll show you big! Get your ass naked right now. It's the least you can do."
"I need to take a shower."
"No way! You're getting a good tongue bath! That's as clean as you're gonna get."
"Well, when you put it that way..." Mike extricated himself from his brother's grasp, stood up and stripped. When his clothes lay in a heap at his feet, he went to their bedroom door, shut it and locked it, came back and threw himself , already half hard, back on the bed. They kissed affectionately for a few minutes, and then Matt began working Mike's nipples, alternately pinching them and nibbling on them while Mike pushed Matt's jockies down his legs and off on to the floor. Soon both their dicks were rock hard and plastered against up their abs, throbbing with each heart beat.
"You look so good to me, sometimes I can't believe it," Matt said, licking Mike's beautiful chest yet again. Sliding down in the bed, he grasped Mike's tool and deep throated it all in one motion. Mike tensed and his breath whooshed out of his lungs, and then he began panting to try to keep from orgasming.
"Easy," Mike groaned. "I'm almost there."
Matt stopped all movement, and just held his partner perfectly still until the latter came back from the brink. Pulling off a bit so he could get a breath, Matt started fellating Mike slowly as his partner's sweet tasting precum began flowing into Matt's mouth.
"Yes!!" Mike said as the ecstasy of what he was feeling took control. He began bucking his hips gently as Matt sucked his cock while gently massaging his balls with one hand and sensuously stroking his stomach with the other.
Without dislodging Matt from his penis, Mike swung around into a 69. After licking Matt's dick thoroughly, he went down on him all the way, swallowing the big head of his lover's beautiful cock until it was lodged down his throat. Then he began bobbing his head slowly, giving himself a chance to breathe occasionally as he did so. Matt was making little muffled, guttural sounds of approval as he continued his own ministrations to Mike. The pace of their lovemaking slowed, then accelerated, then slowed again as the two young men extended their mutual pleasure as long as possible. After 20 minutes on the sex roller coaster, their passion could no longer be denied, and they each ejaculated thick ropes of cum until it began escaping the confines of their mouths and running down on to the bed. Then, their nervous systems short-circuited for the moment, they lay quiescent, each still holding his partner's cock in his mouth even after orgasm.
Eventually, Mike released Matt, marshaled his strength and turned back around so the lovers faced each other. They deep-kissed one another, tongues thrusting slowly and deliberately, tasting their commingled semen. Totally relaxed, smiling, they drifted off to sleep, clasped together.
Matt awakened first a few minutes later. He lay there in his partner's arms looking at Mike's face as he dozed. By that time of the evening, Mike's dark blond stubble was visible on the handsome planes of his face. That handsome face. For perhaps the thousandth time Matt thanked God for restoring Mike to him after their separation.
Mike's eyes opened shortly thereafter, and he smiled into his partner's eyes.
"What?" Matt asked, grinning back, as Mike studied him intently.
"I love you, man. Body and soul. Totally. That's all," Mike said.
Matt held his lover's face in his hands and caressed it tenderly, stroking gently under his eyes with his thumbs. "We just keep getting better together, y'know? I don't just mean the sex."
After a few more minutes, his powers of thought gradually returning, Matt shifted gears. "Listen, I need to get back to studying, but we need to talk about Christmas sometime soon," Matt said. "As usual, it's snuck up on us."
"What about it?" Mike asked.
"Well, you know we told Mom and Dad at Thanksgiving that we'd spend Christmas at home with them in Pennsylvania," Matt said. "And we need to do that for Dad's sake. He needs the time at home. But now we have Chris, and we can't all just traipse off and leave him alone here."
"You're right. We'll hafta talk to Mom and Dad about it, of course, but I say we take everybody home, including Chris. And I think we should invite Carole to go with us, too. We can't leave her here to spend Christmas alone if Chris goes with us."
"That sounds good to me," Matt said. "Let's call Mom in a little while. There are plenty of bedrooms if they open up the old wing of the house. Mom and Dad love having a crowd there, you know that, and so do Branford and Mrs. Brighton."
"Andie!" Mike exclaimed. "We forgot Andie. She needs to come with us, too."
"Absolutely! Jeff'll be grumpy if she's not there! Now that I think about it, 'grumpy' probably doesn't cover what he'd be! Thoroughly pissed off is more like it!"
"OK," Mike said. "I'll tell ya what! With this many people, and with Chris still with a cast on his arm and leg, I think we should charter a plane. We have enough people to justify the expense. I'll call tomorrow and see what we can get. How does that grab ya?" Mike asked, palming his partner's now-flaccid cock.
"It grabs me perfectly, just like you always do. I think this will be a most excellent adventure!" Matt kissed him, reclaimed his dick, and they rolled out of bed in a very good mood and re-dressed in gym shorts to hit the books until they called their mother.
Later in the evening, on a hunch, they called their dad's apartment in Washington instead of home, and sure enough, their mother answered.
"Broman residence," she said.
"Mommy! It's Matt."
"And also Mike, your more mature son," Mike said from his extension.
Jane Broman laughed. "Dad, it's Matt and Mike. Get on an extension."
There was a click.
"All right, you guys," Justice Broman said. "What's going on?"
"Mon pere," Matt said. "Wie gehts?"
"I think you'd better settle on one language or the other, Matt," Justice Broman suggested with a laugh. "You'll confuse the guys manning the government wiretap."
"They wouldn't dare tap your phone!" Mike said indignantly.
"I think I'm kidding," Mr. Broman said. "But there are all kinds of strange things going on these days."
"Nothing is as strange as your firstborn's antics, I can assure you of that," Mike said.
"So you're saying things are normal," Jane Broman said.
"Yeah," Mike said, laughing. "Perfectly normal."
"Humph!" Matt said. "Listen, I wanted to touch base with you about Christmas. There are a few complications on our end."
"You're not coming home?" Mrs. Broman wailed.
"No," Matt said. "We're coming. We promised we would when you were here at Thanksgiving. But we're bringing everybody, if that's all right."
"Who's everybody?" Mrs. Broman asked.
"Let's see," Mike said. "There's Matt and me, Mary, Stan and Linda, Matthew, Michael and Kyle, Chris Russo, and his Aunt Carole. Carole Maggliozzi. And Andie Parker. That's 11 of us. And Breakers makes 12."
"Chris Russo. That's the young police officer who caught the man who stabbed you, isn't it?" Justice Broman asked. "We met him at your wedding."
"Yes," Matt said. "He was shot a few weeks ago when he was on patrol, and he's recuperating here at the condo. He has a cast on one arm and one leg. We can't leave him here, and anyway, it will give him a real lift to be with us for Christmas. He and his aunt are the only family either of them has, so that's why we want to bring Carole. She's nice, you'll like her. Mom, I know bringing all these people is an imposition..."
"No, sweetheart," Mrs. Broman said. "The more the merrier, you know that. We can open up the bedrooms in the old wing of the house. We have plenty of room. Jack and Judy will be here, and Grandma, if she's able to travel, which is 'iffy.' The staff at home will be happy to have something to do. Anyway, we're looking forward to seeing you all. It will be wonderful to have you home."
"Let's keep Jeff in the dark about Andie," Matt suggested. "He'll fall on his butt when he sees her. We'll warn her at this end not to say anything when he calls her."
"All right," Mrs. Broman said. "But keep my name out of your little joke, please."
"Yes! This is gonna be fun! Now I'm seriously pumped!" Matt said.
"Me, too!" Mike said. "I miss you both."
"We miss you, too, son. How are you getting over here?" Mr. Broman asked.
"I'm going to charter a plane," Mike said.
"Good idea," Justice Broman responded. "You have enough people to make it worthwhile."
They all continued to talk about the arrangements for the trip and how good it was going to be to have a houseful of guests until they finally hung up, leaving everyone anticipating what a wonderful Christmas this would be.
After they got off the phone, Mike ran back to his and Matt's bedroom, where he grabbed his partner and covered his face with big, sloppy wet kisses, just for the sheer joy of it.
* * *
Chris had fallen for Matthew, Michael and Kyle in a big way. The young cop had hardly arrived for his stay at the condo when the three boys started making a beeline for his room immediately after they came home from pre-school every day. After several days, Chris found himself counting the hours and minutes until those little faces peeked in the door and the boys asked if they could come in. The kids had awakened in him feelings that he had never expected.
The hospital bed was tall, so the boys had dragged the highchairs they had pretty much outgrown at that point, without the trays affixed, into Chris' room. Crammed into their respective seats, the three of them sat high enough to see Chris eye to eye and carry on a conversation. So, simultaneously with the start of his recuperation at the condo, Chris began to get detailed descriptions from the kids about what went on at school every day.
"All right," Chris said to the boys one afternoon, having himself watched cartoons on TV all morning, "I want to know which one of you guys is really 'Spongebob Squarepants.' Be honest, now, and tell me the truth. I know one of you is, for sure You're just in disguise."
The boys looked at each other with big blue eyes, and started laughing.
"No-o-o-o!" Matthew said. "But you prolly work at the Krusty Krab!"
"Oh, no I don't!" Chris said. "Well, which one of you has the squarest pants? He's probably 'Spongebob.' Who is it? Will the real Spongebob please stand up?!"
"It might be Michael," Kyle suggested. "It's not me, I know that."
Michael denied it, of course. But the great Spongebob Squarepants controversy gave the four of them several hours of pleasure wrangling about who it was, and which of them might be Spongebob's best friends, 'Patrick' and 'Squidward.' The kids loved it.
When the boys told Matt about it, he decided he was going to have a little fun. On the way home from school one day, he stopped at a store and bought a yellow T-shirt and a pair of the ugliest brown boxer shorts on the face of the earth. When he got home, he wet the boxers with water, took some starch; and shaped the leg openings into squares. The next afternoon he came home a little early, and while the boys were in Chris' room talking as usual, he put on the yellow T and starched boxers with the square leg holes and walked in on them.
"Hi!" he said, looking pleased with himself. "I'm Spongebob Squarepants, and I heard you've been looking for me."
The three boys began to laugh, and Chris laughed so hard he almost fell out of bed. The boys came over to their dad and felt the "squarepants."
"These are stiff, Dad," Michael said. "You better put these in the laundry." And then it was Matt's turn to laugh.
The joke played, Matt gave the squarepants to Mike, telling him that he wanted him to wear them exclusively on any day he thought he might want to have sex, because they were now his "lucky boxers." Mike's reply was vigorous and unprintable.
Of her own volition, Linda had assumed primary responsibility for care of Chris, backed up by Mary when Linda had to be in class. Chris and Linda had developed a good relationship, and Chris had quickly lost his initial shyness with her when he was naked, being bathed, and having her help him with his basic bodily functions. She handled her duties like the true professional she was.
Chris also began to develop an appreciation for how this unusual little family in the condo functioned so well. It looked effortless at first glance, but it clearly depended on everyone carrying out a daily set of basic tasks while working with complicated personal schedules. What needed to be done was done well, though.
Following Chris' doctor's orders and Mike's instructions, before many days had passed Linda had Chris sitting up on the side of his bed, and up on crutches for increasing periods of time every day walking around the condo. She was troubled when she saw that there seemed to be some residual weakness in Chris' left hand--he had been shot in the right side of his head, the side of brain which controls the motor functions on the left side of the body. When she told Mike what she was observing, he was concerned as well, and gave Chris a rubber ball to squeeze over and over in that left hand as opportunity presented itself. Mike discussed the problem with Chris' neurosurgeon, and a date was set to take him back to the U of C Hospital for a follow-up exam.
The exam confirmed that there was likely to be at least some permanent weakness in Chris' left hand, although he was far from suffering paralysis in that hand. Other functions on the left side of his body were normal. The realization that this probably spelled the end of Chris' career as a police officer was not lost on him, and he soon fell into a downward emotional spiral. Within days, only Matthew, Michael and Kyle could bring half a smile to his face. Even when Zia Carole came up to visit, she had a hard time getting him to talk, which upset her terribly. Linda began to have trouble getting him to eat his meals and to do his exercises. He began to spend more and more time alone in his room alone rather than joining the others in the den for TV or conversation. The whole family worried about him, and Mike seriously considered urging Chris to allow a therapist to come in and talk with him.
One evening Matt took a break from studying in his bedroom and walked down the hall. Peering into Chris' dimly lighted room, he saw him lying in his bed passively--no music, no TV, eyes half shut, his face an expressionless mask. Taking a deep breath, Matt went in and shut the door behind him. Chris looked over at him blankly and then looked away.
"Hey, Chris, we need to talk," Matt said, approaching the bed and sitting down in a chair.
"Can we make it some other time?" Chris asked. "I don't feel like it right now."
"No, not really. This is as good a time as we're gonna get."
Chris sighed. "All right."
"I know we've never had the chance to know each other really well, not yet, anyway. But I think highly of you and what you've already accomplished in your life. I'm wondering--do you have any trust in me at all?" Matt asked.
"I mean, do you have any respect or trust or confidence in me at all as a person?"
"Well, as you said, we don't know each other all that well," Chris said. "I think you're a good person, though, if that's what you're asking. You and Mike have been very good to me and Aunt Carole."
"Well, thank you. That's nice of you to say, but believe me, I didn't come in here to collect your thanks. I came in here because, to be blunt, I think you need an attitude adjustment, buddy. And I'm just the guy to do that, because I've been lucky enough to get so many of these attitude adjustments when I needed 'em, from people who cared enough about me to go to the trouble."
Chris said nothing and stared at the wall.
"Let me ask you something," Matt said. "What do you see when you look at Mike and me?"
"I don't wanna play twenty questions with you, Matt."
"Let's make this painless, Chris. What do you see?"
"I don't know. Young guys, smart, good looking. What do you want me to say?"
Matt smiled. "Smart, good looking, rich, no problems. Never had any problems. Am I right?"
"I suppose you can't be blamed for thinking that, but I wanna share some things with you that..." --Matt hesitated-- "...just might give you a little more accurate picture. Contrary to what you think, life hasn't been a bed of roses for Mike and me, especially Mike."
Chris looked at him, expressionless.
"Before I say anything more, I want you to know that I'm not smart enough to have figured most of this out on my own. A lot of it I know only because of things my dad has said to me and Mike over the years, and from watching how my mom and dad have handled the bad news in their lives. I hope that'll give what I'm going to tell you a little more credence," Matt said.
"There's never a good time for problems like you're facing to arise," Matt continued. "But they come along anyway. I know you're hurting right now, physically and every other way. You're feeling down, and understandably so. I'm not trying to shame you into being cheerful. You're grieving the possible loss of your career in law enforcement because of your injury. I get that. This is the work you wanted to do, and you sacrificed plenty to equip yourself to do the job. And I understand very well that there's no timetable on grief and no guaranteed cure for it, so I'm not claiming to be omniscient about how long it should take for your mental attitude to improve. Not by a long shot.
"Mike and I have had some pretty rough times ourselves, and our money and social standing didn't do a thing to protect us. Maybe you already know this, but when we were in college, Mike's whole family was killed in a plane crash. He had to fight hard to keep going, and it wasn't easy. Later on, we were outed on campus for being gay, and Mike got beaten to a pulp, almost, by masked guys with baseball bats. The physical pain for him was bad enough, but I think the pain of feeling that people hated us, or at least were looking down on us, because we were gay, was worse by far.
"We both started grieving what we perceived as our loss of status. But we were both jocks, and what the outing and the beating eventually did for us was to move us pretty fast from grief to being pissed off. It made us set up team meetings and tell our teammates, fuck yes, we're gay and we're partners, but that we loved our school and our sport and that nothing was going to stop us from giving our two teams all the dedication and energy we had. Being angry enough to confront the issue like that had a good outcome. Not one of our teammates turned his back on us. In fact, they all started looking out for us around campus. People on campus who didn't like us because we were gay watched their mouths when they were around our teammates, I can tell you that. If you were homophobic, you couldn't be too public about it or there were consequences. And the threat of physical harm to gays on campus dropped significantly as a result. In the world we face every day, though, we're well aware that a significant part of the population hates us without ever knowing us. That's just a fact we live with, and will all our lives.
"That was brought home to me in a big way when I got stabbed on the beach. Somebody hated me enough to try to kill me! If it hadn't been for Mike and the family; I don't think I would have made it. I know my attitude around home hasn't always been the greatest as I've been recuperating from that, but I'm trying to do better all the time, believe me.
"I know you're sad about what happened to you--we all are. And maybe you're angry about it, too--I know I am. Of the two, sadness or anger, I'd rather have you be damned angry about what's happened to you. I'm asking you not to grieve about it more than you have to. And don't you even dare think that what happened to you is a sign that the good things, the good times, in your life are over. Grief and depression about this injury can eat you up if you let them own you for too long. I know that for a fact. If you can't shake your grief, though, and sometimes people can't, I want you to let us know. There's help for that. But best case scenario, I want you to use your anger to move you forward into a new plan for your life if it really works out you can't be a cop anymore. I know this is just a personal opinion, but when a door closes for any of us, a lot of times another door will open for us if we look for it. I think you need to take a step back from what's happened to you and begin to look for what can come out of this whole thing.
"Above all, I want you to know that you're not alone in facing whatever's around the corner for you, Chris. We're here for you. Mike and I and everybody who lives here sees good things in you. We see love and caring in you. We see strength in you. We see good character in you. We're your friends, and don't you forget it. And because you are a friend, if you even remotely think about giving up and not working to your potential, I give you my personal word we'll kick your ass bigtime." Matt paused and looked down at the floor, and then back up at Chris. "I guess that's all I have to say. I hope you'll give it some thought."
Chris swallowed hard, and then slowly turned his head and looked Matt in the eye. Nothing was said for a long moment as the two young men stared at one another.
"Matt, I don't know what to tell you right now. I'll certainly think about what you've said." Chris paused. "I know I probably needed to hear it. So, thanks."
Chris stuck out his hand. Matt got up from his chair, and they shook on it.
Matt started to walk out of the room, but turned back at the door.
"By the way, buddy, you're flying home to Pennsylvania with all of us for Christmas. We're asking Aunt Carole to come along, too."
Matt didn't see it as he left, but Chris got a look of total surprise on his face, shaking his head in amazement about what had just transpired between the two of them. He knew one thing--he hadn't really been looking forward to the holidays all that much, but now he was starting to.
Staring at the wall of his bedroom, his thoughts drifted back to his growing-up years. His mother had had to struggle, working full time as a secretary while raising a son alone, but she'd never given up. He'd never lacked for the essentials, but there had never been much money for any frills. Mrs. Russo had kept him on a short leash during his school years and made him study. His grades were good, which made him eligible for sports, which he really liked and for which he had some talent. He'd played some football, and also done a little boxing. His grades in high school had been good enough to earn him a scholarship for the college education that he otherwise could never have afforded. His mom had had a hard life, though, and it had taken its toll. She had died of a brain aneurysm his junior year in college. That was when he went to live with his Aunt Carole, his mother's sister, when he wasn't away at college.
All in all, his life hadn't been an easy one, but like his mom, he had never been a quitter. He knew instinctively that Matt had been right in what he had said.
So at that point he shed the last tears he was going to shed about being shot and what it meant for his life and his career. When he was finished, he dried his face, sat up on the side of the bed, put on his robe and reached for his crutches. Cursing softly under his breath about the inconvenience of his condition, he went to join the family in the den. Everyone was very happy to see him. After he got comfortable on the couch, the boys climbed up and sat beside him. He started to feel better about things.
Later that night, Linda went back to Matt's and Mike's room and knocked on the door, which was partially ajar. Matt looked up from his desk, where he was sitting in his gym shorts, studying.
"Hi, Matt. Did you or Mike have a talk with Chris tonight?" she asked.
"Yeah. I did. Why?"
"You're some kind of miracle worker, that's all."
"He's done a total 180 as far as his spirits are concerned. He even apologized to me for being so down lately. Whatever you said, patent it and sell it, Matt. It works."
Matt got a big smile on his face. "Chris is a tough guy. He's gonna be fine. Thanks for telling me, Linda."
* * *
Clad in his usual U Penn baseball cap and athletic jacket, duffel bag slung over one shoulder, Jeff bounded up the stairs to the coach house after his usual two hour, early afternoon workout at the gym. His wife beater was soaked with sweat under his jacket. His eyes and skin were glowing. He was the epitome of the healthy young jock, a real eye magnet.
Sometimes he resented the time commitment he had made to maintaining and improving his physical fitness, but the reality was that his training program had some of the qualities of an addiction by now. Although occasionally he had to force himself to go to the gym when he was feeling lazy, once he was there, he loved it. He couldn't stop. But it sure puts a big hole in the day, he often thought to himself.
Opening the door of the coach house and entering the hall, he glanced into their little living room and saw Martha sitting on the couch, studying.
He detoured from his intended route back to his bedroom, and throwing his duffel bag down along with his jacket, went in and sat down beside her.
"Hey, sis. 'Sup?"
"Chemistry, unfortunately. It sucks bigtime. Not my favorite subject, I can tell you that! I'm really sick of it!"
Jeff chuckled. "Yeah, I know. But think of all the little animals who will be happy you know all the chemicals to get 'em high. They'll give you lots of kisses. Heh."
"Uh huh. Well, I'll take 'em. Why are you in such a good mood?"
"I'm just thinking about Christmas. Matt and Mike promised Mom and Dad at Thanksgiving that they'd come home this year. Should be fun. The only thing is, I won't get to see Andie. So I was thinking about going over to Chicago to see her after Christmas, before school starts again."
"That sounds like an excellent idea!" Martha said. "You're flying, I hope."
"I hadn't thought that far ahead yet. But that's prolly the only way I can make it work. I just don't wanna get any flack from Dad about my credit card bill, that's all."
"Well, if you drove, you'd no sooner get to Chicago than you'd hafta turn around and come back."
"Yeah, I know," Jeff said.
"Fares are cheap right now. You can fly cheaper than you can drive, probably. Anyway, you can put the airline charges on my card if you want to. Dad never says anything to me."
"I know it." Jeff grimaced. "And that really pisses me off. Just because you're 'the daughter,' you can do no wrong."
"Hey, there hafta be some advantages to being the baby girl in the family, y'know."
"I won't even touch that issue. If I fly to Chicago from home after Christmas, will you drive my truck back to school?"
"Yes," Martha agreed.
"Cool! All right, let me take a shower, and then let's call Matt and Mike and find out about their plans. And Andie, of course." Jeff got a big smile on his face.
"You've got it bad for her, doncha?" Martha asked..
"I'd have to be blind to miss it." Martha shoved her brother good naturedly on the shoulder. "Hurry up and shower, you stink."
"Doncha love it?" Jeff asked as he stood up and headed for the bathroom.
"Get over yourself!" Martha laughed.
Twenty minutes later Jeff ambled back into the living room all cleaned up, portable phone in hand, and dropped down on the couch. Martha picked up the living room phone on the table next to her, and speed dialed the condo in Chicago. Jeff turned on his phone and put it to his ear.
"One ringy dingy, two ringy dingies..." Jeff started counting. Martha smiled. The kid was irrepressible.
A strange voice finally answered after the fourth ring.
"Hi," Martha said. "Who's this?"
"This is Chris. Chris Russo."
"Hi, Chris," Martha answered, a little surprised. "This is Martha Broman. Jeff's on with me, too."
"Hey, Chris. How goes it, dude?" Jeff interjected.
"Not bad," Chris lied. "How are you guys?"
"Bored with school and lonesome for the wonderful people of Chicago," Jeff said. "Is Matt or Mike there?"
"No, both of 'em are still at school," the young cop said. "They're still playing catch-up from taking time off for their honeymoon. Do you want me to have 'em call you when they get in?"
"Yeah, we should probably talk to them," Martha said. "Just tell 'em Jeff and I were wondering about their Christmas plans. I know they're coming to Pennsylvania. We just wondered what their time schedule is."
"Cool. I'll have 'em get back to you."
"Thanks, Chris," Jeff said. "Laters."
"Hey, guys?" Chris said just before they broke the connection.
"Yes?" Martha asked.
"Maybe it's not my place to tell you this, but it's such good news...Mary got a clean bill of health from the doc. She's cancer-free."
"ALL RIGHT!!" Jeff yelled.
"I'm so glad!! That's awesome!" Martha said. "Is she there?"
"No, she went grocery shopping. She should be back in a few, though," Chris said.
"You give her our love, ' K, Chris?" Jeff said. "Tell her we're looking forward to seeing her at home."
"Will do," Chris said. "See ya then."
They broke the connection, still smiling about the good news, and Jeff high-fived his sister.
Martha looked at Jeff. "'See ya then?' Is that what he said? Is Chris living at the condo? Is he coming to Mom's and Dad's for Christmas?"
"I dunno. You'll hafta call Miss Cloe if ya want all the answers, Mart. What I do know is, this 'family' just keeps getting bigger, but not by the usual methods. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot screwing going on for some, but I'm sure as hell not doing my share."
"You're gross!" Martha said, laughing. "And you have a one-track mind!"
"Uh huh. You gonna make the reservations to Chicago for me?" Jeff asked.
"Yes, I'll do it."
"Ya gonna get a limo to meet me?"
"Neven!" Martha said emphatically.
"Come on. Since it's on your credit card, Dad won't care."
Martha capitulated. "Oh, all right. Consider it part of your Christmas present."
"Way! To! Go! I like you!"
"You should. What are ya gonna do for me in return?" Martha asked.
"Hmmm. I'll fix supper tonight."
"You'll burn supper, you mean. What's on the menu?"
"It'll be a surprise, let's just leave it at that," Jeff said with a grin. "I gotta call Andie now."
"Not in front of you. No way. I'll be in my bedroom. No listening in on the phone, either! I don't want you knowing all our secrets."
"Your secrets don't require all that much imagination, buddy," Martha said, laughing. "And don't be hangin' on the phone all afternoon if you want me to make your reservations."
"I won't. I gotta study," he said.
"Tell Andie 'hi' from me,' she told him.
Martha watched Jeff fondly as he stood up and went to his room. He was pure stud muffin. Entirely too cute for his own good, he was just one of those people who unselfconsciously "filled his space" completely without making others around him feel he was stepping on their toes in any way. He was also the kind of person you enjoyed doing things for, not because he demanded it or expected it, but because he appreciated it so much. It was impossible not to love the boy, even if you were his sister. The beauty of it was that Jeff wasn't stuck on himself at all.
* * *
Josh Harkness, Chris' state trooper friend that Matt and Mike had met at the hospital the night Chris had been shot, had finally called. Mike had invited him to dinner two nights before the family was set to fly to Pennsylvania.
"Josh, you do know that Chris is staying with us, right?" Mike had asked him. "That's not a problem, is it? I mean, his knowing you're coming here?"
"No, not at all," Josh said. "I'm way overdue for a visit to see him, anyway. I've kind of put it off until he'd be feeling better. Maybe after I bring him up to speed on what's going on at work and stuff, though, Matt and you and I could talk privately at some point."
"That'll be fine."
"That is, if you guys are sure you can spare the time."
"No problem. We'll see you Wednesday night. Anytime after 6. Matt and I are never later than that, and we usually eat early because of the kids. It's casual. Levi's and T's. Bring some swimming trunks if you like to swim."
" 'K. Thanks, Mike. See ya."
Josh showed up right on time on Wednesday, freshly off duty and still in his state trooper's uniform, and parked his squad car in front of the condo. Mike greeted him when he stepped off the elevator on the penthouse floor, and the young cop looked handsome and healthy. Under one arm he had a pair of swimming trunks, as Mike had suggested. When they went into the den, there was Chris with a big smile on his face, sitting in his robe on the couch with his broken leg up on the coffee table. The three kids, along with Mary, Linda and Stan, were sitting with him. Josh bent down and shook hands with Chris, who then introduced him to the adults and the boys. The kids were impressed with Josh's uniform and immediately started grilling him about his job, brash little creatures that they were. No one was a stranger for long with them.
Matt came in a minute later from setting the dining room table for dinner. He and Josh shook hands.
"Hey, Josh! Glad you could make it. You're lookin' pretty spif for this bunch," he said, checking out the trooper uniform. "As long as you're wearing your badge, though, put Mike under arrest."
"What's the charge?" Josh asked.
"Lewd and lascivious joke telling while engaging in unlawful restraint of partner," Matt said. "There's gotta be a law against that on the books somewhere."
Mike just shook his head as Josh laughed. "Probably," Josh said. "Anyway, I'm sorry I'm still in uniform. I got off work a little late, so I didn't have time to get back to the station and change. I brought swimming trunks, though," he said, waving them in the air.
"Good. Mike, Josh is about your size," Matt suggested. "Why don't you give him a pair of Levi's and a T-shirt so he's more comfortable? Dinner should be ready in about 20 minutes."
"Good idea," Mike agreed. "Common, Josh." He led the way back to his and Matt's bedroom, where he pulled a pair of jeans and a T-shirt out of his dresser, gave them to Josh, and then left him to change.
When dinner was ready, everybody gathered in the dining room, including Chris for the first time since he'd come to stay in the condo. They all held hands around the table as Mary returned thanks, and then they sat down to a mammoth tureen of beef and vegetable stew, accompanied by a green salad and garlic bread, courtesy of Chef Matt. The adults all drank red table wine, the kids, milk. Conversation was lively, as usual, and at one point Chris explained to the family that he and Josh had been friends all through middle school and high school, when Josh and he played on the football team. They had then both attended the U of I, and were roommates the last three out of the four years there, after which they both went to the police academy together to become career law enforcement officers. They were best friends.
"My compliments to the chef," Mike said, looking at his partner as they finished eating. "Would you believe that this guy has never had a cooking lesson, other than watching me prepare fine cuisine?" he asked Josh.
"I don't know who taught whom, but it sure was good!" Stan said.
"Stanley, you are so freaking literate these days, dude, I don't know what to say," Matt interjected. " '...who taught whom.' Wow!"
"It's because you and Mike set such high standards for grammatical purity," Stan shot back. "Following your example is almost mandatory."
"This is all Mike's fault," Matt said. "He encouraged you to go to college. And now look what's happened. Pretty soon we won't have enough smarts to communicate with you at all!"
"You have to share the blame on that one, Matt," Stan said. "Actually, you were the one who started to push my buttons about an illustrious college career, you dufus. I cain talk real good now when I wanna. Duh! Ain't it true, woman?" he asked Linda.
"Don't get me involved in your little games," Linda responded. "Nurses are neutral, right, Mary?"
"Absolutely! We never know whom we're going to have to care for next," Mary agreed, to general laughter.
Chris and Josh sat there in amusement listening to the banter.
When supper was over, Stan cleared the table and filled the dishwasher while Matt, Mike and Josh went into the living room and pulled three comfortable chairs together. Snow crystals were beating loudly against the big windows facing the lake, and it was a good night to be inside. Before they got down to talking, Mike walked back to the doors between the den and the living room and asked Linda if she'd light the den fireplace. Then he shut the doors between the two rooms for privacy, and came back and settled into his chair.
"Thanks for supper, guys. I've really enjoyed this evening," Josh said.
"We're glad you could come over, and it's not over yet," Matt said. "The pool awaits. Anyway, we didn't know how close you and Chris are or we would have made sure you got up here before now to help keep Chris' spirits up."
"How's he doing?" Josh asked. "He seems very upbeat."
"He's doing fine," Mike said, not wanting to get too much into Chris' problems. Chris could tell Josh whatever he wanted him to know.
"Knowing Chris, you guys have made a friend for life," Josh said. "He never forgets people who do him a good turn."
"We're glad he's here," Matt said. "And the kids love him. They spend hours in his room, just talking. That's really good, 'cause Mike and I are sometimes too much under the gun to spend as much time with the boys as we'd like."
"I know you're busy," Josh said, "so let me tell you why I wanted to talk to you." Josh paused, swallowing hard.
"The weekend before Chris was shot," he continued, "he and I went out to hit a few bars and talk about old times. I ended up getting pretty toasted, and in the midst of talking about some personal shit, I told him something that I never would have under normal circumstances. I admitted to him that I think I'm gay." Josh's handsome face reddened, and he looked down at the floor.
Matt and Mike were silent, waiting for him to go on.
"Surprisingly, I didn't get the reaction from him I would have expected," Josh said. "We were both pretty macho guys in high school and college, and we were both pretty homophobic, to be truthful. Or at least we talked a good game. But when I came out to him in the bar, Chris didn't punch me out or look horrified or disapproving or anything like that. He just sat there calmly, looking at me, drinking his beer. I told him I was surprised he didn't just deck me or push me away, end our friendship, and stomp out of the bar.
"He said that a few months ago he might have done just that, but that he had recently met two young guys who were domestic partners raising three little kids, nice guys who looked and acted perfectly normal and were good athletes. He said one of them had been stabbed when he was running on the beach, and that when he'd been undercover he'd stumbled into a bunch of guys--your basic skinhead type--who had murdered one gay man outside a bar on Halsted Street and whose leader had done the beach stabbing. Chris did his part to get those assholes off the street, as you know. He said that Captain Angelo of the Chicago PD had introduced him to you two, and that he'd subsequently attended your wedding and been at your reception afterward here at your condo. Chris told me that as a result of meeting you and getting to know you, he's had to rethink his attitude toward gays. He said he wanted me to talk to you guys before I came out to anybody else, if that's what I had in mind to do. I thought it was a good idea, and that's why I'm here. I'm totally confused about my situation at this point, to be honest with you."
Mike reached over and bumped fists with Josh, followed by Matt.
"Josh," Matt said, "I want to tell you right up front that whatever you tell us is confidential as far as we're concerned. Nothing you say to us will be shared with Chris or anybody else. You can tell him what you want to tell him later about our conversation, but Chris won't hear anything from us."
"You also need to be aware that Mike and I would be the last to claim we're experts about what it means to be gay," Matt continued. "I don't know how typical we are. We may not be typical in a lot of ways, to be truthful. We certainly aren't formally trained when it comes to issues of sexual orientation, although Mike may have picked up some information in his medical training, I don't know. But what we can do is talk to you about our experiences in coping with people's reactions to us because we're gay, if you think that would be helpful. I know we would have appreciated talking over our issues with someone before we came out, but there wasn't anyone available."
"Well, hearing you out can't hurt, and it will probably help me," Josh said.
"I understand that coming out to Matt and me, even knowing we're both gay, wasn't easy for you, Josh," Mike said. "A lot of gay people live for years, sometimes a whole lifetime, in public denial about their orientation. A few can't even admit it to themselves. So opening up about it, especially when you're sober"--Mike smiled--"isn't a walk in the park, particularly with strangers. Those first steps in coming out of hiding can be pretty uncomfortable, and I speak from personal experience. Some people never take that step, and that's certainly their decision to make. Nobody has a right to knowledge about another person's sexual orientation, and a gay person isn't obligated to come out to just everybody he or she knows, either. Anyway, Matt and I admire you for sitting down and talking to us. The reason it's important to wrestle with this issue is that the big secrets in our lives get harder and harder to keep as we get older. Eventually it takes so much energy to hide what we are that we don't, we can't, accomplish what we'd like to in life. And most of the basic joy and pleasure we should be experiencing in the course of living just withers away. So, it's important to understand that there's a price to be paid when we remain silent." Mike paused. "By the way, you do know that somewhere deep down inside, you wanted to tell Chris you're gay, don't you? You can't blame it all on the alcohol."
"I hadn't thought about it that way," Josh said.
"Anyway, sometimes secrets can be bad for us," Matt chimed in, "but Chris gave you good advice when he asked you to talk to us before you start spreading around the information you're gay. Right off the top of my head, you need to be clear in your mind about a few things before you decide to come out. It's not something you want to barge into, because once you're out, you can't take it back. So, first question: are you really gay, and how do you know? Second, if you are gay, how do you feel about your orientation? Third, if you come out, how much support do you think you can count on from people who currently know you and care about you as a straight person? And finally, if the answer to that last question is 'zero' support or close to it, are you really prepared to start your journey alone? Does that kind of sum it up, Mike?"
"Yep. Is this making any sense to you, Josh?"
"Why don't we start with the first question," Matt suggested. "How do you know you're gay?"
"I've been pretty sure since I was in high school," Josh said, "but I never let on to anyone. You're the first people I've ever talked to about it in any detail. Starting back in high school, whenever I fantasized about sex, it always involved a male, never a female. I did my share of dating girls in high school and college, but I've never had sex with a woman, and I don't have any desire to. Any dating I've done has always been a smoke screen. I've always known I was faking it, and it's nothing to brag about. I don't feel too good about it."
"I had a lot of sex with girls my first two years in high school, and I didn't really know I was gay 'til I was a junior," Mike said. "That's when I first had sex with another boy on the high school swim team. After that, any dating of girls was a smokescreen for me, too."
"I didn't know I was gay until just before our sophomore year in college, when Mike forced me to have sex with him repeatedly," Matt said with a grin. "I've been his sex slave ever since."
Josh got a distressed look on his face.
Matt saw his expression. "Oh, man, Josh, I'm truly sorry! I forgot you don't know about our weird sense of humor. I was kidding! Our sex was totally consensual then and always has been. Please don't infer from my joking around that I'm not taking this conversation seriously! I am."
"Jeez, Matt! You dweeb!" Mike said, frowning.
"You took me by surprise, that's all," Josh said, obviously relieved.
"Josh, have you ever had sex with a man?" Mike asked.
Josh blushed. "No."
"There's no shame in having abstained," Mike said. "Are you in love with anyone in particular?"
"Yes, I am." Josh's face turned a deeper shade of red, if that was possible.
"We don't have to go there if it makes you uncomfortable," Mike assured him.
Josh sighed. "Well, you know my biggest secret, so you may as well know my second biggest. I'm in love with Chris. I have been since the first time I ever laid eyes on him back in middle school."
Matt looked surprised. Mike didn't.
"Does he know?" Matt asked.
"I don't think so. I sure as hell hope not," Josh said. "He's straight as a die."
"We assumed he was, but we didn't know for sure," Matt said.
"All right then, " Mike said, "let's proceed on the basis that you are in fact gay, Josh. How do you feel about that?"
"Well, don't take offense, but I absolutely hate the idea that I'm gay. It's really hard for me to accept, even though I know there's no way of changing a person's orientation. At least not that I know of, and I've done quite a bit of reading about homosexuality."
"In general, do you like yourself, Josh?" Mike watched the young cop's face intently.
"Yes, most of the time I do. But I hate myself when I have fantasies about Chris. Chris is my friend, for God's sake. I shouldn't be thinking about him in a sexual context, but I can't stop it. I've never been able to. And I find myself checking out other guys in the locker room all the time. Then I feel ashamed of myself."
"Why do you hate the idea of being gay so much, do you think?" Matt asked. "Is your aversion to it based on your religious beliefs, or what?"
"Partly. I'm Roman Catholic, like Chris, and you know how strong the church's views on homosexuality are. Don't laugh, but I want to be a good person. In addition to that, it's always been important to me to be 'one of the guys.' Everybody I know, especially those I work with, think that's exactly what I am. I hate like hell giving that up. It's part of who I am, or at least part of who I'd like to be."
"I know exactly what you're talking about," Matt said. "If I hadn't fallen totally in love with Mike, I'm not sure I ever would have come out. There's obviously more social support for the role of the heterosexual male than the gay male. You're 'one of the guys' if you're dating a woman or partnered with a woman, and you're certainly not viewed that way if you're in a gay partnership.
"You probably don't know this," Matt continued, "but I broke up with Mike at one point and married a wonderful woman named Sarah. I loved her deeply, and we had children--two of the three boys you met tonight were ours, and the third boy was her brother's son that Mike and I adopted. But I have to tell you, the same level of passion wasn't there with my wife that I've always had with Mike, due to no fault of hers. And I know from experience that the great stimulus of living with Mike and loving Mike comes from the fact that he's male. Very male. Very masculine. He excites me every time I see him, sexually and every other way, and that's how I know I'm gay. By the way, if you're wondering what I'm doing sitting here with Mike instead of with my wife, Sarah died in childbirth, and after a year or so I worked up enough courage to ask Mike to take me back. He forgave me for what I had done, and took me back, even though I had hurt him terribly.
"The point I'm trying to make is, unless you're resolved for some reason to be celibate, you can't deny your sexual attractions. That's true no matter what your orientation is. The more powerful your sexual attractions are, particularly if you're free from obligations to other people that would prevent it, the more you should pay attention to those attractions and respond to them. God made you and gave you those attractions, and 'He hates nothing He has made,' to quote Scripture."
"Why don't we come back to your negative feelings about the gay orientation later," Mike suggested. "I think that's going to require some work on your part. I guess the next question is, if you're able to resolve your feelings about being gay and you come out, how much support do you think you can count on from those who mean the most to you? I understand that no one can know for sure what the reaction of those close to us will be until they're faced with the issue. But do you think your parents, for example, and your siblings, if you have any, will be able to accept you and emotionally support you as a gay man?"
Josh groaned. "I honestly don't know for sure. I've never heard my parents talk disparagingly about homosexuals, but I don't know what they really think about it, either. It's never come up. I have two older brothers, and I doubt if they'd be thrilled to hear that their kid brother is queer."
"What about the people you work with?" Matt asked.
"I don't even want to think about that," Josh said. "Cops tend not to be the most open minded people in the world."
"Well, you're going to have to think about it," Mike said. "I know it's painful, and it's going to continue to be painful, but you're going to have to think about everybody who will be affected by your coming out. You need to determine as best you can who's likely to support you and who's going to reject you before you make your decision. Unless, of course, you know in your heart that you're strong enough to make a go of your new public orientation pretty much alone, at least at the beginning."
Josh sat in silence, looking at Matt and Mike, slumped in his chair.
Some of Matt's and Mike's friends faced some real tough challenges in this part. In the next segment, the whole Chicago gang descends on Justice and Mrs. Broman for Christmas. Will Jeff and Andie tie the knot? They'll be thinking about it. Thanks again to Scott (wright28) for editing and proofing Part 2.
Have a great Labor Day, everyone! In my work, I've always been in management. But when I took an advanced degree in human resources at one point, they made us read some labor history. As a result, I've had a heightened appreciation for working men (and women) and what they sacrificed to be able to organize for collective bargaining, including literally shedding their blood for the cause. The unions have certainly proven to be no more venal or corrupt than business, and in most cases, less so. In my opinion, and it's only that, they are a needed, countervailing force in the US.
And now, it's off to Utah on a motorcycle trip. Thanks for all the encouragement for writing this story. firstname.lastname@example.org .