After the last bell, we all gathered at Jay's truck. I arrived first since my English class with Mrs. Wilson was closest to the parking lot, followed shortly by Greg who had been looking around the lot until I waved and hollered to him. I had tossed my books into the back seat of my Corvair, and was leaning against the door, one foot resting on the running board of the old truck parked three feet away in the next ill-defined space of the gravel lot. On the other side of my maroon Corvair sat Benny Ross' purple Barracuda. In all, there were about twenty-five or thirty cars in a wide variety of models and ages; about a third of them were trucks that did double duty as both transport and farm hauler. Jay's '47 Ford pickup was the oldest by more than a decade, and Benny's 'Cuda, being only six years old, was among the newest. Anyone who could save up enough, tried to get a muscle car, but they were rare—most kids being happy for an old Beetle or Duster handed down from a parent or older sibling. Though the gas crisis of a couple years ago had driven prices past 50¢ a gallon, no self-respecting kid would be caught dead behind the wheel of one of those unpronounceable Japanese toys some people said were the wave of the future.
I smiled as I watched Greg approach. The sun brought out the red highlights of his medium-length hair much more than the fluorescents in school, and his skin was dotted with freckles across his cheeks and nose—just enough to catch the eye–and they made me want to play 'connect the dots' as soon as I saw them. Like the rest of us, he'd lost most of his tan, but he still retained a hint of it on the parts of him I could see. He moved with some grace, but it was coupled with a little mix of both confidence and uncertainty I thought was hot. The fact that his jeans were fairly tight didn't hurt either—or his grey tee-shirt hugging his chest beneath his dark-blue corduroy 4-H jacket. He'd waved back when he saw me beckoning him toward Jay's truck, and his tentative smile matched the merriment in his eyes.
"Should you be leaning on that car like that? What if the guy who owns it shows up?" There was some mysterious quality to his voice I couldn't define, a little dark, maybe brooding in a sensual way. He was holding his book bag in one hand, so I grabbed it as I answered him, tossing it in the back next to mine. "If he says anything—I'll tell him to 'fuck off'...and I can always get my cohorts Jabber and Mauler to gang up on him!" For just a moment, his eyes widened in surprise so that their hazy blue-sky shade was clearly evident, then he laughed.
"It's yours, ain't it?" I gave him a grin as I settled back against the door, and he leaned back about a foot away from me, with his own sneaker-clad foot braced with mine on Jay's truck. I gave him my best Maine accent. "Ay-yuh...she's my cah, right enough."
He elbowed me in the side and shook his head. "They don't really talk like that up there do they? It sounds really weird." I had to laugh at his words, not just because of their content, but the way he said them—with that softness and slower-paced drawl so prevalent in central Ohio, where the speed and distinction of the North was joined to the easy flow of words into each other in a decidedly Southern way. 'Y'all' was far more common here than the proper plural 'you'...and 'drug' wasn't an illegal substance, but rather the past tense of 'drag'. And I'd have surely failed in any English assignment at my old school if I used 'ain't' or 'don't' for nearly every person from first to third like they did here instead of 'isn't' or 'doesn't'.
"Heck, Greg, that wasn't even close to some of the things I've heard...and you almost need a translator if you find yourself in some parts of New York City. I'm starting to pick up the local accent again now that I'm back." The stunned look on his face made me smile even wider...he was about to deny having any accent at all. "And you do have one—but Ohio's mix of Northern and Southern has become the standard for television and most media where it will reach nation-wide." I placed a hand on his shoulder for just a second to reassure him. "If it helps, I think it sounds neat."
I don't know why, but I found it easy to talk to Greg like this, one-on-one, just as I had with Jay and Mikey the day before. I wasn't sure if I'd be as open with him as I'd been with Jay yesterday, but I wasn't feeling uncomfortable like I had with the snobs at my old school. I wanted to talk to him and learn more about him, even if he couldn't help me find a boyfriend as my two new friends thought he might. How his being 'observant' could get me my own, I had no idea—it wasn't like you could just go up to someone and say 'I want to go out with you'. Not if you were into guys, and certainly not if you lived in a little one-horse town like this one.
I glanced sideways to get a close-up look at Greg, and I caught him doing the same, then he turned to look at the school exit across the parking lot. I smiled when I saw a faint blush on his cheek, mostly hidden by the angle of his head and the hair that came down to just below the top of his ears, and half-way to his shirt collar. I pretended to focus on the exit as well, but one eye was still on him when I lightly punched his upper arm. "I didn't make you self-conscious did I—when I mentioned your accent? I didn't mean to—it's just that I notice things like that and think they're cool."
Greg shifted position slightly, switching feet on Jay's running board so that his left leg was now next to my right, and he gave me a small grin. "Nah...I just never thought I had one before, not like my cousins down in Kentucky do. Papaw moved up here after the War and saved up for a farm by working in a factory. He died a couple years ago, and my uncle has the farm now..." I could easily detect the wistful tone as he spoke about the farm, and his grandfather. I got the feeling that they had been very close, whereas my own grandparents had died when I was little. It sucked being an only child as well as one born late in life. Sure, I had cousins but most of them were a good ten years older than me.
"Want to hear something else?" Greg nodded curiously, head tilted slightly to one side, giving me a three-quarter view of his face. "Appalachian dialect has its roots in Scottish and goes back almost to the time of Queen Elizabeth—the first one, I mean—not the one we have now...and...American English in general keeps all the older forms and meanings of words which the British have dropped in the past couple hundred years."
I received a blank look, and I started cursing myself for being such a dork, trying too hard to impress a new friend, when he snickered. "No shit?" Now it was my turn to blush, and I know he saw it because his grin widened even farther. "I thought Miles was the language nut, and you were into history?" I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. "Okay Mr. Know-It-All...who was the first man into Kentucky—and I'll tell you right now—it wasn't Daniel Boone!"
Greg had to be crazy, or making this up—everybody knew that Daniel Boone was the first man into the Kentucky country—he even led settlers into it. I thought and thought, but couldn't come up with anything other than Daniel Boone—he had to be playing a trick or something. Finally, I shook my head. "I give up—if it isn't him, then I don't know."
Greg then did something amazing, at least to me. "It's even in a song— Cumberland Gap..." And he proceeded to sing it to me!
Lay down boys, gonna take a little nap...
Fourteen miles to Cumberland Gap.
Cumberland Gap is a place of rocks,
Home of the panther and the bear and the fox,
First white man in the Cumberland Gap,
Was Dr. Walker an English chap,
Lay down boys, gonna take a little nap...
Gonna raise hell at the Cumberland Gap!
"My papaw used to sing that song to me all the time, along with other songs he heard when he was little...that one goes back to the War Between The States. Dr. Thomas Walker was an English physician from Virginia who found the Gap in 1750—Daniel Boone led settlers through later." He looked embarrassed and dropped his gaze down to his feet, but before I could comment, he went on. "I don't have the greatest voice, but it was the best I could do without my guitar..."
"Shit, Greg, who're you kidding? That sounded great! I couldn't carry a tune even if you gave me a bucket to do it in." We shared a little laugh, then I remembered what else he'd said. "You play guitar, too?" His answering nod was small, and he added that he could also play banjo, but not as well as his grandfather had. From what I could gather, the man had been able to play guitar, banjo, and the fiddle in addition to singing.
"Do you play in the band?" I bit my lip as soon as the words left my mouth—whoever heard of a guitar in a marching band? The stare I got for that remark was worthy of a scientist examining a germ under a microscope.
"Sure—I'm right next to the guy on the piano!" We both broke into gales of laughter at that comment, and I had to brace myself against the side of my car to keep from falling over. I was wiping my eyes from the tears, and so missed Jay and Mikey's approach. "What's up with you two?" I heard Jay ask, wanting to be let in on the joke. I managed to catch Greg's slight shake of his head, and grinned back at him—I was all for keeping the joke to ourselves if it would frustrate Jay—I owed him one for having to keep his and Mikey's asses out of trouble while they played in the restroom at lunch. Greg was the first to get his voice back under control. "It's nothing, just talking about the school band..." and we started laughing again.
Jay huffed in disgust and muttered 'Fine' as he walked around to the driver's side of his truck, and Mikey stood watching us with his arms crossed over his chest. "I don't know what's so funny about the band, maybe it's because I've never heard them...I don't like marches." He frowned when the grins on our faces widened even more, and I couldn't resist saying what popped into my head next. "Oh, do you like piano music instead?" Greg doubled over holding his stomach and his other hand gripping my arm for support, which made me stagger a step or two. Mikey shot daggers at us with his eyes and yanked the strap of his Army kit bag from his shoulder, letting it dangle as he swung around to open the door of the big blue truck. I swear to God it wasn't planned, but Greg and I both ducked and threw up our hands to ward off the heavy green canvas bundle!
"You guys are assholes!" he spat at us as he slammed the heavy steel door. He turned to Jay and told him to get going. "If those dicks want to study, fine—but I'm not waiting around for them to make up their minds!" A few seconds later, the Ford's motor growled to life and Jay's tires crunched gravel as he headed to the parking lot's entrance. Once there, it turned left to head to Jay's, and I exchanged a worried glance with Greg. I'd only known our departed friends for just over a day, and I wasn't sure how badly our antics had hurt their feelings. I really wanted to keep my new friends, it being such a new experience for me. I let my concern show in my tone as I turned to Greg.
"Man, I think we fucked up—how bad is it, Greg? I don't want to lose their friendship!" Standing next to me, his gaze followed mine as the truck disappeared in the distance, and other cars made their way out onto the tarred road in front of the school. Some headed north like Jay, others south toward Route 40 about two miles away. I wondered if we should take off right away or give them a few minutes to cool off before I followed them to Jay's, but Linda's voice made me jump as she and Benny neared our two adjacent cars. Benny was looking curiously at Greg and Linda at me.
"Aren't you coming over to study, Denny?" I told her I wasn't sure, now, and filled her in on what had happened at lunch with Jay tripping as a result of Mikey's prank...and how we'd just made Mikey mad by ducking to avoid his book bag. "I really like them, but I don't know if they want to see me right now..." I trailed off quietly. Greg took up for me, focusing his attention on Linda first, but keeping his eyes mostly on the big wrestler next to her.
"Honest, Benny...you know I'd never hurt anyone's feelings like that on purpose—me and Denny were laughing, and when he turned the bag swung loosely toward us, and it was just instinct! I know none of the guys liked the boxer names the other kids were using today, but Mikey thought we were rubbing it in or something." Linda was looking at the three of us in turn, settling at last on Benny as he nodded to her.
"Greg wouldn't hurt anybody on purpose, Lin, I promise." He turned his green-eyed glance to Greg and gave him a little shove. "Miss your bus, squirt? Want me to run you home?" Greg's face got red as he shook his head 'no', and I explained that he was invited over to study with us, but we weren't sure if we were welcome. Linda glared at Greg and me and snorted.
"Boys and their drama—I hope to god the guys at college this fall aren't going to be like this bunch!" She pushed Benny toward his car and motioned for us to get into mine before she climbed into Benny's purple Barracuda.
"Denny, give them a few minutes to calm down—go get gas or take a drive, then come on over; Jay'll feed him chocolate or something to relax him. Tell my parents that Benny and I are heading out for pizza in town."
We watched as they roared off, turning toward Route 40 and the trip into the big city. I reached in the open window and pulled up the silver-colored lock plunger on Greg's door before opening it for him, then headed around the front of the car to my own door. As I settled into the bucket seat, I glanced over to see Greg fastening his seat belt. The light coming through the window glistened in his red hair, and I drew in a quick breath.
How crazy was I to think that the way his hair complemented the fawn interior of my car was some sort of omen?
* * * * * * * * * *
Denny's car was about the nicest one I'd ever been in, apart from Ben's 'Cuda. I figured it must have a huge engine with the size of the hood in front, and was expecting it to roar like a pride of lions when he turned the key—that was when I got my first surprise. Yeah, it made a big noise, but it was coming from behind us! When I jerked my head around to look toward the back seat, I saw him grinning hugely at me, and he revved the engine a couple times just to rub the shock in. "Hey—didn't you know Corvairs have their engines in the back like a VW?"
I smirked at the runner as my eyes took in the convertible's interior; the upholstery—all vinyl—was a light tan, which he informed me was fawn, with the carpeting and lower door panels in a darker shade of the same color. The vinyl top was the same, but what caught my eye most was the six large round instrument gauges, all outlined in chrome accents. The steering wheel appeared to be wood, with two flat spokes of metal, and the gear-shift on the floor between our legs had a chrome housing at its base. When he turned on the radio, I was enveloped by the strains of Mason Williams' Classical Gas coming from multiple speakers, and the station announcer proclaimed it to be an FM station—this car had some amazing and expensive options—especially since it was more than ten years old. I grinned over at Denny and tapped my fingers on my thighs in time with the beat of the rock-baroque tune. It was the first modern song I learned on guitar, and hearing it made my fingers itch to play along.
"You look like you enjoyed that song," Denny said with a nod toward the radio. I turned the volume down so we could talk as he backed out of his parking spot and we started off. "Yeah, it's the first new song I learned—it took me a couple days of listening to it to get it right." I glanced at the gauges around his steering column but couldn't spot the one for gas. "If you need gas, the closest station is down on 40, a few blocks from my house."
"No, I'm fine for now, though I'd like to get some snacks to take with us...I felt bad yesterday having Jay's mom feed us and not bringing anything with me to help out. If you don't need anything from home, I'd like to stop at Roscoe's Supermarket to get some junk?"
"That's a neat idea, since Miles likes chocolate milk, maybe we can get him some." I nudged him in the ribs before he pulled out onto the road heading north. "Think you can find it without Daniel Boone to blaze the way?" Denny laughed at my dig, and I noticed how nice his smile was—it seemed to wipe away some inner tension he carried around with him at school. I didn't get a chance to talk with him much yesterday or today at lunch, but by ourselves he seemed a bit more open, though I think we both felt the strain of two people trying to figure out if they could be friends. On the plus side, he liked my jokes, and that never hurt. I had to admit that I liked what I knew so far about Denny Watson...
"What did you say? You want to play 'doctor'?" I was jolted back to reality by what I thought he'd just said...I had to be hearing him wrong. My mind was reeling with that thought, I could so easily see myself making out with this guy, maybe finally getting my chance at a relationship that was more than a physical one like Benny and I had had...was he offering? My face went red when he repeated his remark—I really needed to stop daydreaming!
Denny smacked me on the arm, and chuckled. "I said—if you want to play Doctor Walker, you can run in front as my guide, and I'll try not to ram my bumper up your ass." I don't know what my face gave away, but he started laughing, and didn't really stop grinning until we got into town and headed up Township Road to the store's parking lot. We parked near the huge white and blue sign next to Route 16 and I followed him in through the store's automatic doors. We passed the two check-out lanes and roamed until we got to the snack aisle, where we had a problem deciding what to buy. I watched him reach for a can of Pringle's chips, but I grabbed his hand and pulled it away, pointing to the bagged varieties instead. "I think corn chips are a little healthier—don't you runners know anything?" He started to argue, and I said, "Read the label, smart-guy. Find one with the most natural ingredients." I then picked up a large bag of pretzels. "Flour, salt, baked not fried...less grease."
We got out of the chips section and he led us down the cookie aisle toward the dairy case. My resolve was sorely tempted by the huge array of goodies, but I tried to behave, keeping my eyes on Denny's jeans-covered butt. I thought I was doing well until he stopped and I ran right into him, dropping the bag of pretzels. "Sorry, man. Why'd you stop?" Maybe he wouldn't catch on to what I'd been doing if I shifted the conversation to him, and it seemed to have worked when he replied, "Klutz—do you think we should buy some of these?" He held up a box of banana-flavored moon pies. At my nod, he put the pretzels back in my arms and put the box of cookies on top.
Before we got out of there, I was beginning to wish we had a cart, or at least a basket, because he added another pack of iced molasses cookies, an assortment of candy bars, and a six-pack of IBC Root Beer in long-necked brown glass bottles, which he claimed we absolutely had to have. With the chocolate milk in the gallon sized plastic jug—not much more expensive than the half-gallon—we had a grand total of nearly ten dollars. I'd planned to go halves with him, but I didn't have that much on me. He smacked my arm when I started to pull my wallet out in the check-out lane, and told me we'd 'settle up' later.
Outside by the car, I put the bag of snacks behind the passenger seat, and pulled out my wallet again, planting myself so that I blocked him into the parking spot. "I'm paying my share...half comes to $5.00, I'll give you the rest at school tomorrow." I grabbed his hand and put two bills in it, and held his fingers closed until he gave up resisting. When I let his hand go, he opened it to stare at the two crisp new banknotes there.
"What are these?" he asked, holding them up so the sun could highlight their details. I was pleased that I managed to surprise him again—the bank only got them in last week, and they were just beginning to enter circulation. "It works like this: the Treasury Department decides if more money needs to be printed, and they tell the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to design and issue currency to fill that need...those are the latest designed $2 bills, shipped to banks last week."
"But, whoever heard of a two-dollar bill? You sure it's real?" He held it up to the light again trying to spot any flaws that would tell him it was counterfeit. I snickered at him and gave him a shove. "My dad works at a bank, and he says these came out for the Bicentennial, since the old supply was worn out. There's been a bill like that for a long time, but the last ones were printed in 1966, so not many people see them anymore. It's still got Thomas Jefferson on the front, but the back isn't Monticello like it used to be—it's some painting of guys signing the Declaration of Independence."
Denny glared at me for a few minutes, but I wouldn't take the money back. "Look," he tried, "All this other stuff was my idea—you came up with the milk and pretzels, so I think that's all you should help pay for. The candy helps me keep my energy levels up when I run...and it's also why I run—so I won't get fat. I don't feel right having you pay for stuff that was my idea."
As we faced each other behind his car, I was struck by something I saw in his eyes—something almost like desperation, maybe even fear. I suddenly felt uneasy, remembering something my grandpa used to say: 'A man has his pride.' So far, I'd only been looking at this from my side—but was I hurting Denny's pride by being so inflexible? Another thing I remembered him saying was 'A friend knows when to listen.' For some reason I didn't know, Denny was afraid we wouldn't be his friends. I relaxed my stance, leaning against the back fender of the Corvair, and took one of the bills from his hand, letting him keep the other. I gave him a smile.
"Okay, we're even...but you have to promise me one thing first, Denny...well, two things really." He tilted his head to hear my conditions. "First, we're friends no matter what, and I will pay my share, unless we decide otherwise..." He nodded reluctantly at that, and waited for me to go on. "Second—give me one of those moon pies—I'm dyin' over here!"
"Deal!" he agreed with a grin. He pulled the bag out of the car and took out two from their box; we held them up in salute, and ate them right there in the supermarket parking lot before getting back in his car to head over toward Jay's house. The conversation on the way back was much easier than that we had earlier...I was starting to feel like Denny was going to be a close friend like Jay and Miles had become, and I think he was coming to realize that I was really going to be his friend. I knew nothing at all of his past, but I could figure out from his demeanor that someone had hurt him, and I'd do my best to help him get over that insecurity.
As we talked, I started to tell him about myself, hoping that he'd do the same—and we traded back-and-forth like that until pulling into Jay's driveway. I had two brothers, Jeff (16) and Lee (14), and two sisters, Alice (13) and Penny (11)—he was an only child; until early last summer, I'd shared a room with my two brothers, when dad and I finished off the attic for my sixteenth birthday so I could have my own pad—Denny, the lucky bastard, had always had his own room. He got this cool car from his cousin Henry, and I might be lucky enough to get one when I left for college in just over a year.
I couldn't help staring as we pulled in next to Jay's truck...his house was big—plus it was on a real live farm. I heard the whinny of a horse and the lowing of cattle from the direction of the large red barn, though I couldn't see either one. An orchard of apple trees was behind the house and fields covered in grass or clover stretched beyond that. Huge oak trees in front shaded the wraparound porch, and I just knew it would be perfect for sitting and talking on a lazy summer evening. I swallowed hard to dislodge the lump in my throat as I remembered doing just that with my grandpa, listening to his stories and songs, and learning to play them under his guidance. I was brought back to the present when Denny shoved the jug of milk into my hands, then picked up the paper bag from the car with our snacks. He led the way toward the back porch—just the way we'd always entered my grandparents' house—when a voice called from the barn.
"God dag, Dennis—hvem er det du har med?" The big blond man held his hand out to me, and I took it with a smile to match his own. "My name's Greg Newton, sir. Jay and Miles were kind enough to ask me to study with them." I was pretty sure that was what he wanted to know from the context of the situation, I just hoped I was right.
"Velkommen, the boys are inside, probably up to no good...but go on in. I'll see you at dinner." His eyes fell on the bag of snacks, then the chocolate milk in my arms. "Shame on you, Denny—wasting money on store-bought milk when we have five cows who give it to us for free!"
I made a show of looking at the label on the jug, and frowned up at him. "Strange—I don't remember seeing any chocolate cows on my grandpa's farm? Are they a new breed?" He laughed and gave me a clout on the shoulder, then pushed me toward the porch.
"I don't know where they find them, but you're going to fit right in with this crowd, Greg. Inside now, and keep those two out of trouble." I turned to go, but Denny held back a moment. "Mr. Beckel, Linda wanted me to tell you that she and Benny Ross were going out for pizza...she'll be back later."
"Tak, Dennis. Smut I nu bare ind til de andre." Denny joined me before we went onto the back porch, and I raised an eyebrow questioningly. He blushed a bit and ducked his head. "I picked up some Danish over in Europe with my parents." My opinion of his family went up a notch at that—the farthest I'd ever gone on a vacation was Mobile to visit my mom's great-aunt in Alabama before she died five years ago. I held the screen door open for him to go in first. "You lucky s.o.b.," I teased softly as he passed me. The door into the kitchen was open, and he pointed to where two pairs of sneakers sat, and we joined our shoes to the pile. A blonde woman turned from the sink as we came in, and she smiled broadly at us.
"You're running late, Denny. I think the boys have started already." She too, frowned at the groceries we placed on the formica table. "I don't feed you enough? You don't like my cooking?" Denny tried explaining how he felt bad for not helping out, since we were imposing, but from her grin, I knew she was teasing him. I had to give him a jab of my own, just for fun. "He's been up in Yankeeland too long, ma'am...he don't know how to behave around real folks." Okay, maybe the little extra drawl was a bit much, but she chuckled, especially when I repeated my 'chocolate cow' joke.
The kitchen was bright and cheery to match her mood, and as Denny led the way up the back stairs, I got a glimpse of the dining room through the connecting door. The furniture was turn-of-the-century mahogany: a large table, china closet and eight chairs, and a sideboard I only caught a corner of on the near wall. The room's walls were wainscoted in dark wood below, and a burgundy red above with a cream-colored coved ceiling. On the wall adjacent to the back stairs was an arch leading into a hall, likewise wainscoted, but painted this time in a sage green—and I could just glimpse a large arch opposite which seemed to be a parlor. The stairs we went up were steep and fairly narrow, with cream walls and painted treads. Denny turned left at the top, then right to what I took to be Jay's room.
He knocked lightly, and then opened the door. "Sorry we're late—we brought snacks..." I got a quick view into the room not blocked by the door, and saw two shirts on the floor, and part of a pair of jeans before Denny slammed it and pushed me back toward the stairs. In my confusion, and not being familiar with the house, I went straight ahead down the main stairs rather than turn to go down the back way. After turning left at a landing, I went the rest of the way into the green hall I'd only seen from the kitchen. The room was vaguely L-shaped, with the big front door at the bottom of the stairs, while off to the left was a wide hall with arches on its other three walls. As I went ahead, I saw one led into the dining room, opposite that was a formal parlor with a central table and a suite of Victorian furniture upholstered in dark blue tufts, while the last arch, opposite the stairs, gave onto a family room filled with two comfortable-looking couches, a TV, and bookshelves on the end wall opposite the entrance. All the floors were red oak, and oriental carpets were the main covering in all the rooms. The three wide arches could be closed off by sliding doors recessed into the walls.
I wasn't sure where to go; the parlor was too formal for me to venture more than a peek around through the door—the walls were an antique flowered paper and the curtains were heavy velvet swags complete with gold fringe—I hadn't seen anything that old-fashioned since my visit to Mobile. I could hear Mrs. Beckel humming from the kitchen, but I didn't want to disturb her again, so I went straight into the family room. If the television hadn't been there, I'd still have known this was where the family spent a lot of their time. The sofas were mismatched but with soft cushions and pillows, and there was a recliner which Mr. Beckel probably occupied of an evening. Two windows were on the side walls, and I saw that all three of these rooms weren't square—their doors were flanked by short walls at a 45° angle. I thought it was a waste of space until I stepped through, and tripped on the single step down into the room. How could I have missed that little detail?
I was expecting a laugh from behind me, but thankfully, Denny was just coming across from the stairs, and missed my little misstep. I saw an upright piano to my left, and took a seat on the bench in front of it to watch him come into the room—and I snickered when he did the same thing I had done. "Now who's the klutz?" I said. He glared at me from those silver eyes, and I turned to the keyboard in front of me—I saw that the keys were real ivory rather than a form of plastic—they were in two pieces, faintly yellowed with age. The black keys were stained ebony rather than black paint. The top of the piano was draped by a beige silk shawl with long fringe, and was topped by two oil lamps and some small figurines in a mix of sizes and materials. The decal on the inside of the key cover said J & C Fischer, New York in gold lettering. I was about to pick out a few experimental notes when Denny plopped down onto the bench next to me.
"Move over a bit, Greg." I only had a few inches before I fell off the bench, but I moved as far as I could. Our thighs were still in contact, and so were our shoulders and inner arms, but before I could move further, he whispered, "That's fine...I think Jay and Mikey will be a few minutes." Like the guys I saw on TV, he cracked his knuckles by lacing his fingers together and flexing them inward, then he ran through a scale to test the action and tune of the antique instrument. With a shy smile at me, he began to play, letting his fingers dance on the keys, and I felt the tension in his arms and legs ebb and flow as his motions brought us into greater contact. He positively radiated heat I could feel even through our two pairs of jeans as we sat there, and his calf and socked foot would brush mine as he used the gold pedals to soften or sustain the notes he coaxed from the upright. I was hypnotized as the sounds of Für Elise wafted through the house. I'd never had anyone play Beethoven just for me.
Before the echoes had died away, he was playing another song, Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire, which had him wiggling around on the seat and bumping into me so that I had to force myself not to giggle, then he went straight into Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. When he finished that one, his foot was on mine under the bench, and I wasn't sure if it was accidental or not, but I wasn't going to break the mood by complaining, or move it until he did. Soft clapping made us look to the doorway, and Mrs. Beckel was standing there with a big smile on her face. I felt Denny tense up a bit since we were still touching, and he started to apologize for not asking permission to play. I also heard thumping coming from behind her and our two friends burst into the room talking at the same time, trying to find out who had been playing.
"You be quiet, boys—it was Denny playing for us...And you, Denny, don't apologize! Jerry was the only one who ever played, so the piano's been sitting idle for two years now. Any time you want to play, you sit down and do it; Dirck and I like listening to live music." Her glance at Jay made him shrink back a little. "This one never had the patience to sit and practice, and Linda wasn't interested. I don't suppose you can play Mikey?"
It was funny to see him put on the spot like that, he looked away, then back, and shook his head. "I took lessons for almost three years, but it was hard to read both lines of music, so I could do the melody, and some chords on the bass clef, but it's hardly recognizable unless I practice a song for days. I can play recorder—well, better than the piano any way."
She sighed and shook her head sadly. "Wie schade...Denny and Greg brought snacks if you want something to take back upstairs." Four pairs of eyes followed her into the hall, but no one moved yet. Jay looked at me, then Denny, who just shook his head. "Do you want to tell him, or do you want me or Mikey to do it? And how much do you want him to know?" As Jay was speaking, Denny had shifted on the bench, and I felt his lower leg press against my calf, before his eyes left Jay to focus on me.
"I'll tell him...we brought you some snacks and chocolate milk to make up for the parking lot, Mikey—we didn't mean to make you mad. We had a joke about a goof I made about the marching band, and I was too embarrassed to repeat it since it made me sound stupid." Mikey gave him a smile, and Denny went on, "The bit with the ducking—that wasn't planned; it was just a reflex, honest!"
Mikey started to smile, and Jay thumped him on the arm. "I told you so," he crowed. Mikey rubbed the spot where he'd just been hit, and told us not to worry about it. "I figured that out about two minutes after we left—with Jay's help. We—I'm–cool now, guys. We'll go have some snacks, and then we can all go up and study." When he turned to leave, I smirked to myself as he took Jay's hand, and it was only then that I saw his orange tee-shirt was untucked, something which he never allowed.
"Is that what you wanted to tell me—that those two are a couple?" I was happy for them, really, but it crossed two potential boyfriends off my already short list. My fun times with Benny were just that, without any romantic involvement—and that was essentially over since he and Calvin were probably going to become a couple too. The other boys I was certain of didn't do anything for me, and the two Council Bowl alternates from lunch today were about my last choices, if they were gay and single. The other possibility was the Sommers twins' cousin with the flame-red hair, but I knew absolutely nothing about him yet, not even his first name.
I knew that Jay and Miles had shared Art class this semester, and that they'd become friendly, but Denny told me that this new addition happened since last Friday, though he didn't know the details. I cursed myself inwardly—I'd known Jay was gay since talking on the phone with him last semester, and Miles since last Wednesday—it was just my bad luck that I waited rather than asking either of them out until it was too late. I hadn't asked Jay because his recognizing my voice had thrown me off, but with Miles, I would have broached the subject during our second conversation, but I'd had to watch my little sister that day. Despite New Year's having been almost five months ago, I made a resolution to jump at the next opportunity that might come my way. I guess I needed to step up my calling efforts if I was really serious about finding my own boyfriend.
Denny's voice brought me back once more to the present. "You do that a lot don't you—wander off inside your head?" I nodded sheepishly, so he repeated what else he'd said. "I thought, since you saw a pile of their clothes on the floor, you ought to know about them—only Jay's family knows besides me...so you can help me keep an eye on them at school. Jay's the tough one, I think, because he doesn't plan ahead too much, he just acts. Mikey is better at hiding it, but this is all new to him and he's still in shock, so we have to make sure he doesn't slip up either."
I felt his foot move away from mine, and he planted a hand on my thigh to lever himself up off the bench. I heard a faint crack as his knees straightened, and he gripped my hand to pull me up as well. I followed him back toward the kitchen, keeping one eye on his ass and the other on our path, and I felt my fingers aching to reach out and touch his rear—but I knew better than to even think about doing that to a straight guy. As I watched his lithe form walking so gracefully in front of me, I couldn't help thinking once more how life was so unfair.
Sitting around the kitchen table, I was disappointed to find out that the Beckels didn't have any R.C. Cola—that was the perfect drink to wash down a Moon Pie, but my eyes brightened when she put down a plate of chocolate chip cookies! From the first bite with its hint of orange, I was a goner—they were even better than my grandma's. She let us have only two cookies each since dinner was only two hours away, but promised there'd be more for later. Fortified by cookies and chocolate milk, I felt like I could tackle any homework our teachers could dish out, and I followed my three friends up to Jay's room.
He had a nice room with a window on the north wall facing the barn, and facing the road to the west, which was letting in the late afternoon sun. Both lower sashes were up so we had a nice breeze, but I wondered where we'd all sit, since there was only one chair at the desk. Jay ran out of the room, and came back a minute later with one of the chairs we had used at the kitchen table, placing it at the side of the desk. Denny had put our book bags there, and I saw Mikey put his on the bed next to Jay's. They flopped down on their stomachs next to each other, and Denny let me pick which chair I wanted at the corner desk, before he took the other diagonally across from me. As we settled down with our notes and work-sheets, I could feel Denny's feet brush against mine when he changed position or stretched out his legs a bit, and I couldn't help but start getting a woody in my briefs. As we started talking about our assignments, I let my hand creep under the desk to adjust myself, hoping no one noticed.
I wondered what I could contribute to this discussion, but I wasn't going to miss out on a chance to be with my friends, and as time passed, I did make some points the others hadn't thought of on our History assignments. I was taking American History, but had had World History last year, so I could help all three of them out...and Jay turned out to be a whiz at Math, which was nice for me. I didn't like Trig, so I tended to put it off, making it harder for me to finish. In English Lit, my section with Mrs. Orton was reading a different book than the others, who had Mrs. Wilson, but it was one they'd read earlier, so that helped too. The list was standard, but the teachers could take them in any order they wanted, and we were on our last volumes for the year. Lord of The Flies for my class, and 1984 for theirs. I liked their book a lot more than the one I was stuck in, but us kids had to do what we were told to do while in school.
As the time for dinner drew closer, I had to admit that Denny Watson had me stumped. I hadn't had a lot of opportunities to study him at school since he kept himself in the background, not really talking to anyone else. That lack of social mingling had hampered my few attempts to see if he might be like me, so he hadn't been on my list of people to call. Seeing him close-up as I was now, I was getting mixed signals by the dozen; apart from our few shared jokes, he was pretty formal still, but I could tell he was a nice guy who wanted friends badly. When we were in the car, and again at the piano, he hadn't been overly 'touchy', but when we did make contact, he didn't pull away immediately as some guys would have. If I had a little more experience with him, I might have thought he was playing footsie with me under the desk, but every time it happened, there had been a legitimate reason for the touches. The confusion stemmed mostly from those times when he left his foot resting on mine. Once or twice so far, he'd fixed me with a fleeting shy smile.
When Mrs. Beckel called us down for dinner, we were mostly finished with our assignments, and the smells coming from below had our mouths watering. Jay and Mikey—he finally ordered me to call him that rather than Miles as I'd been doing—set the table as Denny and I stood by watching. A large casserole dish of lasagna made its way from the oven to a heating pad in the middle of the table, and was joined by slices of garlic bread on a platter and bowls of peas and carrots. I chose iced tea for my drink, and was pleased when it was nicely sweet like a Southern boy loved. I sat next to Denny, opposite Jay and Mikey, with Jay's parents at the ends of the table. It was looking like Linda would be missing out since she hadn't gotten home yet. My first bite of the lasagna was hot, and I quickly swallowed a big gulp of tea and tried to cool down my tongue. The mix of noodles, meat, sauce and lightly toasted cheese was heavenly...and when I found that one of the meats was pepperoni, it was even better.
I was stunned at how open Jay and Mikey were, touching and smiling, and they even kissed once right at the table. I didn't know what my parents would do if I had a boyfriend, but I was sure my mom would holler at me for such a display at dinner, whether it was with a boy or girl. When I finally had the chance, and nerve, to ask about that, Mr. Beckel told me that his only concern was that his children be happy, that they could love whomever they wanted, and that home would be the one place where they could be completely free and open in their affections. It was better to be safe at home, than take risks out among strangers—then he said something strange—that that extended to Jay's friends too.
Dessert was a choice of ice creams, chocolate or vanilla-orange, and I chose the latter, since it was slightly less fattening...and Denny chose it as well. Denny snickered when Jay and Mikey had one dish with three scoops of chocolate and another with one of the orange. He pointed to them when they began to eat, Jay feeding his boyfriend a spoon of chocolate when he asked for it. "They did that yesterday too—Mikey doesn't like his flavors to mix together." The ice cream hit the spot, washing out the lingering deliciousness of the main dish, and we were relaxing when Mrs. Beckel asked Denny if he'd play again. With some blushing and hesitation, he agreed, and we adjourned to the family room. I was surprised when he had me sit next to him, then he asked me to turn the pages of the music on the fold-out stand the piano's central upper panel turned into.
"You'll have to tell me when...I can't read music," I admitted looking down at my hands resting in my lap. He nudged me with his shoulder and said he'd do that, and he started to play a few pieces he found inside the bench's storage space. It was mostly 60s tunes, but there was also the theme from Exodus, then Penny Lane by the Beatles. When he needed me to turn a page, he'd tap my foot with his, and give me a quick side-ways smile. For his last piece, he looked at me and grinned wider, and started Classical Gas from memory. He played it with a lot of tenderness, and I had to swallow a few times when I realized he was doing this just for me because he knew I loved the song. He got a round of applause from our audience, and then he pulled my arm up in a victory salute since I was the one who turned the pages for him.
"Can you play an instrument Greg?" Jay asked, and before I could answer, Denny answered for me. "He says he can play guitar and banjo. I'm going to make him bring them next time, then maybe we can play some songs together." When everybody said that was a great idea, I tried saying it was just something I learned from my grandpa, and that they probably wouldn't like my music, but Jay's parents said it would be fine—they liked all sorts of music from classical to rock. I could see I wasn't going to win this fight, so I gave in with as much grace as I could, but I told them I wasn't any sort of expert like Denny.
The clock in the hall struck 9pm, and I realized I needed to get home—I hadn't called to let them know I was studying with friends. I knew it was too late, but I asked if I could use their phone, and dialed my house. When my dad picked up, I hurriedly explained that I'd been invited to study with friends, and forgot to call. I poured out my apologies, and said that I thought it really helped me get things done faster and better than I'd managed by myself. Dad's tone was a little cool, and he asked to speak to Mr. Beckel. I stood by the stairs for a few seconds before I began to pace. I'd made my parents worry, and that was something I really hated, but I truly had forgotten to call with all the things we'd done. I listened as Jay's dad explained that his son and a few friends had been studying together for a while, and that their homework was completely done before anything else other than Jay's chores, and that all of them had high GPAs. He went on to say that the boys were all well-behaved and didn't drink or smoke, and that I was welcome to join the group on as many nights as I could. It was almost ten minutes before he handed the phone back to me.
"You should have called, Greg, I'm disappointed in you for that, but I understand how the excitement got to you. We'll let you study with these boys if you are serious about it—but for not calling tonight, you are grounded for the weekend, and I'll have a list of extra jobs for you to do as punishment. It's just about 9:15 now...I want you home by 10:30, and I'll go over your homework with you then."
I put the receiver back in its cradle, and sighed. When I turned around, my friends were facing me with worried looks. "I'm grounded for the weekend, and I'm gonna have extra chores...but I get to study with you guys—as long as we really are doing school work; my dad will check it when I get home." I had to smile at the whoops and high-fives I got for being allowed to join them, but I said I should get home now, just in case.
I wasn't surprised when Denny said he'd drive me home, since he was the one who brought me, and Jay said that he took Mikey home later so they could have some time to themselves. I knew what that meant, and couldn't help blushing—after all, Benny and I had done some pretty fun things together in the past two years—but I didn't think my two friends had progressed that far yet. Probably just a lot of kissing and petting so far. As I gathered my things, Denny elbowed me to keep my mind on things—this was becoming a bad habit I needed to break.
A wash of lights on the wall, and the slamming of a car door let us all know that Linda was home, and I heard her talking to her parents in the kitchen for a while before she came up the stairs and went into her room. I thanked Jay for inviting me, and told them I'd see them at lunch tomorrow before following Denny down the back stairs. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Beckel again for letting me come over, and praised her cooking, and she told me to bring my guitar next time I was over. I nodded and went onto the back porch to join Denny as we found our shoes. When we got to his car, he tossed me the keys. "You know where you live, not me...you do know how to drive a 'stick' don't you?"
"Don't start that again, smart ass...my grandma showed me how to do it better than you." He laughed at my joke and climbed in, so I went around to the driver's side and sank down onto the bucket seat. I looked at the gauges, figuring out what each one was, and checked the mirrors before I even thought to start the engine. They were fine since I was only an inch taller than he was, and I decided the seat was fine too as I buckled in. The ride was incredible as I headed out the driveway and turned south on the gravel road—it didn't go back to the school's road, instead it turned left to hook up with Route 40, so it was faster than retracing our original course. When we got to the turn, there was nothing but fields and scattered trees all around us, and Denny told me to pull over. I looked curiously at him, but in the dim light from the dash instruments, I couldn't see much. The clock showed I still had an hour before needing to be home, so I did as he asked, then shut off the motor.
The evening was still warm, and the moon gave enough light as we got out of the car, Denny first and grabbing a blanket from the trunk in the car's front. That was going to take some getting used to. "Come on, I want to talk some more." I followed him to a small grove of trees a ways back from the road, and crouched down on the blanket once he spread it out on the grassy clearing. He sat cross-legged in front of me, and I copied his position, apologizing when my knees bumped his. I could just see him smile. "I like how you do that all the time—say 'sorry' for everything, even when it's not necessary. I take it that's part of those things you learned from your grandparents—Southern manners?"
When I nodded, he laughed again. "Nobody at my old school apologized for anything, ever...they just wanted what they could take from others, and looked out for themselves." I think that statement caused the light to go off in my head. I leaned in a bit closer to get a better look into his eyes. "That's why you want friends so much, isn't it—all that time up there, no one would be your friend..." He looked away for a second, and I saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed a few times.
"That's part of it, but there's more." I saw this was hard for him, bringing back memories he'd rather forget, but I saw the determination in his eyes to get through it once and for all. Denny Watson had courage, I had to give him that. His voice was low, almost a whisper as he told me about his roommate from last spring, and what he'd made Denny do whenever he got drunk. I could feel my fists clench, and I was so angry my knuckles turned white from the pressure of my grip. When he told me about the three boys in the theater restroom I was boiling over, but there was no one I could take it out on—those sick fucks were a long way away from this quiet grove bathed in silvery moonlight. Before I knew it, I had jumped to my feet and begun to pace, clenching and unclenching my fists. At one point, I slammed my fist into one of the trunks surrounding us. That was a mistake.
"OW! FUCK!" I shook my hand and cradled it with the other one, and the sting and pain was incredible, but I didn't think I'd broken it...though my knuckles did begin to bleed a bit. When I turned back to the blanket, I saw Denny slumped over with his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking a bit. He was crying. Shit—he must think I'm mad at him or something! I went back to him, and knelt down beside him, not sure if he'd want me to touch him or not...my heart told me to take him into my arms and hold on tight, but my mind was saying that might scare him after what those jerks did to him last semester. I put a hand on his shoulder, just enough to feel it but not exerting any pressure at all, and he flinched. He started mumbling brokenly as he cried, but I made out what he was saying for the most part.
"I hope you don't hate me for what I told you...about what happened. I kept thinking that if I had my own boyfriend, things would get better...someone who loved me, who didn't just want to use me...you...Jay said you might find me a guy like that...that you would know who I could ask..." He shuddered, and turned away from me, huddling in on himself, arms around his knees where his head lay buried. "You probably don't think much of me now...It was stupid to think you could help me find someone...I shouldn't have told you. I'm sorry."
I couldn't hold back anymore, Denny needed someone—me—to show him that they cared. He needed someone to look out for him; to fill the void he felt inside where love should be, but had been ripped apart by the boy he thought was his friend. I scooted up behind him on the blanket, and pulled his back against my chest, wrapping my arms around him, squeezing just enough to give him a sense of security, but not one of confinement. I let my hands rest on his chest for a moment, before I raised the uninjured one up to stroke his cheek and smooth his curly hair. I planted a soft kiss on the side of his neck, then moved my lips to just behind his ear. The scent of his hair was like peaches—I hadn't noticed that even when we were sitting next to each other at the piano. I murmured softly into his ear, soothing sounds to try to calm him down...and I occasionally tightened my grip around him and nuzzled his neck a few more times. It must have been almost ten minutes before he had collected himself enough to focus on anything outside himself again. The sniffles had stopped a while ago, but he was still shaking.
My legs were getting sore from the awkwardness of our position, so I gingerly stretched them out around his, and I leaned back against the tree behind me. When he made a move to sit up, I used my free hand to guide him so he was curled up against my chest, with his face against my shoulder. I let my free hand snake around to stroke his back in an attempt to further ease his stressed muscles. "What are you doing?" he whispered, aware for the first time that I hadn't tried to let him go. I cradled his head against my shoulder again and ran my fingers through his hair and down to the nape of his neck.
"Didn't you tell me you had a job for me? That you needed someone to find you a boyfriend?" My voice was soft but I made sure he heard me by saying it right into his ear, where my breath could tickle him, and his hair could do the same to my nose. When I felt him nod, I kissed his ear again, and this time he noticed, because I felt him shiver in response. "Yeah...you'll do that for me?"
I could hear the hope in his voice, very fragile, but there. I really didn't want to disappoint him as his prior friends had done. In the next few seconds, depending on his next move, he'd either fulfill or destroy two dreams.
"I don't need to, Denny..." he looked up at me when my words sank in, confused. " If you agree, the job's already been filled—by me."
"You mean...you'll be my boyfriend?" I nodded and let my lips sink into the soft curls of his hair, then moved them down to press against his gently. I looked into his eyes, the light of the moon making them seem transparent in their silvery depths. I kept one hand on his back, but the other moved up to stroke the back of his head, but I let him decide if he wanted to return the kiss I gave him. I know guys are supposed to kiss with their eyes closed, but I wasn't one to do that—I liked watching the reactions of my partner. His eyes got wide as it dawned on him, what I was offering. His lips drew back just a fraction, he wasn't sure I was sincere, at least that was my guess...or it was too much of a shock to take in right away. I leaned that last millimeter in and pressed my lips more firmly to his, and let my tongue touch them for just a moment. This had to be his choice; I wouldn't ever force him in the slightest way, sexually.
"Don't tell me I'm gonna have to teach you about boyfriends too...if I have to play 'doctor' Walker with you, then I need you to be Daniel Boone so I don't get lonely out in the wilderness." Denny wrapped his arms around me and molded our bodies together against the tree trunk, before sighing into my mouth.
"Shut up and kiss me, smart-ass. You talk too much."
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