Story Time

Seagulls standing on rocks

Grampa and Amos

by AJ

“Hey Grampa… how ya doin’?”

Startled, I turned from the window where I’d been looking out over the gardens. They were beautiful in the spring, as it was now, but I’d been watching one of the gardeners—Hispanic boy, about nineteen. He was absolutely lovely. We’d talked a few times, that boy and I. He knew how I admired him, and he just smiled and let me ramble. Nice kid.

“Amos… good to see you, boy. Didn’t hear you come in. How are you?” I’m not really his grandfather. He’s the son of my brother’s boy, my grandnephew if you will. But he’s always called me Grampa, and who am I to argue? I had a lot more to do with raising this boy’s father than my brother ever did, so I suppose it was appropriate in some way.

“I’m fine, Grampa… doin’ OK.” I could hear the lie in the words before he’d even finished speaking. I looked at him more closely, noted that he was paler than normal, had dark circles under his eyes… something was going on here. I loved this boy dearly, and I was going to find out what was wrong and fix it if I could, before he left here today. Was he using? His pupils didn’t look contracted, and he wasn’t acting out of the ordinary. I’ve been an RN most of my life so I know the signs, and I didn’t see any.

I smiled through my worry and patted a spot on the sofa beside me. “Have a seat, boy. How’re your mother and father doing?” I watched him sit down with his usual loose-limbed grace, remembering what it was like to move like that, before knee joints began to stiffen and arthritis set up housekeeping in my hips. It was a pleasure to see, after spending so much time with all the old people around here—which, to be fair, included me. As he began to tell me the latest news in the family, I have to admit my mind was wandering a bit when my attention was drawn back to him and I noticed the advent of a new name into the boy’s monologue.

“…so after the game, me and Dan went out to Dillinger’s, you know… that chocolate and dessert shop on Broadway? Mom gave me some money, so we—”

“Wait a minute. Back up a minute… who’s Dan? Have I heard of this guy before?”

“Gggrrammmpa… gees, weren’t you listening?” He’s got a cute, exasperated frown on his face now. “He’s one of my friends at school. Plays on the basketball and baseball teams. He’s a cool guy—kinda tall, and he’s got this really dark red hair and lotsa freckles and green eyes…”

“Sounds like a hunk,” I commented, then watched in amazement and dawning understanding as Amos turned bright red and began stammering incoherently.

“I-I guess, Grampa. I guess the… uh, girls think so.”

“Amos, my boy, I was going to take you to lunch in the dining room, but the food here is fit for neither man nor beast… and that old biddy Judkins is just waiting to get her claws into me again. Tell you what: why don’t you and I go up to my apartment and put together some soup and sandwiches up there?”

I watched in amusement as he struggled to form a coherent answer, but the number one concern of teenage boys everywhere won through.

“Yeah, Grampa, I am a little hungry… that sounds pretty good.”

“Then let’s blow this popsicle stand… I’m pretty hungry myself.” I wasn’t, but I act well. And for the record, the food in this place is actually pretty good.

So he pushed me in the chair out of the sunroom, and up through the long sloping hallway with the art display (this month it was African art—masks, paintings, that sort of thing). We met a few people on the way to the elevators, including that bitch Judkins, who gave me a fake smile and commented in that sugary, faux Southern accent of hers how cute my grandson was getting, and how she had a couple of granddaughters who would surely like to meet him.

“Betty, I’d rather drink Drano than see my grandson date one of your offspring, of whatever degree.”

The bitch stiffened and went red, then smiled that fake smile and forced a laugh. “Oh Jack, you wicked man, the things you say…” and hurried off.

“Gees, grampa… a little harsh there, don’t you think?” Amos always did have a soft heart.

“Boy, I’ve seen her granddaughters… you’d be better off with a sheep. Certainly the conversation would be more intelligent.” I have to admit, being old has its compensations: you can say whatever you want. He gave me one of those sidelong, you-are-SO-bad looks and we continued on up to the apartment.

I unlocked the door and rolled inside, my grandson close behind me. My keys went into the pouch on the side of the chair, and I rolled over to the small refrigerator. I pulled out a Pepsi for my guest and chucked it at him underhand, and pulled out a beer for me.

“OK… bread’s on the counter behind you. I got salami, I got turkey and… yeah, here’s the roast beef. Which one you want?” I pulled them out and set them on the counter, followed by mayo, lettuce, tomato and Dijon mustard.

“Uh… can I have turkey and roast beef?” He had pulled out the bread and was laying slices on the counter, reaching for the mayo to get them prepared. I looked up at him—sixteen years old, hair going dark though he was born a towhead just like all the men in my family, strong chin and sky blue eyes with the gray iris ring… yes indeed, a Martin through and through.

Amos finished layering nearly all the available meat onto one sandwich for himself and then made me a salami sandwich, knowing that it was my favorite. I took the sandwich on a plate that he handed me, set it on my lap, wedged my beer between my thigh and the chair, and was ready to roll into the living room. Amos followed me, grabbing a TV tray on his way by, and snagging the remote for the TV as well.

“Amos, let’s not turn on the TV today… the teams playing today are both crap. Don’t wanna watch that mess right now. I’d like to just sit and talk, if you don’t mind?”

“Sure Grampa. What do you wanna talk about?”

“Well, hearing about your young friend… Dan, was it?” I smiled at his shy nod and continued, “made me think of a story I haven’t told anybody else. Thought you might like to hear it.” Ever since Amos was just a pup, I’ve told him stories from my life and the lives of people I knew and loved. Used to be he’d sit on my lap and listen to me rattle on, goggle-eyed at some of the things I told him… some of the stories were ones that I’d told so many times he knew them by heart, and if I made a mistake in the narrative, he’d correct me. This one, though, he’d never heard because I’d never told it to anyone.

“A new story? Cool!” he plunked down on the easy chair next to where I was sitting. “So what’s it about?”

“Well, a long time ago, when I was a boy, in a tiny town in Alaska…”

* * *

“JACK!! Get that landing gear cranked up, boy! I don’t wanna see nothing but assholes and elbows!” My father’s bellow cut easily through the racket on the car deck of the ferry Malaspina, spurring me on to jerk the handle out of its rack, slam it into the port and start cranking the landing gear up. Glancing up, I saw him frowning at me in the rearview mirror of the old tractor. I cranked faster. He was not a man you wanted to have irritated with you if he didn’t have to be.

I finished the landing gear, and jumped up on the back of the tractor where two rubber hoses with metal fittings on the ends lay on the big, exposed fuel tanks. I grabbed them, and with a practiced flip of my wrist, attached them to matching fittings on the front of the van. A quick hiss of escaping air told me they were working, supplying the air pressure to run the brakes on the van. I scrambled down and was reaching for the door of the tractor to get in… and that was the first time I saw him.

He was standing in line, getting ready to walk off the ferry and up the ramp to the dock, standing with all the other walk-ons. There was only one stop further north on the ferry line than my little hometown, and the other town didn’t have a highway that went into the interior of the state. So everybody was getting off the ship, and there he stood, a moment of stillness in the midst of all that mad activity. He had shouldered an enormous backpack with a sleeping bag tied on, and his sleeping pad tied on beneath that. He had on a pair of worn, brown canvas shorts, and a bright red tee shirt. He had on a pair of thick cotton socks… I don’t remember what color. He wore a pair of massive, obviously heavy hiking boots… the kind with the full steel shanks and padded ankles. I noticed in that glance that his skin was darkened, as by the sun or perhaps by genetics, but mostly I saw his smile as he talked to the guy next to him in line—white, perfect teeth shining between quirked up lips that were thick and beautiful, dark red like a bing cherry. And I saw the fall of his hair: long and lustrous and black, pulled into a ponytail and lying across one shoulder and then the side of his chest. I stared for a moment, completely caught, and I felt a wild lurch in my stomach, as though it wanted to get out.

“JACK!” My father’s booming voice landed me back in reality with a jolt. “Get in the truck, boy—we’re holding up traffic!” I grabbed the door handle, and swung up on the running board as my father gunned the engine on the old tractor, disengaged the air brakes on the van and lurched forward with the heavily loaded van in tow. I opened the door and crawled into the cab of the truck, flushed with embarrassment and some strange feeling like a tightness in my chest. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

“What was holding you up out there, boy? See something you liked?” My father, while not a cruel man, was authoritarian… but he liked looking at a pretty girl as much as he thought I did, so he looked out my side of the cab to see what I’d been staring at. Fortunately, a tall blond chick in hiking shorts was walking up the ramp, and he assumed I was looking at her.

“Not half bad, eh son? Damn sight prettier than those girls you’re always talking to—I think your tastes are improving.” He grinned at me and I watched out the window at the beauty walking up the ramp beside the straining tractor… long black hair and bronzed skin, and I didn’t say a thing.

My father owned a building supply store, one of two in my hometown. He and his best friend William (Uncle Bill, to me) owned the business together, and they made a good team. My father was a big man, 6’3” in his stocking feet. He had muscles that bulged from his arms, his stomach was flat and hard, and his legs were thick and muscled. He had a full head of dark brown hair, now shot with silver. Momma used to tell me stories about his exploits on the football field when he was a boy my age, and she’d get a dreamy look in her eye, and look so happy in her memories that I couldn’t bear to tell her I’d heard the story a thousand times. My father was not a man to hide his emotions… he laughed wholeheartedly, and raged like a storm when crossed. He was bigger than life, or so he seemed to me that year when I was sixteen.

Uncle Bill, on the other hand, was short, slender and blonde—or he used to be till all his hair fell out but a fringe around the sides. He was just my height, about 5’8”, with blue eyes and pale skin. He was smart… a lot smarter than my father. I knew, ’cause he ran the money side of their business. Besides, I’d always heard my father say Bill was the brains of the operation. It was an established fact in my house that Bill was the smart one, and my father was the strong one. I never thought much about it… it just was. So, while my father and his slave labor force (also known as his three sons) unloaded vans stacked with tons of sheetrock, plywood, lumber, nails, hardware and anything a person might need to build just about anything, Uncle Bill cranked numbers through his ten key with bewildering speed, accurately forecasting what would be needed for any given season and making sure it was on hand when it was needed. Together, they ran circles around their only competitor in that little town of 1200 people. Everyone knew that if you went to M&B Building Supply (it stood for Martin and Brierly—my father, John Martin and his partner, William Brierly), you could get whatever you needed, a cup of good coffee with it, and usually some pretty good advice or information about whatever you were working on. It was a successful formula.

I never dreamed that I’d see the Man On the Ferry Dock (as I thought of him) again, so imagine my surprise when I went to work two weeks later, and there he was shuffling 2x4s out of a stack in the yard and into a customer’s truck. I stood stock-still and just gaped. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. And that was the second time I saw him.

Recovering, I ran into the store, behind the counter and into Uncle Bill’s office.

“Uncle Bill, who’s that guy out there helping with the lumber? What’s he doing here?”

“Well, hello to you too, Jack! You’re looking remarkably healthy this morning…” Uncle Bill laughed. “Calm down son… that’s Jake. We hired him to help out around here for awhile, since Ray’s left.” Ray, my older brother, left town two months before. The mayor’s daughter had mysteriously become pregnant, and while she refused to name the father, the smart money in town was on Ray for that honor—thus his precipitous departure.

“But who is he, Uncle Bill? Where does he come from? How long will he be here?”

“Well son, near as I can make out, his name is Jake Olstrem. He’s 19, and originally from Wyoming. Got stuck here in town when he couldn’t get a ride up the road, and ran outta money. So he’s working for us till he can afford a ticket back to Seattle on the ferry. He’s agreed to substitute living in the night watchman’s apartment for part of his wages, so it works out good for us. Any more than that, and you’ll have to ask him. Got it, Sprat?”

“Yeah… thanks, Uncle Bill.”

“Oh, and Jack? I think it’s time we dropped the ‘uncle’ part of my name. From now on son, my name is just Bill. Are we together on that?”

“Yes sir, Unc— Bill, I mean.” It was a proud moment for me, but I was distracted, my eyes drawn to the window to watch as Jake (I loved the way the name sounded in my head. It was a MAN’s name, somehow) stacked the last of the boards into Old Man Jenkins’ truck and attached a red piece of boundary flagging to the end of one of the boards where they jutted out past the tailgate. So intent was I that I never saw the considering look thrown at me by my uncle. When I finally turned around, he was entering numbers into his ten key with his usual speed, and I had no idea that he’d just watched my life make a turn.

I walked out of the office, and as I came around the corner of the counter, there was my father.

“Boy, run over to the feed shed and get Ms. Fogel here two sacks of chicken scratch and a sack of rabbit feed.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Hello, Jack. My car is parked right by the shed and the back door is open. You can just pop ’em in.”

Ms Fogel was a very nice lady, tall and big-boned with a strong and angular face. Her husband had died a few years before, and she’d begun making regular appearances at M&B, usually for animal feed. She smiled at me cheerfully just before I headed out to get her order. I wished I were that cheerful—she was always smiling when I saw her here.

“Hey boy, show Jake where the feed is kept while you’re out there.”

“Yes sir.”

How was I going to do this? I knew I’d open my mouth and this amazing stranger would know I was a dork. I couldn’t help it—when I got nervous, I froze up. I shuffled across the yard to where Jake was closing up the tarp back over the 2x4s. I stood there behind him a moment, trying to make my dry mouth form a word—any word. Then he turned around, finished with what he’d been doing, and saw me standing there. He looked at me, and I saw his eyes were a dark green; the tiny bit of remaining moisture in my mouth evaporated and I blushed from my neck to my hairline. He smiled, that bright line of white that I remembered from the ferry car ramp, and my stomach leapt again, just like it had that day.

“Hi. I’m Jake. What’s your name?” His voice was a smooth baritone. And that was the first time he spoke to me.

“I… uh, I’m… er, that is… Jack! Jack Martin… John Martin is my dad.” My face was still crimson; I could feel the heat on the back of my neck. He stuck his hand out to me, and I automatically took it in mine with the firm grip that my father always insisted I use. By now my stomach was lodged firmly in my esophagus. I gasped when he gripped my hand in return. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to let go on my own, he slid his hand out my grip.

“Nice to meet ya, Jack. So what can I do for you?”

“My father says to show you the feed shed and where everything is, and I gotta get some stuff outta there for Ms Fogel,” I managed to force through the terminal dryness of my throat.

“Cool. Lead on, McDuff… I’m right behind you.” He chuckled a little and gestured me forward.

And so, with me leading him across the dusty yard, we went to the feed shed. I showed him the various stacks of different kinds of feed, all in brown kraft paper bags, with white twine sewn across the tops. He hefted the two bags of Scratch and I got the rabbit feed, and we carried them out of the shed and put ’em in Ms Fogel’s car. My shoulder brushed against his arm as I stood up after leaning over to put my bag in, and I shivered. I blushed again.

“Hey, Jack, thanks for showing me all that stuff. I got a lot to learn around here, and anytime you wanna show me something, I’m ready.”

My heart staggered at his words, but the innocent grin plastered on his face looked free of any intent to embarrass. So I smiled weakly and headed back inside, with Jake right behind me. Looking through the office window, I noticed my father talking to Bill, dark head bent over light, his big hand on Bill’s shoulder, and then saw my father smile and say something to Bill, who smiled back. Then they both turned to a paper that Bill picked up off his desk and started talking about it. When I glanced back at Jake, who apparently had also seen the whole exchange, he had a funny smile on his face. I couldn’t tell what it meant.

So Jake worked with us at M&B, and lived in the little night watchman’s apartment. He was strong and fast and agile, always ready with a laugh and a smile, learned fast and remembered well. His muscles, while not big and bulging like my father’s, were sleek and wiry. He told us how he grew up on a ranch near Casper, Wyoming and built those muscles by bucking hay every year since he was eight, which even my father admitted was hard work and liable to build a muscle or two. Jake fit in very well with the mix of rough and genteel that was the atmosphere at M&B, ready with a rude comment when bantering with my father or to give advice on the aesthetic of stacking paint cans in a balanced way to me, as I struggled to make an attractive display.

My heart still stuttered when I was around him much, and my stomach still tried to crawl out of my body when I was close to him… a glance from those emerald eyes still made my head reel, and I still blushed when he smiled at me. I watched him closely and I noticed certain things about him, like the way he fitted himself to the person with whom he was talking. When he talked to my father, he was blunt and abrupt, his voice strong and assured—masculine. When he talked to customers, especially women, his voice was lighter and somehow… bouncy. He smiled at them a lot, and I noticed that even when we didn’t have what they wanted, they almost always left with a purchase.

But the most interesting was when he and Bill would talk, especially if they thought no one else was around. Suddenly his voice got real drawly, dragging out all his vowels and his hands started to flutter in the air, and Bill would smile real big and get silly and giggly… I’d never seen anyone act like that before, and I was mystified.

And so two weeks went by, and Jake and I became friends. I was the closest thing to another guy his age on hand, so I guess it was natural that we hung out a lot together. He came to dinner at our house a lot, ’cause my mom can’t stand the thought of anyone going hungry, not if she can help it, and she let my father know in no uncertain terms that Jake was not going to starve while he was employed by our family, nosirree, that wasn’t gonna happen on Her watch… so Jake came and ate at our house a lot. And sometimes after dinner, he and I would go for a walk together up into the woods behind our house and do some plinking with a couple of .22s, or he’d help me mow the last part of the lawn that needed doing, and sometimes we’d just sit and shoot the shit. I had finally stopped blushing around him and could look him in the eye without my stomach crawling into my throat, but now I was developing another problem… every time I got close to him, say less than ten feet, I’d spring a boner that refused to go down. And since, like most of the Martin men, I wasn’t particularly small in that department, it was damned embarrassing… especially at work. I’d taken to wearing a jockstrap under my shorts or pants at work, and it helped, but it was pretty damned uncomfortable. Sometimes I’d be trying to subtly adjust myself and I’d catch Jake watching me with a little grin on his face, and I’d blush again. But mercifully, no one said anything about it.

One evening, after we’d eaten a lot more than was really comfortable, ’cause my mama was a really fine cook, and she’d outdone herself that night with her chicken enchiladas, me and Jake decided to hike up into the woods a ways and do some target practice. We each of us had a .22 rifle in hand, and I had a little packsack with a couple .22 pistols and some extra boxes of ammo, and some tin cans I’d fished outta the trash. We hiked up the road through my neighborhood and started up the trailhead that led up onto the mountain behind our house. Soon enormous old growth spruce trees surrounded us, and shafts of sunlight shone down through the canopy and lit on the huge, palmate leaves of Devil’s Club brush, and it was just us and the sound of our breathing and the smell of our sweat. We walked up till we reached the rock outcropping that was our favorite place to plink, and we sat for a spell, catching our breath after the steep walk up. Though it was eight o’clock at night, the sun was still up and shining, and would be till well after midnight, so we had plenty of time. A light breeze was blowing, drying our sweat and cooling us off. We sat on the rocks and looked down on the little town where I lived, surrounded by enormous peaks covered by year-round snow, and the sun sparkling on the river on one side of town and the salt water bay on the other, and I knew I would never live somewhere this beautiful again.

Jake’s voice broke into my musings: “Hey Jack, what say I show you a thing or two about shooting a gun?”

Now this was just plain smartass on his part, cause he knew I’d grown up with a gun in my hands, and I was every bit as good a shot as he was, especially with a pistol. So I just smiled at him real insolent-like and said “If you think you can, you’re more than welcome to try.”

My chronic erection problem had faded somewhat during the walk up the hill to our plinking spot… I guess that blood was needed elsewhere. But now it was back with a vengeance, making a long lump down the leg of my jeans. It had escaped from my jock, and I could feel it throbbing against the skin of my thigh.

“So, Jack, you got a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to be with me?” Jake was standing right behind me, so close I could feel the warmth of his breath on the back of my neck, right at the hairline. His question, corny as it was, caused that stomach leap to come back and my hands to stop functioning. I dropped the packsack I was holding and closed my eyes and stood there, feeling the heat prickles on the back of my neck as a magnificent blush rose up my face. I actually swayed on my feet for a moment, feeling like I might faint, when suddenly his arms wrapped around my chest and pulled me back against his chest and I felt his lips on the back of my neck, just where I’d felt his hot breath a moment before… and that was the first time he touched me.

The fact of his arms around me and his body pressing into my back was so powerful, so bewildering and good, that all I could do was take a deep breath and then an agonized sob burst out me, and though I wanted to be in his arms more than I wanted my next breath, I struggled away from him, because I knew that he didn’t really want this, that he was doing this for kindness, and I knew that if that was true, I would die. So I struggled to get out of his arms and tears rolled down my face and I was…

Suddenly face to face with him, as he easily spun me around and held me against him.

“Jack, Jack baby, don’t cry honey… it’s OK, it’s all gonna be OK. Shhh, don’t cry, hon…”

His voice crooned in my ear and I felt his hard muscular chest against mine and my heart was trying to beat right out of my chest and my lungs seized up and I couldn’t breathe and I felt hot tears pouring down my face and through blurry eyes I saw him smile and I felt his lips on my face as he kissed my tears away, and I knew without a doubt that my life was over, that I was going to die right here and right now, because I couldn’t stand anything this good for one more second.

But I didn’t die. And his lips moved from my cheeks to my mouth, kissing delicately first at the corner of my lips, then just the lightest brush across my lower lip, then a closed-mouth press against both my lips. I gasped and looked up at him, almost limp in his arms.

He seemed to know that I wasn’t going to be much good on my feet much longer, so he sat on a long, flat rock and drew me down to sit on his lap with my legs around his waist and facing him. My sobs had subsided now to an occasional hiccup, and my arms were around him and my face pressed into the silken skin of his neck, and he smelled so good, like a man, and his strong hands were stroking my back from the waistband of my jeans to my hairline, and I dimly thought, ‘How much better does it get?’

“I know you been watchin’ me and wantin’ me Jack, and that’s cool ’cause I like you too and I’ve wanted you since just about the first time I saw you. Yeah, I’m like that too, boyo. I like other boys too, just like you do. Don’t worry, baby… it’s all gonna be just fine… I’m gonna take care of you.” Then his lips covered mine again, and this time I felt his tongue on my lips, pushing for an entry, and I opened my lips to him, giving myself up to him, because he wanted me to, and I wanted what he wanted.

And so, up there on a rocky outcropping on the side of a mountain, lying on a thick bed of moss and lichen, bathed in the warmth of the nighttime sun, Jake taught me how one man loves another, all the beautiful, wonderful things that two men do together when they love, and how to drain the cup of pleasure to the last dregs.

In the exhausted afterglow, as we lay next to each other and watched eagles soar in wide circles above us, apparently undisturbed by our ecstatic cries of only a few minutes earlier, Jake told me a little about his life, how he grew up on a ranch in the outback of Wyoming, how when he was just about my age, his father had caught him with one of the hired hands out behind the barn one day, beat the hell out of him and sent him packing. How he’d made his way to Laramie, then down to Denver, then to Phoenix, then to LA, then up to San Francisco, then to Seattle, where he’d heard about the ferry system and decided to see what was up here. And how he’d never expected to find love in Alaska, with a boy like me. Yes, love, he said, because that’s what he was feeling.

That night, Jake left me at the end of my driveway with many kisses and promises of nights of passion in the night watchman’s apartment where he lived. I stumbled up the path to the house, and there was my mother, my father and Bill, all sitting at the kitchen table playing cribbage, as they were wont to do. My father took one look at me and guffawed loudly, my mother smiled sweetly, and Bill got up, came over and hugged me, and gently suggested a shower and perhaps some turtleneck tops for the next few days at work. I blushed violently and fled to the bathroom, and sure enough, in the mirror I saw the evidence of Jake’s passion blooming on the smooth skin of my neck.

“But for now,” he’d said just before my rush to the bathroom, “get a shower and come sit with your parents and me. I think we need to talk a little.”

The hot water felt good beating on my skin. I was worried about talking to my parents and Bill… would they forbid me to see Jake again? Just the thought of that made me sick to my stomach and my heart hammer… I couldn’t, wouldn’t stay away from Jake! They’d have to lock me away and feed me gruel through a slot in the steel door to keep me away from him… how could they do that to me? Didn’t they know I loved him? And that was the moment when it all hit me, the realization of what I had done, and why. My knees sagged and I almost fell on the floor of the shower stall. Dear God, I was in love with another boy! I was one of those filthy queers everyone talked about… Oh my god, would my father beat me and throw me out of the house like Jake’s father had done to him? Where would I go? What would happen to me? Surely Jake would take me with him when he left town… Oh No! Jake would be leaving town soon… he was only here till he earned enough to get a ticket back to the south!

I was a wreck as I crept out of the shower and wrapped a towel around my waist, picked up my clothes and headed into my room. I put away my clothes, pulled on a pair of sweats and an old tee shirt, and headed up the stairs to where my parents and my uncle sat waiting for me. I knew I was dead. My life was over.

For being the end of my life, the scene in the kitchen when I got there was strangely casual. My mother was grinning sassily as she counted her crib and pegged her way past my father, who was scowling, and Bill was laughing gently watching the two of them. When they noticed me standing hesitantly in the doorway, though, they all three lost all interest in their game and all eyes were focused on me.

“Have a seat, boy,” my father rumbled. “Bill, go get this young man a beer.”

Bill smiled widely and shoved his chair back and fetched an ice-cold St Pauley Girl and popped the top before setting it down in front of me. I’d never been given a beer before, and I hesitated a minute.

“Drink up, boy,” my father said. As I obeyed, making a face at the bitter taste of the beer, he continued. “Now, it seems to me that you’ve got a bit of explaining to do, walking in here late like you did, grinning like a dying fool and smelling like an orgy. Maybe you could start by explaining that color on your neck, eh?”

I stared at my father, and I was confused. His words sounded gruff and aggressive, but I’d have sworn there was a smile lurking just out of sight on his face… but I had to be mistaken. What was there to smile about in this whole situation? I looked at my mother, but she was no help at all, looking down at the table with a hint of flush in her porcelain cheeks.

“Well… I, uh… I was walkin’ up there, behind J-J-Jake, and well… uh, a-a branch, you know… it snapped back and scraped me on the neck… I think… er…” I trailed off into silence. The silence continued as all three of the adults stared at me for a long moment.

Then my father burst out in deep belly laughs, and I heard Bill laughing with him, and even my mother was smiling and giggling, shaking her head. I was shocked for a moment, and then I felt a great indignation. What was so damned funny?

“Bill,” my father roared through gusts of laughter, “isn’t that the same story you told your folks that first time? And I seem to remember they actually bought it!”

“Unlike your parents, my parents didn’t expect to see me coming in looking like a slut,” Bill jibed back. “And they trusted me. I was a good boy before you came along.”

“You too?” my mother cried in a mock aggrieved voice. “I was good before I met this guy too! Damn, was there anybody he didn’t corrupt?”

I sat there, completely confused and watching these three lunatics that I’d thought I’d known all my life.

Finally the laughter wound down. My father got a very solemn look on his face, and reached across the table and took my hand in his.

“Boy, you are my son. I don’t always show you how proud of you I am, but you’re hearing it now. You work as hard as any man I’ve met; you never shirk a duty. You’ve got a good heart in you, boy. Even when the work is hard, you’re always game. You’re not a quitter. That says a lot about you, and it’s all good stuff in my book. Of course, we know what you’ve been up to tonight, and I say it’s about damn time. I was starting to worry about you. No son of mine should wait till he’s sixteen to get his dick wet.”

I was overcome. I was terminally embarrassed, and I was overwhelmed by this show of my father’s love and approval. How like him to comment on my work habits at a time like this—my father defined a man’s worth by his willingness to work hard, to use his body to the extreme and accomplish whatever it was that he’d set out to do.

Then Bill spoke up. “Jack, we know what you’ve been doing tonight because we’ve all been there. We weren’t always as old as we are now, y’know.” This brought swift, knowing smiles to the faces of all three adults at the table. I saw them but didn’t really understand what they meant. “You look confused, Jack. Tell you what… why don’t we tell you a story about three friends that I think will make all this clear. Priscilla, John? What do you think?”

“Well,” my mother said, “I never thought I’d be telling that story to a child of mine. But I think it might be useful here.”

“Hell, yes, the boy needs to hear it.” My father was unhesitating, and it was he that started the story of John, Priscilla and Bill. It was a long story, and the other two spoke in turn, and I’d made several trips to the refrigerator for beer before the tale was all told. But by the time it was told, my mind was at ease and I was awash in the love of my parents, all three of them, and I knew it was going to be all right.

“So you see, boy, it doesn’t matter who you love or who you fuck or any of the shit that most people make such a fuss about. If it’s just fucking, then it’s all about body parts, and there’s plenty of places where things fit, whether it’s a boy or a girl that you’re with.”

“And if it’s love, son,” my mother said, “then it’s all about the heart, and you won’t have a choice about all that. Man or woman, it’ll come bursting in with undefeatable power, and you’ll just be swept along… at least, that’s how it was for me.” She was staring straight at my father when she said this, and for a moment I saw the young girl in her face.

“Do you love him, Jack? Are you in love with Jake?” Bill’s voice was gentle in the semi-darkness of the kitchen.

“I don’t know Bill. It’s all so new to me. I feel like I do. I can’t stop thinking about him, and my chest gets all tight and weird when he’s around, and my stomach keeps wanting to jump out every time I see him.”

Bill laughed a little. “Yup son, sounds like you got it bad. You sound just about like I was, way back in the days… you are remembering that he’s only here for the summer, right? Or until he can buy a ticket south, at the most. I’m not telling you not to love him son, only telling you to be careful.”

My mother chuckled. “Since when was young love ever careful, Bill? Besides, I don’t remember you ever being too careful.”

“You’re right, Priscilla. What was I thinking?” Bill smiled ruefully. “Don’t bother being careful, Jack. It won’t do a damn bit of good anyway.”

* * *

And that was where we left it. I got hugs from my mother and Bill, and my father patted me on the back and told me again it was about damn time, and I went to bed. I slept like a log all night, but I noticed that Bill’s Datsun pickup was still in the driveway the next morning, and the guest room was undisturbed.

“Wow, Grampa! That was amazing!” Amos’s eyes were shining and his face was excited as he stared at me as I finished my tale. “So what happened? Did Jake stay? Were you in love with him?”

“Yes I was, Amos. He stayed with us, living in the little apartment at the business for two years till I graduated from high school. And we were inseparable all that time. And it was a wonderful thing. Then one day he got a letter, and he said he had to go, that someone needed him. So, we bought him an airline ticket to Denver, and had my father’s brother meet him at the airport there and give him a ride all the way up to Cheyenne, Wyoming. And that was the last I ever heard of him. He just disappeared into thin air.”

“But that sucks, Grampa! How could he just disappear like that, knowing how you loved him?”

“Because sometimes we don’t get to choose these things, boyo. I believe in my heart that if he had been able to, he would have come back to me. But he didn’t, so I have to believe that he couldn’t. But more to the point, boy, do you understand why I told you this story?”

There was a tear in Amos’s eye now. Like I said, he always did have a soft heart. “Yeah, Grampa, I do. You know about me, and it’s OK with you, huh?”

“Yes Amos, it is. I couldn’t be less concerned about the gender of the person you fall in love with unless I were dead. All I’m concerned about is whether this person deserves to be loved by a boy with as big a heart as you’ve got.”

“He’s good enough, Grampa. He says I’m the best thing that ever happened to him, and he treats me like he means it. I love him; I can’t help it! I just worry what Mom and Dad will say.”

“They’ll get over whatever concerns they may have, trust me, boy. Remember, I raised your father.” I smiled and winked.

“Grampa, do you ever still wonder what happened to him?”

“Most every day, son. He haunts my dreams even now, when I’m an old man and should be over all these things.”