Small Town Boys - Chapter 47
Fathers and Sons
As if by magic, Back Home Again suddenly became a hot property. A week after the meeting in Jack’s office CBS announced that it would show the film as a holiday special the weekend before Christmas, bumping the rerun of A Very Brady Christmas. The network publicity department got a freelancer in Michigan to do an interview with Mike over the phone, and Jeremy actually went on Entertainment Tonight to promote it.
The script of Small Town Boys was delivered to Mike by Fed Ex. The next day Donny was in a meeting in Greg’s office when Lily buzzed through telling him that Mike was calling. Donny went back to his office.
“You wrote this,” said Mike.
“Is that good ‘holy shit’ or bad ‘holy shit’?”
“Jesus, Donny, this is really good. I didn’t know you were a writer.”
“Oh, so all that stuff we did on Return to Sender was just jerking off?”
“No, but I mean...” Donny could hear pages shuffling. “This is....wow.”
“So you’re gonna do it?”
“Well, we’ll definitely talk about it when I get back.”
“Um,” Mike said, sounding a little more sober, “there’s still some things going on here that I’m dealing with, so probably not before Thanksgiving.” His voice trailed off, then suddenly he said, “Hey, I got an idea. Why don’t you come up here for Thanksgiving and then we can drive back together? Y’know, take some time off and maybe even stop off in Ohio and see your folks before heading back?”
Donny grabbed his desk calendar and flipped ahead to the week after Thanksgiving. There was nothing pressing, but just to be sure he put Mike on hold, buzzed Lily and asked her if there was anything major on the calendar the last week of the month. There wasn’t so he went back to Mike’s line. “Sounds like a plan,” he told him.
“Think you can get the time off?”
“Yeah. I know the personnel guy.”
“Great. Call me when you have the reservation.”
He buzzed Lily and told him to get him a one-way flight to Traverse City as close to Thanksgiving as possible. After he hung up he tried to remember where he’d put his winter clothes.
Lily managed to get him the last seat on a flight out of LAX the day before Thanksgiving. It was in first class, but it would have to do. The plane was packed with holiday travelers, and so was O’Hare; the K concourse streaming with hundreds of people rushing in all directions, the P.A. system squawking out announcements, children crying, and above it all the general noise of a busy airport.
He had a couple of hours to kill so he bought a horrendously overpriced sandwich and beer at a restaurant and watched the people go by. He tried to think if he knew anyone in Chicago, and then remembered Scott Welles. He hadn’t heard from him since the last time they’d hooked up three years ago, just before Scott had moved to Chicago, and the last he’d heard anything about him had been the town gossip that Danny had brought back two years ago.
He thought about calling him. Across the concourse was a bank of payphones, and after he finished eating he went over and found one with a phone book that hadn’t been shredded. There was lots of “Welles” in the greater Chicago area, and quite a few “Welles S” and even seven or eight “Welles Scott,” some with middle initials, some without. He didn’t know Scott’s middle name, and he didn’t feel like calling to find out. Besides, he wouldn’t know what to say if he called him, anyway. He stopped at a newsstand, picked up a late edition of the Chicago Tribune, found the gate for the flight to Traverse City, and settled down to do the crossword.
After a while he looked up to see the gate area was beginning to fill up; a middle-aged couple with matching tote bags were sharing a sandwich; a teenager in a bulky ski parka stared intently at the screen of his Game Boy, tiny electronic sounds blurbling from it periodically. A businessman in a grey overcoat paced as he talked on a cell phone, gesticulating with a rolled-up copy of Forbes, and a woman who appeared to be in her thirties wearing an MSU t-shirt under a zippered sweatshirt was reading a paperback. From the picture of a muscular blond man embracing a ravishing woman on the cover, Donny guessed she was reading a romance novel.
Another teenager, wearing a letter jacket from a well-known New England prep school and carrying a bag from McDonald’s, came and sat next to the other teen. The second boy looked a little older and was leaner than the other, but there was enough of a resemblance that Donny guessed they were brothers heading home from school for Thanksgiving break. The older boy wordlessly offered some French fries to the game-player, but he shook his head curtly and concentrated on the little screen in front of him.
They all looked like typical Midwesterners, as Donny did in his jeans, Nikes and winter jacket that had a window manufacturer logo over his left pec. It was a far cry from the multicultural crowd that had gathered in LAX for the flight to Chicago; no one here was speaking in Spanish, nor was there the group from India travelling together, the men solemnly dressed in impeccable suits, the women in floor-length dresses and headscarves. Here there were no crying children; the only baby in the gate was fast asleep in his stroller parked next to the young couple sitting across from him. The father, in his worn jeans and suede leather jacket, didn’t look much older than Donny, and the mother, who barely looked old enough to have a child, read from a bible, occasionally glancing at her sleeping child. Completing the impromptu nativity scene was a cat carrier on an empty seat from which an occasional meow was heard.
This was the “flyover” crowd that Trish had talked about. These were the people that D’Angelo wanted to reach with the sitcom version of Small Town Boys. But would any of these people watch a TV show about four gay guys living in a house in L.A. if it wasn’t a sitcom? What if he was to ask them? Not outright, of course, but to casually engage them in conversation, and then off-handedly ask them what they thought of the idea?
The teenagers would laugh nervously, cross their legs, and make fag jokes once Donny was out of earshot. The young couple with the baby wouldn’t approve; the bible being a giveaway to their reaction. The middle-aged lady might nod thoughtfully, but the husband would not answer. The businessman didn’t watch TV, and the woman reading the romance novel might watch if it wasn’t on against her other favorite programs. Donny slouched in his seat. Then again, he thought, you really don’t know. After all, no one knows I’m an executive producer of a new TV series. I probably look to them like just another college student waiting for a plane.
More passengers filtered into the gate area and the gate agent began to make preparations to board the flight. They trooped down the stairs and out onto the tarmac, the cold wind catching Donny by surprise, reminding him how long it had been since he’d been in really cold weather. Flakes of snow flurried by.
The plane was stuffy and hot, making Donny sleepy, and once they took off he dozed most of the way, only coming fully awake when the landing gear was lowered. He looked out the window, but all he could see was clouds and snow whipping past the window until the plane actually hit the runway. It slowly taxied to the ramp, the darkness cut by the streetlights over the parking lots off in the distance and the greenish glow of the lights over the gate. The airport itself seemed to be only half-lit.
Donny trotted across the tarmac, his shoulders hunched against the cold, and up the gate escalator into Cherry Capital Airport. It was colder here than Chicago and he was grateful for the sweater he had pulled on that morning. It had been uncomfortably warm even with the air conditioning on in the car when Marc dropped him at the departure level at LAX. “Have a good time,” Marc had said, “and say hi to Mike for me.”
“Will do,” he’d replied, pulling his duffel out of the back seat. “See you in a week or so.”
“Take all the time you need.”
“I’ll be back way before Eric gets here.” Eric was coming down in ten days for the year-end planning meetings.
“Hope so,” Marc had said. He waved, checked the mirrors, and cut back into traffic in front of the Super Shuttle.
Mike was waiting outside the security checkpoint. Like a lot of the other men in the waiting area, he was wearing the requisite hunting coat and cap, heavy boots, and a flannel shirt and jeans. If anyone recognized him as a movie star, they didn’t show it, and when he grabbed Donny and gave him a big brotherly hug, no one seemed to notice.
“So how’s things in Tinseltown?” he said as they strode to the baggage claim area.
“’Bout the same as it was when you split,” Donny replied. “How’s things here?”
Mike nodded. “Good. Okay.” He grinned quickly, almost nervously. “Quiet, compared to out there.”
“Yeah, you forget what it’s like.”
One of the teenagers from the plane was staring at Mike. Donny nudged him and Mike nodded. “I get that here sometimes,” he murmured. “They’ve seen me somewhere before, but they can’t place it. I was shopping at Meijer’s the other day and the checkout girl thought I was Matthew McConaughey.”
Donny chuckled. “Better than Matt Frewer.”
“Tell me about it.”
The baggage carousel began moving and Donny’s duffel appeared. Mike grabbed it and they headed for the parking lot. The Land Rover was covered with road dirt and, aside from the shiny white California license plates, looked like just another SUV in northern Michigan.
“I made a reservation at the...” Donny started to say, but Mike cut him off.
“I know. I cancelled it. You’re staying out at our place.”
“How did you...?”
“I called your office this morning to find out what time your plane was getting in, and when your secretary told me about your reservation, I told her to cancel it. C’mon, Donny, that place was miles from the house. How were you gonna get back and forth?”
“Rent a car.”
“Fuck that shit, Donny.”
“I didn’t want to impose.”
Mike snorted. “Not a problem. We’ve got a guest room. Dad’s looking forward to meeting you.”
They were driving along the lake shore. The streetlights on the parkway were bright enough to illuminate some of the beach and catch the whitecaps of the waves as they came ashore. “So what have you told your folks about me?”
Mike gave him a wicked grin. “That you and I have been hot lovers off and on for the last couple of years as well as the executive producer for my next project and you’ve come here to meet the parents and ask for my hand in marriage.”
“That you’re just a friend.”
“Would you rather I’d gone with the hot lover line?”
Donny shrugged. “Probably more believable than the executive producer bit.”
“Yeah. You don’t exactly look like Louis B. Mayer.”
They went another mile or so, past boatyards and marinas, the lots full of tarped hulls and cabin cruisers. The traffic was light, and they turned off onto M-72 heading west, following the arrow pointing toward Empire. “So this is the plan,” Mike said. “Thanksgiving tomorrow, then Friday morning head to Toledo, see your folks, then head for L.A. Get there by Wednesday night, early Thursday. How’s that sound?”
“Good,” replied Donny. He was looking out the window at the houses passing by, lights in the windows glowing warmly. They all had the high-pitched roofs characteristic of the area. By Christmas the snow would start accumulating, and this part of the state often got more than fourteen feet over a winter. “So, what have you been doing for the last month or so?”
“Not much, really.” He tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel. “The thing is...Dad got diagnosed with prostate cancer back in September. I....”
“Jesus,” said Donny, “I’m sorry to hear that. Is he...?”
Mike smiled wistfully. “Oh, he’s doing pretty well. They caught it early. Despite the backwoodsy look of the place, they’ve got a hell of a good hospital in Traverse City. State of the art, really.”
“So don’t you want to stick around?”
“He doesn’t want me to. He said it’s not like he’s gonna go next week, so he said to get the hell out.” Mike chuckled softly. “Dad’s fighting mad and he’s gonna beat it. He’s also not the kind of guy who gets all sentimental. That comes from being a vet and knowing that at some point he has to put someone’s dog or cat to sleep. Life goes on. So when Jason called about your project, Dad’s first question was when was I leaving?”
They turned north through the evergreen forest until Mike slowed and turned off the highway into a gravel driveway. The black mailbox by the road said LANKOWSKI. The drive wound through the cedars until a modern log home, brightly lit by floodlights hanging from the eaves, emerged from the night. The drive circled around to a low deck, the headlights flashing past the carved front door. “Here we are,” Mike said.
The front door opened and a tall man in his mid-fifties stepped out onto the deck. He looked like an older and leaner version of Mike with steel-grey hair and the same features. He was wearing a red-checked flannel shirt and jeans, and Donny suddenly thought of the man on the Bounty paper towel wrapper except without the mustache. A golden retriever bounded out the door and trotted over to the driver’s side of the Land Rover.
Donny felt a wave of nervousness run through him and his legs trembled. He’d never met the parents of any of his lovers before, and he remembered how Mike had described the icy relationship he had with his mother. He let out a deep sigh and glanced at Mike. “This is it,” he whispered.
Mike shut off the engine. “Don’t worry. Neither Bailey or my dad bite.”
Dr. Lankowski shook Donny’s hand firmly. “Hi, Gene Lankowski. Let me grab your bags,” he said, then opened the back door and got the duffel bag. Bailey, her tail wagging furiously, sniffed eagerly at Donny’s leg and put her muzzle in his hand. “We have some leftovers if you’re still hungry,” Gene said over his shoulder as he went in the house.
The aroma of cinnamon and baking bread greeted them as they stepped through the door. The kitchen was off to the right of the front foyer that opened into a large living area that overlooked the back through large sliding doors. The room itself was furnished with cedar and birch-style chairs and tables with a colorfully-woven Native rug on top of the hardwood floor. A large stone fireplace at the other end crackled, the flames reflecting off the doors and vaulted ceiling. The woods were lit with floodlights, showing rows of cedars and pines. It reminded Donny of the house in Idyllwild.
“Hey, Mom, this is Donny,” Mike said as he went into the kitchen, and Donny followed him. His mother, a trim woman with lightly colored hair streaked with grey, dusted her hands on her apron, smiled at Donny, and said “I’m Anita. Nice to meet you.”
“Thank you,” Donny replied. The counter was lined with several pies and loaves of bread. “Wow,” he said. “Those smell fantastic. You must really love to bake.”
Mrs. Lankowski nodded. “Thank you. They’re all for tomorrow.”
Mike said, “Mom goes all out for Thanksgiving.”
“Let me know if I can help,” Donny replied.
Mrs. Lankowski raised an eyebrow. “I just might.”
“C’mon, let’s get you settled in.”
Gene led them down the hall off the living room, past a row of family photos, to the guest room. “There you are,” he said, plopping the duffel on the floor next to the bed. “Bath’s over there, extra blankets are in the closet.” He looked around to be sure that everything was in place. “Here, let me get your coat,” he added, and Donny shrugged it off. He took it out to the hall closet, and they went back to the kitchen. Donny looked at the pictures in the hall. There were several of Mike, all of them from his childhood or high school years, and several of his sister, her family, and the grandchildren. But there were no pictures of Mike from any of his films.
There was a plate of leftover chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans for him, and they chatted politely with the usual get-to-know-you stuff; Donny told the Lankowskis where he’d grown up and what he did in Los Angeles. They seemed as impressed by his home town upbringing as they did about his career. Donny didn’t say anything about his film career, and nobody asked him how he met Mike.
As they finished up, Mrs. Lankowski wordlessly put a pill bottle and a glass of water in front of her husband. He grinned slightly and said, “Thank you, my dear.” He took the medicine without comment.
Donny was getting ready for bed when Mike tapped softly on his door.
“All settled in?”
“Yeah. Nice place you’ve got here,” said Donny.
“This isn’t the place I grew up in,” Mike said. “Dad built it a couple of years ago as a place for him and Mom.” Mike poked the mattress. “Oh, and don’t mind Mom. She’s always been kinda quiet. Good call offering to help tomorrow, by the way.”
Donny grinned. “I might be more in the way, but...”
“It was nice. Don’t worry; she won’t hold you to it. She likes to do things herself.” Mike sat on the edge of the bed. “The dinner’s not until late tomorrow – like around five – so I thought I’d show you around.”
“Okay.” Donny glanced at Mike. He knew the signs; there was something on his mind. But Mike got up, gave Donny a quick hug, and said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The next morning was clear and cold. After a small breakfast Mrs. Lankowski shooed everyone out of the kitchen, and Mike and Donny went for a drive. Mike whistled Bailey into the wayback, and she paced back and forth looking out the windows.
They took the back roads, past cherry farms and orchards, the trees bare and stark against the sky. Mike slowed down as they passed a white farmhouse nestled at the bottom of a small valley. “That’s where we used to live. That was my granddad’s cherry farm. Dad sold most of the land and rented out the farm when he decided being a full time vet was work enough.” Donny looked at the neat clapboard house and the old red barn behind it, trying to imagine Mike growing up there.
They emerged at the lake shore and drove along the highway between the sand dunes and the woods. Many of the houses were closed for the season, as were a lot of the tourist shops along the road, windows and doors shuttered against the coming winter, leaves piled up in wind-blown piles in the porch corners. They passed through several small towns, some almost as abandoned as the shops, then turned inland and drove north through the hills. Off in the distance the lake, steel grey and cold, lay flat to the horizon.
The road bent down to the water again, this time along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, passing through the village of Northport. The fields again were filled with fruit trees, marching in neat rows, the snow fences set up along the sides of the road in anticipation of the drifts to come. The road itself was lined with tall thin poles every hundred yards or so. Mike said it helped the snowplows stay on the road.
They finally ended up at the lighthouse park on the tip of the Leelanau peninsula. The old lighthouse was still there, now preserved as an historical site. The parking lot was empty.
They walked down to the shore, stepping over the rocks and the strands of seaweed, finally standing at the tip of the land, Bailey bounding ahead and startling a flock of gulls. There was a strong breeze blowing, whipping up the waves that came ashore. Off on the horizon two bumps of land – North and South Fox Island – were barely visible.
“Warm enough?” Mike said, digging his hands into his jeans pockets.
“Yeah,” said Donny, grateful for having pulled on the sweater that morning.
“C’mon, let’s walk down the beach a little; keep us warm.”
The shore turned to sand a little further on west of the lighthouse, the small dunes that curved up away from the shore providing a little more shelter. Mike pointed down the beach. “Used to come up here when I was a kid; there’s some back roads that lead out to the beach from behind that airport we passed. We’d go on picnics, and then...” he chuckled, “when I was in high school we’d come out there and have a little woodsie with my friends.”
“Kinda like what we’d do at Lorenzen’s quarry when I was a kid,” replied Donny.
“Yeah, smokin’ and drinkin’ and horsin’ around. Typical kid stuff.”
They walked on, passing some piles of driftwood. The sun was out and in spite of the wind it was not uncomfortable. “So,” Mike said, squinting a little, “who’s idea was it to send me the script?”
“Why not you?”
Mike shrugged. “Jason didn’t say anything about Jack. He just sent it on. I thought it was your idea.”
“I don’t even know Jason,” said Donny.
“But Gina does.”
“Gina knows everybody.”
Mike stopped to pull out his cigarettes. He offered one to Donny and they huddled together to light them. “So,” he said, “you gonna quit your job at McKay-Gemini, become some big-time producer like Paul Jeffries?”
“Hell no,” replied Donny.
Mike picked up a piece of driftwood, waved it at Bailey to get her attention, then threw it down the beach. The dog galloped after it, puffs of sand jetting back from her feet. “So this is just a one-time deal.”
Mike squinted at him. “So why’d you hire an agent?”
Bailey came bounding back and dropped the stick, wagging her tail, waiting for Mike to throw it again.
They continued down the beach for a while. It actually began to warm up a little so by the time they turned around and headed back to the truck Mike had taken off his jacket.
They arrived back at the house in time to change into nice clothes, clean the sand off Bailey’s paws, sweep out of the back of the Land Rover, and help set the table. They set it for seven; Gene had invited his partner in his veterinary practice and his wife and son for the dinner. The house smelled of turkey, baking bread, cinnamon and cedar logs in the fireplace.
Promptly at four the Herlinger family – Clark, Stephanie, and son Tyler – arrived bearing a basket of fruit. Clark didn’t look much older than Mike; he was blond, a little chunky in the frame, and easily amused; he laughed at everything. Stephanie was small and attractive in a Midwestern sort of way; she wore her hair simply with very little make-up, and her outfit – a sweater and wool skirt – was simple but appropriately dressy for the occasion. Tyler was taller than both of his parents with his father’s hair color and the typical gangly thin frame of a sixteen-year-old. He was wearing a wool sweater over a button-down shirt and neatly-pressed jeans. He was silent, nodding a hello to the Lankowskis and shaking hands wordlessly when he was introduced to Mike and Donny.
Stephanie went into the kitchen to help with the last touches, and Gene showed Clark and Tyler into the living room. They settled into chairs, and the conversation drifted from local news to football and finally to Clark politely asking Donny what he did in Los Angeles. Donny replied that he worked for a software company, and they bombarded him with questions about computers, software, the internet, and what McKay-Gemini was doing. Donny did his best to answer without getting too technical. When he glanced over, he caught Mike grinning broadly at him.
Tyler had found a place on the corner of the couch where he sipped his Coke and occasionally munched a handful of Goldfish crackers. He listened silently, spending most of the time staring out the window at the woods. Finally Anita came in, announced that dinner was ready. Anita pointed out where everyone should sit; Donny next to Gene at the head of the table and across from Tyler, Mike next to her at the other end and across from Stephanie. They all held hands, bowed their heads as Gene offered a short grace, and they dug in.
“You boys are lucky,” said Clark as he picked up the bowl of mashed potatoes and took a small helping. “You can chow down all you want. Me, I gotta watch it or I’ll puff up like a balloon.”
Mike chuckled. “Hey, it happens,” he said, although he was still as lean as ever. “Now Donny...he’s the gymrat. He’ll burn it all off in one workout.”
“Nah,” replied Donny, taking a large helping. “Maybe two.” He passed the dish to Tyler and caught him staring at him. He grinned at the boy and took a slice of turkey.
The conversation drifted until Stephanie asked Mike about the movie he had been working on. Mike smiled and said that it was done and would be on the air in time for Christmas on CBS.
“Is that the one with Jeremy Dixon?” asked Stephanie.
“That’s it,” said Mike.
“Well,” said Clark, sounding impressed, “that’s impressive.”
Tyler looked down the table at Mike. “You’re in a movie with Jeremy Dixon?”
“Cool. So...what’s he like?”
Mike grinned knowingly. “Nice guy. Good actor.”
Donny looked at Tyler, who looked at him quickly then down at this plate. If only you knew, Donny thought.
Stephanie asked Mike a lot of questions about Back Home Again, about making a movie, what it was like on the set.
Stephanie looked at Donny and said, “So you grew up in Los Angeles? That must have been interesting.”
“No,” Donny replied. “I actually grew up outside of Toledo.”
“Oh? How did you get to California?”
“The usual way,” Mike cut in. “The interstate.”
Everybody laughed, and Donny told the story about working construction, the ice storm, the Christmas card from the relatives, and his showing up in Whittier with a pick-up truck, a duffel bag, and $800 in the bank. “And one day I lucked into a job answering the phone at a computer company,” he concluded, taking a small slice of ham.
“He’s being modest,” Mike said. “He’s one of the brains behind the latest bubble in the dot-com business.”
“Which could pop at any minute,” warned Donny.
“So how did you two meet?” asked Clark, chewing on a dinner roll.
Donny shot Mike a look that said you take this one.
Mike said, “Friends. I was looking for a place to stay after the earthquake and Donny’s roommate Rob, who I knew from the studio, hooked us up.” Donny nodded. Nice cover, he thought. Somehow the conversation got to Donny helping Mike with the re-writes on Return to Sender and that led to the verge of Small Town Boys, but Donny was able to catch Mike’s eye, give him an almost imperceptible shake of the head to fend him off.
“So you’re a writer, too?” said Stephanie.
For an instant Donny wondered what would happen if he said, “Yeah, I’m working on a TV show about four gay guys sharing a house in Santa Monica,” and the thud as chins hit the table. But this didn’t seem to be the time or the place, so he just shook his head and said, “No, I just...helped Mike a little, that’s all.”
“He’s being modest again,” said Gene. “Aren’t you working on a project?”
Donny shot Mike a look; he had apparently told his parents something about Small Town Boys. “Oh, nothing really big. Everybody out in L.A. is writing something. It’ll probably go nowhere.” He shrugged and hoped that someone would change the subject. “Pass the rolls, please.”
Clark said to Mike, “Well, we were all disappointed to see your show get cancelled.”
Mike sighed, “That’s show biz. Everybody wants to be the next Friends.”
Donny noticed that Anita listened in silence, concentrating on her meal and making sure that everyone had plenty to eat. Donny also noticed that Tyler was looking at him frequently, to the point that Donny became self-conscious of it, wondering if there was some spinach on his teeth or he had a booger hanging off his nose. He carefully dabbed his mouth with his napkin, checked his teeth with his tongue, and assured himself that nothing was out of the ordinary. But Tyler was still looking at him, and he felt a twinge of discomfort.
The meal ended with a choice of pies, ice cream, and coffee, and Donny volunteered to help clear the table. Anita thanked him and then politely shooed him out of the kitchen while she and Stephanie cleaned up.
The TV was in Gene’s study off the living room and they settled in to watch the last of the late football game. The post-meal stupor was settling over them; Mike was stretched out in the La-Z-Boy, the afghan pulled over him, his eyes barely open. Tyler was already on the couch, but when Donny came in he shifted over and made room for him. Tyler seemed to be concentrating intently on the game, but when a commercial came on he glanced at Donny.
“You work out, huh,” he said, more of a statement than a question.
“Three, four times a week; sometimes more or less depending on work.”
Tyler was looking at the TV again. “Yeah, me too,” he said quietly. “Not like it’s doin’ any good,” he added with a self-deprecating tone.
“It takes time,” said Donny. “Can’t expect results overnight.”
“How long you been doin’ it?”
“Since high school. But I played football, too.”
“So like how old are you now?”
“So you’ve been doin’ it, like, for a long time.”
“Yeah, I guess. Nine years.”
Tyler scowled. “I just can’t seem to get...y’know...going.”
“Just keep at it,” Donny said. “Keep a positive attitude,” he said, wincing at the cliché.
“I try, but...”
Donny tried a different tack. “So why are you lifting in the first place? What do you want to get out of it?”
“To get big,” Tyler said instantly. “Could you like show me?”
“Show you what?”
“Your work-out. I mean, like what you do and stuff.”
Donny looked at him quizzically. “How could I...?”
“I mean, like, write it down.”
Gene gave him a legal pad and a pencil and Donny started to write down his routine. It took him a moment to remember exactly what he did because it was so automatic that he did it by rote; thinking about it made him stop and back up a few times.
Donny found it uncomfortable to write on his knees, so they went into the dining room and sat down at the now-cleared table. Donny explained each routine and what it did, and as he did he was remembering what it was like in his first gym class freshman year when Coach Lester had lectured them on the right and wrong ways to lift weights. Donny echoed the coach: know your limits and don’t try to show off. Tyler listened intently, his eyes never leaving Donny.
Donny tore the pages off the pad and handed them to Tyler. “I don’t make any guarantees, and I’d let your coach look this over before you do any of it.” He pulled out one of his McKay-Gemini business cards. “Here’s my address; you got any questions, drop me a note, okay?”
“Okay,” Tyler said, folding the pages and sticking them in his back pocket. He looked shyly at Donny. “Um, could you, um...?”
“Uh, flex for me?” he whispered.
Donny was wearing a polo shirt over a t-shirt. He flexed his right biceps and the large muscle made a globe-shaped bulge, the veins cording. Tyler muttered, “Jesus.” Donny patted Tyler on the shoulder. “You’ll be there in no time. C’mon, let’s see the end of the game.
As they settled on the couch, a pager beeped. “Mine,” said Clark apologetically. He dug in his pocket, pulled out a quarter and said, “Call it” as he flipped the coin. Gene said, “Heads.” It came up tails. Clark scowled at the read-out. “Can I use your phone?”
Gene indicated the desk and Clark called the number. He listened for a moment, sighed, and said, “I’ll be right there.” He hung up the phone and shook his head.
“What’s up?” said Gene.
“Jacobsen’s. Got a breech calving in progress.”
Gene chuckled. “Good thing I called heads,” he said.
Clark smiled wanly. “Nice pun.” He went out to the foyer and pulled on his coat. “Thanks for the dinner. Steph, I gotta run out to Jacobsen’s. I’d go and come back, but there’s no telling how long this will take. C’mon, Ty, get your coat.” He shook hands with Donny. “Nice to meet you. Mike, take care, and say hooray to Hollywood for me.”
They shook hands all around, Stephanie beaming at Mike. “We’re all so proud of you and your career,” she said.
Donny glanced at Anita, whose expression was unchanged. She handed Tyler a paper grocery bag full of leftovers. “Lunch tomorrow,” she said.
“And the day after,” said Stephanie. “Thank you so much.”
They waved goodbye from the deck as the Herlingers got into their Suburban. Tyler caught Donny’s eye, waved shyly, and clenched his fist. Donny waved back. Mike caught this exchange and chuckled.
Back in the house, Gene said to Donny, “How about a nightcap?”
Mike was putting on his coat. “You guys go ahead; I think I’ll take Bailey out for a run.”
Donny followed Gene back into the study. “What’s your pleasure? Scotch? Bourbon? Sherry?”
Gene poured the drinks. “Sorry I couldn’t offer you anything before, but both Clark and I were on call and Stephanie’s a born-again Christian and she doesn’t approve of liquor in front of Tyler.” He motioned to the loungers. “Have a seat,” he said, and then closed the door. Donny got the feeling that this was going to be more than just a nightcap. But Gene smiled, settled into his chair, and took a sip. “Ah, that’s good.” He looked at Donny. “I’m glad you could make it up here, Don. Mike’s told me a lot about you, and it’s good to see that he has made a friend out there.”
“Thanks. It’s my pleasure.”
Gene leaned back. “I take it that Mike’s told you about my little medical problem.”
Gene winced. “Oh, please, cut out the ‘sir’ crap. I’m Gene, not your high school principal. And I’m only fifty-five. Hell, I still call people ‘sir.’”
Donny smiled. “Okay.”
“Anyway, I’ve told him and I’ll tell you; it’s not a big deal. They caught it early, it’s highly treatable, and the cure rate is very high. Right now they think they can control it with medication. If not, I have the surgery, and the worst that can happen is that I won’t be able to get it up any more.”
Donny chuckled in spite of himself, and Gene nodded approvingly. “Yeah, you do have a sense of humor. Mike said you did.” He sipped his drink again. “Anyway, it’s been sort of an eye-opener for me. I mean, I’ve spent all these years as a vet treating animals for a lot of diseases, including my share of prostate cancers, and I’ve always wondered in the back of my mind what I’d think if it happened to me. If I came down with it. And now I know.” Gene stared out the window for a moment, then back at the glass in his hands. “I love my son deeply,” he said softly, almost tenderly. “I haven’t always understood him, and I can’t say that I was happy about his...choices in life, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s my son and nothing he’s ever done or could do would make me not love him and care about him.” He glanced at Donny. “All I want for him is to be happy.” Donny remembered hearing those words from his mother on the patio by the swimming pool in the back of Uncle Ron’s house. He started to form something to say but thought better of it. “I want him to know that,” Gene added.
“He does,” Donny said.
Gene nodded. “I hope so. We haven’t always shown it.” He shrugged. “We’ve never seen his house up in the mountains. We’ve never even been out to California. We’ve talked about it, but something always comes up...” Gene looked at Donny for a moment, as if he was trying to decide whether or not to say something more, then took another sip. “I worried about him when he decided to quit school and go out there. I didn’t know what he wanted to do and you know it’s not easy for some kid from the middle of nowhere to make it out there doing anything.” Gene smiled for a second and added, “Although it looks like you and he proved me wrong. But most of all I worried about him being alone out there, with no friends or family. He was always a quiet kid, never really any trouble, but he never really had any close friends, either. We – I – worried that he’d just get swallowed up like a lot of people out there and....” Gene’s voice trailed off and he stared at his glass. “I guess I should have known that he would do all right. He’s my son. But still...you worry.” Again he stared at his glass, swirling the ice a little, the cubes clinking softly. He took another swallow, then looked at Donny. “So, for what it’s worth, I’m glad he’s met some good people out there. You mean a lot to him, Don, and...I just wanted you to know that I’m glad to see that he’s...” The sentence trailed off and Donny was about to speak when Gene said softly, “I’m glad to see that he’s met someone. It’s not exactly how I imagined it would be, but...” Gene looked at him again, his expression almost pleading. “I’m happy for him.”
There was silence for a moment, then Gene rattled the ice in his glass. “Freshen your drink?”
Donny hadn’t touched his, so he took a gulp. The bourbon stung and warmed as it went down. “No, I’m good.”
Gene got up and poured himself another. “So, Mike tells me you have a ’65 Mustang,” he said, probably trying to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, I do. Convertible.”
“Red. White interior, white top.”
“Ooh, that’s perfect. You restore it yourself?”
“Oh, no...bought it off a used car lot.”
“Drive it every day?”
“I used to, but now I have a Tahoe for that.”
Gene settled back in his chair and grinned, “I had one of those, too. Dark green with the camel top. Got it right out of college. It was my dream car.” He chuckled, “Man, I thought I was one of the Beach Boys, cruising around East Lansing in that thing. You a fan of the Beach Boys?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“’Course, trying to be a surfer dude in Michigan is a little rough. And I didn’t have it all that long; about a year. Had to sell it to help pay for vet school, and when you’ve got a couple of young kids, you need something a little more practical, I guess. But maybe someday...”
“They still make Mustang convertibles,” Donny said. “GT’s with a V-8 and everything.”
Gene smiled. “Don’t tempt me. Anita would kill me.”
“Well, when you come out to L.A. I’ll let you drive mine.”
“It’s a deal.”
Off in the distance a door opened and Bailey shook her collar, indicating that Mike was back from his walk.
“Well,” Gene said, “it was good to talk to you.”
He got up. As he did, Donny said, “I love him, too.”
Gene stopped, nodded silently, and opened the door.
As Donny was getting ready for bed, Mike tapped on his door. “So, you wanna call your folks and let ‘em know we’ll be there tomorrow afternoon?”
Donny held up his cell phone. “Already called. We’ll probably get leftovers there, too.”
He looked at Donny for a second, perhaps to try to glean something from him about what had happened while he was gone, but Donny studiously gave him no visible reaction. After a slightly uncomfortable moment, Mike said, “Hey, that was real nice of you to talk to Tyler like that.”
“Dad says Clark’s been worried about him. The kid is awfully shy; doesn’t have a lot of friends here.”
Donny pulled off his shoes. “Yeah, I remember what being sixteen was like.”
Mike opened the door. “Yeah. Me too.” He looked at Donny again, seeming to be on the verge of saying something. But instead he just said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Donny finished undressing and settled in under the thick down comforter. In the darkness and the long time it took for him to finally fall asleep, it occurred to him that the entire reason for the trip had been that drink with Mike’s father.
They left the next morning after breakfast, getting on the road shortly before nine. The sky was cloudy and threatening. Mike was unusually quiet as he ate, and when the time came to say goodbye, he hugged his father for a long time and Donny thought he heard him let out a stifled sob.
Donny suddenly found himself staring off into the woods. He thanked Anita for everything and she nodded and briefly smiled. Gene shook his hand and smiled at him, and then, taking him over to the side of the deck, out of sight of Mike, who was loading his bags in the back of the Land Rover, said quietly, “Take care of my son, will you?”
“I sure will,” was all he could manage.
Gene patted him on the shoulder. “I know.”
Mike slammed the tailgate shut. Bailey, wagging her tail furiously, whined and tried to get into the back seat, but Mike pulled her back up to the deck. “No, you stay here, girl. You’d hate L.A.; there’s no squirrels to chase.” He looked up at his parents and grinned, putting on his best celebrity smile. “Okay, well, we’re off. Think about coming out there at Christmas, okay?”
“We’ll see,” said Gene.
“Yeah, okay.” Mike got behind the wheel and revved the engine. “C’mon, Donny, let’s hit the road.”
“Thanks again,” Donny said as he shut the door, the truck already moving. He waved at the Lankowskis, and they waved back until they were hidden by the trees.
Mike drove silently with the radio on the classical station from the Interlochen Center for the Arts for the first hour or so. It wasn’t until they had stopped for gas and Mike had smoked a cigarette that he said, “Looks like the sky is clearing.”
There was little traffic heading south, but in the other lane it was one long stream of cars, trucks, and RV’s heading for the long weekend up north. “Good thing we’re going this way,” Mike muttered.
“Yeah,” agreed Donny.
The radio signal from WIAA began to sputter and cut out. Mike punched the “seek” on the radio dial until he found a classic rock station, but it soon faded. “Fuck it,” he said and snapped the radio off. That was followed by about five minutes of silence until Mike said, “What really happened with Jeremy Dixon?”
They were on the freeway now, just east of Clare, heading east on towards Midland and Bay City. Donny decided to tell Mike everything, including Marc’s history before he came to work at the Cantina and McKay-Gemini. By the time Donny finished telling the story, they had made the turn south onto I-75 and were south of Flint.
“So, basically,” Donny said, “that’s it. Jeremy agreed to let Back Home Again out of the can, leave Marc alone, and no one else will know about his little movie.” He looked at Mike, who had been silent throughout the entire narrative, and added, “And I’m counting on you keeping it under your hat, too.”
Mike nodded. “Y’know, I’ve heard rumors about that for a long time, but...hell, I just figured it was noise like Tom Cruise or whatever. So you actually saw it. The porn flick.”
Mike tried to repress a chuckle. “Any good?”
“I’ve never really been into porn,” Donny said. “The quality was shitty.”
They pulled off at Ann Arbor and Mike asked Donny to drive. “You know where we’re going.”
They were a few miles from the Ohio line when Mike, who had been dozing, sat up and said, “Y’know, for ten cents I’d get the hell out of the business and move back to Maple City.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I don’t know. Y’know, it’s like a huge high school with all the gossip and the sex and the drama and the bullshit. I can’t believe you want in on it, Donny.”
“I can turn this thing around and have you back up there in time for dinner,” Donny offered.
“Don’t tempt me.”
The Hollenbeck house looked the same as it had the day Donny had left except the paint was fresher and his mom had already hung the Christmas wreath on the front door. Donny pulled into the driveway and parked in the spot where he used to park his truck. It was still early enough in the day that both his parents were still at work; the bank was open the day after Thanksgiving, and the doctor’s office where Mrs. Hollenbeck worked was open as well. Donny still had a key to the back door by the garage on his key chain. He unlocked the door and stepped inside.
It was like he had never left. The same coats and hats were hung on the hooks in the mudroom off the kitchen. The old white Kelvinator refrigerator that they used to keep beer and leftovers hummed in the corner. His father’s work boots were under the little work bench where Donny and Danny used to drop their schoolbooks on their way in from the bus. The only thing different was the new Whirlpool washer and dryer that had replaced the old Maytags that had served them since they had moved into the house. Even the smell – a combination of laundry soap, Bounce, and the pungent tang of hard rubber from the doormat – was the same.
Everything in the kitchen looked the same as well, and Donny remembered that cold January morning he had left thinking he’d be back in a few weeks; back in time to get in on the first construction jobs in the spring. He looked around. The big calendar with the Audubon prints that they got every year from the insurance company hung in its usual place next to the wall phone. The little pictures – the prints from the Grandma Moses collection – were in their usual place over the window over the sink, and looking out that window to the back yard, where the willow tree was now bare, its thin branches dangling over the fence, Donny could see across the fields, past the distant line of trees to where he knew that under that clump of oaks a quarter of a mile away was Lorenzen’s quarry.
There was a note on the kitchen table between the salt and pepper shakers; the same place where his mom used to leave notes and afterschool instructions. “Help yourself to some pie in the fridge. Home by five,” it read in her neat round handwriting.
“C’mon,” he said to Mike, “let’s take our stuff upstairs.”
Mike followed him up the stairs, past the family photos lining the wall. He stopped halfway up to look at a photo of the twins together in a baby carriage. “I’m the one on the left,” said Donny.
“Yeah, I can tell.”
Mike looked at Donny. “I just can. You guys may be twins, but you don’t look exactly alike.”
They went into the twins’ bedroom. It was unchanged; the beds on either side of the room, the same posters on the wall, the same books on the bookshelves, the same blankets and bedspreads. Donny put his duffel on his bed and pointed at Danny’s. “That’s yours.”
Mike put his overnight bag on the bed, looked around, and let out a little chuckle. “It’s like something out of Leave It to Beaver. The twin beds, the posters; I bet you still got your jammies hung up in the closet.”
“I haven’t worn ‘jammies’ since I was twelve,” said Donny dryly.
“You ever have sex in here?” Mike asked.
“Yeah, good point. Well, maybe we could...”
“Not a chance,” said Donny quickly. “My parents’ bedroom is at the end of the hall, and you make noises when you come.”
“Your parents aren’t home.”
Donny showed him the rest of the house, going out to the back porch, now sealed in with plastic against the winter, the furniture covered with old sheets. Then, with nothing better to do, Donny took him back into town and showed him the old familiar places, pointing out homes of friends, stores, and driving past the high school and the football field. “Looks like a nice place to grow up in,” said Mike.
“Not a lot different than where you did.”
“I was out in the country. This is the ‘burbs. You guys have a drive-through KFC and everything.”
They drove up Louisiana Avenue, past the library, the gas station, the hardware store, and the new shops that had replaced the appliance store, the bakery, and the old storefront market that had been there when Donny was a kid. The drugstore was under a new owner with a new façade, but he still thought of it as Houck’s with the soda fountain and the racks of comic books in the corner by the window. They drove past the bank where his father worked and saw his car in the parking lot. For a moment he thought about telling Mike to pull in, but changed his mind. He didn’t think it was a good idea to introduce Mike to his father in front of the rest of the bank. A pick-up truck with a construction company logo passed them and Donny realized it was Frank Dungan, his old boss. He almost waved.
They parked in front of the ice cream parlor. The city had already begun celebrating the holidays; the streetlights were wrapped in coils of tinsel and tiny lights, and at the end of the street, a crew was putting the finishing touches on the Christmas tree. Somewhere some outdoor speaker was playing “Silver Bells.”
There were a people in the shop, mostly parents with kids, but they didn’t have to wait. Donny scanned the blackboard over the back looking for dark chocolate.
“Well, hey, Donny, how’re you?” said a voice, and Donny turned to see Elaine Gruber. She was behind the counter in the white and blue uniform. She was short and solid, with blonde hair, a round face, and narrow glasses that made her blue eyes look like she was squinting.
“Hi, Elaine,” he smiled, “good to see you.”
“Likewise!” She glanced at Mike and he gave her a quick smile and went back to perusing the menu board. Her mouth dropped open a little, but then she smiled and shook her head as if she decided that there would be no reason for Lance Michaels to be standing in an ice cream parlor in Perrysburg, Ohio. “Haven’t seen you in long time. You still working with Frank?”
“Uh, no, actually, I live in L.A. now.” Donny replied, catching the interaction between Beth and Mike. “Elaine, this is Mike. He’s a friend of mine; we’re driving back from his folks’ place in Michigan.” It sounded lame, but Beth smiled again.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” she said.
“Same here,” replied Mike.
Elaine leaned on the counter. “How’s it going? What’s Danny up to? He’s in the Air Force, right?”
“Yeah,” Donny replied.
“Great. So, what’ll you have?”
They each had a scoop of German Chocolate cake and sat at one of the little tables. Donny told Mike that Elaine had once had a crush on him in high school. Mike looked at Elaine, who was now at the sink in the back rinsing out some scoops. Mike grinned. “She has excellent taste. What happened?”
“Nothing. I let her down easy, and she hooked up with some football player. Married him, I think.”
Mike smiled wistfully. “Life in a small town. You miss it?”
“Do you?” Donny replied.
The garage door was open when they pulled into the driveway, the white Buick Century in the left slot.
“Mom’s home,” said Donny as they parked.
Mike shut off the engine. “Now it’s my turn to be nervous,” he said with a chuckle.
“Don’t worry,” Donny replied. “We don’t have a dog.”
Donny awoke slowly and found himself staring at the same two knotholes in the ceiling paneling of his bedroom that he’d awoken to for so many years. They reminded him of owl’s eyes; wide, round, almost identical, with small centers of yellow resin spots that served as the pupils. He lay staring at them, just as he had as a child, as a teen, and on that morning in January when he’d last slept in this bed.
Everything felt so familiar. The same patterns of light and dark as the sun rose behind the pulled shades over the windows, the same smells of the room, the same sounds as the furnace sighed and lit in the basement, the thermostat clicking on for the daytime setting. From downstairs came the familiar clatter as his mother pulled out the old cast iron skillet to make breakfast, and soon the smell of frying bacon drifted up the stairs and under the door. Even the lump of rumpled blankets and pillows on the other bed looked like old times, except he knew it was Mike, not Danny. He was still asleep, his gentle breathing ending in a slight snore.
He thought back to the night before and the first meeting of Mike and his parents. His mother had hugged him and greeted Mike with a firm handshake and a beaming smile. His father had nodded and smiled and told Mike he was glad to meet him. Mike had had called them Mr. and Mrs. Hollenbeck and was immediately corrected to Fred and Anne. They had a drink in the living room and then a supper of pork chops and leftover side dishes from Thanksgiving. The conversation was filled with polite inquiries about Donny’s job, the latest news from Danny, and Thanksgiving with Mike’s family. No one brought up Mike’s career, and nothing was said about Small Town Boys. Donny couldn’t remember if he had ever said anything to his parents about it.
They were finishing dessert when Danny called. He had waited to call until that night because he knew Donny and Mike would be there. He chatted with his parents for a while, then asked to speak to Donny. His mother handed him the cordless phone, and he went out to the back porch, closing the door behind him. Back in the living room his father turned on the TV set. There was a hockey game on that he wanted to watch.
“So how’s the trip?” Danny asked, his voice a little staticky.
“So far so good.”
“Everything cool with the parental units?”
“Yeah. They seem to like him.”
“Not that I can tell.”
“Never talked to Dad, did you?”
A pause, the line crackling a little. “I think he worries about you.”
“What makes you say that?” Donny looked through the sliding patio door. Mike had joined his father watching the game.
Another pause, then, “Just a feeling.”
“Huh,” Donny said softly. “Hey, you still coming back to L.A. for Christmas?”
“I put in for leave that time; we’ll see. You drive the Jeep recently?”
“Cool. When are you heading back?”
“Sunday morning. Should be back by there by Thursday.”
“It’s a long haul. Take it easy.”
“As opposed to driving like the Cannonball Run?”
“Yeah. Well, say hi to Mike for me.”
“Love you, twin.”
Donny got out of bed and found his old wool bathrobe handing on the hook in the closet, right where he’d left it. He made a mental note to take it back with him, even though it was a little tight in the shoulders now and the belt was a tad ragged. He padded to the bathroom and turned on the shower, the familiar thrum of the water on the steel sides and the unique scent of Lysol and soap rising with steam. His mother had even hung out the old towels with “Donny” and “Danny” sewn in them.
Mike was awake when he went back to the room, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Hey,” he said sleepily. “Time is it?”
“Little after eight.” He pulled on clean clothes and folded his towel as Mike sat up. “You’re ‘Danny’ now,” he said, “at least in the bathroom.”
During breakfast Mike told Donny that he was going to run back into town to the tire store they’d passed. “Think I’ll get the tires rotated and balanced. I noticed a little vibration yesterday.” He helped clear the table, thanked Anne, and left. Donny helped his mother rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher.
“Do you boys have any laundry that needs being done?” she asked.
“I can do it, Mom,” he replied, grinning inwardly at her calling them “the boys,” just like it was he and Danny.
“It’s no trouble. Bring it down and I’ll get them done.”
Anne rinsed out the sink. “He’s very nice. And I have seen him on TV, haven’t I?”
“Uh huh. He had a series that just got cancelled.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” She looked out the window over the sink. Fred was out in the backyard, leaf rake in hand, picking up sticks and stray branches.
“Well, he’s got a new agent, so there should be something coming along for him,” Donny said. He looked out the window at his father.
His mother glanced at him. “He could use a hand.”
His father was now raking the leaves, making neat little piles as he always did, scraping the last of them out from under the rhododendrons and the azaleas that lined the fence. The small wheelbarrow was half-full of leaves and sticks. The rest of the yard was immaculate; the rose bushes pruned back for the winter, the patio bare of the furniture that was now stored neatly in the garage attic, the patio itself swept clean. The wrought iron birdbath was empty, the copper-lined basin cleaned and covered with a small canvas tarp. He had even raked up the scattered seeds from the bird feeder that his mother maintained. A couple of chickadees darted back and forth from the protection of the bushes to the tray, buzzing and chirring as they flew.
Donny took the extra rake from the garage and started along the fence line, catching the stray leaf or two from under the maples and hackberry trees that shaded the yard in the summer and where they had hung the rope hammock, a perfect place to lie on a summer night and listen to the Tigers game on the radio, watch the lightning bugs emerge from the yews, and listen to the occasional bzzt as a mosquito got caught in the bug-zapper. He too made neat little piles, remembering the countless Saturdays of yard work and games of touch football this time of year under the perpetually grey skies of an Ohio November. He idly thought about the backyard of his home in Santa Monica, thinking that if he was there now, he’d be dipping the leaves out of the pool, checking the chemicals, and then perhaps swimming some laps before going off to the gym.
His father looked around the yard and nodded his approval, then began picking up the piles and dropping them in the wheelbarrow. Donny did the same.
“Thanks for the help,” Fred said, plucking some pine needles off his work gloves.
“Like old times,” Donny said.
Fred nodded, smiled a little, then leaned on his rake. “It’s good to have you home.”
“Nice to be here.”
“Your mother’s glad to see you. She misses you.”
“I call every week.”
Fred nodded, but he said, “It’s not really the same.”
“Well, it’s not like I can come home on weekends.”
“I know.” He spotted a twig on the ground, picked it up, and examined it. “She just misses you, that’s all.” He dropped the twig in the barrow.
Donny waited. He knew from his father’s expression there was something more coming. His father rubbed his hands together and glanced at his son. “And she worries about you.” He paused, and then added, “We both do,” almost as an afterthought.
“What about? I’ve got a good job and health insurance. And I’ve started saving some money. Bought a house; building some equity. You always said things like that were important.”
“Yes, I did. And we’re proud of you for that,” Fred said, adding with a rueful chuckle, “We’re counting on it in our old age.” He poked at the ground with his rake. “But what I think worries your mom – and me – is that....” He paused, glancing up at the sky, then looking at his son, “Is that you’re alone out there.” He looked down at the ground again, finding another imaginary leaf to rake.
“I’ve got friends, Dad. There’s Eric, there’s Greg, there’s...Mike. And Uncle Ron and Aunt Barbara....”
“I know. We know. And that’s good. But...we just...” He started to move the wheelbarrow, then stopped. “We just worry that you’re there by yourself in that house and you...”
“It’s okay, Dad. I kinda like it, if you know what I mean.”
His father shrugged. “No, I really don’t. I’ve never lived by myself, Donny. I always had someone either at home or to come home to. So I don’t know what it’s like to be on my own, and...I just worry, that’s all.” He started to go back to the garage.
Donny said, “Is it because I’m never going to get married?”
His father stopped, and put the wheelbarrow down. For a moment he did nothing, then turned and looked at his son. His expression was calm, almost sorrowful, but his shoulders were tense, and Donny could see that he’d struck a nerve. “That’s part of it. But...” He walked back to Donny, who had not moved. “I worry about both of you. Danny in the Air Force, you out there in California. Both of you are doing so well, but...we wonder – I wonder – why....” His voice drifted off, his eyes searching Donny’s face for a moment.
Donny understood. “Why we left here,” he said quietly, and his father nodded. “Why we felt like we had to get away to some other place. Why we felt like we didn’t belong here.” His father nodded again and gave him a pleading look. Donny looked around the yard. He remembered where the swing set and sandbox used to be, where their tree house in the mulberry tree had been, now gone when the limbs cracked in a heavy wind in high school. He could hear the ringing bounce of the basketball on the driveway, the thud against the backboard that was now netless, the hoop a little rusty, but still in place because when Danny and his father painted the garage a few years ago they didn’t have the heart to take it down. He looked at the Emerson’s house next door and the trees that shaded their yard and dropped leaves in their above-ground pool now covered with the black tarp, and off in the distance he heard the rumble and whistle of the freight train on the tracks that went through the center of town. You could set your watch by them. He shivered a little. The wind was picking up, the grey clouds scudding overhead. He caught the faint whiff of burning leaves. He suddenly wanted a cigarette, but he knew his father didn’t like him smoking, so he hunched his shoulders against the wind and let out a long breath. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “We just had to, that’s all.”
His father pushed the wheelbarrow back to the garage, Donny following him to the compost heap, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He felt like he had to say something more. “It wasn’t anything to do with you or Mom.”
Fred dumped the leaves unto the pile. “I know that, Donny.” He poked the pile. “You probably felt like you couldn’t be...yourself here. Am I right?”
Donny smiled a little. “We’ve never have talked about that, have we?” he said, “me being gay.”
His father shook his head. “No.”
“Does it bother you?”
His father looked at him solemnly. “You’re my son and I love you. Nothing will ever change either fact, and the only thing that upsets me is that you seemed to think that you didn’t feel that you could talk to us about it.”
“What’s there to say? It wasn’t that I didn’t feel I couldn’t talk about it. It’s just that...I dunno, did you talk to Grandpa Ed about things like that?”
“No, but then I’m not gay, either. But is that why you ran off to California? Because you felt like you didn’t fit in here?”
“That didn’t have anything to do with it, Dad. I never really thought about it one way or the other. I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my life pounding nails for Frank, that’s all. I didn’t want to end up like Stan Tasker.”
“Or Scott Welles.” his father said quietly.
Donny stared at his father, who looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “What about Scott?” Donny said hesitantly.
“You and he were friends, am I right?”
“Yeah. Well, I mean, we got together a few times...”
Fred nodded. “I remember that. I hear he’s doing pretty well in Chicago, but you won’t hear that from his parents. They don’t talk about him. He’s been cut off from them because he lives with another man. They’ve disowned him. He’s out of the will and when he comes to visit here, he stays at the Holiday Inn.”
“Wow,” Donny replied.
“Wow indeed,” said Fred, looking at his son.
“How did you hear about that?”
“His brother Derek works for me in the mortgage department. I told him you were coming for a visit this weekend, we got to talking, and he told me about Scott. That reminds me. Derek gave me his phone number and asked you to call him if you get the chance.”
“You didn’t think that would happen with us, did you?”
“No, Dad, ‘course not.”
Fred shook his head sadly. “I can’t imagine someone cutting themselves off from their child like that.”
“Some people just can’t handle it, Dad.”
Fred scowled. “There are so many more important things about a person than who they sleep with that it’s just inconceivable to me that any parent would do that. The point is, Donny, that your mother and I want you to be happy and we know that being gay isn’t an easy road to be on. There are a lot of people who still are convinced it’s not normal.” He shrugged. “What’s normal, anyway? But...we just want you to know that, and we will be here no matter what. I will say that your mother was hoping to be in the grandma business by now.”
“I’ll tell Danny to get right on it.”
“Well, hopefully he’ll get married first. Does he have any prospects that you know of?”
“None that he’s shared with me.”
“Well, I can think of about six tellers at the bank who have a crush on him. On both of you, as a matter of fact. I’ve got both your pictures on the credenza in my office and many’s the time I’ve seen the ladies staring at both of you.”
“Nice to know I’ve still got it,” Donny replied. “What picture is it?”
“The one from Danny’s graduation.” He turned to Danny. “I’m proud of both my sons. I’m glad you’ve got a good job and a nice home. But it doesn’t stop me from thinking that you are going to be missing something by not having someone to share your life with.”
Fred pushed the wheelbarrow around to the front yard. A few minutes later Mike pulled in the driveway. Fred looked at him and then back at Donny with a questioning glance. Donny smiled a little. “Actors don’t really get to have a private life, and...”
“I get the picture,” he said.
Mike joined them. “Everything okay?” Donny asked him.
“Yeah, just threw a balance weight on the left front.” He looked around the yard. “Can I lend a hand?”
“Sure,” Fred said. “Donny, give him your rake and go in and call Derek. I told him you’d call him.”
Derek answered on the second ring as if he was waiting for Donny to call. “Good to hear from you, Donny. How long are you gonna be in town?”
“Just until tomorrow. I’m driving back to L.A. with a friend.”
“Wow. Well, like I said, thanks for calling. I really like working for your dad.”
“Oh, thanks.” Donny’s memories of Derek were that of a quiet kid who didn’t participate in much in class but was usually on the honor roll. He’d played football, but Donny couldn’t remember ever having much of a conversation with him before.
“Hang on a second,” said Derek. He muffled the phone, then a voice said, “Hi, Donny.”
He recognized the voice immediately. “Hi, Scott.”
After he hung up, he went back outside. “He wants to meet for coffee.”
Mike grinned. “Sounds like that could be interesting.”
“You wanna go with?”
Mike tossed his car keys to Donny. “No, you go ahead. I’d just get in the way.”
Scott had suggested a coffee shop that had replaced the old pizza parlor on Louisiana. It was an imitation of Starbuck’s with the small tables, the reading area, and the listings of the many varieties of coffees, teas, lattes and assorted bottled sodas written on a chalkboard over the bar. It had a cute name – Uncommon Grounds – to go with the hip image. There was an empty parking space in front next to a silver BMW. There were a few customers inside.
Scott was already there, sitting at a table. He looked like he’d put on a little weight, his face was puffy and his hair had picked up a few touches of grey, but he smiled broadly when Donny came through the door, and his handshake was strong. “Really good to see you,” he said, his eyes giving Donny a quick appraisal, and he patted him on the arm. “You look great. California must be a great place to live.”
“It’s okay. A lot warmer.”
“That’s true. And I hear you’re doing well.”
“Not too bad,” Donny admitted.
Scott grinned slyly. “’Not too bad’? I read the trades. McKay-Gemini is in the top one hundred of tech start-ups last year.”
“That’s because most of ‘em fold in about twenty minutes,” said Donny. He’d seen the same survey. “We’re doin’ okay.” He shrugged.
“You’re being modest,” Scott said. “That’s what I like about you. C’mon, you ready for coffee?”
They ordered, Scott telling Donny it was his treat, then sat again. Scott stirred his cappuccino slowly, letting the foam dissolve before sipping it. “So, I hear you’re just passing through on your way back. Get back here a lot?” Donny told him it was his first time back since he’d left, and Scott nodded. “Yeah, I guess there’s not a lot to bring you back except your folks. Where’s Danny stationed now?”
“You guys seem to like the nice weather. How’s he doing?”
“Good,” Donny replied, and Scott nodded again. There seemed to be something on his mind, so Donny waited.
Scott sipped his coffee again. “Derek likes working for your father. He’s doing well, or so he tells me. That’s who I’m staying with, by the way. I get back over here every so often to see him and some friends.” He paused and smiled wanly. “I guess you’ve heard about me and my folks.”
Donny nodded. “I’m sorry.”
Scott shrugged. “My pop’s a prick and he’s always treated me like I’m a major disappointment to him. Nothing I ever did was good enough for him. He wanted me to play football; I played tennis. He wanted me to go to Yale; I squeaked into Princeton. He wanted me to take over his business; I moved to Chicago. He wanted me to get married and give him grandkids; I came out to them last Christmas. I think he was waiting for an excuse to cut me out of his life, and I was glad to give it to him. He’s still got Derek. He’ll be the one who will live up to his expectations. He’ll have the right job with the right company, he’ll marry the right girl, he’ll turn out the requisite number of kids, he’ll join the right country club, he’ll join the right service clubs like the Rotary, he’ll vote the straight Republican ticket, he’ll have the right car and the appropriate minivan and he’ll have a very nice house out in Willowbend or some such subdivision with the pool and the barbeque and the nice neighbors. Fifty years from now he’ll have a nice obituary in the Messenger-Journal that will nicely document his truly unremarkable life. My father will be so proud.”
Donny remembered Mr. Welles as being a genial if somewhat stuffy man; always well-dressed and very proud that he had gone to Yale. He always wore some sort of the university’s memorabilia, be it a tie, a blazer, or even a scarf that had the school colors on it, and he was a member of the local Yale Club that recruited promising young men to apply.
“What about your mom?”
Scott smiled wanly. “My mother does whatever my father wants because she believes he knows best and besides, if it ever got back to the Junior League or the garden club that Maisie Welles took a stand against her husband – well, that would be a stunning development. She wanted to send both of us to private school like she’d done, but Dad said no; the private schools were full of liberal teachers and colored people, and the Catholic schools were run by, well, Catholics.” He fiddled with the wooden swizzle stick. “Everybody did what dear old Dad wanted, and that’s probably why Mom drinks so much.” Donny looked around to see if anyone was in earshot of them, but Scott didn’t seem to care. He took a long sip and looked at Donny again. “And it probably didn’t help matters when they found out that the guy I’m living with is barely twenty-five years old, comes from the middle of Kansas, and not only did he not go to an Ivy League school, he never finished high school. It’s hard to say what scandalized them more; that Neil’s a man or that he’s NOKD.”
Donny nodded. He knew that NOKD – “not our kind, dear” – was a standard below which the Welles family would never sink. “So how’d you meet him?” he asked.
“I seem to have a thing for younger guys,” Scott said with a smirk, glancing at Donny. “Especially the handsome working-class guys. Neil was working on some kitchen remodeling I was having done. We got to talking one day and....”
“Sounds familiar,” said Donny.
“Yeah, doesn’t it. But he’s a bright kid, wise beyond his years, funny, and doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve got a family with issues. His does too; his mother goes to Mass every Sunday to pray that he won’t be gay anymore and his sister won’t let her kids near him because they’re afraid he’s some kind of pedophile. He moved in about six months after we met and that was two years ago. He’s now a manager with the company and makes a damn good living.” Scott leaned forward. “And to tell you the truth,” he whispered, “I’d much rather be with someone who knows what it’s like to work for a living rather than some stuck-up trust fund baby...like me.” Scott grinned wickedly, then added, “Have you told your folks? Is that why you moved to California?”
Donny shook his head. “No. They know, but that’s not why I moved out. I just went out for a visit. I wasn’t planning on staying but...”
“Have you got a boyfriend?”
“Oh, yeah?” Scott smirked a little. “I heard you were hooked up with Lance Michaels...isn’t that his name? The guy who was in some TV series last year or the year before?”
“Where’d you get that?”
“I have friends out in L.A. They know people in the business and they know what’s going on. Word was that he had met this young guy from Perrysburg, Ohio, who had moved in with him, that they had bought a house together, and this young guy had been helping him develop some projects for the movies. I did a little more digging and found out the young guy was you. I even heard that you and he were working on a made-for-TV movie.”
Donny felt an edge of irritation rising, but he nodded and replied, “He’s in one called Back Home Again. It’s gonna be on in a couple of weeks. But I didn’t have anything to do with that.”
“So you and he...?”
Donny stared into the paper cup. He was back on the beach that day in March. He parked the truck, walked past the brightly-painted houses, across the boulevard, and onto the sand. He remembered the hazy day and the first time Mike spoke to him asking for a cigarette – “Excuse me, can I bum one of those?” He remembered following him home, the sweaty sex, and the days and weeks and months after when Mike had become a part of his life; the days and nights in Key West, in Idyllwild, and the hassle with Marty and the drinking and the insecurities and the passionate love-making and the promises made and broken and the sheer horniness that overcame him when he thought about him, including the throb he was feeling right now as he sat across the table from Scott – and then the months when Mike had vanished like he’d never been there at all. He remembered the anger at the loss and then wondering why it had dissipated so quickly and how, when he came back, he was able to ease right back into being achingly in love with him, slipping into it like a pair of comfortable flip-flops. And now Gene had entrusted him to take care of him, and his own father had hoped that he would find someone to share his life with. He looked at Scott for a moment and almost said, “Actually, we’re lovers.” But he shook his head. “Just friends, that’s all. He lived in my house for a while after the Northridge quake last winter. But...just friends,” he said again.
Scott gave him a skeptical look. “So that wasn’t Lance Michaels that you were with in the ice cream parlor yesterday afternoon.”
“Well, yeah. We’re driving back to L.A. He was up in Michigan visiting his folks. I just came back to drive back with him, y’know.” Donny realized how lame that sounded even as he said it.
“So your folks are okay with it. With you. With him.”
“I guess they are, Scott,” Donny replied with an edge. “They know I’m gay, if that’s what you mean. They don’t know anything about Mike because...there’s nothing to tell, really. He’s just a friend.”
“Well, that’s good. I’m glad your family is...okay with it. And Danny...?”
Donny remembered the story Danny had told him about a drunken Scott hitting on him at the party. He smiled a little. “He’s cool with it. He keeps trying to fix me up with people, but you’ve heard of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ so that makes it tough for a blind date with a soldier.”
Scott laughed. “I guess,” he said, and patted Donny’s hand. It occurred to Donny that one of the reasons Scott had gotten in touch was to see if there was a chance they could get together for one more romp; Derek had a condo in Three Meadows and was probably spending the day with his parents. He shrugged. “Actually, I’ve kinda sworn off dating,” he said. “Too much work to do and too much...” He looked at his watch. “Say, I’d love to talk forever, but I’ve...”
“I understand,” said Scott, getting the hint, and Donny realized that maybe all Scott wanted was to see how his life had turned out; whether he was still single or had found happiness, like he had.
The silver BMW belonged to Scott. They shook hands by the parking meters, Donny resisting the urge to hug him; it was still Louisiana Avenue on a Saturday morning. They made promises to keep in touch, giving each other their cards with home phone numbers written out hastily on the back on the hood of the car, and then they waved as they drove off in opposite directions. As he drove south out past the Country Charm, Donny wondered what his life would have been like if both he and Scott had never left home.
Mike and Fred were still in the front yard, but they were done working, the rakes leaning up against the wheelbarrow, the row of leaf piles in the middle of the yard. They were talking, and Donny recognized his father’s body language as his patient listening mode. As he parked the Land Rover he heard his father laugh.
They went to dinner that night at the little storefront Mexican restaurant in town and Mike paid for it, shaking off Fred’s gentle protest. The food was as good as Donny remembered it, and as they were walking out through the front bar, he passed Stan Tasker sitting at another booth. He looked years older, now large in the belly, a stained Miller Beer t-shirt stretched tight across his gut, his hair under the Tigers cap shaved almost to the skin, and he had grown one of those chin-cupping goatees that were the fashion among the redneck crowd. His wife, whose name Donny remembered was either Sheryl or Eileen, was sitting next to him, her dyed hair looking somewhat frazzled, and she was irritably trying to control a two-year-old child who was loudly protesting his confinement. Stan glanced up from his large combo platter as they passed, and for a second he had a glimmer of recognition. He raised his paw, still holding the fork to wave and looked like he was on the verge of saying something, but at the moment the child let out a glass-shattering wail, Stan’s eyes glazed over, and he went back to his meal. Donny nodded, said nothing, and followed his parents out to the street.
They left early the next morning after a quick breakfast of toast and coffee. The sky was grey and threatening, not unlike the morning in January when Donny had hugged his mother, said he’d call when he got there, and he’d be back before Valentine’s Day. This time his parents stood on the front porch waving and telling them to drive carefully. Mike thanked them for everything, Donny hugged both of his parents, the exhaust from the idling Land Rover making his eyes sting. The heater purred as they drove to the entrance of southbound I-75, heading for Dayton, then west on I-70 to Indianapolis, St. Louis, then I-44 to Oklahoma City, then I-40 to Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Needles, Barstow, San Bernardino, and home.
Labels: "Small Town Boys"