Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 5

Voice Mail - 2000

“Hey, twin,” the voice said, slightly distorted from the tape and the long distance line. “Sorry I missed you. And sorry I haven’t called, but – well, it’s been kinda rough getting to a phone booth over here in Saddam’s backyard. Just thought I’d call and let you know I’m heading back to the states in a couple of weeks and I’ll be at Edwards for a while then heading to Kirtland for a short rotation. Kirtland – you know that’s the one in Albuquerque, right? Anyway, I’ll call you when I get to the states and let you know what my plans are, rather what the Air Force has planned for me – you know how that goes. Anyway… talked to Dad a couple of days ago…same old same old, I guess. Mom said she heard from you a while ago and said you like being in the middle of nowhere, and take it from me in the middle of the fuckin’ Kuwaiti desert, you ain’t seen nowhere yet until you see this piece of desolation. So…I guess I’m gonna run your machine out of tape, so I’ll call you when I get there – should be right around the sixteenth, in time for our birthday. Hey, when was the last time we were together for that? Must be about seven years at least; maybe more. Oh, I got your letter, finally – the one you wrote back in January. It finally caught up with me about a month ago after going from Germany, Italy, Spain, and finally got loaded on the camel to here. Gotta tell ya, it knocked me on my ass. Hope we can spend some time together and talk. Guess we haven’t done that for a while, either. Anyway…hey, I gotta get going – there’s a bunch of enlisteds that are waiting for the line. Take care, and I’ll call you when it’s on my nickel, not Uncle Sam’s. Take care. Love ya, twin. Bye.” Beep.

Donny lit a cigarette and walked out to the patio. The bricks were already drying in the night air, dark splotches scattered over the patio giving way to the residual warmth. He’d almost forgotten about the letter he’d written on the last day at the office back in January.

Everything was in boxes, furniture was being stacked, loaded, or disassembled. His was the last computer in the main office area connected to the printer. He found Dan’s APO address in his notebook, and with little to do but watch the movers heave stuff into boxes and cart them out, he batted out a long letter to his brother, not really sure when it would get to him. But there was a lot to tell.

Eric was already gone. The company jet had taken him to Seattle that morning and he wouldn’t be back until late that night, long after the movers had finished and the cleaning crew had made their final visit. At midnight, McKay-Gemini would become yet another absorbed company in the great merger and acquisition game of the computer and dot-com industry. Donny ran the letter out on the printer, shut off his computer, tagged it as Ready-To-Load, and walked out to the lobby. He dropped the letter in the mail slot. The security guard nodded at him as he signed out. It was just like any other Friday night. Donny didn’t look back as he crossed the parking lot to his Suburban.

Chapter Guide


Friday, May 20, 2005

The Economy of Style

One of the reasons I try things like writing exercises like Small Town Boys -- which seems to be taking on a life of its own -- is that I try to push the envelope on my writing style. Whereas Bobby Cramer is long on detail and introspection, in Small Town Boys I am trying for a little more distance and objectivity from the characters and doing it economically.

It's not easy. I have to keep reminding myself that I don't need to account for every moment of the characters' lives and I don't need to know their every thought. Their actions and reactions should be what clues the reader in to what's going on. Give the reader some credit for figuring out what's going on, and allow the characters the space to grow and evolve without the author's fine hand in every move. Sometimes they can surprise you.

That doesn't mean I'm going to go back and revise what I've done in Bobby Cramer. I have purposefully gone into great detail about his life and his thoughts and feelings. That's probably because I feel a lot closer to him than I do to the characters in Small Town Boys. For one thing, Donny Hollenbeck is not a very introspective guy. He takes what comes and doesn't devote a lot of energy to figuring out why things happen. Unlike Bobby, who seems at times to be tossed like a leaf in a river and unable to control his life, Donny sets things in motion and watches what happens, but in the end he will not let someone else control his life, and when he makes up his mind to do something, he does it and never looks back...much.

Donny and Bobby are opposites, then -- but very much alike. It sounds like I'm writing the same characters over again. Probably, but then most writers do that -- look at the women in Tennessee Williams's plays or the men in the plays of William Inge. (Not that I'm comparing myself favorably to them, mind you.) That's a form of economy, too.


Small Town Boys - Chapter 4

Settling In - 1992

For the first month or so, Donny bounced around various jobs at McKay-Gemini. Greg said it was the only way to get to know how the company worked. He helped in sales, logging calls and following up with orders. He spent some time with accounting, learning the mysteries of billing and accounts payable. He spent several weeks helping in the warehouse and working with shipping and receiving. Finally he landed at purchasing, and thanks to the departure of the woman who had been doing it, it became his more-or-less permanent job… at least that’s where Greg seemed to feel he could do the most good. Through it all he found the people helpful and friendly and he liked the casual atmosphere. It wasn’t like some of the businesses he’d seen where everyone had to follow a dress code and keep their desk neat and tidy. Greg was notorious for his cluttered office with magazines, computer parts, files, and reams of documents everywhere. Eric’s office was a little better, but not much. No one seemed to mind – customers never came by, and they kept making money. Greg and Eric didn’t seem like bosses… the sales people kidded around with them, the guys in the warehouse would come up and shoot the breeze, and Cathy, the accountant, would patiently explain procedures to Greg, often making financial decisions for the company when needed. Greg would say, “Oh, okay, whatever works. You know best.” Eric spent most of the time in his office, usually listening to music and writing software, but when he came out, he’d sit in Greg’s office. They would talk about nothing in particular, Greg leaning back, Eric with his feet up on the edge of the desk. Sometimes they said nothing, just sitting, for long periods. Cathy privately referred to it as “twin communing.”

Donny knew what that meant. As kids, he and Danny used to play together for hours without saying a word, but each knew what the other was doing. He remembered them as some of the best times, and he also remembered his mother standing in the doorway of their room watching them, shaking her head in silent wonder. As they grew up and spent less and less time together, there was still a connection. When Danny would call from the academy, Donny knew when the phone rang who was on the other end of the line. He would pick up the receiver and say, “Yes, we’ll accept the charges,” before the operator could say a word. So when he saw Greg and Eric sitting in silence, he knew what was going on. And he began to feel like he fit in.

He also knew he needed to find a place of his own. The “casita” was nice, but he felt like he was mooching, and it didn’t help when Uncle Ron refused any offer of rent, increasing the sense of obligation. He also felt like he had a lack of privacy – anyone coming over to visit could be plainly seen from the kitchen and den windows. He looked through the paper, setting his sights on a two-bedroom furnished apartment near work, figuring he could afford to spend $500 a month. He got a rude shock. The cheapest places were in the $800 range, and when he went to look at them, they were awful. Unfurnished studios went for $600 a month. Donny had already used up more than half the thousand he had brought with him, so even without paying a hefty deposit he’d still be living paycheck to paycheck. The “casita,” by necessity, seemed like home for now.

The next day he went to lunch by himself at the little sandwich shop in the strip mall. He picked up a used copy of the paper and read through the ads. Nothing new, so he turned to the crossword and ate his tuna salad on whole wheat.

“There you are,” someone said. Eric slid into the booth. The waitress came over and he ordered sliced turkey and a Coke. “What’s up?”

“Not much. You need me upstairs for something?”

“Nah. That jerk from the cable company called but Irene told him you were at lunch.” He shuffled through the paper. “Anything interesting in here?”


“Find a place yet?”

“How’d you know I was looking?”

“Well, you have a job and your truck runs, so the only thing left would be house-hunting, right?”


“Don’t like living with your aunt and uncle, huh.”

“It’s okay… Just not… well, you know what it’s like, huh?” Eric and Greg still lived with their parents.

“Yeah, no shit. Not exactly the best situation. What are you looking for?”

“Two bedroom, furnished, around three-fifty.”

“Good luck. On what we pay you, you’re not gonna find anything like that around here. Apartments around here suck and they want way too much for crap.”

“So give me a raise,” Donny said.

Eric grinned and leaned back. “Got a better idea. How about we find a place together?”

It was as simple as that. Within a week they found a three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood five minutes from the office. The rent was high, but Eric was sure they could round up another roommate, and in two days he’d recruited Rob Goldwasser, a high school friend who went to UCLA and had a part-time job at the Fox Studios scene shop. The house, a one-story ranch, had a garage and a small fenced yard out back. The master bedroom had its own bath and a sitting area with a sliding door out to the backyard. There were two smaller bedrooms and another bath between them. They drew straws and Eric got the master bedroom. The house was unfurnished, but Eric solved that. His parents had recently redecorated their house in Pasadena. With a Ryder truck they took a sofa, four chairs, three dressers, a dining room table, a kitchen set, and numerous odds and ends such as end tables, lamps, and, inexplicably, Eric’s grandmother’s 1932 spinet piano, even though none of them played. They cleaned out the attic of used kitchen utensils and dishes, loading them in the back of Donny’s truck. They stopped at a mattress warehouse outlet where there was a two-for-one sale going on, so they bought twin beds for each bedroom. At Sherwin-Williams they bought paint, spackle, brushes and dropcloths. Rob was able to scavenge some “art” from the prop shop. Set pieces from cancelled TV shows usually went into storage or the dumpster depending on their condition, so they found several passable paintings that had once decorated the set of a well-known but recently axed prime-time soap opera. They spent a weekend moving, painting, cleaning, and dusting, and by ten o’clock on Sunday night, the only thing that needed to be done was to have the cable hooked up. They sat on the little patio and drank beer. They clinked their bottles in a silent toast to their new home.

“The phone guy comes tomorrow,” Eric said. They were having four phone lines installed – one for each of them, and one for his computer.

“This is finest kind,” said Rob, leaning back at staring up at the sky, and stretching his long legs across the patio. His father was from New York, his mother from Santa Barbara, and the combination gave him the interesting look of Beach Boy-meets-Brooklyn – he was tall and lanky with curly blond hair and a definite Jewish nose. His accent was Californian with the occasional Brooklyn touch thrown in. “I’m glad you found this place, Eric.”

“Yeah, I heard you and Marcy weren’t doing too well.”

“Ain’t that the God’s honest truth.” Marcy and Rob had been high school sweethearts, and got an apartment together when he got the job at Fox. The relationship had quickly soured. “You really don’t know someone until you see them crawl out of bed in the morning, and keep finding clothes all over the place.”

“Yours or hers?” asked Donny.

“You know that line they always give you about women being neater than men? Don’t you believe it. It’s bullshit. Marcy’s a slob, and the bathroom looked like the bottom of a birdcage. I mean, she’s a nice chick, but sheesh…I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Well, you’re a welcome addition to the tribe,” said Eric. He went into the house and came out a moment later with a joint and an ashtray. They shared a celebratory doobie, watched the stars, and then trundled off sleepily to bed.

The next evening, after the phones were hooked up, Donny called his parents to tell them he was staying in Los Angeles indefinitely. He had a good job, a nice place to live, and he liked the people he’d met so far. There was a short pause, then his father said, “Okay. Is there anything you need from here?”

For an instant, Donny felt a seizure of homesickness and panic, but he took a deep breath and said, “No thanks, Dad. I’m doing fine.”

“We’ll forward your mail,” his mom interjected from the phone in the kitchen. “There’s a schedule for fall from B.G. You won’t be wanting that, will you?”

“No, Mom.”

“Are you going to take classes out there?”

“Uh, I might.”

“Good. You were doing well.”

His father came back on from the phone in the living room. “Danny called yesterday. He’s doing well. Let him know what you’re doing.”

“I was going to call him as soon as I hung up with you, Dad.”

“I love you, Donny,” said his mother.

“You too, Mom…and you too, Dad.”

After he hung up he stared at nothing in particular, holding the phone on his lap. His room still smelled of paint, his bed was still stiff from being new, and the spare bed was piled with boxes and with clothes yet to be put away. “Am I crazy?” he thought.

A pan clattered in the kitchen. Ron was seasoning his new wok – he’d left his old one with Marcy – and the smell of hot oil filtered in over the Sherwin-Williams. He put the phone on the floor and went into the kitchen.

Chapter Guide


Saturday, May 14, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 3

Note: One of my quirks in storytelling is jumping back and forth in time between chapters. I've added titles to the chapters to clarify the time frame of each.

Chapter Guide

The Summer of 2000

Sundays were quiet days. He got up around seven and strolled over to the Gateway, read the paper, then came back home. He did laundry, reading a mystery novel on the tiny patio while the dryer tumbled, and then folded clothes and put them away. By noon he was ready for a sandwich.

He came across the battered Circle-K matchbook from the night before. He’d pulled it out of his jeans before washing them. Chris had scribbled his number on the inside, and Donny, after a false start, picked up the phone and dialed. Four rings, then the machine: “Hi, this is Chris – leave a short message and I’ll call you back.” Beep. Donny was just as brief, then hung up. He washed some dishes, remade the bed, and was wondering what was on Showtime when the phone rang. It was Chris. They talked for a bit, agreed that last night had been fun, and after a few more minutes of tentative chatting, Donny gave Chris directions on how to get out to his house. Chris said he’d be there around five. Donny tidied up a little, swept the back patio, and took a shower.

Chris showed up on time, parking in front of the house and strolling up to the door. Donny offered him a beer, and they sat on the patio and talked. Chris was a grad student from Texas. He had another year to go. They drank a couple of beers each, then Donny made hamburgers. They ate quietly, cleaned up the kitchen, and then went to the bedroom. Afterwards they sat on the bed and ate some ice cream. Chris left around nine, giving Donny a hesitant peck on the cheek. Donny took another shower, pulled on some gym shorts, and sat on the patio in the dark and smoked. He thought about summer in Michigan.

Without really planning on it, he and Chris began to see each other fairly regularly for the next six weeks. It was always on weekends, and more often than not Donny went into town, combining the trip with stopping or going to a movie. They both knew it was just for the fun of it; good recreational sex without all the heavy overtones of commitments and falling in love. By the end of August Chris’s classes started up again, as did his graduate assistantship and his part-time job.

The Saturday of Labor Day weekend Donny stayed late at the Gateway. The feed store was closed, so he had pancakes and bacon and read the whole Albuquerque Journal. The place was more crowded than usual. Tourists on their way through east or west dropped in off the interstate, and there was a local wine festival in the next town north that drew a crowd, too. Donny took a seat in one of the back booths and read.

Four people – three men and one woman – came in together and took the next booth. They were definitely from out of town. They were casually dressed, but elegantly so. One of the men still wore sunglasses, even though the fluorescent lights in the café weren’t that bright. They were all in their mid-thirties. The woman wore some subtle make-up and turquoise jewelry. Donny figured they were down from Santa Fe or Taos for the wine festival. Celeste’s daughter Eva greeted them and brought them coffee and menus. Donny didn’t pay them any more attention until one of the men said, “Excuse me,” for the second time. Donny looked up.

The speaker was a good-looking man with light brown hair, green eyes, and Donny instantly recognized him as one of those actors you’ve seen a lot of but can never remember their name. He’d been in a lot of movies and TV and a couple of years before had been listed in People magazine as one of the Bright New Faces in Hollywood. Most recently he’d co-starred in a short-lived medical drama.

“Can I borrow your sugar thing? Ours is out of Sweet & Low,” he said.
Donny passed him the sugar packet rack and went back to the crossword. Celeste came out of the kitchen and came over to their booth. She greeted the actor, calling him Tim, and Tim introduced his friends. Donny couldn’t help eavesdropping, and he learned that Tim was originally from here, that he was building a house out south of town, and that he had just finished a part in an action movie playing the hero’s best friend…and therefore got killed off by the bad guys. “Dead on page fifty-seven,” he said. Everybody laughed. Donny folded up the paper and left the café.

It clouded over that afternoon and was raining lightly when he drove out of town towards Albuquerque. He and Chris went to dinner at a little Greek restaurant near the campus, then went to his house, stopping on the way at a Walgreen’s for condoms. Chris had a new housemate named Janice, and so they sat and visited with her for a while before going into the bedroom and closing the door. Chris cautioned that they should be quiet, but Janice turned up the TV, and so they didn’t care if she heard them over the roar of canned laughter on a sitcom.

It was still raining when he left. The roads were slick and the lightning lit up the canyon on the interstate. He drove slowly, letting the big semis pass him in a blast of rain. By the time he got home it was almost midnight. The house was dark. He clicked on the light by the sofa and saw the little red light on the phone machine blinking. For a moment he stared at it. Since he’d lived there the only person who would ever call and leave a message was Chris, and he knew he was asleep. He hit the Play button, and the tape rewound for what seemed like a long time. Then it stopped, the machine clicked, and a very familiar voice began speaking. Donny stood and listened without moving. The message ended, the machine beeped, and Donny hit the Play button again. Once again the voice filled the room. Donny sat down on the sofa.


Small Town Boys - Chapter 2, Part 3


Two weeks later a major ice storm hit. No one went anywhere for two days. Power lines snapped leaving many people miserable and in the dark, and four people were killed in storm-related traffic accidents. Donny, stuck in the house without anything to do, found himself looking through the collection of Christmas cards his parents had received. One was from his uncle in Whittier, California. It pictured the whole family – Uncle Ron, Aunt Barbara, and his cousins Jeff and Sally – sitting on their terrace under a palm tree in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, all tanned and fit, smiling at the camera. The note inside said, “Come see us!” When the phone lines were working again, Donny called his uncle. They talked for a while, and when they hung up, Donny had an open invitation to come out and stay in their little guest cottage behind the garage for as long as he wanted. Donny collected his paycheck from the construction company, took a thousand dollars out of savings, bought new tires for his truck, and packed as much clothing as he could get in two of Danny’s old camp duffel bags. He told his parents and his boss that he’d be back in a month or so. His parents didn’t say much, other than to have a good time and drive carefully, and his boss said he’d have a job waiting for him when he got back. He went south on I-75 to Dayton, then west on 70 through Indiana, Illinois and then on 40 – old Route 66 – through Missouri. He spent the night in Springfield. It was still cold, but the sky wasn’t as gray.

Two days later it was 75 degrees when he arrived at his uncle’s house in Whittier. He’d stopped at a nearby self-serve car wash to empty out the litter of McDonald’s bags and cups and hose off the road dirt. He got directions from a convenience store clerk and parked in front of the house. He’d arrived in time for drinks on the patio and Barbara’s famous enchilada dinner. They spent the evening catching up on family news – Jeff was in college in Portland, Sally was in the Peace Corps – then Uncle Ron took him out to the “casita.” It was a small apartment with a bedroom, galley kitchen, tiny bath with shower, and living room attached to the back of the garage under a huge eucalyptus tree. The sound of the pool filter pump came through the wall, but other than that, it was quiet and isolated. Donny thanked his uncle, dumped his duffels on the floor, and went to sleep to the sound of tree frogs.

After a week of playing tourist, including Disneyland and Universal Studios, and making himself useful around the house, Donny began to scan through the paper looking for a job. The want ads in the Times went for column after column, but most of the jobs seemed directed at highly skilled technical openings, minimum wage, or sales. He made a series of calls, filled out applications, and waited. He got a few responses and interviewed at several places, and finally received an offer from a little company that sold software to schools. The owner, an intense and highly-caffeinated woman of indeterminate age, hired him based on his “friendly” phone skills, and, apparently, his looks – she was recently divorced and had a collection of photos of a well-built blond boy flexing in a posing thong in her office. (She said it was her son.) But after three days of ulcer-inducing work on a phone bank sitting next to four women who cowered whenever the owner barked an order, Donny quit, scoured the paper again, and sent out more letters.

Three weeks passed. He got form-letter rejections and a couple of calls for interviews that turned out to be telemarketing, but nothing panned out, and he felt a rising sense of frustration. Ron and Barbara were glad to have him – he was a built-in housesitter when they went to Hawaii for a week, and he painted their kitchen – but Donny had never gone this long without doing something. Construction crew work was out since he didn’t speak Spanish and most of the men doing the work were illegal immigrants. He thought about enrolling in classes at the local college, and even toyed with the idea of going back to Ohio… or Chicago. He found Scott’s number in directory information and dialed it. But when the machine picked up, he couldn’t think of anything to say and hung up. He went to bed that night, dreamed of Scott, and woke up with a pounding erection. He pulled out his maps and charted a course back to Ohio via Chicago. Between the time he left L.A. and got to Illinois, he’d think of something to say.

That afternoon he was folding laundry and packing his duffels when the phone rang. It was for him. Greg McKay from McKay-Gemini was calling in response to the application he’d submitted two weeks ago. Donny wracked his brain trying to remember, and then it clicked: they made parts and pieces for computers and had listed an opening for “entry-level” positions. Greg said he was sorry he’d taken so long to get back to him; was he still interested?

McKay-Gemini was in an inauspicious office suite over a dry-cleaning shop in a strip mall in Culver City. Donny parked his truck next to a beat-up Chevy Malibu wagon and went up the narrow stairs that smelled of stale smoke and laundry chemicals. He pushed open the door and found himself standing in front of the reception desk. A young Asian woman was sitting at the desk, talking on the phone. She was holding a baby in her arms, and without too much effort Donny could see that the child was breast-feeding. Donny tried not to look too surprised. The woman looked up at him, smiled, and nodded in the direction of a chair, and Donny sat. When she finished the call, she shifted the baby, smiled again at Donny, and asked if she could help him. Donny told her that he had an appointment with Greg. “Oh, right,” she said. She stood up, still holding the baby, and looked over the partition behind her. “Hey, Greg,” she said, “he’s here.”

Greg came out from behind the partition. He was tall and lean with long brown hair and a mustache. He didn’t seem to be much older than Donny – perhaps twenty-two at the most. He was wearing faded jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, and Donny felt overdressed in his khakis and dress shirt and tie. They shook hands and Greg led him down a narrow hall. “Give you the tour first before we sit down…let you get an idea of what we’re up to.” He opened the door to a huge storage room lined with industrial shelving. It looked like the stacks at the university library, but instead of books, there were hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of all shapes and sizes, all labeled in some elaborate code. Some of the shelves were eight rows high, and step stools and rolling stepladders lined the aisles.

“What we do here,” said Greg, “is sell parts to computer makers. Not the big dogs like IBM, or Apple, or Hewlett-Packard, but little companies or for people that build their own. We buy the stuff from various manufacturers, store it here, and then, when someone wants it, ship it out to them. Saves them from having to hunt down parts from all over hell-and-gone, and we sell them cheaper than if they did it on their own.”

Greg closed the door and Donny followed him down another hall, past several small offices. People were working quietly; some on the phone, several typing on computers. The offices were decorated apparently according to the taste of the occupant: one was covered with wall-to-wall cartoon figures, another was lined with license plates from all over the world, still another with Dallas Cowboys memorabilia. “These are the sales offices. We do a lot of work on the phone.” They passed another office. Unlike the others, this one was a shambles of paper, books, boxes, and a pile of computer parts. A mountain bike leaned against the desk. A young man was sitting at one terminal typing furiously. Rock music was blasting from a portable radio. Greg knocked on the open door. The young man glanced over his shoulder then back to the screen. “Yeah, Greg, what’s up?”

“Eric, this is Don Hollenbeck, the guy I told you about. Don, this is Eric. He runs operations. He’s also my brother.”

Eric hit a couple of keys and the screen went blank. He swiveled around in his chair and stood up. He had an athletic build, short hair, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. They shook hands. “So, getting the nickel tour?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Welcome to the madhouse.”

“Eric’s working on writing some software for us – inventory tracking, purchasing, customer records, that sort of stuff. We do it all by hand now, but pretty soon we’ll have it all on the computer.”

“We sell the stuff…might as well use it,” said Eric. “Nice to meet you, Don. Hope you like the place.” They shook hands again, and Eric grinned at him, then glanced at Greg and nodded. Greg nodded back.

“Same here,” Donny said, wondering a little what that was all about.

They left Eric’s office and went up the hall. Once out of earshot, Greg said, “He may not look like it, but he’s a genius with computers. Knows everything from parts and pieces to writing software. He’s the real brains behind the place…I just run it.”

“So he started the company?”

“We did in our dad’s basement.”

They returned to the front office. Two women were working at desks behind the reception partition. “Cathy and Linda – accounting and purchasing respectively. And you met Irene out front, and her son Ethan.” Donny nodded at the women, then followed Greg into his office. Greg closed the door and they sat down.

“Well, I guess you’re wondering what we’re looking for here,” said Greg, picking up a file and opening it. Donny could see it was his application letter.

“Yeah…I’m not exactly a computer person.”

“I wasn’t either,” said Greg. “Before I did this I was working in sales, and before that I was a cart wrangler at K-Mart – in high school. I went to UCLA and majored in business. But Eric started this little business a couple of years ago when he was in high school, selling parts and shit to his buddies who were building computers from kits, and he had a real knack for putting them together. He just didn’t know jack about business. So I helped him, and the next thing you know, here we are.” He glanced around the office. “Ain’t exactly IBM, but…. What I’m looking for are people who are willing to learn about the business and pitch in, not just a bunch of computer nerds. You don’t have a whole lot of experience…”

“Yeah, I know,” said Donny apologetically.

Greg held up his hand, “Neither did I when I got into this. But look around. This computer business is going to take off. Hell, it already has – we got a late start. I figure in the next three years – by 1995 – everybody and his brother is going to want to get in on it. By 2000, who knows? All we gotta do is go along for the ride and use common sense. It’s gonna be like TV was in the 1950’s. We just need smart people with the common sense and balls to take the chance. Eric and I have already taken the chance…now we just need people to help us hold on to our balls, so to speak.” Greg grinned. “And besides, unless I’m completely off-base, aren’t you one of the Hollenbeck twins from Sugar Ridge Junior High?”

Donny blinked. “How’d you know that?”

“We grew up in Pemberville. My family moved out here when I was sixteen. Eric and I played football against you and your brother.” It came to Donny like a flash. In spite of Greg’s long hair and mustache and Eric’s short hair and glasses, they were identical twins.

“Holy shit,” Donny breathed.

“That’s right,” said Greg, laughing. “How about that for amazing coincidences? I almost crapped when I read your letter.”

“I remember you guys. Wide receivers, right?”

Greg nodded. “I was on the right, Eric was on the left. We were too light to do anything but run like hell.”

“You don’t look alike…I mean, you do, but...”

“We never went in for that dressing alike and same haircut crap. We’re pretty different in spite of genetics. You don’t still look like your brother now, do you?”

“No. For one thing, he’s in the Air Force.”

Greg grimaced. “Well, we didn’t go that far.”

The phone buzzed. “Hang on a second,” he said and grabbed the receiver. He listened for a moment, said “yeah” a couple of times, concluded with “all right,” and hung up. “Hey, let’s get some lunch, okay?”

“Fine with me,” said Donny.

A moment later Eric appeared at the office door, and they went to a Denny’s down the street. Eric sat across from Donny and let Greg do all the talking. Now he could see the similarities in their facial features and the gestures, and although Eric was larger in size with a strong chest and wide shoulders, they were definitely twins. “Here’s the deal. We need people to help in all sorts of areas, like purchasing, receiving, deliveries, packing, hell, even answering the phone when Irene’s out. Pay is fifteen bucks an hour. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, especially here in La-la Land, but after sixty days we’ll get you on health insurance and we’re working on a profit-sharing plan. We’ll pay overtime, too, and work out vacations. Basically, if you get your work done, you can take off whenever you want…hell, I do.” He slipped into California surfer-speak. “We’re just a bunch of real mellow dudes, man.” They all laughed. “Oh, and if you want to take classes like at UCLA or wherever, we’ll work that out. We’ll also pay for a gym membership at the local Gold’s so you don’t get outta shape sitting behind a desk all day. So, how about it?”

Donny did some quick figuring in his head. Fifteen dollars an hour was almost three times what he earned back home doing ass-breaking construction work. This would be nothing compared to that. And he liked Greg and Eric…they weren’t trying to impress him with their business skills – they were just a couple of guys. It sounded like fun. Donny grinned at them and said, “So, when do I start?”

Chapter Guide


Monday, May 09, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 2, Part 2


Danny’s visits home became fewer and fewer. Summers were spent in camp, and the only holiday he got to really spend at home was Christmas. By Christmas of their senior year, Donny hadn’t seen his twin in eight months, and when the word came through that Danny – now just Dan – had been accepted into the Air Force Academy, it was in the form of a letter. Donny got into Bowling Green State University and spent the summer after his senior year working with a construction crew. He got tanned and muscular and made enough money to buy a used Ford F150 for commuting to class. He took four classes – American Lit, Intro to Computers, Business Math, and American History – that first semester and did well enough, but it seemed just like high school without all the peer pressure. The classes were huge, the professors distant, and most of the time he felt like the only reason he was there was because it was something he was expected to do. He passed all the courses with 3.0 or better and felt nothing special. He got to know some of his classmates on a casual basis and even went out once or twice with some of them for a beer after classes on Friday, but it wasn’t like high school; they all had lives outside of class.

When summer came he went back to working construction. It was hard work, but the crew was friendly and he made good money, setting most of it aside since he was still living at home, chipping in to his mom’s grocery budget every week. The owner of the company told Donny he could stay on full time after the summer if he wanted to. He went back to BGSU, took some classes in English and the second level of computer programming and plowed through the winter. He signed up for the second semester as a matter of course and sat through the classes with an increasing sense of frustration and boredom. He wondered how his father, who worked in a bank in Perrysburg, endured the day-to-day life of working in an office and wondered if that was where he would end up as well.

The summer after his sophomore year the contractor got a job building an addition on a house in a nice suburb. One afternoon as they nailed up the framing the owner came home. Donny recognized him. He was Scott Welles, the older brother of Derek, one of his high school classmates. He drove a Mercedes convertible, and had the look of a country club tennis pro – athletic without being bulky, and summer-bleached blond hair. The Welles family was well-off – stockbrokers or something like that – and Scott was wearing a nice suit and tie when he pulled in the drive behind the company pick-up. Donny didn’t pay much attention, but Scott stood there and watched as he and the crew hauled the joists into place.

At the end of the day Donny was putting tools away when Scott came out of the house. He’d changed into shorts and a T-shirt.

“Donny or Danny?”

“Donny.” They shook hands.

“So Danny’s the one that went into the service.”


Scott looked up at the framing that outlined the new family room and kitchen on the back of the house. “You guys are doing a good job. I didn’t know this was your company.”

“Oh, I’m just working here for the summer. I’m going to BGSU. At least, I did last year.”

“Thinking about doing something else?”

Donny shrugged. “It’s crossed my mind.”

“What’s your major?”

“Haven’t decided on one. Took a couple of classes in English, though. But there’s not a lot you can do with a degree in that.”

“I majored in business and finance,” Scott said, “but y’know…I kinda wish I’d taken more English classes. Feel like I missed something.”

Donny looked at the house, the nice yard, and the car. “Well, not too much.”

Scott laughed. “You still live around here?”

“Yeah…still live with the folks.”

“No kidding. Hey, why don’t we get together sometime, have a couple of beers, go over old times?”


“Got any plans for tonight?”

“Not really.”

“Come on over about eight or so. We’ll go over old times, eh?”

“All right.”

“Great.” Scott clapped him on the shoulder. “See you then.”

Donny closed up the toolboxes and drove the truck back to the office. He was a little mystified by the invitation. He’d played football and took a couple of classes with Derek, but Scott was probably five or six years older. Nevertheless, he went home, took a shower, ate dinner, and showed up Scott’s house at three minutes after eight.

The house was appointed with family antiques and nicely upholstered furniture. Scott offered him a beer in a glass and they went out to the screened-in porch. The backyard had soft lights hidden in the bushes, and apart from the area where the new construction was going on, was well maintained. They sat on the old-fashioned glider and talked quietly. It turned out that they had a lot of mutual acquaintances, and soon Donny felt like he’d known Scott for a long time.

They each had another beer, then Scott brought out a couple of joints. They slowly smoked them, Donny savoring the blissful feeling of calm and quiet that came over him. It seemed very natural when Scott leaned over and patted Donny’s thigh, and then slowly slid his hand up to tickle the bulge in his jeans. Donny returned the favor.

The master bedroom was dim and cool. They slowly undressed, Scott revealing a Speedo tan line under his jockeys. Scott went to the bed, tossed back the covers, and took Donny’s hand, pulling him towards him, on top of him. Donny lost all sense of time and place, except for remembering all those times at the quarry, knowing that this was light-years beyond those fumbling and furious beating-off sessions with Craig.

It was almost midnight. They lay in the darkness, the dampness of their sweat making the sheets cool. Scott whispered, “Jesus, where’d you learn to do that?”

Donny grinned in the dark. “Would you believe…out at Lorenzen’s quarry?”

Scott shook his head. “With who?”

“Not telling.”

“Well, whoever he was, he was one lucky fucker.”

Donny got out of bed and slowly started to get dressed. He was feeling groggy from the beer, the pot, and the exertion. Light from the streetlight had turned his clothes into a gray crumpled pile at the foot of the bed. He pulled on his briefs.

“Is your brother hung like you?” Scott asked, then added, “I guess he’d have to be—you’re twins.”

“I guess,” replied Donny. “I’ve never seen him with a hard-on.”

“You mean you never…explored each other?” Donny shook his head. “I thought all brothers did that.”

“Did you with Derek?”

“No,” admitted Scott. “When he was fourteen, I was nineteen. That would have been weird.”

Donny tucked in his shirt and buckled his belt. “So… how’d you know that I wouldn’t beat the shit out of you tonight when you went for my cock?”

“I took a risk, I admit that. But when you see this gorgeous hunk of construction worker standing shirtless on your roof in all his masculine glory, you take your shots.”

Donny chuckled softly.

“And besides,” Scott said, reaching over and patting Donny’s bulge, “I had a feeling. Just a gut one, but I thought…yeah, he might be.”

Scott pulled on his robe and walked Donny to the door. “This was fun,” he said, opening the door. “Let’s do it again sometime, okay?”



Donny drove home slowly. He had a bad case of cottonmouth, so in the dim light of the range hood light he drank a quart of ice water and ate a dozen Fig Newtons. He went to bed and woke up five hours later wondering what it was exactly that told Scott that “he might be.”

It took three weeks to get the framing up and sided and another week to get the windows and doors installed. Then electricians and plumbers and finish carpenters came in. Donny’s crew was done, and they packed up their gear and moved onto the next job. But for the rest of the summer he returned to Scott’s, and the routine was the same: beers on the porch, idle conversation, then sex in the master bedroom.

They never talked outside of the house and they never called each other – Scott had his job at the brokerage house, and Donny was now a crew chief – Donny just knew that there were nights when he could come over. Weekends were out of bounds: Scott spent them with his family at a nearby lakeside resort, and Donny worked in his parents’ yard. Nobody ever asked Donny what he did after work.

When the fall semester started, Donny signed up for two courses, American History and Intro to Computing, and took them in the evening. He had enough work with the crew through October that it made it lucrative to keep working, though he had to often leave the job site early to get to class. Visits to Scott’s house became few and far between – sometimes as long as ten days apart.

Two nights before Thanksgiving Donny stopped by. Scott greeted him at the door and took him into the living room. “Want a beer?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Donny.

They sat in the living room. Scott had the CD player on.

“How’s school going?”

Donny shook his head. “I think I’ve about had it. I just can’t get into it.”

“Gonna quit?”

“Probably. After this semester.”

“Then what? Keep building houses?”

“Don’t know…maybe, maybe not. I’ve got some dough saved up. Maybe I’ll just start looking for something else to do.”

“Like what?”

“Who knows?”


Scott tousled Donny’s hair.

An hour later Donny pulled the covers back over them, having been kicked off the bed. He found his cigarettes and lit one.

“Guess what,” said Scott.

“You’re pregnant?”

“I got a promotion offer.”

“To what?”

“Not so much to what but to where.”



Donny put out the cigarette and got out of bed. “You gonna take it?” he asked as he got dressed.

“Yeah. It’s a big step and a lot more money. Best part is I don’t have to keep grinding money out of clients.”

“So you’re gonna move to Chicago.”

“That’s the plan. Got a realtor coming over in the morning to list this place.”

Donny sat on the bed to lace up his boots. “When do you go?”

“After the first of the year.”

“Well that’s great. I’m happy for you.”

Scott reached out and grabbed Donny’s hand. “Hey. You’re not pissed or anything?”

Donny shrugged. “Why should I be? It’s not like we were in love or anything.”


Two days after Christmas Scott closed a deal on the house. The movers were coming the next day, and packing boxes stood three and four high in the halls and living room. Donny came over for one last visit, then said goodbye. Scott hugged him, told him he’d be in touch – he would visit his folks for sure and they’d get together – and then closed the door. Donny walked down the sidewalk to his truck past the Century 21 sign with the “Sold, But We Have Others” plastered across the top. It was beginning to snow.

Chapter Guide


Small Town Boys - Chapter 2, Part 1

Chapter 2 is rather long, so I've broken it into several sections.


He’d had his first sexual experience when he was fifteen. He and his best friend Craig were at one of the old abandoned limestone quarries that dotted the farm fields of northwestern Ohio on a hot and sticky afternoon in the middle of July. They had gone there, as they had nearly every summer afternoon since they were ten, to fish for bluegills and swim in the cool water that bubbled up from the deep springs below. They took their Zebco rods and reels and used tired worms that they’d dug in Craig’s mother’s vegetable garden. After an hour of catching and releasing the small fish, they explored the field around the quarry, wading through the tall grass, their legs being whipped and scratched, flights of grasshoppers clattering their wings to get out of their way, until they came upon an old sheep shelter. It was a low structure, not much more than four feet high, open along one side and filled at one end with old dead bales of hay. Stalks of weeds and wild sunflowers towered over it. The wooden planks were weather-beaten to driftwood gray, and large gaps between them let the sunlight in to the dirt floor. Craig bent over and stooped inside, sat on the smooth dirt floor, leaned up against one of the old hay bales, and pulled out a battered pack of True Menthols. It was their cigarette of necessity, since it was the brand that Craig’s mother smoked.

They sat cross-legged and talked and smoked and laughed, told dirty jokes and talked about tits and pussy and poontang and fucking until Craig showed Donny that his dick was poking down the leg of his shorts. They giggled, which only made it poke out more. Craig dared Donny to touch it. After a moment’s hesitation, he did, much like someone touches an iron to see if it’s hot. Craig dared Donny to hold it, and Donny, feeling his own dick getting hard, reached over and took the end of it in his hand. The whole thing, said Craig, leaning back to push it out further, and Donny slid his hand down until he had it all in his fist. It was warm and hard. Craig slipped his shorts off and sat on them. Dare you to put it in your mouth, he said with a tremble in his voice.

It was like wrestling – grabbing, reaching, and exploring until Craig sighed, arched his back and shot off into the dirt. Donny watched in fascination – he’d never seen another boy ejaculate before. He felt himself getting close, too. Do it, whispered Craig, and Donny complied, shooting his stream into a hay bale.

They went skinny-dipping afterwards, running across the field to dive into the water, washing off the sweat and dirt and whatever was left on them. They dried off in the sun, then slowly walked home through the thick humid air. They didn’t talk.

That night, Donny went to bed and wondered what it meant that he liked what had happened in the sheep shelter. Did it mean he was a fag? No, he thought, I’m not. Fags fuck guys in the ass, and he and Craig had just beaten off. Guys do that all the time. He’d heard that from his friends who went to summer camp, and they weren’t fags. He turned over, tried to go to sleep, and found himself staring at the empty bed across the room. He thought about his brother Danny and tried to imagine what he was doing and thinking at that moment. Probably trying to get to sleep, too. He had left that morning for cadet camp, and it was the first time they had been apart in their lives.

They were identical twins. Donny was the oldest by five minutes, and all through their childhood they had gone through the usual ritual twins do, being called by the other’s name, confusing teachers, and occasionally dressing alike. But there were subtle differences. Donny had his father’s round face while Danny had the sharper chin of his mother. Donny was right handed, Danny was a lefty, and when they hit puberty, Donny grew more solid and bulkier while Danny stayed leaner, although they were equal in strength. When they played junior high football Danny was the quarterback and Donny was a tackle. In school they both did well, Donny doing well in English and history, Danny doing just as well in science and math. And then, last summer, Danny got interested in the military. He read lots books on the subject, he began collecting posters and memorabilia, got his hair cut to GI length, and took a course in riflery at the VFW. Last spring he asked his parents if he could enroll in the nearby military academy instead of going to the local high school. Part of the curriculum was a four-week cadet camp that started that morning.

Their parting had been quiet. Donny helped his brother carry his bags down to the Plymouth, and then said goodbye in the driveway. Danny looked grown-up in his blue cadet uniform, military cap, and shiny black shoes. Donny told him not to take any shit and gave his brother a powerful hug, which was returned. Gamely holding back his tears, he threw his twin a mock salute, and Danny, with the same effort, returned it. Their mother hugged them both, then the car pulled out of the driveway and down the street for the three-hour drive to the camp in Indiana. A couple of hours later Donny was hiking across the Lorenzen’s hayfield to the quarry with Craig.

He and Craig spent many afternoons at the quarry, and their explorations continued, sometimes achieving three or more climaxes each before going home exhausted and silent. Nothing was ever said. It was like a ritual – fishing, then smoking and sex in the sheep shelter. Once they were caught in a mid-afternoon thunderstorm. Craig had brought an old sleeping bag that they spread out between the bales, and they lay there naked as the rain came dripping through the splits in the roof, making a dark dotted line in the dust.

When August was over and school started, they stopped going to the quarry. They kept saying they should go back after school, but football practice lasted until dark and soon it was too cold in the evenings, and weekends were spent doing other things. Craig met a girl and started to spend time with her, and by Thanksgiving Donny stopped going by Craig’s house because whenever he was home he was either with her or talking about her. The quarry was gone.

Danny came home at Thanksgiving. He took off his uniform and changed into jeans and a sweater that first afternoon, but to Donny he still looked like a soldier with the short hair and serious face. That night, together in their room for the first time in months, Donny watched his twin as they undressed for bed.

“So what’s it like?” he asked.

Danny sat on his bed and pulled off his shoes, setting them neatly on the floor. “It’s good. I’m learning a lot, and the guys are terrific. It’s rough, but when you’re in the corps you work together and get through it.” Danny pulled off his sweater and stepped out of his jeans, folding them neatly. He glanced at Donny’s clothes, piled on the desk chair as usual. Donny noticed his brother had gained some muscle but was still lean and well defined. “It’s a good school,” he added. “You’d do well there.”

Donny shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m not cut out for it.”

They got in their beds and Donny turned out the light.

“So what’s been happening here?” Danny asked in the dark.

“Not much. Same old shit.”

They talked quietly in the dark about school, friends, and other trivial stuff for a while, then lapsed into silence. Soon Danny was asleep, and Donny wondered if his brother felt as lonely as he did without him being around.

Chapter Guide


Small Town Boys - Chapter 1

One of the things I like to do with characters is improvise with them -- put them in different situations and see how they react. It's a holdover from my actor training. One such character is Donny Hollenbeck. Donny is also the main character in my play Can't Live Without You, but the story he's in here has nothing to do with the story in the play. It's more of a writing exercise than anything else.

This is the first chapter of a story I began a long time ago and never finished; hopefully by putting it out here I'll be inspired to wrap it up.

East of Albuquerque - 2000

Donny Hollenbeck crossed the street at an angle, heading for the Gateway Café. It was a little after six in the morning and it was already getting warm. A slow breeze took a small tumbleweed ahead of him down the street until it lodged under the differential of Larry Webster’s GMC.

The cowbell on the door rattled as he pushed through the door. No one else was in the café. He took last night’s Albuquerque Tribune and sat at the counter, shuffling through the paper until he found the stock listings and the crossword. He scanned through the stock market, smiled a little, then went to the puzzle. It was still blank, and he dug a pen out of his Levi’s pocket and started to do it.

Celeste peered through the pass-through. “Morning, Donny,” she called. He nodded and she went back to kneading the biscuit dough. After pushing the tray into the oven, she went out to the front, poured Donny a cup of coffee, leaned back against the icemaker, and lit a Salem. She was a tall, purposeful woman in her mid-sixties. She had owned the café for fifteen years. For the last five on the anniversary of her opening she said that this year would be her last—she was going to sell out to her daughter Eva and move to Tucson—but each year came and went and still she was there every morning kneading the dough. Donny sipped his coffee and inked in 7-Across: P-E-S-T.

“Cheerios and toast?” Celeste asked, although she was sure she knew the answer, and she was already reaching for a cereal bowl and a single serving packet of Cheerios.

“Thanks,” said Donny, not looking up. He could have made this breakfast at home, but he liked coming into the café, and he didn’t have to wash the dishes. Celeste put the bowl, the box, and a pitcher of milk next to Donny’s coffee, topped off his cup, snubbed out her cigarette, and went back into the kitchen to make the toast.

The bell rattled and Larry Webster strode in and took his accustomed seat in the second booth, known in the café as “the trough.” During the week he and his road crew would gather for coffee and cigarettes before going out to the county garage, but on Saturdays Larry came in by himself to have breakfast and read the paper in peace. Celeste poured him some coffee, slid him an ashtray, and brought out Donny’s toast. The oven timer dinged.

Donny finished his breakfast and gave up on the crossword—they got harder as the week went on and Donny had never finished a Friday one. He put the paper back in the pile by the cash register. Someone had left this week’s copy of the Weekly Alibi, the alternative paper from Albuquerque. He glanced at the cover, then put four dollars on the counter. Celeste rang him up. “Keep the change,” he told her.

He crossed the street to Romero Feed and Supply. The main store was still closed, but the office door on the side was open and he let himself in. He checked his delivery list, then went out to the warehouse. Travis was tying down the load of feed sacks. He was nineteen, skinny, and wore the oversized tee shirt and baggy jeans that were the current teen uniform. His hair was cut very short. He nodded at Donny and finished tying down the load. He rarely said anything.

Donny backed the truck out of the warehouse and let Travis close the overhead door. He made a left turn out onto the main street and headed east to the frontage road, out past the abandoned adobe-style Gulf station and the Indian Country Inn, shuttered and overgrown since the winter of 1972, and on to the Interstate 40 interchange. After that, it reverted to the cracked and bubbled macadam remains of Route 66.

The sound of the interstate traffic filtered through the creaks and groans of the stake truck—the steady whine of distant semi tires being the overriding sound. Travis stared ahead, his mouth slightly agape, not registering much. Donny hung his elbow out the window and let the airstream blow up the sleeve of his shirt.

They turned in the long driveway of the Green Pastures “Jesus Is Lord” Sod Farm and dropped off six 100-pound sacks of sheep pellets. Travis untied the bags, lugged them to the back of the truck, and hoisted them onto Donny’s shoulder. The boy struggled with the bags, trying not to let the rough burlap catch on the floorboards, and Donny watched him as he strained to pick them up, the veins popping out on his forearms. Donny offered once to help, but Travis shook his head and said, “Naw, I can get it,” so Donny let him.

They had four more stops, delivering feed, hardware, and four vinyl windows ordered in from Albuquerque. By eleven-thirty the truck was empty, and they headed back to town, once again along old 66. A hundred feet from the road, across the drainage ditch and the barbed wire fence, a McDonald’s semi was parked on the shoulder of the interstate, its giant order of French Fries painted on the side of the trailer looking very appetizing in the shimmering heat waves. Shreds of tire were strewn behind the semi. The driver was nowhere in sight.

Donny turned in his paperwork, checked his Monday schedule, and left Travis sweeping out the truck. He went back across the street to the café, had a tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat toast, an order of fries, and a Diet Coke. He took the copy of the Alibi with him when he left and walked home.

It had been six months since he’d gotten off the interstate in the middle of a February morning and parked in front of the Gateway. He liked the food, and the Help Wanted sign in the window of Romero’s drew his attention. He went across the street, filled out the application, and talked to the owner, Gene Romero. After a ten-minute interview, Gene called in the warehouse manager and had him give Donny a tour of the company. In his office, Gene looked over the application and the Xerox of Donny’s California driver’s license: Donald F. Hollenbeck, DOB 9/16/70, six feet one inch, one hundred and ninety five pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. He called his brother-in-law at the local MVD and read him the license number. It was genuine, and there were no tickets on it. Then, looking out the window and playing a hunch, Gene read him the California license plate on the silver and blue Suburban parked in front of the Gateway. The registration matched the name and address on the driver’s license. He called his cousin who worked at the local state police post. No wants or warrants, and the Social Security number was legit; place of birth, Toledo, Ohio. Finally he called his neighbor’s wife who was the finance clerk at the Chevy dealer in Moriarty. Donny had a good credit record. The only curiosity was that he had bought the Suburban new in October, but there were no liens on it. Gene idly wondered what a guy who paid cash for a $35,000 truck was doing applying for a $10 an hour job driving trucks, but when Donny came back with the warehouse manager, Gene told him to come in at six the next morning.

That afternoon he drove around the town. It was small – maybe ten blocks square with the usual complement of churches, small businesses, and little neighborhoods. Two blocks off the main street he saw a bungalow with a For Rent sign strapped to the chain link fence. He called the number from a gas station and waited ten minutes before the owner, a squat little woman in a Volvo station wagon, showed up. She shook his hand and dug the keys out of her large purse. She explained that it was her parents’ house, but her mother had rheumatoid arthritis and her father had a bad heart, so they were now living in an assisted care place in Rio Rancho. It had two small bedrooms, a living room with a small corner fireplace, a kitchen with appliances, and furniture. The front yard was patchy and weedy with a scruffy cottonwood in one corner, and out back the high weeds hid thousands of goathead burrs, the kind that stuck to your shoes. But inside, the only flaw was a leaky toilet valve that the landlady promised to replace. Donny gave her a deposit and the first month’s rent in traveler’s checks. He unrolled his sleeping bag on the double bed and piled his clothes on the floor. The following Saturday he drove an hour west to Albuquerque, found a Wal-Mart near the interstate, and spent $150 on sheets, towels, some kitchen utensils, and a telephone. He found a 19-inch TV on sale and bought that, too.

The day was now hot. Donny flipped on the swamp cooler, changed into cutoffs and cut the grass. The yard had taken some effort, but most of the weeds were gone and the grass was green again. By the time he finished the house was cool, the moist air feeling good. He took a shower, changed into clean jeans and a white polo shirt, made some macaroni and cheese for an early dinner, and scanned through the Alibi one more time. He left the house around five.

He made it to Albuquerque in time to find a good parking place at the movie theatre, get his popcorn and soda, and get settled in before it got too crowded for the 7:15 show. It was an action movie, so the audience was mostly teenaged boys, either in packs or with dates, but the audience was well behaved nonetheless. When the final credits rolled Donny went with the wave out into the still-hot night air, waited patiently as the traffic slowly moved out, and found his way down Central Avenue. He was not quite ready to drive home yet.

There weren’t a lot of cars in the bar parking lot, so he parked close to the streetlight. The doorman, a large and strongly built young man, checked his ID, and collected the two-dollar cover. Inside it was dark, the walls painted black, broken by the occasional poster. It was too early to be crowded – it wasn’t even ten yet. He looked in the front bar. It was empty except for a couple of women shooting pool. The bartender was watching TV.

The piano bar was busier. There were four or five people sat at the bar talking, and the bartender smiled at him and gave him the draft he requested. The music was smooth jazz, only slightly overpowered by the driving bass from the cavernous dance bar down the hall. Donny sipped his beer and lit a cigarette.

By the time he finished his first beer, the place was picking up. People started coming in, greeting others, shaking hands, hugging. Couples sat together with other couples, laughter could be heard, and the air began to get thick with smoke. Donny went to the bathroom and then strolled past the dance bar where he watched couples gyrating to the pounding beat of Cher. He went back to the piano bar and ordered another draft.

One or two men looked at him appreciatively as he sat down, but Donny didn’t notice them. He was halfway through his drink when the guy next to him asked him to pass the ashtray. He did, and they started chatting, slowly at first; a phrase here, a nodded agreement there about things that meant nothing. Finally Donny leaned back and looked at the fellow he was talking to. He was younger than him, perhaps twenty-three or so, with short hair and an intelligent face. He too was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. He said his name was Chris, and he smoked Marlboro Lights. They talked for about an hour, and then, almost as an afterthought, he asked Donny if he’d like to get out of there. Donny nodded.

He followed the silver Accord to a quiet residential street near the university and parked in front of a small house. They went up the steps and into the darkened living room. A small dim light came on, and then Donny followed him back to the bedroom. Forty minutes later Donny walked back to the Suburban. He started the engine and lit a cigarette. His hard-on was fading, and the light in the house was out now. He punched the button for the classical music station, switched on the headlights, made a slow U-turn at the corner, and headed for the interstate.

Chapter Guide


Monday, May 02, 2005

Switch Hitting

Last week on The Practical Press I posted the first chapter of a story called Small Town Boys that I started writing back in 2000 or so when I was having a dry spell with Bobby Cramer. I had written about 100 pages or so and was getting pretty involved with it when I suddenly stopped and went back to Bobby, picking up right where I had left off. Small Town Boys is a third person narrative about Donny Hollenbeck, a college-aged guy from Ohio who moved out west in the early 1990's. As in the fashion of most of my writing, it's told in flashback style.

This weekend I picked up Small Town Boys and began working on it again, letting Bobby have a break for a little while and getting back to telling about Donny's adventures in L.A.

One of my friends once asked me how I could keep two story lines and two different casts separate -- and just how different are Donny and Bobby? Actually, it's not that hard; they're two facets of the same gem, actually, as are all of my characters. In fact, Donny shows up as the main character in Can't Live Without You. He's got a different story line in the play, though -- for one thing, in the play he lives in Florida, and he's a writer. In Small Town Boys he has no such ambition. There are a lot of other differences that aren't worth going into, and in the end it's all an exploration of the same character. After all, most writers write the same people over and over again.

The best part is that it's fun.