Sunday, December 25, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 24

Key West – 1992

It was dark and the air was heavy with tropical humidity and the scent of flowers when the cab pulled up in front of the Coral Reef men-only guest house on Fleming Street. It was a rambling three-story clapboard Victorian in the Key West style with porches and galleries surrounding each level and topped with a steep roof. The large windows let out a soft light through sheer curtains and outlined the gingerbread trim of the wide front porch. They were greeted at the gate by an attractive young man named Luis in a white shirt and tennis shorts who led them through the wide front door to the registration desk and then to their room on the second floor.

Luis turned on the light, illuminating the high ceilings; twelve feet, Donny guessed. The walls were whitewashed tongue-and-groove, and the furniture was white wicker with cushions covered in colorful print patterns. The bed was a large four-poster covered in sheer linen with mounds of pillows piled against the headboard. Luis turned on the ceiling fan and opened the French doors that led out to the gallery that overlooked the pool and the surrounding jungle of palms and lush plants. A high whitewashed stockade fence was barely visible beyond the trees.

“Breakfast is from seven to nine on the patio, cocktails are from four to six in the sunroom, and if you need anything at all, just ask,” Luis said.

“I need to make a couple of phone calls,” said Donny, noticing that there wasn’t a phone in the room. First Eric, then Danny.

“There’s a payphone next to the cabana on the patio,” replied Luis, handing Mike the key. Mike pulled a ten from his pocket. Luis nodded, murmured his thanks, and wished them a pleasant stay. He closed the door softly.

“Wow,” said Donny, poking the mattress with his finger. “Nice place.” Mike smiled, took Donny in his arms and gave him a strong hug and a deep kiss, which was returned with equal passion. Somewhere off in the distance steel band music was playing.

After dinner they strolled downtown for a drink at one of the many noisy bars filled mostly with college kids and live bands, then came back to the room and sat on the gallery listening to the din of tree frogs. They made love in the dark on the large bed with the French doors open, the ceiling fan stirring the air and the cigarette smoke.

They spent the first few days playing tourist. They strolled down Duval Street, poking into the little shops full of souvenirs and t-shirts, stopping at the Southernmost Point to have their picture taken next to the big red buoy, looking at the historical sights like the Hemingway home, the Little White House, and even taking one of the tour trains along with a raft of tourists from places like Appleton, Wisconsin and Franklin, Tennessee. Mike wore a baseball cap and Ray-Bans for the first two days even indoors, hoping to avoid being recognized as a celebrity, and he was careful not to show any overt signs of affection to Donny in public. But no one seemed to recognize him, and when he introduced himself it was always as “Mike.” After the third day he shrugged off the disguise and as they gathered with the crowd to celebrate sunset at Mallory Square, he held Donny’s hand and kissed him when the sun went below the horizon as the crowd cheered and drank.

They lost track of the days. To Donny it was more than the weekend in Idyllwild or at the Villa or sitting on Mike’s patio doing the crossword puzzle. For the first time he felt like they were a couple. They found restaurants that weren’t in the guidebook. They went to the beach and got pink from the sun. At the guest house during cocktails they sat by the pool and chatted with the other guests. Most of them were in their thirties or forties, and most of them were couples. Geoff and Brian were from Traverse City, Michigan, so Mike spent time talking about familiar places back home. Geoff was a realtor and Brian taught high school physics. Alex and Grady were annual visitors from New York City; Alex was a commercial photographer and was the first to put together “Lance Michaels” and Mike. They were sitting by the pool one afternoon when Alex said, “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

Mike nodded. “Yeah. I do some acting.”

“Right. You’re on that new series, and you did some commercials for that fast-food chain...”

“’Hurry on down to Hardee’s’...” Mike smirked a little. “God, that was years ago.”

“I thought you looked familiar,” Alex said, “and I always suspected...”

“Yeah?” said Mike a little cautiously. “How come?”

“Oh, wishful thinking more than anything else.” He sighed wistfully. “I see I’m too late.” He looked over at Donny, who was on a chaise doing the crossword puzzle in the Miami Herald. “How long have you two been together?”

“We met last March,” replied Mike.

“He’s a great guy,” said Alex, “not to mention gorgeous. Is he in the business?”

“No, thank God,” said Mike. “Computers.”

“Live together?”

Mike shook his head. “We were going to, but... with the show and everything...”

“Say no more.”

That night on the gallery Mike slipped his hand into Donny’s and squeezed it. “I could get very used to this,” he said quietly.

“Me too,” replied Donny.

“Even more than Idyllwild?”

“Well, that’s a little closer to home.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t snow here.”

“It’s snowing in Ohio, I’ll bet.”

“And Maple City, too,” said Mike, taking a sip from his drink. “Man, no wonder all the people up there come down here in the winter. This is my first time in Florida.”

“You’re kidding.”

Mike shook his head. “Dad couldn’t close the practice for two weeks.” Aside from farming cherries, his father was a veterinarian. “What about you?”

“No,” Donny said, thinking back, “I’ve been to Florida before.”

From the time he was five until his senior year in high school they would pile into the car each spring break and drive to a small hotel near Boynton Beach for ten days. The drive down took two days through the grey skies and hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, finally seeing signs of spring when they got south of Atlanta. They stayed at the Sea Breeze and the décor never changed, nor did the faint smell of mold and Lysol. The owners, Ed and Sylvia Lieberman, always made sure they had the same rooms overlooking the wide expanse of beach, and for several years they met the same families who had the same snowbird routine; the McMillans from St. Louis with their daughter Lucy, the Andersons from St. Paul, and the Rubensteins from Great Neck. Benji Rubenstein was two years older than the twins and Donny remembered that at age twelve he became aware of Benji’s muscular build and tight swimsuit. Mrs. Lieberman could never tell Donny and Danny apart even when they were in their teens and the difference between the two was apparent; she called them her “boychiks” and said either one of them would be a perfect match for her granddaughter, a dark-haired girl seen in many pictures in the small living room off the lobby of the hotel. From Monday to Friday they ate seafood at the little restaurants along A1A, swam in the ocean, got sunburned, and collected souvenirs like painted shells and funny t-shirts. Their mother sat on a beach chair under an umbrella and read mystery novels while their father played beach volleyball or touch football with them, or took them with him as he played golf. After dinner they would sit on the hotel patio and play board games like Monopoly or Sorry! with Lucy and Benji or take a walk down to the beach and look at the little flecks of phosphorus seaweed that would wash ashore like little specks of green starlight, then go to sleep with the windows open, listening to the waves. Saturday morning they got back in the car for the long drive home. The beach sand would stick to the carpet of the back of the car for weeks, a faint reminder of the trip. Donny kept a snapshot of him, Danny, Lucy and Benji sitting in their swimsuits on the edge of the pool on his bulletin board over his desk. In the dark winter nights, hunched over his algebra homework, he’d occasionally glance up and remember the warm sun, the smell of the coconut oil suntan lotion, and Benji, never wearing more than a tight tank-top and swimsuit.

The staff of the guest house put together a Thanksgiving dinner served on the pool patio buffet style. The next day they joined a sailing charter with Geoff and Brian and came back after dark. Luis greeted them at the desk as they picked up their room keys.

“You have messages,” he said to Donny and Mike, handing them each pink slips.

Mike read his and said to Luis, “You got a phone where I can make a long distance call on a credit card in private?”

Luis showed him the phone in the inner office. Mike went in and closed the door without a look back. Geoff and Brian didn’t notice. They told Donny that they were going to clean up and go get something to eat at a nearby Italian place and if they wanted to go along to just let them know. “Sure,” Donny replied, nodding politely but not really paying attention. He could hear Mike’s voice through the door. He wasn’t shouting, but he was talking firmly, and one phrase he caught was “So now what?”

Geoff and Brian went upstairs. Donny sat on the little couch in the foyer wondering what the message was that Mike got, then remembered his own. It was from Eric. It was very short. Donny read it twice before the meaning sunk in. He was about to get up from the couch when the door to the office opened and Mike came out. His face was flushed on top of his sunburn. He nodded a curt thanks to Luis and looked at Donny. His expression was unreadable as he went up the stairs. It wasn’t until the door was closed to the room that Mike said anything.



“The show’s on hiatus. That was Marty. It’s a polite way of saying we’re cancelled. We’ve shot thirteen episodes, they’ve shown seven, they all suck the life out of the ratings, the network’s replacing us with movies and holiday specials until January when they can get a mid-season replacement and they’ll burn off the last six in the spring or next summer when nobody’s watching; the show’s cancelled.” Mike paced back and forth next to the bed, then went out onto the gallery. Donny followed him, not knowing what to say, so he said nothing. Mike thumped his hand against the column. “God damn it, I knew it. As soon as I start feeling like things are gonna go my way, this shit happens.” He shook the last cigarette out of his pack, lit it, crumpled the empty pack into a wad and flung it across the yard. It bounced off a palm frond and landed in the pool with a tiny splash. “Fuck.” He blew the smoke out in a thin stream. “On the up side,” he said with a hollow laugh, “There’s no big rush for me to go to work on Monday.”

“What about the western?” Donny asked.

Mike shrugged. “Well, Stuart is officially directing Silver Star and now I’m free to do that, assuming they want a co-star from the season’s most expensive flop in it. Marty says it looks good. He’s been sayin’ that since last fucking May.” He smoked the rest of the cigarette in silence.

Donny made an attempt to change the subject. “Hey, you hungry? Geoff and Brian want to know if we want to go with them to some Italian place nearby.”

Mike shook his head and chuckled wryly. “Nah, you go ahead and extend my apologies. It’s still early out on the coast. I’m gonna make some calls. If I get hungry I’ll grab something from the shop next door. Need to stop and get some more cigarettes, too.” Mike went into the bathroom to take a shower. “So,” he said as he pulled off his shirt, “what was your message?”

Donny pulled out the slip, glanced at it again, and said, “Oh, no big deal. Just Eric. Something about work.”

“Hope you’re still employed.”

“Oh yeah.”

The water in the shower made a metallic drumming on the stall. Donny changed clothes and slipped the message into his wallet so he wouldn’t forget it or let Mike see it. It would have been meaningless to him, but better safe than sorry.

All it said was 500K.

Chapter Guide


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter Guide

Small Town Boys - Chapter 23

The Hit – 1992

The reviews of Capitol Hill were not great. “Another prime time soap,” said USA Today, “and while it’s fast-paced, don’t expect to pick up any lessons on the inner workings of our democracy – unless you want to know how your tax dollars go to pay for staffers to spend their time off.” “Tries for L.A. Law but doesn’t have the writing chops,” said a wire service review. The New York Times compared it unfavorably to a 1960’s series called The Bold Ones – The Senator starring Hal Holbrook, saying that while Rory Donovan had the same depth and ability “as Mr. Holbrook, the supporting cast is a collection of cardboard cutouts, making it Mr. Donovan’s burden to carry the show instead of relying on the ensemble company for the depth needed in a program of this genre.” The Detroit Free Press gave it a good review, noting that “Maple City native Lance Michaels fulfills both the beefcake and the intellectual quotient as the dashing deputy chief of staff Jarrod Chase.”

Donny read these while sitting on Mike’s patio. It was Sunday morning and the studio’s publicity office had dropped off the package of clippings the night before. Mike had read them silently after they got back from dinner, snorted, tossed the package on the kitchen counter, and went to take a shower alone.

“The overnights weren’t bad,” Mike said, tossing a bagel crust on his plate. “We won the time slot by a couple of points.”

“The ratings?”


“That’s good.”

Mike shrugged. “Maybe. A new show with a big star is supposed to kill everyone else. We didn’t.” He went inside to make another mimosa. His third.

For the second episode the ratings held, but on the third week they were off, the show coming in second, ahead of third place by only a few tenths of a point in spite of a big promo push by the network, citing selective positive clips from the reviews, such as “’Fast-paced’ raves USA Today!” Mike said Marty said it was because everyone was caught up in the election and there was more excitement in watching Clinton versus Bush versus Perot than there was in fictional politics. Mike said the mood on the set was tense; Rory Donovan had blown up at an A.D. over a smudged page in the script. He later apologized and sent her a dozen roses, but people were now tiptoeing around as if they were in a hospital. Marty was pacing the halls wondering when the word would come through on Silver Star, since that now seemed like the next big thing for Mike.

The mood at the office was just as tense for Eric, Donny, Greg, and now Bryce (that was what the closed-door meeting was about), but since no one else except Cathy had a hint of what was going on, it was confined to them. There had been nothing from Bart Blumberg since the meeting except one phone call to Cathy to get the name of the loan officer at Bank of America, and that had come the day after the meeting. Eric seemed to take a fatalistic approach; hey, if it happens, it happens. Greg was a little more on edge and showed it by tightening up the ordering process and making the sales staff get deposits for orders of more than ten copies. “The last thing we need to do,” he said to Bryce, “is show that we’re sloppy in our business.” He also said that no orders were to be placed without Donny’s approval. That earned a scowl from Bryce, who seemed to regard Donny with some suspicion as being a favorite of the twins without much to show for it.

After three weeks Donny settled into a dull resignation that neither Bart Blumberg nor James McGruder were really interested in McKay-Gemini. He had let himself get caught up in the excitement of thinking that perhaps he had made a contribution to the company instead of just occupying a desk and processing orders, and while neither Eric nor Greg said anything, Donny felt that he’d somehow let them down. At one point he thought about going to Greg and Eric to tell them he was sorry about getting their hopes up only to have it come to nothing. He mulled it over at the gym, taking it out rather viciously on the bench press, and on the way home he decided to bounce it off Danny. He figured a senior cadet would know how to tell a superior officer he fucked up without making it sound like he was a wuss. He was in the kitchen boiling water for spaghetti when his phone rang.

“Hey twin.”

“Hey. I was gonna call you.”

“I know.”


“So what’s up? You heard from McGruder yet?” Donny had told Danny about the meeting the night after it had happened. He knew that Eric would understand.



“Yeah, no shit.”

“How’re the guys taking it?”

Donny shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I mean, we haven’t heard from him that he’s not gonna do it. But it’s been three weeks and so far...”

“Not even a popcorn fart, huh?”


“Well, there’s still time.”

“Yeah, I dunno. I kinda feel like...”


“I do.”

“All you did was go to a party and talk to a guy. He asked for your card. You gave it to him. It’s not like it’s your company.”

“I know.”

“So, don’t do it.”

“Do what?”

“Act like it’s your fault. Shit like this happens all the time.”

“You know this from your many years of business experience.”

Danny chuckled. “Yeah, right. No, I know this ‘cause that’s just the way things go. Hey, if it’s not James McGruder, then maybe it’ll be someone else, like... I dunno, name some other rich Hollywood actor who’s willing to invest a ton of money in a little no-name hi-tech start-up.”

“If you’re trying to cheer me up, you suck at it.”

“Okay, twin, but just don’t beat your ass up over it."

“All right."

“Hey, I caught Mike’s show.”


Silence for a moment. “It’s not bad.”

A hissing sound from the kitchen told Donny the spaghetti pot was boiling. “Hold on a sec.” He dragged the phone out to the kitchen, the extension cord barely reaching. He dumped the pasta in and turned down the gas. “Not bad, huh.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. I mean, it’s cool knowing someone in it, I guess.”

“Not your kind of show, though.”

“It’s not MacGuyver.”


“What does Mike say?”

“He’s... okay with it, I guess. He’s mostly worried about Silver Star.”

“What’s that?”

“A western he’s supposed to be in. He’s thinking if this show doesn’t make it he’ll lose that.”

“Jesus, what a business. talk to the ‘rents recently?”

“Last week. Why?”

“Did they say anything about Christmas?”

“No. Why?”

“Guess what.”

“They’re not.”

“Yeah. Dad’s taking the two weeks. Driving out, staying with Ron and Barbara for a couple of days, then gonna check out the sights and sounds and maybe go down to Tijuana.”



“Think it might be time to have a little talk with them?” Donny mused.


Donny stirred the pasta. “They’ll be cool, don’tcha think?”

Danny chuckled. “Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad; guess what? Yeah, we can handle ‘em. I’ll be there. And don’t go batshit on this business deal. It’s not your company.”

The front door closed. Donny peered around the corner. It was Eric coming home from the gym. Donny did a slight double-take; Eric was wearing a Gold’s Gym t-shirt just like the one he’d seen stuffed in the daypack at Paul’s. Eric went into his room and turned on the stereo. “Yeah, okay,” Donny said absently.

“Listen, gotta trot, but let me know what happens, ‘kay?”


“Love you, twin.”

“You too.”

The Wednesday after the election Capitol Hill came in fourth for its timeslot. Mike said the network was going to try to promote it heavily during the sweeps, but they were also going to move it to Sunday nights after Murder She Wrote in an attempt to catch the draft from that highly popular series. Mike told this to Donny as he was slouched on the plastic chaise in Donny’s back yard on the following Saturday afternoon. Eric had suggested that they have a cookout and Mike, grateful to spend time with people outside of the business, had shown up in the middle of the afternoon while Donny was cleaning the house.

They went to the neighborhood Ralph’s and picked up chicken, ribs, coleslaw and potato salad. Mike bought two six packs of Olympia and one of Tecate for good measure. They started cooking around six. Mike opened a beer as he lit the grille and followed it with another. He got more genial as he drank, and by the time they sat down to eat he was positively cheerful; the show was going to be picked up, Rory Donovan could start working on his Emmy speech, and Silver Star would be the best western since True Grit.

“This was great,” he sighed, settling into the chaise after helping clean up. The night was cool but not chilly and the sky was clear – even a few stars were visible overhead. For dessert Eric brought out a pan of Sara Lee brownies and lit a joint. “Better than coffee,” he grinned.

“Mmm,” murmured Mike. “Just like the old days back in college. Except this isn’t the dorm and I’ve got more than eighteen bucks in my checking account.” He let out a little giggle. “Y’know, I could live like this.”

“I thought you Hollywood stars did live like this,” said Eric.

“Nah. The real Hollywood stars snort coke.”

“You’ve never done that.”

“Tried it once. I hated it.” He held up the doobie. “This is the extent of my illicit drug activity.”

“You’re kidding,” snorted Eric.

“Nah, I’m a real clean-cut guy, just like they say in the papers,” Mike smirked. “What it means is that I’ve got enough trouble being a fag without having to be one of the brat pack doing shit like them. Part of the deal. I can either be queer and sober or straight and a party animal.” He wiggled his hand in the air. “I kinda prefer the queer and slightly sober, but that’s okay, I guess.” He slowly turned his head and looked at Eric. “I’ll bet you were a pothead in high school.”

Eric shrugged. “No more than your average 1980’s SoCal teenage faggot athlete. Greg, on the other hand....”

Donny sat up and took notice. “Greg?”

Eric was fitting the end of the joint into one of Rob’s forceps that he’d adapted for the purpose of being used as a roach clip. “Yeah, Greg. Well, I don’t mean he was smuggling shit in from Tijuana. But have you ever wondered where we got the start-up money for McKay-Gemini?”

Donny shrugged. “Your folks?”

Eric giggled. “In a way. Greg set up ten plastic garbage cans in the basement with some greenhouse grow-lights and cultivated some of the finest cannabis in the Southland. We made enough money in the first year that we were able to set up the shop, and by the time we were done with college we were on our own. We sold off the stock, buried the dirt in the landfill, and sold the equipment to a landscaping company in Whittier.”

Donny was stunned. “Did your folks know?”

“Oh yeah – they just said to be careful and don’t get mixed up with any of the gangs.”

“What about the cops?”

Eric shrugged. “Dad knew enough people in law enforcement to know that they had enough on their hands with heroin and the real shit in the real war on drugs that they weren’t worried about some kids in Pasadena. Hell, one of our best customers was a deputy sheriff in the county.”

There was a long silence. Finally Donny said, “So this entire company got started on ten pot plants in your parents’ basement.”

“Yep. The American Dream for the twenty-first century.”

Mike spent the night, falling asleep instantly on Donny’s spare bed. The next morning over coffee he said to Donny, “Got any plans for Thanksgiving weekend?”

“Probably go to my aunt and uncle’s place in Whittier.”

“I have a better idea,” Mike replied.

“Yeah, what?”

He got up from the table and took his cup to the kitchen. “I’ll call you later.”

That afternoon Mike called. “See if you can get off work the week of Thanksgiving.”

“What’s up?”

“You’ll see. Just let Eric know you’ll be out of town that week.”


For the next ten days Mike was silent, and after a few prodding questions that brought no response, Donny decided to let Mike have his fun. He figured that this was his planned “get away from it all” trip and that they were probably going to spend the week in Idyllwild or, at the most, out at the Villa.

The Friday before Thanksgiving Donny went to Mike’s house, ostensibly for dinner, but they ended up in the bedroom within ten minutes of his arrival; it had been a while. Afterwards, Donny pulled on his shorts and padded out to the kitchen for his cigarettes. When he came back Mike had pulled a small suitcase out of the closet.

“So, now are you going to tell me where we’re going?”

Mike shook his head. “Just pack enough stuff for a week. Nothing fancy...jeans, t-shirts, that red Speedo I like so much. And be ready to go first thing Sunday morning. I’ll pick you up around seven.”

“I should let Eric know where I’ll be.”

“Call him when you get there.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll let you play your little mystery out. How much is this gonna cost me?”

“Not a dime. This is my treat. Don’t forget sunscreen.”

On Sunday morning at seven on the dot a black Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of Donny’s house. A liveried chauffer rang the doorbell and took Donny’s duffel bag out to the car. Eric, standing at the door in his faded UCLA t-shirt and Joe Boxers, grinned at Donny and told him to have a good time.

“You know where we’re going, don’t you?” Donny asked him. “Mike told you.”

Eric shook his head. “Not a clue. So call me when you get there.”

“Yes, mother. Hey, if you hear anything from....”

“I’ll let you know. Have a good time.”

Mike was in the back seat. He poured Donny some coffee from a silver thermos and pecked him on the cheek.

“Well,” Donny said, “I didn’t know the Villa supplied a car service, but I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah, they do. But this isn’t one of theirs.”

“So who’s is it?”

Mike shrugged.

When they got to the freeway, the car turned west instead of east. Oh, Donny thought, we’re going to San Diego or Santa Barbara. But the car turned off at the exit to LAX. “We’re flying somewhere?”

Mike grinned. “That’s the fastest way to get there.”

The limousine pulled up to the terminal for American Airlines. Skycaps took the luggage and Mike handed the tickets to the curbside check-in agent. They were processed quickly, and he handed them back with a courteous nod. “You’re all checked through to Key West.”

Mike turned to Donny. “Ever flown in first class?”