I grunted when the ball of flour hit the backside of my head, and turned to see who’d thrown it.
Innocence. All three of the bakers were busy; all three apparently unaware that my head was now mostly white. I didn’t say anything, but my boss did. I hadn’t seen him there, and his voice startled me.
“Awright, Gabruder. Bake your cakes and leave the kid alone.”
He knelt beside me and picked up the piece of cheesecloth that had held the flour in a ball, and tossed it in the general direction of the bakers. He brushed at the side of my head, creating a little cloud of flour that I walked right out of. “Assholes,” he muttered. He put a hand lightly on my shoulder and said, “Listen Andy, why don’t you take off now and come back at six? It’s a nice day, and I’m gonna need the help later.”
I said, “I could work straight through,” hoping for some extra hours.
“Nah, you know I can’t do that. When you’re eighteen maybe, but you ain’t gonna be around then.” His hand became heavier on my shoulder, “Go take a nap, or play on the beach or somethin’. Come back at six. The queens’ll be gone by then.”
I said, quietly but emphatically, “They don’t bother me, Lou. They’re good guys.”
“Yeah, yeah, just get lost, okay? Tell your mama you’re leavin’.” He patted the back of my shoulder, “I’ll see you later.”
I shrugged and started undoing my apron. It was a nice day; about as perfect as they come. July had just given way to August, and there was a break in the humidity. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and the breeze off the water was gentle, almost loving. It was a marked change from the heat wave that had ended just the day before. Not even the old-timers could ever remember a hotter summer.
We have a locker room where we change, and there are showers. I didn’t bother showering because I didn’t feel greasy, but rather just brushed the flour away from my face and hair, and washed up. My work uniform is a white tee shirt and white pants, and I never wear underwear to work. Instead, when I shed the uniform I was in my bathing suit, and my locker contained flip-flops and a short-sleeve white shirt that fell halfway to my knees, and had never once been buttoned up. With the flip-flops, it makes me legal where the signs said, “No Shirt – No Shoes – No Service.”
I walked back through the kitchen, partly to tease the bakers with my bare legs and chest, but mostly to await the opening of the great oven. That monster contained the loaves and rolls that help make dining at the Harborside a special experience, different from the other seafood places in town. The bread is all from the same dough, but there are big, fat loaves that get sliced up for the tables, long, slender loaves for garlic bread, and small, baseball-sized buns that, torn into quarters, are perfect for sopping up excess marinara or scampi sauce. The crust comes out shiny and crispy thin, while the insides are soft and light, and it’s just wonderful bread.
Those little buns are great tasting with nothing at all on them, too, and I withstood the pleadings and teasing of the bakers and the sous-chef until there were three buns cool enough to touch. They were still hot, and I ended up almost juggling them on my way out, which earned me some more teasing.
Lou employs lots of people, and a lot are people that some might consider odd, but I don’t.
The wait staff are all older men; the youngest probably in his forties, and they are almost brutally efficient. A customer’s slightest glance around will bring their server to the table, a pitcher of ice water in hand, a crisp, white napkin across his forearm, and a trained ear. They are never remotely rude, but they aren’t overly friendly either. They’re all about business. Your table is their business, and they tend to it in a fashion that rarely invites a complaint.
The bar staff is mixed, both the bartenders and the servers. The best bartender is a big lesbian named Geneva, and when she’s on, she commands the room. She’s quick and funny, and she knows every drink in the history of drinks right off the top of her head. I think she knows every joke ever told, too, because she can go on and on, and I don’t think I ever heard the same one twice from her. Yet, when a patron tells a joke, she laughs first and loudest. Most of the other bartenders are guys, though some foxy women work the late hours.
Drinks are brought to the tables by a mixed bunch, mostly Jamaicans; a few of them Rastas. The place is far from austere to begin with, and the Jamaicans bring a lot of fun with them when they deliver drinks to a table. They are cheerful and friendly to a fault, and quick with the refills. Geneva says she’d never worked in a place that sold so much rum, and attributes that to the Jamaicans rather than her own mixing skills.
It’s the kitchen staff, who I happen to work with, that are the most interesting. Our town lies between New York and Fire Island, with a large gay population in the area. Naturally enough, a lot of the staff are gay, and this was the summer for gay bakers. And a sous-chef and a grill man, and one of the guys in prep. Some of the people out front are gay, too.
Some kitchen people are just regular guys working for a living, but Lou likes to hire criminals, too. These are people he hopes to turn into ex-criminals and good cooks, so he does hire quite a few people right out of prison. That doesn’t always work for long, of course, but it seems to often enough. My education was enhanced and enforced by listening to these former gang-bangers; blacks and Puerto Ricans mostly. They generally have little formal education, but they have street educations, and stories that give me the shivers, even on hot days in an even hotter kitchen.
Anyhow, I was leaving, and I had three warm rolls that I was going to love to death when I got them in my mouth.
My mother was the hostess for the lunch hour, so I stopped to tell her I was off for awhile.
“How long?” she asked. “Is something wrong?”
I looked at her and said, “Ma, take a look outside. It’s beautiful. There ain’t gonna be no customers ‘til dinner. Lou wants me back at six, and I’m gonna go sit in the ocean ‘til then.”
She frowned. “Don’t say ‘ain’t gonna’, or you can go sit in the library until then.” She made like a slap, but it landed as a gentle hand against my face. “Don’t talk like a bum, Andy. Don’t.” She pursed her lips and leaned close. “Give me a kiss.”
I did, and then the too-sweet voice of Leroy Hopkins said, “That’s all it takes? Give me a kiss too, Andy.”
I smiled at his fat, black grin and said, “I don’t think so, Lee.” I was feeling good so I added, “Don’t count me out, okay? Maybe someday.”
He laughed, deep and throaty. “I’ll be waitin’ on that day, Andreas. I’ll be waitin’.”
I pointed at him, grinned, and headed out into the sunshine.
The Harborside is pinned just off the piers; the commercial waterfront far to one side, and the private docks fanning out in front of the restaurant on both sides, with the beach and west end of the boardwalk just a parking lot away. The building is low-slung and wide, two-stories high, with decks above and below, and the side facing the water is all windows. The view there is good. You can see the harbor activity, and with a slight turn of the head watch the surf crashing on the beach, and the surfers riding it in.
That beach is my home, and it has been since I can remember. We live in a big apartment building, and I grew up with the beach just four stories below my window. My folks have pictures from before I can remember, of me, my brother and my sister on the beach and in the water. The looks on our faces when we were little were expressions of awe, and that honestly hadn’t changed a lot. I smile at the beach now, because that’s where I know I’ll find my friends, but when there’s a storm out there we all show the awe in our faces. When three foot waves are suddenly six and ten feet high, and crashing right up to the boardwalk, awe is all that’s left to us.
There was nothing awe inspiring that day. The surf was a bit high for such a balmy day, but there was probably something out at sea causing it. I put a roll in my shirt pocket, another in the pocket of my trunks, and took a delicious bite from the third one.
The end of the boardwalk has a line of stalls that sell food and souvenirs, and it’s usually crowded, mostly with kids. It smells great there. Various stalls sell Italian sausage and meatball sandwiches, shish-ka-bobs, Philly cheese steaks, peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, kielbasa sandwiches, pierogies, gyros, breaded shrimp and scallops, and more. Or you can buy a wide variety of souvenirs of New York; most of them clearly labeled Souvenir of New York. There are hot dog and ice cream carts at about one-hundred foot intervals all along the two-mile length of the boardwalk. It’s a tacky and happy part of town, and pretty much where I hang out, except I’ll be found on the beach and not the boardwalk.
I saw my friend Chet sitting on his towel, sipping from a can of Sprite. He looked up and smiled when I walked up behind him and I said, “Hey, man. You’re alone?”
Chet shrugged his skinny shoulders and said, “They’re around.” His eyes narrowed a little and he asked, “Get fired?”
I snickered, “Not hardly. I have to work dinner, so I got set loose. Been in the water?”
Chet noticed the bun I was nibbling on, and put a pleading look on his face. “Tell me you brought me one of those? I’ll do anything!”
I laughed, “Anything?” and reached for the roll in my bathing suit. “Here,” I said as I held it out. “This one’s been warming my dick, so if you eat it, you’ll have to take over.”
He took the roll and said, “You keep working there and you’re gonna turn into a pervert yourself.” He held the roll in front of him and looked longingly at it. “Okay, I’ll blow you.”
I chuckled, “Really?”
Chet took a bite and said, “Yeah, sure. I’ll blow a nice, warm breeze down the back of your neck while you suck my dick.”
I looked at him. “Ow! That cuts low, man.”
He finished the bun and said, “I cheat. Sue me.”
“Don’t you owe me a blow job?”
Chet pulled the brim of his baseball cap low and took a sip of his soda. “I guess I do.” He held the soda out, “Want some?”
I took the can from his hand and finished it off.
I sat back and asked, “Where’s Pam? Where’s David?” referring to his girl of the moment and his older brother.
Chet rested on his towel, his good hand under his head. “Dave got busted. Pam is pregnant, and they sent her to Jersey to live with nuns.”
I laughed. “Already?” I knew he meant he’d been dumped. “What happened to Dave?”
“Oh, he went to some keg party and he came home all trashed. Dad caught him, and now he’s like painting the ceilings until he’s thirty.”
The sun was getting to me. “That’s nice,” I said. I took the third and last roll from my shirt pocket and pulled it into two pieces, offering one to Chet. “Eat, man. Are these the best little bits of bread you ever had?”
He nodded as he ate. I said, “It makes me sleepy,” and I yawned. “Feel like surfing?” I asked as I fell back and closed my eyes.
I may have dozed off for a bit, and I came to with sand in my mouth, a wet nose against my cheek, and a sudden lick to the side of my face. I smiled before opening my eyes, and said, “Hey, Mitzi!”
Mitzi is the neighborhood dog, owned by Mr. Grainger. He has one of the few remaining single-family homes on the beach, and he’s a kind old man. His front porch is wide and deep, and it holds a lot of people, but I like it best when just the two of us and Mitzi sit out there.
Mitzi is a Springer Spaniel, the color they call liver and white, and I swear that dog runs on deep-cell batteries. She was in the mood to discharge some energy too, and she goosed me pretty good with the stick she’d brought to chase after.
“Ow!” I complained, but I knew better than to resist. I took the stick and tossed it toward the water, and she sprung after it while I got to my feet. I smiled at Mr. Grainger. “Hey, old man. You doing okay?”
“I’m not sleeping in the middle of the day,” he complained grumpily. “In my day, we were weaned off naps at the age of one.” He shook his head, “I don’t know what the world’s coming to. You should be helping in the garden, not snoozing on the beach.”
I jumped when Mitzi returned the stick, and got my attention by poking me in the groin again. I took it and ran down to the edge of the spoon, where I tossed it as far out into the sea as I could. The dog sprang over a breaking wave and swam straight out after it, and her motion drew a lot of eyes to us. It does every time. Her jump is comical, and people always watch us, no matter if Mitzi brings me a stick, a tennis ball, or some other piece of debris to play with. I’m tall and big-boned, built like my dad, and Mitzi is small even for her breed, so we’re quite the pair. She gets absolutely motorized when we play together. It’s funniest when I don’t want to play anymore, and Mitzi literally bounces in front of me, as if she had springs on all four feet.
I love that dog, and she makes up for the fact that our building doesn’t allow pets. I don’t think a dog would be happy on the fourth floor anyhow, but maybe a parakeet or a goldfish would like it.
I tossed the stick for a long time, but it was still a disappointed Mitzi who followed me back to Chet and Mr. Grainger, who had been joined by Sally Roccapriore. Sal is a funny guy, and one of my better friends. He said, “It’s nice to see you with your girl again, Rayner. How’s the love life?”
“Better than yours,” I muttered. I looked at Mitzi, which caused her stub of a tail to start spinning like crazy, and turned to Sally. “At least she likes me, and comes to find me. Watch this.” I looked at Mitzi, hands behind my back, and said, “Where’s your ball, little girl? Go find your ball,” and she took off running in circles; like a widening spiral, and it was a given that when she came back she’d have a ball to play with, and she’d drop it on my foot if I was standing, or in my lap if I was sitting down.
I sat on the corner of Chet’s towel, and Mr. Grainger held out Mitzi’s leash. “I’m going for a drink. Bring the dog to Shapiro’s when you’re done with your use of her.”
That comment made me blush while both Chet and Sal snickered, but I only smiled at Mr. Grainger, and assured him that I wouldn’t forget his dog. He turned and headed down the boardwalk while I watched him go.
“He talks funny,” Sal said.
“He’s old,” I responded, and we fell silent.
“Did you hear about that accident by the causeway last night?” Sal asked, and I thought he was just making conversation.
“No. What happened?”
He groaned, “Oh, man. This Escalade guy hit a little Honda broadside. I mean, he fuckin’ nailed them. I was out front talkin’ with some guys, and the Caddy flew past us, and just a few seconds later it was bam!”
Chet asked, “Bad?”
Sally swallowed, and paused. That was unusual for him, so I paid closer attention. “It was like a scene from Terminator. When we got there, there was car parts and people parts all over the place. That Honda was shredded! I mean, we stopped and looked, and it was …” He swallowed again. “The Caddy had people in it, and it was smoking, and all of a sudden it went wumph and it was all on fire. The people inside were screaming, and guys tried like Hell to get them out, but there was no way.”
I looked at Sal, glad that I hadn’t been there. Hearing about hairy accidents was almost a daily thing, but I’d never actually been that close to one, which was a good thing. I asked gently, “You alright, Sal?”
He nodded. “It wasn’t me, but Jesus! I never watched people die before, and I never heard anybody scream like that.” He shook his head gently and looked at me. “It ain’t gonna go away soon, I’ll tell you that.”
I looked at him and said evenly, “It’ll go away when you make it funny. You know you’re gonna.”
Sal glared at me. “You got a twat for a brain, you know that? There was nuthin funny about it.”
I looked at Chet. “Your opinion?”
He looked at me, then Sal, then me again, and he nodded. “It’ll be funny when the sun goes down tonight; when Sally realizes he doesn’t have a really good death by incineration joke.”
Sal looked injured. “I do too! I have lots of incineration jokes, but you guys are fuckin’ assholes if you think this is funny. I swear, one day I’m getting’ all new friends. Then you’ll see.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond. Mitzi was back, and she had almost half of a tennis ball, which she immediately deposited on my crotch. I picked it up and held it out to Sal. “Here, toss this. You’ll feel better.”
“What the fuck is that?” he asked incredulously, but he took it. He started to stand as Mitzi bounded around him in excitement. “What the fuck does a tennis ball cost? This is a nice dog. She should have new balls.”
He headed toward the water with the dog running in joyously dizzy circles around him, and I asked Chet, “You hear about that crash?”
“It was on the news,” he muttered. “I didn’t really pay attention.” He looked at me and asked, “You hear that Jimmy got busted?”
“Jimmy. What Jimmy?”
“Jimmy Nolan. You know him.”
I do know him, and I thought I knew him well. “What’d he do? I always thought he was a straight arrow.”
Chet didn’t laugh, but the look on his face told me that he found my choice of words interesting. “Um, they made other charges too, but he got picked up for soliciting a cop.”
“Yeah, you know. Like … sex for money.”
I was stunned. Jim Nolan was a good guy. He always had the clean-cut look that most of us avoided, and he pulled it off. He was popular with guys and girls alike; a good student, and known for his tennis and golf games.
I looked at Chet. “Where’d you hear that? It’s gotta be bullshit, man.”
Chet said, “It’s not bullshit. It’s in the paper. Not his name, but it’s him. He’s not the only guy that does it, you know.”
“Does what? I don’t get this.”
Chet frowned. “Over on the back side, over where the gay bars are. People go and … I … let me think of a word.” He looked up and said, “They’re whores, Andreas. Prostitutes! Just like girl whores only … only …” He picked up some sand and let it run out between his fingers while he stared at it. “I don’t know, but I know it’s true. My dad knows a cop, and he heard it from him, and he nailed me last night with ten million questions … like he thought I might be doin’ that.” He looked up at me with a weak smile, “How sick is that?”
I mumbled something, my mind spinning. Then a thought came to me, and I asked, “You’re not tellin’ anybody else, are you? I mean, what if it’s all wrong? You could kill the kid with a story like that.”
Chet’s mouth opened, but he closed it and thought. “Oh, man. You’re right, you know it?” He looked at me, “Don’t you tell anyone, either? Oh man, if this gets around …”
I liked and trusted Chet. A lot of us did, and we protected him when we had to. He was short and thin to start with, and his left arm was small and all deformed from a birth defect. Certain local heroes found that arm to be a source of amusement, and Chet had developed a thick skin about it from a lifetime of teasing. It was when one of those honest-to-goodness he-men decided to get a little physical with Chet that the rest of us got involved.
I’m no fighter, but I’m tall, and my size alone is usually all it takes to warn someone off. When I’m not enough, Sally is there. He’s not tall, but he’s big and strong in all the other directions, and he actually knows how to fight and win. Unlike me, he looks the part, too. Sal has a broad face, a heavy brow, and wide-spaced eyes. His normally cheerful puss can take on a scowl that makes people step off the sidewalk into traffic, and when he’s in war mode you do not want to be on his bad side. Also unlike me, Sal has a lot of family in the area; lots of cousins who are more-or-less like him, and when the going gets rough, his family stands behind him.
Now Chet and I had a secret, or maybe we did. There is no place on Earth more efficient than New York for getting the news out. I think news was invented in New York. Still, when a minor gets arrested for anything much less than mass murder, they keep the name out of the news. Reporters, even the ones on television, will hold it close. So a situation like Chet had just told me about would be hard to prove, and that was a plus for Jimmy Nolan, whether the story was true or not
I don’t know why, but I didn’t believe it; not for a minute. I never felt like some great observer of the human condition, but Nolan seems like an up-front kind of guy. He’s popular, well-dressed; all of that, but he’s not a snob, nor is he aloof. He seems to me the kind of person who just, in general, likes other people. That would describe me, too. I had the embarrassing thought that I often teased gay men at work, but that was work, and they teased me more. I still like them just fine.
They can joke about my legs, my butt, and I don’t care, I just laugh it off. It’s nothing serious, just funny.
Hearing Chet say that Jimmy Nolan was having sex for money, and with men, just sounded too outrageous to think about, so I tried to make myself not think of it.
“Want another soda?” I asked Chet. “I’m thirsty.”
“Sure,” he said.
He walked with me to a stand, and after we ordered, Chet started counting out coins. “I got it,” I said.
Chet said, “No, I got it.”
“You don’t got it. I got it.” I bopped his shoulder, “I’m a workin’ man, Chet. I got the coin, so I got it.”
Chet laughed. “Okay, you got it. Did you just tell me I don’t got it?
I looked at him and said, “Yeah. Well, it’s true. You don’t got it.” I smiled, “What? You looking for grammar from me?”
Chet popped open his can and said, “No. Uh-uh. You gram any way you want. I just don’t get how you ace English all the time. And your poems. They’re about the street, but they don’t sound street.”
I snickered, “They’re translations, man. I write them so the people in Iowa will understand.”
We got back to the towel just when a scowling Sally arrived, with an unhappy little dog in his wake. When he saw us, he asked, “Where do you buy tennis balls around here?” He held up a tiny shred of the one Mitzi had found and said, “Look at this! It’s dissolving as I speak.”
I laughed and said, “Bring a new one tomorrow.” I bent down for Mitzi’s leash and hooked it on her collar. “I gotta get goin’ here.” I took a quick sip of my Pepsi and held it out to Sal. “Here. Don’t say I never gave you anythin’. I’ll see you guys later.” I looked at Chet and said, “I think Sally should know what you were saying,” and he nodded.
After a quick goodbye, I led Mitzi over to Shapiro’s bar, where she was allowed in. Mr. Grainger grinned when he saw us, and said, “Bartender! A bowl for my dog, and a cookie for the boy she brought with her.”
The bartender looked at me skeptically and asked, “Got an ID?”
“Nonsense!” Mr. Grainger said with a slap to the bar. “The lad was dragged in, and I’m sure he’s here under protest.” He gave me a quick grin, “Isn’t that right, Andy?”
“Um, I guess so,” I said. I looked at the bartender, “The dog really did pull me in here.” He shook his head and turned away, so I sat next to Mr. Grainger.
“Can I talk to you?” I asked, adding, “Not here.”
He looked at me critically, then nodded. He picked up his shot glass and drank down the contents, chasing it with two healthy swigs of his beer. He let out a quick, loud sigh and said, “We can talk on the porch.” I smiled, and he added, “Unless, of course, you’re here to ask for a loan, in which case I can say no wherever you like.”
I giggled, “No, no loan. I just want to know what you know about some things.”
He slapped a few bills down on the bar as he said, “Well, in that case, let’s go talk. I don’t know a lot about many things, but I know a little about most things.”
We walked outside, the old man holding the leash. He said, “I read, you know. That’s where I learn things.” His free hand touched my elbow. “You might give a thought to reading someday yourself, Andreas. That way you can find the answers you seek without bringing a premature end to a gentleman’s afternoon libation.”
I knew he was yanking my chain, so I pulled back. “I was hoping for answers from a sober gentleman, Mr. Grainger.”
He laughed, then spit. “You little shit! You talk like a Tenth Avenue thug every day of your life, and now it’s true what your friends say: that you do understand usage like the Boardwalk gentleman you are.”
I shrugged, and we turned down the walk to his back door. He has a tiny yard in the back, with a tinier garden, and it’s such a rarity in town that he appears in the newspaper at least twice every year in the local section. He’s well known around town, and his friends are pretty much the upper-crust. His wife died long ago, but he has children in the area, and grand children and great-grand children, so he’s hardly a lonely old man. He has some pull in politics, too, which is why his house remains on its own lot, long after his neighborhood of similar places was redeveloped into monster condos.
I love his house. It’s not really big, but it’s long from back to front, and it has the most beautiful polished wood floors I’ve ever seen. He told me that, as a naval architect, he’d developed a passion for teak, and that’s what they were throughout, including that big front porch.
We stopped in the kitchen, and he pulled a bottle of spring water from the refrigerator and handed it to me, and got himself a beer. He sent me and Mitzi out to the porch with the drinks while he went to the bathroom, and when he joined us he picked up his beer and sat beside me in a wicker chair, just like the one I was in.
I sipped my water and took in the wonderful view he has of the boardwalk and the beach. “This must have been so great when everyone lived like this,” I said. I meant it, too. The condos they were building sold for up to a million bucks for a penthouse, and to build them, they tore down hundreds and hundreds of middle-class homes; homes that people like my family could afford if they still existed. Everybody said it was progress, but it was more like mass destruction in my mind.
“What’s up, Andy?” Mr. Grainger asked. “If you want to pick my brain, you better get started while the engine’s still running.”
I got up my resolve and asked, “What can you tell me about what goes on over on Front Street? That area … where the gay bars are.”
Mr. Grainger looked at me until I looked at him. “That’s not a good question,” he said. “At least the answer should be obvious. There are some gay bars there, so I think the presumption is fair that gay people go there to drink and socialize.”
“I kind of figured that out. I mean, Lou has loads of gay people working there. I meant what happens out on the streets? I’m talking about prostitution, here. Is it true that kids my age go there and … sell themselves?”
Mr. Grainger’s look hardened. “Andreas … Andy … I’ve heard that for a long time.” He looked at his beer can and added, “I can’t say if it’s true, but if it’s not, it is certainly a persistent rumor. I couldn’t even vouch for what I’ve heard about the areas where ladies supposedly ply their trade.” He looked at me, “I’m seventy-nine years old, lived in this town for fifty-five of them, and can honestly tell you that I’ve never once been propositioned.” His look softened, “Why the question?”
“I just heard something,” I said. I felt an uncomfortable sense of worry come over me. “I heard that a guy I know was over there doing … that. I don’t believe it about him, but before I go and get dumb, I just want to know if it even could be true.”
He took a sip of beer and smiled at me. “You’re a good boy, Andy. You have a good heart.” He shook his head a little, “I don’t know about your friend, and I don’t know the situation, but if those kinds of rumors are going around, you do need to learn the truth.” He poked my wrist with his finger. “Tell me this. If what you heard turns out to be the truth, what will happen?” He held up his hand to stop me from answering. “This is my question to you. Do you want to know so you can decide if he’s still your friend? Are you planning to judge him in some way? Or will you listen to all sides to learn his motivation?” His hand was still up, “And even then, will it matter to you? If your friend is indeed doing what you’ve heard, then it’s his own life that’s on a downslide, and you’re still strong, still in a position to help if he’ll accept help.”
I was confused. “How would I help? I only wanted to know if it really happened, and I still don’t know that.”
Mr. Grainger smiled, and Mitzi dropped a new-looking tennis ball in my lap. I covered it with my hand and listened to my old friend.
“I think you should talk to the friend in question.” His expression became endearingly earnest. “You have to learn how this works, young friend. There are rumors and there are rumors, and most are harmless enough. But this is a bad rumor and, true or not, it’s designed to cut. I mean, there’s no happy way out of it.”
“There must be a way out,” I protested. “You think I should talk to him?”
“He knows the facts, Andy … the truth. If the truth is what you’re after, your friend is your fountain.”
I snickered at his play on words, and mumbled, “My own fountain of truth.” I finished my water and stood, and when Mr. Grainger stood I held my hand out to him. “Thanks, man.”
“I wasn’t much help,” he protested as we shook.
I smiled. “Au contraire,” I said, “if I may use French, and if I may speak in the vernacular of la rue. I know where to look now, so you nailed it.”
He walked me out to the boardwalk. “Nailed it? That’s French?” He shook his head and mumbled, “That fucker DeGaulle did this. I swear, if he wasn’t already dead …”
After I left Mr. Grainger, I still had time before work. I went back to where I’d last seen the guys, but they were gone, so I walked down to the water to see who was out surfing. Right then, it was kayakers, because they like the smooth afternoon rolls. Most of my friends sneer at them, but I have an appreciation for surf kayaking, and I like to watch them.
I especially appreciate a kayaker named Joy. She’s the best of them to begin with, and the love of my life. She’s tiny in size, only five foot-three and slightly built, but she lives a large life, and she’s the prettiest picture in my album. I’m tall, and I stand out just for that. I’m also blond in a city full of Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Blacks, and Hispanics; a regular Danish pastry in a sea of hot chocolate, and Joy is still the most different girl I’d ever met. Her mother is Moroccan and Portuguese, and her father’s a Haida Indian from the Northwest; a well-known artist.
Joy is Joy; pretty in the way that causes men to want to commit their lives to art, and maybe to commit to the bottle if the art doesn’t work out. She is the leader of teenage society in town, and for reasons I don’t try to understand, she chose me for a boyfriend.
I love Joy, and have a hard-on for her, but don’t really understand her attraction to me. I’m tall, basically Nordic by design, and I have a girl’s face on a guy’s body. Joy is a woman in a girl’s body, and perhaps the most aptly named person I’ve ever met. She is a joy to know in every respect, and when she dragged her boat up to me, she was smiling her best.
She knocked me back into the sand, sat beside me and kissed my cheek, and immediately sat back up. “You’re troubled. What’s wrong?”
I smiled, “You don’t kiss me enough.”
Joy frowned, “I do too. You don’t tell me enough. What’s going on?”
I sat back and sighed, “There’s this rumor …”
I was myself at work that night, and I had questions for certain people. When I saw Leroy Hopkins going outside for a smoke, I followed him.
He lit up and I startled him by being there, by asking, “Leroy, do you know anything about the gay joints by Front Street? I don’t mean the places. I’m talkin’ what goes on outside.”
Leroy is a big man; black, fat, and gay. He is also honest, and speaks words that I understand.
I had clearly startled him, and he lifted his eyebrows. “Why you asking this shit, Andy? You ain’t goin’ gay.”
I said, “I’m just asking. I need to know, Leroy.”
He looked at me, so I said, “Say you were the type. Scratch that. Say you were drunk, and you went out of some place. Say there was a white boy who’d … you know. Say that happened. Would you do it?” I held up my hand like Mr. Grainger had to me and said, “Don’t answer! The question isn’t would that happen. Could that happen?”
Leroy took a big suck on his cigarette and didn’t look at me. It was a long moment before he spoke. “Every day. Any time.” He glanced at me, then looked down. “Those boys down there, they’re always there, always doin’ it.” His voice sounded sad, “They got reasons, I suppose.” He looked at me, “I don’t partake, Andy, believe that. I just think it’s sad.”
“Sad in what way?” I asked.
Leroy looked right at me. “It’s just sad that a young child would do that shit for any reason, boy or girl.” He looked at the sky, then back at me. “I’ll tell you what, though. Maybe it happens sometimes, I won’t say it don’t, but those children ain’t there for the bar patrons.”
“Who, then?” I asked, confused again.
“Cruisers. Hawks, they’re called; chicken hawks.” Leroy’s look became forlorn. “They come in their cars, Andy, and their purpose is to get a young boy in the car with them.” He turned his mournful look right at me and added, “They don’t care ‘bout them boys; they don’t care at all. All they want is their ten minutes,” he said bitterly, “then they go home to their own boys and maybe bring ‘em a new basketball or somethin’.”
“Jesus!” I swore.
Leroy said quietly, “Jesus don’t seem to get involved. It should make any human sad, and why the world don’t get mad, I can’t say.”
I said, “I’m sad, Lee. I’m mad, too.” I looked up at him and said, “Thanks.”
Leroy gave me a look and patted my shoulder when he went back inside.
I was angry. Leroy’s words told me he was angry about something out of his control, and I was angry with the very idea of it. The thought of young boys and girls selling their bodies on the streets of our relatively affluent town had come as a shock to me, and it only started to become believable when Leroy said the customers came in cars. That meant they weren’t from town, or most likely not. The customers weren’t my neighbors and friends, but rather people who went out at night, left their own towns and neighborhoods, and came here to befoul our space, and to defile the children here.
I realized I was focused too narrowly. What mattered was the fact that people, young or old, but especially kids, felt they had to sell their bodies in the first place. Where did that come from? New York is a liberal place, and prides itself on its image as a leader of first-world society. Well, that’s all bullshit if child prostitution goes on here. If there was ever a concept other than poverty that defines the third-world, it’s the idea that children are somehow property; property to be used and abused at a whim, then discarded like they are simply disposable.
I found that I was sweating when I went back inside, and not really from the heat of the kitchen. I was worked up and freaking myself out. Jesus, if Jim Nolan could be hooking his body, then who else? And what of my other friends?
On my next break, I challenged Geneva, who I call Swissy in tender moments. She was ready for my questions, too. She’d already heard from Leroy.
We sat outside, surrounded by whoever else was on break, and Geneva smiled at me; the smile meant to disarm. “Sweet Andreas, don’t get all worked up over what you can’t change.”
I looked my question at her, and she said, “Listen. Prostitution is known as the world’s oldest profession. Don’t think a billion people before you haven’t tried to change that.”
“I don’t like it,” I complained, and Geneva touched my hair absently with her gentle hand.
“I’m sure you don’t, child, but you still can’t change it.” She touched the side of my chin so I’d look at her, “Leroy says you have a friend?”
I nodded, and Geneva said, “Change your friend if you can; change his situation. Do you know if it’s true?”
I shook my head and mumbled, “No.” I looked at her, “It doesn’t really make sense. He’s a good guy.”
“Drugs?” she asked.
I shook my head. “That would be really hard to believe.”
Geneva said, “All junkies were nice children at one point; born innocent.”
“I suppose,” I mumbled, unable to picture Jim Nolan taking anything stronger than a vitamin tablet. “It’s so unlikely to me.”
“But … ”
“Yeah, but! There’s this story out there, and I didn’t hear it from somebody known for bullshitting.”
“Do you believe it’s true?”
It took me a moment, but I ended up shaking my head no. Geneva touched my shoulder and said, “You believe yourself, then. Talk is talk, and a lot of it smells just like what it is.” She pulled me to her and touched my chest with the back of her hand. “This is where you hear the truth, Andy. It’s where you hear your own truth after everything else. This is the one truth you believe, hear me?” I nodded, and she added, “Everything else is noise.”
I worked out my shift, and the next few days were just plays on other summer days. The heat wave was back on, and shade was at a premium. I had it in my mind to talk to Jim Nolan, but the opportunity never came up. I was used to seeing him around, and he wasn’t. I knew where he lived, but I’d never gone there on my own. At least the rumor didn’t seem to have spread.
I was sitting on the beach with Joy late one afternoon, and we’d talked a little about Jim. She said right out of the blue, “Why don’t you just ask him?”
I got annoyed. “Ask him what? Oh, I get it. I’ll go say, ‘Hi, Jim. Any truth to the rumor that you’re out whorin’ around with strange men at night?’” I looked at Joy and said, “I don’t think I can do that.”
She stared at me in surprise for a moment, then smiled. “I have a better idea. Don’t ask him, at least not like that.”
“How, then?” I asked.
Joy shook her head. “I don’t know, that’s up to you. This is too serious to be flip about, and it’s too personal to be less than direct. Or maybe you could ask without actually asking him.”
My eyebrows went up with interest. “How do I do that?”
“I think that if you and a few friends had a talk with Jim; tell him there are rumors around, and true or not, he should know you’re still his friends. That might elicit some of the truth.”
I smiled, “You said elicit, just when I was thinking about illicit activity, and I thought of elicit activity instead. Now I have to start my thought all over again.” I smirked.
Joy smiled, “Shall I shut up this time, and can I take it for granted that the illicit activity you’re thinking about doesn’t involve me?”
I laughed, “Well, it usually involves you.” I decided to change the subject, “How ‘bout I buy you an ice cream? I can follow you over there, and see what activity comes to mind when I watch you walk.”
Joy started to stand, so I stood up myself, and she made a sweeping gesture with her hand while saying, “After you, big boy.”
I took her hand, and quickly let go to pick up our towels, which I shook off and handed to her to carry. I took her hand again and walked off along the beach, taking a long diagonal to the boardwalk and, hopefully, an ice cream cart that came without friends to bother us.
Not a chance. I heard, “Wait up, Andy!” and turned to see Sally trotting after us. He had no particular expression on his face as he neared, and we just waited. He slowed to a walk a few steps from us, and smiled, sweating from his brief effort. “Hey, guys. I was just goin’ down to sit with you, and I saw you walkin’. What’s up?”
“Just gettin’ a cone,” I said. “Want one?”
He shrugged, “Sounds good,” and we walked up to the first cart we came to on the boardwalk. They don’t dip ice cream; it’s all wrapped. I prefer ice cream cones that way. They have really thin waffle cones that are a little soft once they thaw, and with ice cream melted inside it’s like eating a pancake when you reach the cone, only the pancake gets flavored by the ice cream, and it’s really good.
That was me. Joy got an Eskimo Pie, and Sally had a strawberry-cream bar all coated in crumbs. We sat on a bench in the shade of a building while we ate, and talked idly about the lack of news regarding Jimmy Nolan.
Sally said, “I was thinkin’,” which made Joy roll her eyes, because that usually meant an attempt at humor was coming next. Sally looked exasperated. “I’m not foolin’ around. I was thinkin’ we should go see what goes on over there.”
“Over where?” I asked, not knowing what he had in mind.
“Over where Jim got busted. I wanna see what they really do there.”
Joy looked at Sal and said in an innocent voice. “Ooh, how exciting! A career change!” She patted his hefty knee, “Yes, of course, I can see it.” She looked at me, “You can see it, can’t you? Sally all done up in tight leather; ooh, maybe some chromium spikes on his belt, and a whip and … of course! Storm trooper boots!”
I’ll say one thing for Sally. He loves to dish it out to other people, but he can laugh at himself, too, and Joy had him going. “You mean,” he wheezed, “I’ll be good as a gay slut?” Joy nodded eagerly, and Sally went on, “The problem the way I see it, is that I’m not fuckin’ gay; not in the slightest.”
Joy said seriously, “You’re a man, though, so that’s just an obstacle in your path. Real men overcome bigger obstacles than that every day. Not gay … that hardly even counts in terms of obstacles.”
I saw an opening for my own big question and asked, “So Joy. What’s the obstacle in my path to being a real man?”
She gave me a dirty look at first, then smiled, “Why, that would be me, of course. If you screw around behind my back, you won’t live to be a man, and if you even try to screw around with me, you won’t live to be a man.” She smiled cheerily, “It’s entirely up to you, of course.”
I pulled back in mock horror, my hands clasped across my chest. “I’m destined to permanent boyhood? I don’t know if I like that.”
We kidded around some more. I knew where Joy stood on sex, and that any sexual experience on my part would take place far in the future. She had absolutely nothing against sex, but she was afraid that she was going to like it more than most girls, and wanted to be old enough that sex was just another thing before she succumbed to what she called nymphomania.
I guess that made her a good girlfriend for me, because we could talk about that honestly. I was kind of a late bloomer myself. I was big, but at fifteen I wasn’t done with puberty yet. My voice had deepened and become husky, but it hadn’t actually changed. I had little wisps of hair in my armpits, and a somewhat larger crop around my crotch, but I had no beard at all yet; none. I was pretty hairless in general, save for my head. My arms and legs still had little-boy hairs, and the rest of me was bald. I knew it was normal enough, and a lengthy puberty had been kind to me, angst-wise. I was physically capable of sex, and I knew that, but Joy wanted a man, and she seemed willing and happy to wait for that to come about with me. In the meantime, we settled for snuggling and friendship.
I listened to Sal make his case for scoping out the area where Jim had been arrested, if that story was true, and he made sense when he said if we saw it happening, we could at least believe it for sure, and that would make it easier for us to figure out what to do.
“When?” I asked.
“I work ‘til ten,” I said.
Sal said, “That’s good. By the time we get over there, things should be happening.”
I looked at Sal and realized that he must have been giving thought to Jim’s situation just like I did. I appreciated him for that, and thought to ask, “What should I wear?”
Sal just shrugged. Joy said, “Don’t go like you are now, or you’ll be getting picked up.”
My mouth started to form a word, but I swallowed it. “Jeans and a dark shirt?” I suggested, and they both nodded. “What about Chet?” were the next words out of my mouth. Chet had been the first to tell us about Jimmy.
“Yeah,” Sally mumbled. He pointed down the boardwalk, “He was watching the chess games before. Want to see if he’s still there?”
We all got up and picked up our things, and headed to the small park at the beginning of the boardwalk. It’s shady there. The park has a little playground, a fountain, and a patio area with cement things that look like mushrooms, only they have tiles set in the tops that form checkerboards. People play chess and checkers there; older men, for the most part, but at lunch time you’d see younger people playing, and sometimes a few kids. On a good day you’d find a hotshot playing five or more games simultaneously, and they’d run from board to board hollering “checkmate” so often that you wanted to throw marbles in the path just to see them do something different.
It was crowded that afternoon, and we found Chet playing checkers with a girl named Diane. They’d always been good friends, but not in any romantic way. Chet was always aware of his deformity in public situations, but not so much when friends were around. That awareness was just gone when Diane was present, and Chet was cheering her moves by clapping his good hand against his little one as if they were equals. In reality, Chet could do almost everything just fine, but in the eyes of people who didn’t understand, or who didn’t like anything different, he was some kind of weirdo; as if a deformed limb came with a built-in mental defect.
He was cleaning up the board when we got there, so we just watched while Diane danced her single remaining piece back and forth in a corner, while Chet built up a wall of kingers in front of her. She eventually gave him a winning smile and said, “I think I should give up.”
Chet grinned, nodded, and pulled the pieces off the board into a cloth bag he had in his lap.
We approached them, and they both smiled when they saw us. We greeted each other, and Joy asked Diane to go to the girls restroom with her, like girls do.
Sal didn’t waste a moment. “Chet,” he whispered loudly, then let his voice kick in. “We’re goin’ over to Front Street tonight, just to see what really goes on there. You in?”
Chet’s mouth opened, but he nodded rather than saying anything. Sal said, “Eleven O’clock. Can you get out?”
I smiled when Chet’s face took on the universal, “Are you kidding?” look, and we quickly made plans to meet right where we were. I had some questions to ask at work, and that was it. By the time Joy and Diane came back, we knew where we’d be later that night.
The Harborside is a popular restaurant, and therefore a busy place. It was busy that night too, but just normally busy. I’m sure I gave false hope, maybe even palpitations, to some of the gay employees when I tried to learn just exactly where I should be hanging around if I wanted to get picked up to have sex for money, but they knew and they told me. Two young guys suggested that I didn’t really have to leave Lou’s building if I was serious, but they got dirty looks from me for that particular effort.
At ten, I shed my work pants, kept the tee shirt on, and trotted home, four blocks down the street. I rode the elevator up alone, and found my dad still up when I went into the apartment. It was late for him, but it made me happy, and we spent about a half-hour talking before he began to fade. Dad is a longshoreman over in Brooklyn, and his days start early. It’s rare when we see each other during the week in the summer, and we always use the time to catch up. We kissed cheeks when he left to go to bed, and I went to my room to change.
It was a simple change. I took off my white work tee and pulled on a charcoal-colored, Limp Bizkit one, and put on a pair of jeans, noticing that they were already short on me. I put my sandals back on and headed out.
I was the first to the park, but in just a few minutes Chet showed up. He was clearly pumped up about our little discovery mission, and I was too. There might be nothing to learn, but if everyone was right, we’d see boys who were otherwise like us, selling themselves to random men. The thought of them doing that sickened me, but it still felt exciting to be going there. We were both just about bouncing when Sal showed up.
He looked nervous, but sucked in a breath and asked, “Ready?”
I nodded. Chet said, “Sure,” and we were on the way.
Our town is on a barrier island, two miles long, but not wide at all, except for where we were going. It’s on the bay side, and the ferry dock and commuter station are there, and a little peninsula sticks out into the bay. That’s where the gay community congregates, though it’s a commercial area and I don’t know if anyone lives there. Still, there are gay bars and gay-operated shops of all sorts. During the day, mothers and grandmothers go there to shop for gifts and decorations, because there are a lot of galleries and craft shops. They might stop for a coffee or lunch, but when darkness falls the clientele changes.
As the three of us approached, we all slowed down to look around. It’s a nice part of town, not seedy at all. Everything is bright and looks well-cared for, and there is more outdoor lighting than our side of town by far. It seemed festive, even, but the three of us held back and just watched.
It was a gay area for sure. Mixed-gender couples were there, but there was an obvious presence of same-sex couples, and plenty of singles. I could sense the energy from where we stood, a block away. I think I was surprised that it was a busy energy, and I didn’t get any sexual vibes at all. Those people were coming and going, and that’s all they were doing. Yes, men were holding hands with men, and women with women, but if their intentions were sex, they intended that for somewhere else.
I should have known. I work with several gay people, and they are people first; gay comes somewhere after that. Yes, I get teased and kidded, but so does the boss, so does his wife, and so does the butcher man, even with a bloody cleaver in his hand. My dad always told me to be careful, but he never warned me about gay people, just about people in general. My brother and sister get the same warnings. I thought of a joke for Sal, though I didn’t mention it right then. If we walked right into the middle of all those gays, we’d probably be safer than we were at church, and from the general sense of cheer we were witnessing, we’d be a lot happier.
Sal nudged me and asked, “Where should we go?”
I said, “Commuter lot.” I pointed to the right, “That way. Part of it’s under a bridge.”
He nodded solemnly and led the way. The brightness faded quickly, until we were back under normal streetlights. I was getting nervous, and we soon backed into a doorway to take stock of our situation. It was there that we slowly realized we were watching something like a parade. The cars came in from the right, then exited where we couldn’t see them, but they came around again minutes later. Nice cars. Mercedes, BMW, Chrysler, Lincoln; all with darkly tinted windows, all creeping quietly toward the train station.
We whispered, though nobody could have heard us. “Jesus,” Chet said.
“I see it,” I added.
Sal was breathing heavily beside me, and I asked, “You okay?”
He took a deep breath and said, “I’m okay. You wanna go down there?”
I didn’t want to go. I did not. I wanted to go home to bed, but we were there and we had something like a purpose. Chet agreed with Sal while I kept my silence, which went unnoticed, and I followed them across the street. From there, the road followed a black, wooden fence that curved down to the tracks. The cars were going by slowly, and the line would stop from time to time. One time I noticed a car right beside me; a Cadillac, and the window on my side, which was the passenger side, whooshed down while it was stopped. It was dark inside, and all I heard was a voice.
“Want to take a ride, blondie? I’ll make it worth your while.”
I took a step back and bumped the fence. “You got the wrong idea,” I said nervously. “We’re just goin’ to catch a train.”
“I’ll give you a ride,” the voice said. “All three of you.”
I looked at Chet, who looked at Sal, who leaned to the car and said, “Hey, fuck you! Can’t we take a fuckin’ walk?” but the window went up and the car moved before he got the words out.
“That was nice,” I said, trying to sound calmer than I was. “How ‘bout we go now?”
Chet nodded eagerly, but Sal said, “Not now! Jeez, we’re fuckin’ here!”
“Close doesn’t count?” Chet asked meekly, and I laughed the same edgy laugh as Sal.
We continued down the sidewalk, and we were truly descending into darkness. The only lights were from the cars, and they were pointed at each other, not at the humanity beside the road. We were not alone. As our eyes allowed us to see more, the parking lot became apparent, and there were several boys hanging around, leaning against whatever they could find to lean against.
My jaw dropped just as Chet let out a loud breath. Maybe it was an illusion, but I think if we continued down, we’d be the oldest boys there. The group below us looked to be boys between ten and thirteen. A few had dark skin, but most were white, and it didn’t take long to figure out the game.
Some cars dropped boys off, and drove away. Other cars would slow almost to a stop, and a boy would walk up to the passenger side window. He’d lean in, and usually open the door and get in, and the car would move off. If the first boy didn’t get into the car, it would soon be back around, and another kid would give it a try.
I felt ill, and said, “Let’s get outta here.” I looked at Sal, who nodded, and I noticed that Chet seemed to be really shaken. “What’s wrong?” I asked, as I put my hand on his shoulder.
Chet groaned, “This is too much. Oh man, it’s too much.”
Sal pulled Chet from me and held him close. “Sorry, Chet. I didn’t expect no assembly line either.” He looked to the sky and cried, “What the fuck is wrong with this world?” His huge shoulders shook and he said, “This bites so bad! I just can’t …won’t, don’t … believe it.”
I didn’t believe it either. Sal had it right calling it an assembly line. The cars came, and if you fit some driver’s mold, you took a ride. If you didn’t, some other kid would, and your turn would come in another car. I felt sick that someone had actually tried to pick me up. But seeing the kids there doing it, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I honestly expected older guys to be down there, not a little league team. I felt physically ill, and I walked faster and faster to get the hell out of there. Sal and Chet were right on my heels, and not complaining about my pace. We’d crossed most of the island and were nearly home before we slowed, and we stopped back at the park to talk, only none of us had much to say.
We sat and commiserated, because we all felt bad in a way we had no words to express honestly. We gave up after a short while, and headed home. A thought formed while I walked, and I tried to hide from it, but I could not. If Jim had really been caught there, then he wasn’t new to the game. He would have been the oldest boy in the group we saw by at least a few years, so it seemed to me that he may have been doing that for a very long time.
I found myself wishing that Jim was a closer friend like Chet and Sal, but he wasn’t. We’d always been friendly, but never close friends. It was his tennis and golf vs my surfing and skiing, mainly. We didn’t have a lot in common to bring us together, but enough that we knew each other and were friendly.
I didn’t think that Jim Nolan was different from me in any substantial way, and that worried me more than anything else. I kind of wished there was a way I could have talked to the kids at the railroad bridge. They had to have something in common to do what they did, but I couldn’t fathom what that might be at their age. It made no sense, and I got into my bed still thinking.
I conked right out as usual, but still had the same thoughts in my head the next morning. I went back to sleep for awhile, and got up around eight with a certain determination in my head.
I’d talk to Jimmy Nolan that day, and I knew I would. I’d paraphrase what Joy said to do, only on my own. I’d be less threatening by myself if the rumors were true, and there’d be just one ass for him to kick if they weren’t.
I took a shower and went to the kitchen in my bathing suit. I was alone, and I ate the three bananas that were in a bowl on the counter.
I went back to my room and pulled on a white tee shirt that I could wear to work, and my sandals. I took the street-side elevator down, and turned toward Jim’s building, which was only three blocks away and identical to ours.
I went into the lobby, and after finding the number I pressed the buzzer. A woman’s voice came over the intercom shortly. “Yes?”
“Hi. I’m Jim’s friend, Andy. Can I come in?”
“Andreas?” the voice asked.
The door buzzed and I pulled it open, then took the elevator to the fourth floor. I’d forgotten, but the Nolans lived in the identical apartment to ours. It was different, of course, but the layout was the same, and when I knocked and Jim’s mother let me in, it could have been my own house, only done over.
Mrs. Nolan practically fell on me, and she seemed to be close to crying when she hugged me to her. “Oh, Andy! I’m so glad to see you here. And James will be thrilled. Are you hungry?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. I smiled, “I ate three bananas.”
“Three? Well, that will do it. James is in his room, and I have to hurry to work. I’m already late.” She hugged me again, “Thank you for coming. This is wonderful.”
She let me go and strode off down the hall, while I stood there feeling confused. I remembered that Jim’s room was the same one as mine, at least the last time I was there, so I tapped on the door.
“C’mon in,” his voice said, and I did.
Jim was there on the side of the bed, in pajama shorty pants and no shirt. He’d been reading, and smiled as he put the magazine down beside him. “Andy? What’s up?”
I shrugged, “Not much. How ‘bout you?”
I saw him wince, but his smile was right there. I sat beside him and tried what Joy had suggested. “I’m good,” I said, and looked him in the eyes. “Listen, there’s this rumor I heard …”
Jim scowled. “Rumor?
“So far it’s a rumor,” I said. “It’s not a good one, so I thought I’d let you know.”
Jim stared at me, looked away, then stared at me again. His voice wavered when he asked, “It’s about me being a little whore?”
God, his face was so sad that I wanted to deny everything, but I nodded, and finally asked, “It’s true?”
He looked away, down at the floor, then back at my face, and he again engaged my eyes with his own. He swallowed and spoke softly. “It’s true that I did things, Andreas. I’ve done it since I can remember.” He swallowed deeply again, and his eyes got watery. “I got caught because I wanted to. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
I was stunned, too much to speak. I looked at Jim and saw the same nice face I’d known, but I’d never seen the sorrow before, never seen the troubled dullness in his eyes.
“Couldn’t take what?” I managed to whisper.
A big tear formed in one eye, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. His voice was a bit choked. “My grandfather.” He looked at me, “The fuck.” He turned away, his hands busy with one another, before he turned back to me with some resolve in his eyes. “He made me do it. Since I can remember, he’d sit in that fucking chair and make me.”
It all came rushing down on me, and I put my hand on Jim’s shoulder. “I don’t need the details, man. I’m here.”
“There’s more,” he said. “I finally told my dad about it four years ago, and you know what?”
I looked the question, and Jim said, “He beat me. He fucking beat me up! And he said if I told my mother he’d beat her up worse.”
I looked at Jim in shock and couldn’t get a word out. He said, “My dad never touched me sexually, but when I told him about his own father he had a fit.” He said, slowly and purposefully, “Between them, they put me out on the street. My own fucking father!”
I groaned, “Oh man, that’s sad.”
“Yeah, sad,” Jim said. “I couldn’t’ stand it, but that’s what I did for four years. I got a membership to the country club for my good work, but that’s what it was: work!” He looked at me, “Do you understand, Andy? That was my job, and I got my ass kicked if I didn’t pretend to like it, much less do it.”
I looked at Jim for a long moment, feeling for his grief, then I gulped and asked, “So, where is it now?”
He looked away again and spoke softly. “They’re in jail. My father and grandfather, and there’s no bond set right now. I have charges against me, but I think they’ll be dismissed.”
I looked at Jim, wondering. “Your mother?”
He smiled ruefully and nodded slightly. “Still my mom. I don’t know where things go from here. Dad got me a lawyer, and when I first talked to him alone I told him to get a big, fat retainer up front, because his defense of me would put dear old dad right behind bars.” He looked at me and said, “That’s kind of ironic isn’t it? Dad paid big bucks to get himself arrested.”
“How about you?” I asked. “Are you gonna be okay?”
Jim grimaced, “That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t have any diseases, and that’s a big thing, and kind of a miracle. I have a lot of problems, I suppose, and I’ll probably be in counseling for the next eighty years. My family is different now; everything is different now.” He looked down, but I saw him smile a little, and he said, “It’s over though, so even if it’s uphill all the way from here, it’s still over.” He turned his eyes to me and said, “I’m not gay, Andy. No more than you are.”
I wanted to say I never thought he was, but he went on, “I was made to do that. I can’t even tell when it started, but before I have memories. I always had that old man’s thing in my mouth.”
I blanched at his bluntness and pulled back, which made him smile. “Sorry. That’s just the truth.”
I said nervously, “I know now. Man, I’d hate your life.” I smiled the best I could manage and said, “You still have friends, you know. And nobody knows anything. I never even heard that your old man got busted.”
Jim smiled again. “Ain’t that the shits? I’m a minor, so they can’t use either of their names, because their crimes are against me. They get to be tried, and hopefully go to jail forever, without the public ever knowing what happened to them.” His voice took on a bitter tone, “They’ll be nothing and nobody to the world, just like they are to me.”
I winced at that, but understood Jim’s viewpoint. I changed the subject. “And your mother is okay?”
Jimmy finally smiled, “She believes, Andy. It’s gonna cost us, but my mother believes me.”
I said, “Mothers do that, don’t they?”
Jim reached and touched my wrist with his hand. “Yeah, they do.”
I looked at him and smiled a real smile. “You’re kind of amazing, you know that?” I saw his frown and said, “You can’t tell me that all this time you were faking being a good guy. You are a good guy.” I looked right at him, “You have this halfway behind you already, don’t you?”
He looked troubled for a second, then snickered, “I guess. I mean, I had that, and I had everything else, and the everything else is the real me.” The troubled look came back and he said, “You know, it’s all weird. I know my life is kind of sick, but I’ve known that for a long time, and it’s only part of my life.” He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “I think … I think the parts are separate. The thing is, I like people, I really do. My father and grandfather can go get fucked together, but they’re not the rest of the world. Most people are okay. I mean, most people are just fine.”
I looked at Jim and said, “Tell me you’re okay. I mean, inquiring minds want to know.”
He looked at me and asked, “Minds? Like Sally and Chet?” and I nodded.
He smiled for real. “Tell them Jim is fine. Just fine.”
I stood and walked over to his window to look out. I smiled down on my beach and said, “You know what? We have the same view!”