Wednesday I got Bailey a set of coveralls in his size, and he spent time with Annabelle in the garage getting dirty and listening to her wisdom and potty mouth. Daisy spent more and more time sleeping, and my heart grew heavier as I thought about her getting closer to leaving me. I took some solace in spoiling her with her favorite things – pup cups, cooking her dinner and getting her a burger for lunch. She ate the burger patty and cheese, but inevitably just shredded the bun for the pleasure of it.
Friday the jerk had his car towed away, which is a good thing, because I was drafting up a letter to inform him he had a week before I started charging him a daily storage fee. Friday afternoon I had a bit of a shock as Brian walked through my door with the near-Brian clone in his wake.
“Hello,” I said, standing to hold my hand out.
Brian shook it with a moderate smile. The boy waved his hand and gave me a knowing smile. I wondered if he told his...dad? What I'd done.
“My son is looking at cars, and he spotted a few online. He wanted to take a look.”
“Sure. What's the primary need for the car? School and work? Off road? Something to tune and put nitrous in?”
“Something safe,” Brian said firmly, glancing at his son.
“Sure. Something like that Honda your dad sold you for your first car then?” I asked him.
He looked a little surprised and smiled. “It was a good car, even though it pissed me off he forced me to buy it from him.”
“Eh. Parents,” I looked at the kid. “Am I right?” He just grinned back. In some ways he looked so much like his dad at that age, it brought a tightness to my chest. Some things you never really get over. “Well, I have a couple of things you may want to look at.” I led them onto the lot and pointed out a small SUV that had a strong safety rating but could also get out of its own way. We looked at a few others, but the kid kept looking back at the SUV.
They took the details, and Brian said he'd get in touch with me. I had a feeling I'd see them again. Bailey came wandering into the office while I was watching them go – shades of my past in more ways than one, and all the complex emotions I'd never dealt with roiling me.
“Was that Casey?”
“Casey. From the store.”
I glanced at him and then back out at their departing car. “Oh, is that his name? I never noticed.”
“I thought you liked him.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, heading for my desk.
“You don't talk to people that much, but you're always nice to him.” Bailey took a seat on the couch and started to pet Daisy,
I forgot he was fairly observant.
“I talk to people,” I said. “I talk to you, don't I?”
“Me, Annabelle and Daisy. That's it.”
“I think Casey thinks you're funny. For telling my grandma she's a-”
He grinned. “Did you sell them a car?”
“No. But I think they'll be back.”
“Is his dad nice?”
I glanced at Bailey and then to my computer screen. “He was, once. For a while.”
“So I hear a story about your youth coming? Wow. Did you guys share a dinosaur to school in the morning?” Annabelle joked.
Without looking from my screen or even having a conscious thought I said, “No. Brian was the first guy that made me realize I was gay.” It took a moment for me to register what I'd said and I looked at Annabelle, who was leaning on the counter by the coffee machine, and then to Bailey, who looked at me with interest.
“Was he nice?” Bailey asked.
“Yeah. What was so special about this guy?” Annabelle asked.
I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my nose. “He...looked a lot like his son does now. In some ways it's striking, although I can see the differences. We played on the soccer team together, and we were friends. Then we weren't. Nothing to do with me being gay; there weren't any real gay things then except in insults and stereotypes. I don't know if he figured out I was crushing on him or if...things just changed, that's all.”
Quietly Annabelle said, “And he was the one you never really got over.”
“Wasn't anything to get over,” I said gruffly. “I learned cars, I learned how to sell, and that was that. No Brian, no people. Just selling.”
Annabelle moved next to me, and I deliberately didn't look at her as she placed a hand on my shoulder. “His loss, Colin.”
I pressed my lips together, and my nose twitched, but then she was headed back to the garage.
“Will I be gay, too?”
I wiped my eye and looked over at him. “It's not a disease, Bailey. You don't catch it. You'll end up liking girls or boys or both or something in between because it's how you're built, not because of me or anyone else.”
I sighed. “I'm not sure. I just know they're out there, and they may be what you need most in life. Or not. No one can predict the future with any real certainty.”
“Oh.” He was quiet for a minute. “Does it matter?”
“Who you like? No. Not even a little bit. Not anymore, not to me.”
“If it doesn't matter anymore, why don't you go ask Brian to get married with you?”
It was so innocent from someone who'd had so much of that taken away, it was almost painful.
“When I say it doesn't matter anymore I mean that, overall, more people are more accepting. I grew up in a place and time that wasn't. So I never found anyone like me. Brian...was never like me, so we were never going to get married or anything else.” I sighed. “Not in this life.” I sniffed and cleared my throat. “Why don't you go help Annabelle.”
I kept my eyes on the screen but I saw him in my peripheral vision. He reached out slowly, uncertain and his hand trembled slightly. Then he placed it on my shoulder much as I do to him.
“...I want to say the right thing. But...I don't know what that is.”
I nodded and patted his hand. “Go on now. Annabelle is waiting.”
He let me go and headed to the doorway, but he looked back once as he went, still uncertain. The truth is this town still wasn't the best for someone like me or anyone that was different in nearly any way. So why had I stayed? My business. My dogs. I could have had those anywhere, but for some reason I'd stayed here. Maybe in the end all those years of being told how wrong I was had convinced me there was nothing better. That no Brian would ever be there to love me, and for me to love back.
If so, what did I think I was doing with Bailey? If you didn't know how to love, you had no business around people, much less kids. Daisy started to cough, and I glanced at her. Well. I guess I did know something about love.
Saturday morning we went and got Bailey school supplies. We ordered them online and just picked them up, so Daisy wouldn't have to sit in the truck long by herself. After our customary trip to Lulu's, with Jeannie making a big fuss over 'how handsome' and 'how adorable' Bailey and Daisy were respectively, she asked if I planned to ever shave again. I'm starting to get shades of Rodney Dangerfield. We went over to the lot so I could do a little financial paperwork to get ready for the accounting agency I used for my quarterly taxes. I sent Bailey into the garage to sweep up while I worked, but as so often happens I got distracted.
Casey and his dad, Brian, came into the office.
“Couldn't stay away, huh?” I asked with a smile.
“Well, he's stubborn sometimes,” Brian said with a little smile. “We did some comparing, and we have an offer for that little SUV we looked at yesterday.”
We haggled a little bit, but I didn't move a great deal. My prices are fair; I don't mark up as much as most others. I like that the experience for the customer is more or less straightforward – what you see is what you get. The price may have a little wiggle, but only because the customer expects it. So we agreed on a number, and Brian said he'd run over to the bank before it closed and get a cashier's check. While he did that I started the paperwork. I can file and issue temporary registration through the DMV website because I'm a licensed dealer – I like not having to go to DMV to make that happen.
“My dad said you guys went to school together,” Casey said, unprompted.
“Yeah. Walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways,” I said with a little smile.
Bailey appeared. “Hi, Casey.”
“Decided on a car?” Bailey asked him.
“It's so sweet,” Casey said with a grin. “My dad wasn't so sure, but I convinced him. I found articles on maintenance for it, how it stacked up to other vehicles like it – just gave him all the facts.”
“At least all the facts in your favor,” I said with a knowing smile.
“Of course,” he agreed with a smug grin.
“Bailey, would you take the keys and get me the current mileage on that SUV? I need it for the documentation.”
“Sure.” He took the keys and bopped on out the door.
“So. You and my dad were friends?”
“Yeah,” I said absently, typing into the state forms. “Until we weren't.”
“...Did you guys have a fight or something?”
I shrugged. “You know how it is. Kids’ interests change. Whoever is cool this week is trash next week. It was just stuff.”
“So. It wasn't because you're gay?”
That brought me to a stop and I looked at him. “Dad tell you that, did he?”
He shifted in the seat and leaned forward, putting a hand on the desk. “No. Fiona was bitching so loud the people in the stockroom heard. You know, after you told her off. Word went through the whole store.”
I looked back to the screen. “No. I don't think it was that. I don't think your dad was aware, although if he had been, not being friends would have been a 'normal' response back then.”
“Oh,” he said quietly.
Bailey popped back in with the mileage, and Daisy hopped down from the couch, coughing. She sniffed Casey, who scratched her head, but then she went to the door, and Bailey took her outside.
“Do you think my dad would have a problem with gay people?”
“No idea,” I replied. “You'd know him better than I did.” I glanced at him. “He's not the boy I knew anymore.”
“What was he like?”
I leaned back in my chair and regarded this boy. I'd have had serious palpitations over him at that age, just like I had his father. His hair was split down the middle. He had his dad's clear expression and that dimple on the right side. Yeah, pretty sure he's broken a few hearts and been the focus of someone stroking one out, whether he knew it or not.
“He was into running. Soccer. All kinds of games, really. He wasn't built for football, but then he thought those guys were kind of dumb anyway. Intelligent.” I smiled. “He could be silly, sometimes. Made funny noises for the sake of it. Cut his tongue kissing Debbie Steele.” I grinned widely. “She had braces.”
He chuckled. “Dad still makes silly noises.”
I nodded, and my smile faded as I went back to entering registration information and copying data from the insurance binder.
“So you guys didn't talk after school?”
“Once,” I said absently. “I looked him up when I got out of the military. He'd been in as well. Back then caller ID wasn't a thing so much, so he couldn't dodge my call, I guess. We talked for a few minutes, but....”
“What made you call him?”
I cleared my throat. “Rose colored memories, I suppose. Uh. Heard he divorced.”
“Yeah. He and my mom are better off. They just didn't get along. It was weird for a little while, but better for everyone later.”
“That's good to hear.” I saved the document and then sent the registration to the printer along with the sales paperwork. “As soon as the check is here I'll submit this. The papers are ready to sign, and you can get out of here tout-suite.”
Bailey came back in with Daisy, who sniffed Casey again just to make sure she hadn't missed anything important, then she tried to hop up onto the couch. After a half-hearted try she put her front paws up on the couch and looked back for a helping hand. Bailey lifted her by her butt, and she got settled.
“I put Annabelle's tools away, and the bay is swept out,” Bailey told me.
“Thank you. As a reward I'll let you win on the video game tonight.”
“Like you ever win,” he said with a little laugh.
Brian came back shortly afterward, and we completed the sale and sent them on their way. Bailey sat on the couch with my phone and scrolled the want ads for me. I stared at the computer screen, no longer seeing cars. Instead I was lost in my high school memories. I was on the soccer field with Brian, us in our ugly maroon shorts and tee shirts for the school team. They spent real money on football jerseys, but the soccer team got tee shirts. He made them look good, though. I remember him streaking down the field, ball ahead of him, sun hitting his yellow hair and me admiring his thighs as the shorts pulled up with each powerful step he took. He was fast. Fast and beautiful.
If only in my mind.
Saturday Bailey and I had our first disagreement. He wanted to go ask Dan to play video games, but I said I wanted to get all of his school things organized and for him to do his laundry – which he needed to learn how to do – and then fold it and put it away. In short we had chores to do, as I needed to clean the bathrooms and the kitchen. He got stubborn, then sullen and dragged his feet and let me know he wasn't very happy. Fortunately I was 12 once, and I knew the feeling.
At dinner I asked him about his siblings.
“My brother, Henry, he's mad a lot. He goes into the garage, and my dad has him hitting this bag, and dad yells at him while he does that. Calls him names. Henry gets more mad and hits the bag harder.” He paused. “He said something mean to my sister. They took his bed away for a month. They said he lost the privilege.”
“Christ on a crutch,” I muttered. “What about your sister?”
“Alexia is my older sister. My mom makes her stay in one part of the house – we only see her if we have food, because Momma says she'll get pregnant if she's around boys.”
I stared. “Yeah. Uh. Little more complicated than that, but...one more sibling?”
“They keep her downstairs. Liddy still wears diapers.”
My eyes widened. “Is she a baby?”
“Uh. I think she's six now?” he looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah. Six.”
I dropped my fork and sat back. “What the Kentucky fried chicken shit is going on over there?”
He shrugged and scooped up some mashed potatoes. “I just wanted to eat, but I kept getting caught. They'd get mad at me, because we didn't get to eat for twenty-four hours if I got caught.”
I rubbed my forehead.
“I was pretty good at it until they got cameras, but I could still get stuff sometimes.”
“I just...I can't believe it.”
“It's true. My mom used to record stuff on her phone.”
“Yeah. I heard something about that,” I told him.
That night he played on the video game while I filled out some forms for school on Monday. Sunday turned out to be just weird and exhausting. Daisy was coughing a lot, and I was starting to think the medication wasn't helping much. Bailey wanted to play with Dan, and I wanted to see if the kids had eaten and try to meet this mother of theirs so we walked over.
A thin woman with lank hair, glasses and loose clothing answered the door.
“Bail! What up, dog?” Dan asked, popping in beside the woman and holding his fist out. Bailey bumped his hand, and the teenage boy ritual was complete.
“Hi. Colin McKenzie. I live across the street. Bailey here is with me,” I said to her.
“Oh. Oh! Hi! Ugh, sorry, I haven't been awake that long. Come on in, please. Please,” she said moving aside.
I'm not the biggest on house cleaning. I know. I recall talking to someone years ago who liked the fact that 'the gays', like they were a company, were moving into his neighborhood. He said they keep their houses up, they landscape and paint things, and property values go up when you have gays.
I'm not that gay.
My house looks like a bachelor lives there. It's not a hoarding situation, but it's not House Beautiful either. This apartment looked like the term 'living on the edge' had come to life. Small toys were everywhere. The kids were somewhat dressed; the girls in bright but cheap pajamas and Dan in those silly joggers and no shirt. Every flat surface had something on it. The furniture was from the early Salvation Army collection, the Threadbare Limited Set probably.
“You have a houseful,” I said, trying to find something inoffensive to say.
She gave a listless laugh. “I just keep pushing that boulder up the hill, you know?”
“Yes. Sisyphus is a good comparison for a parent sometimes.”
“The, uh, boulder? Sisyphus was pushing the boulder up the hill.”
She looked at me with blank confusion.
I smiled. “Not important.”
“I'm sorry,” she said, taking a swipe at her nose. “I'm just exhausted. I just made coffee. Would you like a cup?”
Friends and neighbors, coffee isn't that hard to make. A few scoops into the filter, goes in the basket, add water to the machine, and let it do its thing. I've had fancy coffee, bitter coffee, old and cold coffee. This one smelled like mouse piss, so I let it marinate on the table, figuring I'd pour it out when she wasn't in the room.
“Danny said you've been giving them a ride to school the last week. I'm so grateful to you. They changed my hours, and I'm such a zombie I just can't bring them into school. Danny does a pretty good job of getting the girls together in the morning.”
“Your husband isn't much help, I take it?”
“Oh, I'm not married,” she said with a smile.
“Oh, no help there, then,” I said and almost picked up the coffee cup out of habit. Instead I spun it around slowly with my fingertips. “Dan was over to the house last weekend to play with Bailey.”
“Oh, yeah. I had the day off, so I let him go. He likes Bailey. Good there's finally a kid out here his age, even if he's got to watch his sisters a lot.” She let out a sigh and sipped some of her mouse piss – err, coffee. “I know it's a pain in the ass for him, but I can't afford no sitter. As it is I'm barely making the rent and keeping the kids in food. Oh, that reminds me, Dan said you bought some milk and stuff – thank you. I'll pay you back.”
“Oh, no, don't worry about it. What's a little help between neighbors?”
“Ha,” she said, something of a choking sound. “First neighbor I've had that hasn't tried to take the kids or scream for them being loud. I mean they're kids, right?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a vaping device and inhaled, then turned her head and exhaled away from me. “Gets me through the day,” she said with a smile.
I realized that whatever else she was, functional parent was low on the list. Yes, she was trapped in a situation partially of her own making, but she also didn't seem to be very intent on trying to fix any of it. Or...maybe she was just too tired to. Maybe she's just trying to get through the day and letting tomorrow worry about itself. Maybe it's all the bandwidth she has.
We left with my mind churning. Dan was coming with us so he and Bailey could play on the video game, which I was kind of thankful for. I needed to think.