“Honey!” my mother threw her arms around me and pulled me to her. I returned the hug, both grateful for the contact and shocked at the passing of the years on my mothers face. She rocked me side to side like she had when I was little and then leaned back to cup my face in her hands. “I'm so glad you're home.”
“Yeah, we're all glad.” My brother Mike shook my hand and leaned in towards mom, “Was that convincing?” She slapped his arm lightly as he grinned at me.
“Hey Mikey,” I smiled.
“All my children are home, the house feels like someone lives here again!” Mom declared as she headed towards the interior of the house.
“I live here with you full time, what are you talking about?” my father roared from his recliner.
“I mentioned you, dear,” she smiled sweetly from the living room archway. “I said all my children are home.”
“Very funny, Alice, very funny. Laugh it up.”
“Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes. Why don't you put your things in your room?” she said before disappearing through the kitchen doorway.
“Dad, James is home. Don't get up or anything.”
“He can come here, it's my house!” he grumped. I walked into the living room, one I had stormed out of fifteen years before and swore to myself I would never set foot in again. It hadn't changed much, except for maybe a different TV. Same floral print couch and same tired recliner with the same tired man in it. He too showed the signs of years passing; thinner on top and thicker in the middle.
“That's all you can say? Fifteen years and I take you back under my roof and it's 'heya pop'?”
“Jeez pop, that time of the month? I can get you a tampon if your pussy hurts.” Mike laughed at the old man in the chair.
“Don't give me your smart mouth!” he roared as he turned the handle on the side of his chair to let the footrest down. He stood up and glared at me. “Shouldn’t you be happy to see me or something? Alice!” he called out.
“What? Why are you yelling?” mom said as she came back into the living room.
“After fifteen years don't I get so much as a hug? Why is he just standing there?”
“Why?” she asked putting a hand on her hip. “You haven't shaved in three days, your whiskers are like a barbed wire fence for one. For two you stink, I don't want to hug you either.”
“That's the smell of hard work!”
“How would you know what hard work smells like?” she sniffed as she turned to stage whisper to me. “He took all his beer bottles back to the store three days ago, claims it threw his back out. I told him his back would feel better if he didn't drink so much.”
“Ah, screw you people.” Dad retook his seat, but didn't recline. I knew he was waiting for me to step forward and offer some sign of affection and I steeled myself to try. I stepped in his direction and he put his hand up.
“No closer, I don't want any pity. When's the last time you were tested?”
“Quit being an ass, pop.” Mike groaned.
“Jack!” my mother gasped.
“Positive is good, right?” I smiled sweetly at my father. “I guess I'll go to my room then.” I turned my back on the man, much the same way I had so long ago, and turned up the narrow stairs. I tried not to notice the sad look on my mothers face as I passed her. I wasn't sure if it was because of me or because my father and I still didn't get along. Maybe I was narcissistic and it had nothing to do with me. My brother followed me up the stairs.
“Mom went through all the family pictures, found every last embarrassing one, James.” he commented. I crested the landing and onto the hallway that branched into three bedrooms. “She put them into time order, you know?”
“Chronologically?” I asked with a smile.
“Yeah, that's what I said!” Mike shoved me. “She started here, see? Look, we both had our old man's pecker then. I know I grew out of it, feel bad for you though.”
I shoved him back, then glanced at the snapshot of he and I in a plastic bathing tub. I was older by ten months but still young enough, my mother had felt, to wash like this.
“Why do people take pictures of their naked children?” I mumbled.
“Some people think babies are cute. Personally I think they're sick in the head.” Mike grinned.
“How are my niece and nephew anyway?” I asked.
“Mouthy. They loved the books you sent them. Makes the couch in their playroom much more even.”
“Great.” I groaned and he laughed.
“Just kidding, bro. They aren't as big a reader as you, but you did pick things they actually like. I saw Morgan sitting with a book and did a double take. I wasn't sure it was my kid!”
“A doppelganger? With that attitude?”
“Hey, you're back in a small town, two syllables at most, please!”
“Mike!” I gave him a sly look, “I'm impressed! You know what a syllable is?”
He pasted a dumb look on his face, “Of course. Every year at community college the teacher handed them out first day. Duh!”
We both laughed, something I hadn't done in this house much that last summer.
Caught by curiosity and perhaps a little nostalgia I slowly moved down the hall and in so doing watched myself and my family age. Then I saw it. I was drawn into the memory, the smell and feel. The summer of 1988, or as Mike had called it, the summer of Elton. The picture was battered, I thought it had been thrown away. In fact I thought I had been the one to throw it away, and yet here it was. I was smiling shyly at the camera and next to me he stood happily, arm around my shoulders in a sleeveless muscle shirt and jeans.
“Mom found it after you left. In the trash.” Mike said. “She put it in the dictionary for a month to flatten it out.”
I looked back at the picture. Myself so smart and so stupid, so young and yet old. “I thought it was gone.”
“That was a good day.” Mike chuckled. “You were still nervous, like people would see a neon sign over your head.”
“Yeah. I'm surprised it's up here though. I'd have thought dad would have freaked.”
“He did.” Mike shrugged. “He can say anything he likes but we both know mom is in charge.”
I stared at his face, so young then. His hair was fashionably long and the jeans that awful stonewashed that was all the rage at the time. His smile was wide enough for us both. I remember the rush of having him near me, even with the single arm around my shoulders. The heat of his body so close to mine, the mix of arousal and fear, the unsettled feeling that so simply summed us up at the time. Mike nudged me down the hallway and I opened the door to my room. It was as if I had never left, a strange feeling like vertigo washed over me.
“Mom said you might need it again some day, so she wouldn't let dad touch it.” Mike slid past me and sat heavily on the single mattress.
“It feels weird.” I muttered glancing around the tiny space.
“You think? You should see mine. Dad made an office out of it, one he never sets foot in.”
I grunted a response and stepped to the far side of the room, to the tiny shelf with a small red record player. The turntable was empty, but in my minds eye I could see a record spinning out a long summer afternoon filling the air with the sounds that spoke to my inner self. My secret self.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Mike asked. His voice stirred me, bringing me back into the moment.
“I don't know.” I replied in the present, but in my mind I was back in 1988.
“Okay, James, new guy starts tonight. When he gets here have him do a store sweep and spot mop the aisles. Then get him on two, the condiments shelving needs a good scrub. When he gets done with that, have him do some shadowing with you and finish up with facing. Don't have him clean all night, they quit when we do that.”
“Okay Cam,” I had replied. Cam nodded, his comb over bobbing in the air as he turned to take off his tan work jacket. Associates got aprons, but if you were a little higher up you got a thin jacket to work in. Running his fingers through the nearly non existent hair Cam nodded to me once more and headed out of the the back room.
“Okay, time to go home and beat the wife and kids. See ya James.”
I sighed to myself and just paused a second to wonder why anyone would announce they were going home to physically abuse anyone, even if it was a joke. I stepped out into the store proper and began to navigate my way towards the front of the store.
“Do you have any more of these prunes on sale? I have a coupon.”
“I can check for you, which one is it?” Once I'd checked I took my apron off to walk to the front. Easier this way; people saw the apron and they stopped you. If I'd left it on I'd never reach the front of the store. Next to the main entrance was the customer service counter and a small door marked 'Associates Only' which never failed to make me smirk. The chain was going through a push to refer to the workers as 'Associates' rather than 'Employees'; as if changing the name somehow changed the relationship. Did associate somehow convey more esteem or respect than employee? Perhaps in fantasy, but not reality.
Behind the door I took the steps two at a time until I reached the offices over the customer service desk. Here was the store managers office as well as space for Personnel, which was really just a TV with a VCR and a training video. It was high quality. Put you in a dark room with a boring video and see if you could stay awake, the true test of whether or not you'd work out at a job. I went to the store manager's office and pulled a trainee name tag out and a fresh apron for the new guy.
“Grocery, dial 3244. Grocery, dial 3244 please.” I picked up the phone on the managers desk and dialed the internal extension.
“James in grocery.”
“You have a new employee up front, hon. Name is Ron.”
“Thanks Sandy, was just getting his apron.”
“Do me a favor, tell him that's all he needs to wear!” She giggled into the phone as she hung it up. I rolled my eyes and headed back down the stairs and emerged next to the customer service desk. Spotting the new guy wasn't hard. Someone dressed in dark pants and a white shirt, milling around as though lost sort of stood out in a crowd. I headed for him and took in all the features that made Sandy want him to wear just the apron.
Long raven colored hair, feathered in the style made popular by Bon Jovi and other musicians, flowed around his head and touched the collar of his shirt. The jeans were solid black and looked new; fitting him like a glove. Maybe it was the white floor coupled with the shirt that made the legs look so long in the jeans since he was clearly not tall but whatever the reason it was a compelling effect. The white shirt was open at the throat to reveal an undershirt and the cuffs were buttoned formally. Even so the sleeves were snug to muscled arms and what was clearly a lean torso.
“Ron?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he flashed a nervous smile at me.
“I'm James, I'll be training you tonight.” I smiled at him.
“Here's your name tag and apron, let me show you where the time clock is.” I handed him his things and he fell into step next to me as we walked back towards the bakery department.
“Hey you go to Kenwood, right? You look familiar.” Ron asked as we walked.
“Yeah, I did,” I took a closer look at his pretty face. Something about it looked familiar but I couldn't put a finger on it. It would be easy to just stare at his face for a while, easy to become entranced with the smooth curves and upturned nose; the large eyes and generous mouth. The sparkly stud in his ear. “I'm sorry, but I don't think we've met.”
“No, probably not,” He smiled. I’d have remembered that smile I think. “I'm part of the crew for drama and choir.”
“Ah, a roadie,” I smiled at him. They weren't really the same thing, but what we jokingly called roadies made the sets and worked the lights for the school plays and choir shows. Being in both means my schedule would have been almost opposite his, except on the nights we had performances and then we'd both be in the same place, but in different areas.
“Yep.” He smiled widely.
“So tell me something then,” I grinned, “Who put the condom on the butter churn last year?” This event was famous behind the scenes. We'd done 'Oklahoma!' that year and the play opened with Aunt something or other sitting center stage grinding away at a butter churn. Opening night there was a barely heard oath and it was later discovered that Aunt what's her face had grabbed the handle just as the curtain parted, only to find herself holding a lubricated condom and working the shaft of the churn grimly.
“Oh, no.” He got a serious expression on his face. “Roadies don't mix with the stars, can't tell you our secrets.”
“Oh come on,” I laughed as we pushed through the double doors and into one of the store's backroom storage areas. I plucked an empty time card from the rack and handed it to him along with a pen. “Write your name at the top there,” I instructed him and then showed him how to punch in.
“Who pulled a prank is like a state secret, man. That would be like telling you where all the Kilroys are.” he said with a smile, picking up the threads of our conversation.
“Ugh, I hate those things. Last year there was one on a bookcase and it felt like it was watching me the whole show.” Kilroys were small additions to the stage that resembled a head peeking over an object with the fingers visible, almost like a short person pulling himself up to peek over a wall. The art department hid them all through the sets.
“That one was mine.” He beamed.
“You? Evil man, I hated that. So creepy.” I smiled and he laughed. I sighed to myself, time to put him to work so I could get my list done too. So I showed him where the mops and whatnot were located and sent him to sweep and spot mop. While he went to do that I examined the list Cam had given me to complete in his absence. I decided it would be easier, and more fun, if I helped Ron finish his work he could then help me with mine. So while he swept and mopped I went out to get a cart to load all the condiments into so we could clean the shelf.
“James! Jamie!” Sandy came rushing up to me as I walked out the front door after a cart.
“Hey, what's up?” I asked, slowing down to let her catch up with me.
“That new guy? Ron? His paperwork was up front so I called Sarah to see if she knew him, you know?” I nodded. Sarah was her best friend. “She told me that he's in the art classes that put the sets together and he's a faggot.”
“What?” I asked wrinkling my nose.
“Yeah, so be careful.” she nodded seriously. I shook my head at her as she walked backward from me before turning to go back behind her counter. I never had thought of Sandy as the discriminatory type, or Sarah for that matter, but I hated that word regardless. Dad used it all the time whenever Mikey or I did something he didn't approve of, he'd insult us with it. This bit of gossip did make me a little uneasy and curious in a way I wasn't familiar with.
I got to the condiments aisle and started to empty the plastic containers into the cart to make the shelf easy to clean. Plus we could face the product as it went back on the shelf, so it would look nice and neat and Cam would be happy for about a nano-second. Ron appeared moments later.
“Mustard fetish?” he asked.
“It's not a hot dog without mustard,” I replied without thinking. I turned away from him, blushing as I realized how that comment would sound in light of my new gossip.
“So...what are we doing here?” he said after a moment.
“Cam wants the shelves cleaned. I figure if we both do it we can get on to the other shit on his list a lot faster.”
“All right,” he replied.
We were a lot quieter as we cleared, cleaned and replaced the mustard, ketchup and relish. I wondered to myself if the comment I had made had caused that or if it was all in my head. I avoided looking at the customer service desk, which was directly across from the aisle we were working in; I was sure Sandy was watching for any signs she could gossip about later. Or maybe I was just paranoid. The overhead speakers pumped out canned music, breaking into the songs occasionally to announce store specials or other advertisements. Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind' came on and I began to sing bits of it under my breath.
“You're an Elton fan?” Ron asked.
“Some, yeah. I have a couple of tapes and my folks had some records.” I replied.
“I love Elton, man. His songs are the best.” Ron enthused. “Which one is your favorite?”
“Um,” I sifted through the songs I knew mentally, “I'm not sure, there's a couple I like. 'Rocket Man' and I liked “The Bitch is Back'. Some others - I don't know all their names.”
“I have a ton of his stuff, if you want to hear it sometime.”
I flashed my gaze over at Ron. His face was open and I wasn't sure what to make of his invitation. If he was gay, was he asking me over because of that? Was I giving off a subtle gay wave that I was open to that? Was Sandy full of shit and he was just a roadie who liked Elton? I glanced at Ron who was looking at me and still waiting for an answer.
“Yeah, that'd be cool.” I replied. Ron smiled widely in return and I felt like I had crossed a threshold. As we worked through our shift Ron eagerly filled me in on several songs meanings and which ones he thought I might like most, based on the ones I'd mentioned. He questioned me on the albums I thought I'd listened to and worked to identify them by what I could remember of album covers, song lyrics and so forth. We even played a strange 'Name that Tune' sort of game where I'd hum a little of a song I'd heard and he'd try to place it. He was an Elton-o-phile.
At the end of our shift we punched out and headed for the front of the store. The June air was warm and breezy, a perfect night for driving through the quiet streets with the windows down and the radio on.
“You have a car?” Ron asked.
“No, I thought I'd get one after I got to college. I don't really need it here, plus my folks won't put me on their insurance.” I replied.
“Want a ride?”
“You have a car?” I asked in surprise.
“Yeah. Well, no. It's my dad's, so It's not mine but I can drive it.”
“Oh, nice. Sure, a ride would be cool.”
His dad's car was an old Beetle, lime green with seats that sagged. Ron cranked the little engine over and it chirped to life, small puttering pops punctuating its rhythm. He popped a tape into the deck, which settled in with a clunk, and the speakers began to push out music.
“This is cool, what's this?” I asked.
“Elton at Wembly, I made a copy from the video.” Ron smiled, “This is a good one. It's called 'Hercules', listen.” So saying he turned up the music and I did listen. The little car started to roll and we put the windows down as we listened to an outdoor concert pounding from the little beetle's speakers. We cruised aimlessly as the songs changed and by the time he actually brought me home, I was in love with Elton's music and with Ron's enthusiasm about it. Maybe even a little with Ron at that point.
I lay in bed with the window open to let the breeze in and thought. The mere possibility that Ron was gay had woken feelings in me I was frightened to name; but at the same time I was exhilarated to examine them even if it was only in the dark of my room. Could he be gay and would he like me? If he did how would I feel about that? I recognized the coward in me wanting Ron to make the first move, to totally commit to a course of action that would allow me to reciprocate; I wanted him to make it safe for me.
“What are you doing?” Mike asked.
“Looking through the records, duh.” I smiled at him and went back to leafing through the albums.
“Yeah, but for what? That's old people music.”
“Guy at work played some stuff for me last night I liked, want to see if the 'old people' have any of it.”
“Which ones?” he asked kneeling next to me and glancing at the records as I flipped them in their rack.
“Elton John.” I replied.
“He's a homo,” Mike said standing up and flopping onto the couch. I stopped flipping and looked at him.
“That's what dad says, that he's a fag.”
“So, what, that means you don't like his music?” I asked, panic flaring in my heart. If Mike could not like music because the guy was gay, what would he think of his brother?
“Dad says everyone's a faggot, who cares?” Mike shrugged. “The more cocksuckers there are the more girls there are for me.”
“One way to look at it I guess.”
“Who's the guy?”
“The guy that played you the music, moron. That sounds kind of faggoty too, you know. A guy playing music for another guy.”
“You like that word a lot.” I said as neutrally as I could. I could feel my insides swinging pendulum like, leaving me queasy. One end came from where I had been safely ensconced in my own reality where there were no gay guys so what I thought didn't matter. The other end was to this world of possibilities Ron presented and how it was messing with my reality. My guts felt like water as I waited for Mike to answer.
“Do I say it a lot?” Mike asked.
“Today you have.”
I glanced back to see Mike looking at the ceiling. I started flipping through albums again.
“Think it's bad if I use it a lot?”
“Makes you sound like dad.”
“Good point, shit, I need a new word.” Mike sat up as I plucked an album out of the rack. “Check that out. That must really fuck with your head if you're high.”
“How would you know?” I snorted as I studied the album cover.
“Adam Greggerson had some weed last week of school. I went over to his house and we toked in his room while he played Def Leppard. Was fucking weird, plus I was hungry as hell.”
“So wait,” I said as I opened the top of the record player. “You were just giving me shit for listening to music with Ron and you got stoned with some guy from school and he played you music?”
“I know. I should have at least gotten a blow job or something, but I was so hungry!” He burst out laughing at the look on my face. “I'm just kidding. Greggerson talked about his girlfriend for hours. Or it seemed like hours. Not even the interesting stuff, just how she was funny and could be a nice person.”
“What did you say?” I smirked as I put the record on the turntable and reached for the needle.
“I asked how big her tits were,” Mike shrugged and we both laughed. “He got all pissed.”
“No doubt.” I replied. I sat back on my heels as the albums opening notes came through, guitar steadily building to add lyrics and instruments as it went along. I studied the album as it played, the cover was fascinating.
“So who is he?” Mike persisted.
“This guy, Ron.” I mumbled.
“So ‘this guy Ron’, he from school?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I don't really know him, he started at work the other day.” I muttered.
“Yeah, seems like it.”
“You like him?”
“Yeah I guess,” I replied. I'd located a small pot on the cover with a crack with what appeared to be an ass inside the crack with coins dropping from it. Hah. A crack inside a crack.
“Is he your boyfriend?”
I dropped the record sleeve as I my head spun to face my brother. “What?”
“You heard me.” Mike didn't move from the couch, still staring at the ceiling. “Not like I care, but it'd be nice to know.”
“Why the fuck would you ask that?” My palms were sweating. My thoughts careened in my skull trying to think if my parents were in the house anywhere.
“I dunno. You seem like Greggerson did, I can't put my finger on it.” He tilted his head and looked at me. “Like I said, I don't care. I'm just wondering.”
“But...I didn't say anything about him being funny or nice.” I replied.
“No, that's why I said I can't put my finger on it. You just sound like the way he was talking. Distracted, I dunno, in love or whatever.”
“I just met him I can't be in love,” I replied without thinking.
“I guess maybe you could be though, if you have the time.” Mike opined. “Only got a few months before you leave. Better figure it out.”
“Listen to this,” Ron said as he forwarded the tape. He stopped, listened for a second and then hit fast forward again. “I wish I had a deck with that auto stop, auto reverse shit.”
“Those are expensive, my dad says. I hear that they pick up on the quiet spots on the tape and stop, so sometimes they stop in, like, the middle of a song if there’s a quiet spot.”
“Yeah, not perfect, but still better.” Ron replied. I was sitting on his bedroom floor leaning against his bed looking at the tapes he had. They were all Elton John. I had no idea he’d made so many tapes. I said as much to Ron.
“Yeah, he started recording in the sixties I guess. My pop says he used to wear the weirdest costumes.” Ron looked at me while manipulating the buttons on the tape deck, “Dad was in New York City when Elton did his concert in Central Park. He did one part dressed like Donald Duck and one like Tina Turner.”
“Tina Turner?” I laughed.
“I know, little guy going bald with tits, boggles the mind right?” Ron giggled and stopped the tape again. “Okay, wait let me back up. Okay, here. This is awesome.”
The speakers filled the room with a low hum then there came a few solitary notes, something maybe from a xylophone. Slowly they formed a pattern that was punctuated suddenly by a crescendo of instruments all striking together in unison. Drums, guitar, piano, you name it. One thunderous crash and then a membrane of connecting guitar tissue followed by another thunderous crash.
“That’s so fucking awesome, what’s this?’ I asked. Ron’s face lit up at my enthusiasm.
“It’s called ‘One Horse Town’, but this is the live one he did for the Australia album.”
“I have that one, though. This isn’t on it.”
“It was only on the video, I made a copy.” He beamed and I leaned back to absorb the energy of the music, the waves of the progression of the hard driving song. “This version is so much better than the original album version.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, some of his older albums there wasn’t as much meat to the music, you know? But this version was live with a whole modern band and an orchestra to back it so it just jumps, man.”
“Yeah, live stuff sounds better I think.”
We sat listening to the bootleg tape as the songs that weren’t on the official audio recording pounded our ears and spoke to me in strange ways. I began to notice so much sadness in the music; in the songs. Even the titles seemed to reach deep into me as we listened and the band switched from the hard rockers to the symphonic rock of the full orchestra. ‘I Need You To Turn To’ made me shift uncomfortably as I glanced at Ron to see if it had the same effect on him or if it was just me. As the words washed over us I began to place Ron and I in the roles of the singer and the object of the song, culminating in what might be the first Elton song I really fell in love with, ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’.
As I looked at Ron, who who would close his eyes and mouth the words, so deep in the ecstasy of a live show, I felt as though I could be the one singing to him. Asking, pleading with him to not let the sun go down on me. To not let this ache that I felt growing in me to end without being sated, quenched or at the least acknowledged. I felt my cheeks blush as the lyrics of ‘Tonight’ washed over me, with the simple wish of the singer to go to bed with the person being sung to. I felt the earnestness of ‘Your Song’ and it was all directed at him, sitting unknowing of the pressure building in my chest.
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday dear James, Happy birthday to you!” The crowd around the table sang. Well, they tried, that was the point, right?
“Here honey, you want ice cream too?” My mom asked as she pulled out the two numeral candles, 18, from the cake.
“Hey, bring me a piece huh? I want to sit down.” My father turned towards the living room.
“What about the presents, Jack?”
“He can thank me in the living room, Mash is on.”
“It’s okay mom, yes I’d like ice cream with the cake.” She pursed her lips and appeared to debate a moment if she was going to go after her husband or not. She glanced at Ron for a moment and decided I was probably mortified enough without publicly extending the snub from dear old dad.
“Here sweetie. Mikey, you want ice cream? How about you Ronnie?” I smirked a little. My mother always turned names into the diminutive, unless she was talking to my father. Jackie seemed far too playful for discourse between them. Ron’s arrival had been a surprise, albeit a happy one. Turns out Mike had invited him. With my father I never invited anyone ever since the choice was given to me.
“Sit, sit. Here let me get this one, it’s from me. If it makes you feel better I paid for it with your father’s credit card.” She smiled and I couldn’t help but laugh. I took a bite of cake, mixed with a bite of ice cream and tore into the wrapping paper. The box held a small record player, one with a handle so you could take it places. Portable as long as you had a power socket or suitably long extension cord. Or a dump truck full of ‘D’ cell batteries.
“This is great mom., thanks!” I grinned at her.
“Well I thought with all the records you boys are listening to now you could use it. I was going to get one of those boom boxes but your father wouldn’t allow it.” She rolled her eyes as he reentered the room on queue.
“No way, no ghetto blasters. Those are for all the blacks,” he wrinkled his nose. “Aw Christ on a crutch, Alice! Red? What, they didn’t have something a little more faggoty in stock?”
“He’s a boy! He should have something blue. Red is for lipstick.”
I winced and turned to look at Ron who sat in a stunned, clearly uncomfortable silence.
“Where’s my damn cake? Hurry before the commercial is over.”
“Here, get out you jerk.” My mom thrust a plate at him. He grinned like a spoilt child and my mother set herself to ignoring him. “Open that one there, honey.”
It was obviously a record, one from Mike. I tore off the wrapping feeling nervous now that my father had decided to remain in the room, probably to offer unwanted commentary. Mike had gotten me an old Elton John album, of course, ‘Here and There’.
“That’s a great album, James! It’s a live one!” Ron enthused.
“I heard you talking about that one in a stadium, I thought you’d like this one,” Mike smiled in satisfaction.
“It’s awesome, thanks bro!” I smiled widely. I hadn’t heard this album yet, but I planned to later with Ron.
“Ah, Christ, that fairy? Why can’t you get into Pat Boone? Or maybe that Madonna person, she’s got a set of knockers on her!” My dad commented. The room tensed but I made one final effort to block him out as I opened another record, this one from Ron. It was ‘The Fox’.
“It’s a strange album, but I thought you might like some of the tracks.” Ron smiled. I opened my mouth to thank him but my father interjected once more.
“Again with the fag? Nice purple cover, did he wear a dress for this one too?”
I glanced at Ron and saw the hurt in his eyes and that was all it took. I snapped and whirled to face my father.
“Why don’t you shut your bigoted mouth you stupid asshole?” I screamed. “Do you have to ruin everything with your prejudice and your fucking mouth?”
“Hey, who the fuck do you think you are?” my dad retorted, “This is my house and I’ll say whatever the fuck I want.”
“Say what you want, but pay for it dad. Leave him alone and go watch your TV before this gets worse.” Mike said into the tense silence the room lapsed into. I stood staring at my father, hatred and shame burned into my chest.
“Christ, I raised two faggots.” He muttered. I glanced at Ron and saw tears welling in his eyes and I knew. All of this was hitting home with him, my dad was insulting him directly. Everytime he hurled that hateful word he was hitting Ron in the heart.
“Yeah, you did.” I said and turned towards Ron and planted one on him. The room fell into stunned silence, even my fathers vitriol seemed to have temporarily lost steam.
“This is bullshit,” my father whispered and left the room quickly. I felt my arms shaking and my legs joined them. I sat down heavily in my chair and looked at my mom, and at Mike and finally to Ron. My mothers eyes were filled with hurt, for what I couldn’t say at the time. Mike smiled and held his hand up for a high five. Ron was staring at his hands.
“Bro, as coming out stories goes, that was awesome. It couldn’t have gone better if you’d smacked him into needing dentures!” Mike laughed.
“Honey.” My mother sighed deeply, “Why don’t you take your things up to your room with Ronnie.”
I looked at Ron who stood up unsteadily, nervously. My heart was crashing in my chest. Had I misread him? I had been operating on rumor and my growing infatuation with all things Ron. What if I had just kissed a boy who didn’t want boys kissing him? I picked up the records and Ron reached for my player, turning to follow me from the room. So far so good.
Once in my room I set the record player up in silence and put on ‘The Fox’.
“Side two is better.” Ron said. I lifted the needle and flipped the record over and then turned to face him. Ron was sitting on the floor with his back to my bed. I sat down next to him, not touching but close.
“How long have you known?” he asked softly while an instrumental piece played.
“About you or me?” I asked.
“Me.” He asked with a tremor in his voice. I Looked at his summer tanned face and the bumps that wanted to graduate into full fledged acne. I saw the worry and stress in his eyes.
“I didn’t.” I said truthfully.
He looked at me then turned away quickly. He sighed deeply and looked back holding my gaze. “Why then? Because he was saying those things? Did you mean...I mean did you want to?”
“Did I want to kiss you?” I asked. I heard the tremor in my voice, and felt my nerves grip my chest making it hard for me to breathe. He nodded at my question and I tried to articulate but words wouldn’t come out. I tried to calm myself with a few deep breaths but they were ragged and the grip in my chest only grew harsher.
“If it makes a difference, I wanted you to kiss me.” he said. The paralysis in my chest broke and I exhaled a long, shuddering breath.
“I wanted to,” I managed to squeak out. “I wanted to for a long time.”
“So...you didn’t know about me then?” he asked tentatively.
“No, not for sure.” I replied. I glanced at my hands and then back to his face. “I heard a rumor when you started. It made me wonder.”
“Made you wonder what?” he asked quietly.
“If there was someone here that felt the same way I did. Do.” I whispered.
“I do feel that way.” He whispered back. He smiled shyly at me and I returned it. His hand reached out and held mine as we listened to the album. He rubbed my arm and I reached slowly for him, each move more daring than the last. As ‘Elton’s Song’ played out all the heartache and longing I’d held for Ron my lips became better acquainted with his, my fingers with his hair and the skin of his neck.
The grocery department was on break, all four of us. We sat in the managers office along with Cam and Tony the Front End manager. Cam had bought pizza so we were all hanging out together.
“Fucking Christ,” Cam moaned as he looked out the glass at the row of registers replete with consumers in line and checkers ringing; baggers moved from line to line to assist. “How come all the girls you hire are so homely?”
Tony shrugged, “Fat ugly girls don’t call in on Friday and Saturday night.”
Cam laughed and Tony looked pleased with himself. The guys in the room guffawed but I was examining another nugget of the whole truth. I didn’t care if the girls on the front end were cute or not. The blatant sexism of the comment was completely outside of my scope of thought. What I knew, hammered deeply into me, was that I was going to school back east as far away from my dad as I could reasonably get. It was also going to be away from Ron and I had too little time.
I glanced at him and he seemed to be in his own world, idly munching on the free pizza. I watched his face for a moment and then realized he’d caught me and smiled at me. I smiled back and broke eye contact. After two months I had felt there was no facet of Elton John I did not know, but there was still so much about Ron I wanted to know.
“I’m going to grab a drink, Cam, and punch in.”
“Yeah, okay. Get the bread topped off and put someone on the milk.” he replied dismissively.
“I’ll wash my hands and take the milk if you want,” Ron said while standing.
“Finish your food, it’s not going anywhere.” I replied and left the room. I walked to the little coolers in front of the register and then to the Customer Service counter to check out. We bought all of our things there because they had special stickers to identify employee purchases. You’d be fired immediately if you had an open package without that sticker.
The counter wasn’t busy, Sandy hung up the phone when she saw me coming up with my bottle. “So, is he?”
“Is who what?” I asked with a frown.
“Ron, is he a fag?” She whispered as she scanned the soda.
“I don’t know, even if he is I wish you wouldn’t say that word.” I replied quietly. I felt guilty that I didn’t reply that I wished she wouldn’t say it because the word described me too.
“Sorry. I wish he wasn’t. I was curious, you know, I figured you’d know since you guys are, like, friends now.” She smiled and handed the bottle back to me. “I think there’s a lot more of them out there than anyone knows. They’re like a secret society. You think there’s a f...uh...like a queer handshake? Or a password or something?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “Why do you ask?” I handed her the money for the drink and she rang it up.
“I don’t know, it’s interesting. I mean there is something mysterious and exotic about a secret society living among us, don’t you think? Kind of romantic in a way, exciting?”
“Like superheros but without any powers?” I laughed.
“Well, maybe their alter ego’s. You know, I could go for a Clark Kent. The fact that when he takes his glasses off he’s Superman doesn’t hurt.” she giggled and I headed back to punch in. I walked to the far end of the store where the delivery door was and, coincidentally, where we kept the bread back-stock and the dairy cooler. I grabbed a rack of bread and hauled it out onto the floor to start working it into the shelves. Minutes later Ron wheeled out milk crates to start filling the dairy shelves.
“So what are you listening to?” he asked.
“Hm,” I replied as I swallowed a drink from my soda. “I was listening to the ‘Breaking Hearts’ album last night. I love, love, love ‘In Neon’ and ‘Burning Buildings’. What’s weird is I never heard those before that album, like, never on the radio.”
“Yeah, Sad Songs was the big single off that album and he released ‘Restless’ too, but that wasn’t as big.”
“I like ‘Sad Songs’,” I replied.
“I do too, it’s totally angst ridden. And true! Sometimes the best songs are sad ones.”
“He has a lot of sad songs,” I replied as I rotated the older bread to the front and the fresher to the back.
“Yeah, I guess he tried to kill himself once.” He stacked the empty milk crates and wheeled the handcart into the back room for a fresh stack. When he returned I questioned him about that suicide comment.
“Yeah, I forget where I saw it. I guess he put his head in the oven but he had the gas on low with all the windows open and his head on a pillow.” Ron smiled, “Good thing he sucks at killing himself.”
“Yeah,” I muttered as I turned my eyes back to my work. Suicide. It was such a foreign concept to me. My dad was an asshole but I think I could be more of a thorn to him by living than dying. He’d somehow turn that into my fault too. I hope I never get to the point that being a pain in his ass is all I have to live for.
“Speaking of sad songs, I picked up a used copy of ‘Too Low for Zero’. You want to come over after work?” Ron asked.
“Absolutely,” I grinned.
“Okay so look, they are lawn seats, and I know you guys are practically dating but I want to know about this whole Elton thing you guys have going on. Normal people have the summer of love, for you guys it’s the summer of Elton.” Mike said as he stood in the doorway of my room.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, you mentioned Ron’s birthday is in a week, remember?”
“Yeah, kind of weird he and I are only a month or so apart. So what?”
“Well, what are you going to get him?”
“I was going to look for a bootleg or something, it’s hard to find something he doesn’t already have.” I admitted.
“Well, guess what genius? Elton John is going to play The Amphiteatre.” Mike smiled in triumph at me.
“He is?” I nearly screamed. “When did this happen?”
“Melissa works the box office there, she just got the list. Tickets went on sale this morning so I was up early and scored three lawn seats.” He smiled mischievously. “So I know what I’m getting Ron, what about you? Think you can out do me?”
“Why are you getting Ron a birthday gift?” I asked suspiciously.
“I have my reasons, which would be far too pansy like to reveal now.” He smirked. “Better find that bootleg or something.”
I scoured the shops, I even took trips into the city to hit the used album stores and places that had bootleg records and tapes. Ron had warned me that the bootlegs usually sounded crappy but that they would frequently have live things you couldn’t get elsewhere. I looked at a ton of items, but some looked so cheesy I could never hand them over as an 18th birthday gift. For this I had to find something really special.
One thing he and I had a real issue with was understanding all the lyrics. One day while he and I had been rummaging we’d found a record album with the words to ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and simply devoured the lyrics, marvelling at how badly we’d misheard some of them. It was then that I found it, the perfect gift. It was an original album, ‘Tumbleweed Connection’, a double record album. It had complete lyrics and as I scanned them my eyes kept coming back to ‘Come Down in Time’. Except for the gender it filled me with the longing I felt whenever I was away from Ron. It was perfect.
His birthday was a real bore compared to mine. He lived alone with his dad who wasn’t anywhere near as embarrassing as mine was. He’d been injured in a work accident and lived on disability; Ron’s mom had split after the accident. It was a good sized party, unlike mine. All of Ron’s roadie friends were there and the radio played Elton all day. Mike sat near the radio, charming the girls who wandered too close to him. He claimed he was sitting near the radio so he could recognize and enjoy some of the songs we were going to hear live. Oh yes, the tickets. I thought Mike was going to get kissed for that. We had a cake and ice cream and Ron opened his gifts with glee; he looked like he couldn’t have been happier.
“So, you’re ‘The James’ huh?” A pretty girl with blond streaked hair was smiling at me like she knew something. About my mother.
“I’m James,” I replied.
“You be careful with my Ronnie. He’s happy right now.” She patted my cheek before I could avoid it and she was gone.
Later, after everyone left, Ron and I were in his room. He was playing the ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ album I’d given him and the only light we had was a single guttering candle. He opened the window and then put the venetian blinds down to allow a breeze in the room. ‘Come Down in Time’ was playing and I was softly singing it to him as he smiled at me. We must have looked too sappy for words. He sat next to me on the floor and I simply looked at him, trying to keep him in my mind exactly as he was now. There was no college looming in a short time, there was no asshole father and no weird roadie chick making veiled threats to me.
There was just Ron and I.
I buried my fingers in his hair and pulled him into me, and he responded by pushing his fingers up my shirt. As the music pressed on we grew more passionate, exploring the lean flesh of chest, abs and beyond. I nibbled his ear, taking the lobe in my mouth and he shuddered next to me. He stood when the record stopped, breathing hard and eyes dancing. I stood with him and before he could get out of reach I had him by the bottom of his shirt and pulled up. He smiled and allowed me to remove his shirt.
“I have to put a record on, James. Dad is accepting but he’d be happier thinking all we were doing was listening to music.” He smiled and gave me a fleeting kiss. I watched his supple skin move in the candelight; the soft breeze in the room lending a feel of an Indian Summer. He selected a new record and set it on the turntable. I recognized the first notes as ‘Skyline Pigeon’ and realized it was the ‘Here and There’ album.
“Take off your shirt.” He said huskily, still across the room at the record player. The glow of the candle’s flame on his skin was achingly erotic and I didn’t hesitate to comply with his request. He toed off this shoes and stepped towards me in just his jeans. He slowly encircled me with his arms and pulled me in for a deep kiss, a lingering touch that overloaded my brain when his bare chest met mine. He pushed his head to my shoulder, increasing the closeness of the embrace and the intimate, mind blowing feel of his smooth warm skin brushed up against every available inch of my own. I pulled him closer, willing him to merge with me into one body; one soul.
His hand traveled down the back of my spine, down past the waistband and into areas not even I had explored on my own. The fact that it was him, and that he was doing it willingly only increased my desire and I began to copy his gesture. His hand glided around the waistband of my jeans, sliding inside the elastic of my underwear and brushing along my hips and waist.
By now the record had advanced two tracks and ‘Love Song’ came on. A duet. His hand began the task of unbuttoning my jeans, and I returned the favor. His tapering, smooth legs stepped out of the puddle of his jeans and I kicked mine away. He smiled shyly at me and I drank in every detail, every beauty mark every inch I tried to squeeze into my memory and at the same time I was trying to savor the feast before me. The smoothly tanned skin, the cut of the flat abs and strong arms into his compact frame.
He stepped into me, embracing me again and I could feel so much more of him. I pushed my thighs against him, relishing in the smooth feel and heat of his legs as well as the pressing, pulsing hardness between us. He reached down slowly, behind me first to cup one cheek before guiding my boxers down my legs. I stood before him, revealed and he stepped back, just for a moment and took me in.
“Your turn,” I said and reached for his last shred of clothing. No sooner was he exposed to me than he turned as the record began to skip wildly on ‘Crocodile Rock’. He reset the needle and turned to face me blushing and grinning all at once. The candle threw his shadow to the far wall, both outlining and accentuating him. I held my arms out to him and he stepped into me.
‘Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies bleeding’ thundered through the room as we fumbled to bring pleasure to the other with hands, mouths. The intensity of the music seemed to feed into our passions and as the music reached it’s thundering transition we both reached our first conclusion of the night, not more than thirty seconds apart. We fell back on his bed, tangled together with the slick wetness smashed between us. He reached between his bed and the wall and produced a small wash towel with which he cleaned us both.
We lay together, breathing in the scent of our sex that lay heavy in the air. The warmth of him stretched out against me was alluring, comforting and charged me beyond my imagining. The record reached its end and he slowly broke our embrace and as he moved to change the record I longed for his heat to return to me. I watched his backside as he crouched down to select a record, replaced the spent one in it’s sheath and started the new album.
He turned to face me, his length plain and his skin aglow. I drank it all in and thought, dimly, that he must be doing the same.
“You’re beautiful.” he murmured and came back to the bed. The first guitar chords came through the speakers, the beginning of that album Mike and I had examined in our living room what seemed so long ago as to not be real. The melody of ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ drifted through the room as his weight settled onto me and our legs entwined.
“I feel so...so happy. I love feeling as much of you touching me as I can get,” he whispered in my ear. I responded by pulling him closer and wrapping my legs around him. Slowly as the music progressed, we did as well. He sat up on his elbows and looked deeply into my eyes, large wet eyes as ‘Someone Saved My life Tonight’ cascaded across the room, the sounds caressing our bodies enhancing our experience. His face descended onto mine, deepening into a kiss that went through my body and sank deep into my soul.
I gave my virginity to Ron as ‘We All Fall in Love Sometimes’ entwined with us. He was as gentle as could be, and urgent when I was able. We moved in unison each demanding more contact, more heat more passion. The explosion was unexpected, I never knew it could be done, but my stomach was coated and I’d never reached for myself. Ron increased the pace and I relished the feel, the sound of his hips meeting me until he arched his back and groaned, eyes wide on mine.
We lay together, sweat drying in the cool Santa Ana wind as ‘Curtains’ sent us to sleep in each others arms. If only Orpheus would have let us stay asleep.
“The school might be hiring,” Mike said pulling me rudely back into the present. I realized I was hard, as I was every time I revisited that night.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yeah. Budget crunch sent a bunch into early retirement, took packages and stuff. I know they were looking.”
“Not sure I can stay here long.” I said absently.
“Yeah, but once you get a paycheck you can get your own place. Plus you have savings and stuff, can probably get out sooner. Hey,” he stood and patted my shoulder. “Your niece and nephew would love to have their Uncle James come to see them for a while if things get too hot here.”
“That’s nice of you to offer,” I smiled. “I don’t have much left in savings, trust me when I say that coming here was a last resort.”
“I know, I know. I appreciate you came to see us. Mom never blamed you for not wanting to see dad after that last big fight. You and Ron couldn’t get each others clothes off fast enough those last few weeks.”
“True, I guess even though we never talked about how short the time was for us we knew. We squeezed every drop of life out of that summer.”
“Every drop, good way to put it.” Mike laughed.
“Smartass, you know what I mean.”
“You know, that concert was the highlight of the summer for me. I took all kinds of pictures of you guys, and remember that weirdo lady that told you Elton loves Stonehenge and shit?” He fell back on the bed laughing.
I chuckled at the memory, “Yeah, she said we had to cup our hands and hold them palm towards Elton and jump for him to see it. Like he could even see the lawn from where he was!”
“The pot rolling through the air, talk about a contact high!” Mike chuckled. “That was the best concert ever.”
We fell silent for a moment. “You know,” Mike said, “I gave one of those pictures to Ron, one he said was his favorite.”
“Yeah. I don’t think you knew I took it. One time you guys leaned in and were staring into each others eyes like starving lovers. You know, foreheads together and shit like that?”
“I remember.” I replied thoughtfully. “You took a picture of that?”
“I wanted to make it our Christmas card for that year, but Ron wanted it. So?” He shrugged. “I liked Ron. I liked who he made you, back then.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“So...why’d you crumple that picture then?”
I looked out onto the street, blinking back the shame of my stupid childhood self that had lingered into my stupid adult self.
“We had a fight.” I shrugged.
“I...” I actually felt the sadness of that old situation overtake me. All the shame over the selfishness, the stupidity of my younger self like a palpable wave crashed into my nerves. “I wanted him to come with me. It was after that last fight with dad, after he caught Ron and I.” I glanced at the single bed. “There as a matter of fact. In.”
“Yeah, I heard that part. Glad I wasn’t the one to walk in on it.”
“Me too. Dad was bad enough.” I sighed and sat on the bed with my head in my hands. “After dad had said all those awful things, after I had screamed out all my pent up aggravation with him, spewed all the hate for him I had I just wanted to go. I wanted Ron to go with me. I had to go to college, I had won the scholarship so I didn’t need dad to go there, but I did need Ron.
“Ron’s dad needed him though. He couldn’t go. But I was so blind, I wanted him near me so badly. I was so mad, so hurt when he told me he couldn’t leave.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what I expected, I never thought it through. I was running on nothing but emotion.”
“So you crumpled the picture?”
“Yeah, among other things. I was hurting, what do you want? It kills me to be in this house again with that fuck.”
Mike remained silent for a few minutes, then sat down next to me and looped an arm over my shoulder. “I think you should take a drive with me. It’s perfect night for it and if dad has to wait to eat till we get back, it’ll infuriate him for bonus points.”
“Aren’t your wife and kids coming?”
“Nah, she hates him as much as you do. Nana comes to see us or we meet her out, but we don’t really have anything to do with pop. My kids don’t need his kind of poison hitting their ears, not from family.”
Mom was not so easily persuaded, so dinner was had first. The three of us, my father was banished to a TV table in the living room. Once we’d eaten and had a coffee with my mom we made plans to go out the next day as it was getting well on into the evening. In the morning I decided to escape my father and went driving. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and I wasn’t exactly surprised when I turned down Mansfield. It was his old block, of course.
The little house was so like I remembered it. The white paint looked newer and the fence was in good repair. Flowers grew in the front in window boxes. One afternoon listening to the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ album we’d both wondered at the line about ‘roses in a window box tilted to one side.’ I smiled to see that there were, indeed, roses in the window box. Small sticks were tied to the stems to make them all tilt in one direction. I leaned on the gate and laughed, tears coming to my eyes as that summer washed through me again.
I knew I had no right to be here. I had no right to knock on his door. Thomas Wolfe has written that you can never go home again and I knew the truth of it. I’d tried to keep us in touch, but it was so hard being so far away, missing him so much. A case, I guess, of paradise lost. I glanced up at the window, his old room, where someone passing by that summer night might have seen his shadow dancing along the wall and blinds making him look the size of a pony.
There he was, looking down at me. I stared and he stared back. The window slid up and he leaned down.
“Hi, Ron.” I said too stunned to believe my eyes or say anything else.
“I’ll be right there.” he said and ducked inside and then reappeared. “Don’t move.” I stood at the gate for a few minutes and began to think he’d thought better of coming out when he burst through the front door. The screen door clapped against the house and he was there, at last, in front of me again. His face had morning stubble and a summer tan. His hair was so much shorter, but still thick and dark and his upturned nose gave him the look of a wiser imp than the last time I’d seen him.
“Is it really you?” he asked.
“When Elton wrote ‘Mansfield’ I thought maybe he’d spied on us.” I said softly.
“Me too,” he said with wet eyes. He stepped through the gate and wrapped me in his arms and the heat, long thought extinguished, burst forth again. Maybe you can’t go home again, but right then, for just a moment...I’d never left.