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    Dabeagle
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Shadetree Mechanic - 1. Chapter 1

 

At a certain point keeping weight off seems impossible. You go to work all day, but even if it involves walking around it's not enough to make up for your slowing metabolism, your genetics and the fact that you aren't as active as you were when you were young. I'd say it should be mandatory that adults get recess and go out to play for a while a few times a day, but I know we'd just sit down and enjoy the breather.

Those thoughts all rolled through my head as I jogged – very slowly by now – and regretted not putting on a shirt. I mean...who wants to look at this mess of moobs and beer gut? As I rounded a corner, the very reason I don't go to gyms to exercise appeared. He was probably around eighteen, fit as hell, with dark hair and arresting blue eyes. This was the kind of guy that would distract the fuck out of me in a gym, even though going wasn't supposed to be about checking out other gym members or comparing yourself.

I'd seen this guy a time or two, and I secretly hoped I'd see him every time I went out to try and run. He gave me a warm smile and wave as he went by. I probably looked at him with a pitiable expression of jealousy and desire that was really unbecoming of me, but I just couldn't help it. I spent plenty of time each day looking at videos or picture streams of young people I didn't know and only followed because they were attractive. They lip-synched or danced or did little tricks like flipping while on a trampoline. There were dancers and swimmers and aspiring actors who all tried to monetize their looks by gaining a following and becoming an 'influencer'. Then there were the ones who showed more and more skin until they opened up on a platform where you could pay to see more revealing things about them.

It was all mental masturbation, a daydream that was best left in my head. In general, younger people weren't attracted to older people, and when that kind of relationship happened there was an inevitable fallout. People would judge and not worry the smallest amount if it were their business to say anything. Some of those relationships were more accepted as a whole – especially older men and younger women. Older women and younger men were a thing, but when you crossed into same sex, things turned very against the couple.

Older men with younger men, older women with younger women. The stereotype that wouldn't die –that sexuality equaled sex and therefore molestation or what have you – would rear its ugly head, and you got twice the outrage about a relationship. I guess unless you were rich or famous, then by all means. That's before you even get to the problems that happen in every relationship – just the day to day stuff.

I slowed to a walk and sighed. No matter how much I ran, no matter how I changed my diet, I was never going to catch a guy that looked like that. I could dream about it all day, but in the end there had to be a leap of faith that just didn't happen in the real world. Of course, how could I look for a guy like that looking as I did? Sometimes I think the older I get, the dumber I get. I'm in a relationship with an honest to goodness decent, loving man who does not care about my physical hangups.

I guess we all have die-hard fantasies.

I turned the final corner and back onto my block. It's a decent block that's owner occupied. You can always tell when people rent out their house – people just don't take care of things that aren't their own. The block was in transition, really. It used to be white folks as far as the eye could see – as my dad used to say, the only black guy you ever saw was Bill Cosby hawking Jello on the TV. Now the neighborhood has changed, the old families moving on as their kids grew up and being replaced with new families. The Chews lived at the end of the block, a mixed family with an Asian mother and a Caucasian father. They had a teenage boy and a tween girl. There were the Kellers, who were also a mixed race family, the father being an Irish fellow and his bride an African-American woman. They had younger kids, probably in primary school. I walked up to my home, one owned by my parents before me, and smelled the Karen before I saw her. Brimstone is her signature scent, I think.

“There are kids on this block. I think you should consider that,” she said, looking at me through the chain link.

I smiled at her. “Come on. We both know you didn't actually think.”

She got up from her perch on her front porch and descended her front steps. “I'm just saying not everyone wants to see your...boobs.”

“Interesting that your husband doesn't want to see yours, either,” I replied. I walked up to my front door while she moved to the sidewalk to follow me.

“You're disgusting! No one wants you here! I'm going to call-”

“Who? Who will you call?” I ask, turning around. She took a startled step back as I glared at her. “This is my house. Go back to yours and make your family miserable, but leave me alone. For Christ's sake!”

“I'm telling you there are standards!” she said, pointing two fingers at me with a cigarette smoldering between them. I might have walked away right then, but I spotted Bryce, her son, sneaking behind her toward the front door. She'd probably been sitting on the porch to ambush him. I have no particular fondness for him, but turning her loose on him would be a bit cruel, so I turned my attention to her.

“What standards? They let you live here. I didn't even see them put up a red light!” I said with a big smile. Smiling was the easiest way to aggravate her. Behind her Bryce was comically tip-toeing across the yard, up the porch and through the open door.

“I'm not a fucking whore!” she snarled at me. “I don't wander around with my tits flopping, either!”

“Well, they are a bit small for flopping.”

“You should watch your fuckin' mouth!” she snapped.

I grinned. “You've heard of elf on a shelf? I have the whore next door!”

“Sharon. Come inside,” her husband said from their doorway.

“Cliff,” I said with a nod.

He just shook his head and called to his wife again. She turned from me, snarling and snapping her way back to her husband. I entered my home and closed the door harder than needed, but damn, she could get under my skin. She'd always been a pain in the ass, even when my folks were living here. She always has a problem with something – from the political sign in your yard to the time of day you cut your lawn, this woman thinks she has a right to tell you about it.

Sharon Cataldo was a typical Karen from the first time she showed up in the neighborhood. She moved in with her hubby and two kids and immediately started in on people – and she dressed the part. She had the haircut, the Capri pants and a shirt that said 'Live, Laugh, Love' on it. All she needed was an iced coffee and a minority to yell at to be an internet meme.

Her son, Bryce, was okay for a teenager – blond hair that fell straight from the crown of his head, sullen, but that was forgivable, considering his mother and his age. The daughter was okay at first, but while her brother had gone to sullen, she'd gone haughty mean girl. She wasn't quite like Sharon – I think the girl had more cleverness than her mom, but I didn't know them that well. Mostly just dealing with Sharon's crap.

I climbed into the shower and pushed her from my mind in favor of washing off the sweat of the day. Afterward I put on a short-sleeved polo and some khaki shorts before leaving the house to head out for my date. I glanced next door as I left, but I didn't see anyone outside. I stopped by the store to pick up a six pack before motoring across town.

Joe lived in a small ranch-style house that was kept better than my own; he liked planting flowers and making his yard look nice. I, in comparison, cut the grass when the drunk three doors down did. I opened the front door and called out.

“Joe! Where are you hiding?”

“The kitchen isn't really hiding, Ansel!” he called out, a trace of amusement in his tone. I left my shoes at the door and slid my feet into the slippers Joe kept for me and headed to the kitchen.

“Oh, I can use one of those,” Joe said, smiling at the beer before leaning in to give me a light kiss.

“Well, if you're going to kiss me,” I said with a grin and twisted the top from a bottle and handed it to him. He took it and tipped the top toward me with a smile before sipping from it as he turned back to the stove.

“I thought fajitas would be good and we can sit out on the back porch?” he said, stirring the pan with the veggies while the meat cooked in the next pan. “I put the tortillas and stuff on the island. Would you take them out?”

“Sure,” I replied. I popped the cap on a beer, took a swig and then set it down before picking up the stuff he'd set out for our meal. “Smells good,” I called out as I went deeper into the house and onto his enclosed back porch. He had leafy plants in large pots on the patio along with a small, round table and a set of four chairs. I set down the tortillas – covered, as he'd warmed them – a bowl of cheese and a container with sour cream.

I glanced around the small backyard, neatly kept of course, with a shade tree and a hammock beneath it and a small tool shed to one side. I turned and went back into the house, dancing to one side as Joe brought two covered dishes out to the patio.

“Would you grab the plates and my beer?” he called.

“Yep.”

I put our open bottles back in the carrier and carried the whole six-pack and the plates with me to the table. He took the plates from me, and I placed our drinks next to each of us. He tapped his phone screen and hidden speakers underscored the nice evening.

“Your kid go home on time?” I asked.

He nodded while taking a drink. “God! There haven't been that many kids I've been glad to see the backside of, but that one? Ugh. He really has some very poor social skills.”

“You say I have poor social skills,” I pointed out.

“This kid was you, twenty-five years ago,” he joked. He pulled a tortilla from the pile and tossed it on my plate before withdrawing one for himself. As we made our fajitas he told me about the kid he'd had for the weekend. “The poor kid, you just know his diet is terrible. I was told the mother has some issues that weren't made clear to me, but it's usually just her and her son – and he misses a lot of school. He walked into my house and started putting his hands on everything, so I know his mother has no control because there was no hesitation. He was talking – probably a little nervous – but he acted like he owned the place. It was a struggle of wills this weekend.”

“I don't know how you do it,” I said and took a bite of my fajita.

“Well, it gets better,” he said. “When I met the foster family I was giving a break to, they brought a lot of this kid's stuff. I mean a lot. I was confused, but it turns out that when I took him from them last Friday they thought they were giving him to me for good!”

“Really?” I asked, smiling as I sipped my beer.

“These came out pretty good, huh?” he asked, taking another bite.

“Excellent. You should have been a chef.”

He snorted. “If I cooked all day, then you wouldn't be getting any good meals – because I wouldn't want to cook!”

I bobbed my head and swallowed. “I take it back. You should cook as a hobby.”

He took a sip of his beer and then ran his finger around the top of the bottle as he leaned forward. “You know...if you'd just move in....”

I shook my head. “Are we going to do this again?”

He leaned back and cradled his bottle. “I don't understand emotional attachments to real estate. I'd move in with you, but I won't live next to that shrew.”

I chuckled. “I told you my condition for selling the house.”

He dropped his chin and looked at me. “Putting a sign up that says 'I'm moving because my neighbor is an asshole' might affect the sale price of your house.”

I chuckled again. “Well. Full disclosure, right?”

He shook his head. “So anyway, they finally took my weekend visitor with them – though it was tense. I'm sure they'll be reaching out to the county to move him. Honestly, he needs more than a family that works full time can probably give him.”

“Kids,” I said with a grunt.

“Yeah, yeah,” Joe teased. “I know. Still, you liked that little girl I had for a few weekends this summer.”

“She was all right,” I said grudgingly. “I know why you foster, but...I don't know.”

“Kids aren't for everyone,” he said with a sigh. “But you have to admit, you might really care for the right one.”

He teased me a little more, but when the first tendrils of the autumn evening air touched us we gathered up the plates and such, cleaned up and settled in on his couch. We cuddled in and watched a movie we'd both been wanting to see. By the end of the movie I was yawning, and Joe had no trouble convincing me to stay the night.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Joe takes good care of me, I have to admit. Moving in with him would be simple, from one point of view. Some people you have to work at just being around them, but Joe's not like that. I'll never forget the night he sat down next to me at the bar and smiled, his teeth standing out against his dark skin, and asked if I was drinking that beer from being poor or if I was punishing myself.

I'd smiled and pointed to the can of Utica Club, which said on one side that it was the first beer sold in the United States after prohibition. That led to some easy banter about history, and from there things had just flowed between us.

I left that Monday morning with a travel cup of coffee and a shorter commute to the garage than normal. Joe and I'd had the conversation about moving in a few times, but I was having a hard time letting go of my childhood home. My siblings had moved out of town – one out of state – and when my parents had needed more help at home, my siblings all had expected me to move back home. I'd done it, because I had nothing else going on, and while I hated being under their roof with them again, it was my siblings and their expectations that pissed me off most.

After my parents passed, my siblings were pissed that I'd been left the house in their will. Nasty things were said about how I must have coerced them into it while living there, so of course we don't talk much anymore. In truth I was surprised that my parents had left me the house. Maybe it was an apology of sorts. It kept me up some nights, looking at the walls and wondering.

The garage I worked at was pretty big – five bays, all aimed at general service, because that's where the money was. We didn't do very many engine rebuilds or time-consuming things like that; everything else was fair game. I parked my little pickup and headed inside to see what sort of appointments we had to work with. I nodded at Cliff, my next door neighbor and husband of the shrew, as Joe liked to call her. Cliff ignored me, which was normal. Cliff and I didn't fight, especially not at work, and he rarely said much when his wife was out in the neighborhood making an ass of herself.

The garage echoed with the sound of tools and guys talking – sometimes to each other, sometimes to the vehicle. The various noises made a cacophony that was nearly like music, if you didn't listen too hard. My first ticket of the day was for Jack Seaford and his ancient, arthritic Toyota pickup. It was a rare model, a longbed, and he'd done everything to keep it alive, right up to having the frame replaced. Jack wasn't a hands-on owner other than he liked you to show him what was going on. Today he'd spotted an oil spot on his driveway, so I was to hunt down the leak.

With a sip from my cup, I unlocked my toolbox and got to work. I propped the hood up and removed the air cleaner, setting it in a plastic box I kept for parts while working a job. Pulling a light down, I had a look around and sprayed the area down with brake cleaner to get rid of old oil and residue. I started the truck up and then went to have a look at the engine as it ran, moving my light around and looking for leaks.

I sipped my coffee and checked. Moved to one side and got closer, then the other side. All of a sudden there it was – the valve cover leak to end all valve cover leaks. I shut the engine off and grabbed a magnetic can and my tools, dropping the nuts and washers into the mag can while I worked. Once the valve cover was off I took it over to the parts cleaner to scrub it up and get a better look. As I scrubbed the pan I heard Cliff talking to Manny, one of the other mechanics.

“I tell you what,” Cliff said. “I've never seen a kid so jealous of another kid – and of a girl on top of it. I swear, I waited too late to start the belt with that boy.”

“He's not yours, right?”

“Fuck no,” Cliff said, then sighed. “Sharon insists the boy call me dad, though. Like I'd claim that kid.”

“How long before you can cut him loose?”

Cliff laughed. “Maybe I'll get lucky, and he'll run away.”

The cover was pretty gross, so I used a brass brush to clean it a bit further.

“Where's the little bastard's father? Can't you ship him off?” Manny asked.

I dried the part and inspected it. I poked it with my finger and ran it around the edges and was relieved not to find any cracks or other little tricks lying in wait. It wasn't common with these inline 6 engines, but you wanted to be sure.

“Who the fuck knows? He probably took one look at this kid and was happy to lose him in the divorce,” Cliff said. I turned, seeing Cliff shake his head as I walked past. He said to Manny, “He's got no job for the summer, just off butt-fucking his friends. I told him he'd better have a job, but he came home with some bullshit about limited jobs at fifteen and how he's on some waiting list at that burger joint.”

I headed into the service manager's office, a lazy turd named Rick. “Rick, valve cover gasket on that pickup truck is toast; the cover itself is good.”

“Okay. I'll talk to the customer and get authorization,” he said, smiling. “Boy these old vehicles – glad you like working on them! Most guys only know how to work on the more modern stuff. Anyway, thanks again – I'll talk to Jack and get the parts ordered.”

That was his job, but I knew he'd wait another five minutes before going to find or call the customer and explaining what I'd just told him. Rick's big skill was his beaten look. It made customers feel like he was sympathetic to them and had done all he could to ensure a good outcome – in fact he'd probably just go eat a box of donuts after speaking with them.

I set the cover on the studs to keep stuff from getting onto the cam and whatnot. With some time to kill I walked over to the next bay, where Ken Nakamura worked. Ken was married to a girl with Irish roots, and even though he had an Americanized first name, his kids' names sounded so odd, with their Irish first name and Asian last name.

“Hey, Ken,” I said, glancing at the vehicle he was raising with the lift.

“Ansel, what's up?” he asked.

“Rick's working his magic,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Need a hand?”

“I hate brake lines,” he said with a nod.

“They are kind of tedious,” I agreed.

“Speaking of tedious,” he said with a wry smile as we started working on the lines from either side of the vehicle. “My wife wants to know if you guys are coming over Friday night.”

“We both know she only wants to see Joe,” I said with a laugh. “Maybe we can let them go out, and we can hit up a game or something.”

“Oh, no,” he said with a shake of his head. He raised his voice to mimic his wife. “We have to do things as a couple with other couples.”

“Oh,” I said with a knowing look. “Well then. I'll ask Joe later on. Unless he takes in another foster, we should be okay.”

“He usually only does that relief thing, right? They come for a weekend or something?”

“Yeah. With his schedule, a full time kid has some issues.”

“Ahh, no. I think it's you.”

“Huh?”

“You. You're the issue,” he said with a wry grin. “I don't get that. You don't hate kids.”

“Who says I don't?” I asked, faking some belligerence, and he laughed at me. Before he headed down that road any farther I decided to derail him. “Speaking of kids I don't like, how are yours?”

“Stop. You love my kids, and you know it, even if they are smarter than you,” he said with a laugh. “Natalie is hitting that stage where she's starting to fight her mother about everything. Clothes, hair, make-up, boys – if it's day or night! This girl is just automatically going the opposite way!”

I laughed hard at his description, and he couldn't stop grinning, which broke into laughter he was trying to hold in.

“Now with me? She's all 'Yes, Daddy' and 'Okay, Daddy.' It's driving Diane insane,” he said, grinning again.

“Your wife would kill you, knowing how much you laugh about this,” I said with my own smile.

“Bah. We talk about it. She said she was like that with her mom, too. It's the age.”

“How's little mister 'I'm saving the world?'”

Ken groaned. “I love Riley, but he is so fucking passionate about everything he gets into. I was so excited when he started dating, because I figured he'd focus on that, but he's dropped most boys within a few weeks.” Ken held a finger in the air and grinned widely. “If he gives me even a little shit about what I do for work one more time, I'm going to ground his ass until he graduates!”

I laughed. “Doesn't like us repairing these polluting vehicles, huh?”

He rolled his eyes. “I asked him about his phone, considering how quickly people tend to get new ones and the materials it takes to make one and then the e-waste of old phones. Oh, then it's all about how he uses it to combat these things and how – God, I can't even go into all his reasons. I'm glad he's so smart and passionate, but damn it, he doesn't need to rake his old man about everything he does!”

“It's because you send your kids to a fancy school. If they were in public-”

“Oh, don't start with me about that place!”

We went back and forth for the rest of the day, calling back and forth between the bays once my gasket got there. Once the gasket was in place and the engine back together, the truck waited patiently for its owner out in the lot. In the late afternoon Jack Seaford ambled up to the open bay door.

“Ansel, how's my old girl doing?” he asked. Jack was funny – he sometimes seemed to me to be acting a fair bit older than he appeared.

“Well, this is what's left of the valve cover gasket,” I showed him, holding the expired part on a piece of cardboard. “You can see it's all dried out, and it shrunk a fair amount. I didn't see anything in the camshaft area, and the valve cover itself was in good shape, so it just went back together nice as you please.”

“I'm going to be buried in that truck one day,” he said to me with a funny laugh. “Thanks, Ansel.”

By the end of the day I was tired, but it was a happy tired from having done good work. I called Joe while I was driving home, but he didn't answer. I left him a message about the Nakamuras inviting us to dinner. I changed out of my work clothes and scrubbed my hands before breaking out a frozen meal to put in a skillet. Joe likes to cook, but I do not – I just like to eat.

I flipped through articles and images on my phone as I waited for the food. Idly I wondered how late Joe would be working – he was an assistant director of a charitable foundation, and his work hours could be wonky sometimes, but he likes being in a giving industry, as he calls it. I glanced up at the clock on the wall, a remnant of my mother's decorating sense. She'd cooked a lot in this kitchen. Her cooking style made me think of an old public service announcement where someone was cooking up greasy breakfast foods and insinuating whoever was cooking them like that was killing the eater.

As a kid I'd always waited for the cast-iron skillet in the ad to come crashing down on someone's head; it took me a while to put together the whole clogged arteries thing.

The clock was rectangular and plastic, with a stiff, stained cord running down to the outlet low on the wall. It was caked on the outside with grease – grease from cooking that probably permeated the walls in places. That clock had seen the dysfunction. Hell, every family was dysfunctional. I bet even the Seafords have their problems. This house had held a lot of shit, though. My oldest brother may have had it hard, but my oldest sister had it worse. My parents ruined her childhood by parentifying her, making her siblings her responsibility in one way or another.

The oldest, whom I don't remember well, ran away at sixteen. I have no idea what became of him, but I hope he found what he'd been missing. My oldest sister got pregnant at fourteen and just kept popping them out every so often. It was sort of like her body all of a sudden remembered there was one more kid crammed up there, she'd shimmy, and out the little rug rat would come.

I had my own problems growing up in this house. Lack of food. Plenty of harsh words and heavy hands. When I'd moved back in to take care of the folks, it had been with fear and sorrow. The freedom I'd gained by leaving would be lost, and I still can't tell you why I did it. Possibly some twisted sense of duty. Maybe some fear of what other people would think.

The timer went off, and the spell was broken. I got my meal on cardboard, as my dad liked to call TV dinners, and sat at the kitchen table. I blew on the food, impatient to get dinner over with, and as I did I looked up at the clock again.

It had stopped.

With as many times as it had felt like time had stood still in the home as a kid, as many times as I'd wished for time to stop so my father wouldn't come home from work and I'd not get a second punishment for whatever my mother had been angry about...the clock had never actually stopped. I couldn't remember any other clock having been on that wall. I stood up and leaned forward, wondering if the second hand was trying to move or not.

Nope.

I moved the extra chair away from the wall and leaned closer, tapping the clear plastic 'crystal' covering the face. The second hand moved a few marks forward and quit again. I reached out and pulled the clock from the wall, the thin layer of grease all over the clock making it slide a little in my grip. I unplugged it from the wall, and the power cord, stiff with age, slowly bent in the direction of gravity. Green stains – corrosion from the copper wire inside – leaked out along the seam in the center of the power cord.

I'll never be able to properly tell you what happened next. I mean...there were a lot of individual things, but none of them were directly tied to that old kitchen clock. Somehow, though, it became a kind of catalyst. Wallpaper tearing, me swearing and soaking the stuff that wouldn't come off. Pulling off the cheap, stained wainscoting and not being all that shocked to find shattered plaster behind it. There was dust, a forgotten meal, and by the time my phone said it was midnight I had six large construction bags of plaster and lathe and two walls in the kitchen of my childhood home showing bare studs.

My first clear thought was: Dad's gonna kick my ass.

Then I laughed, but cut it off because it sounded a little wild to me. A little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I backed out of the kitchen and finally went to shower before falling into a restless sleep.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

As soon as I started the car I could hear the engine tapping. Once it was inside I looked over the paperwork. Customer states the car has been overheating. I glanced at the late-model Buick and shook my head.

“Oh you beauty, why are you doing this to them? Do they not change your oil? You're going to have a blown head gasket, aren't you? Brat.”

The car's motor ticked in reply as it cooled.

“Ansel.”

I jumped and turned to face Cliff.

“Jesus, Cliff. Just hit me with the air hammer next time – don't be so subtle!” I said

The corners of his mouth turned down. “I didn't want to get involved in this, but enough is enough. Stop antagonizing Sharon. I'm sick of listening to you both, but I can't smack her. We clear?”

I turned to face him. “Wow. No. But bring it, Cliff. I'm surprised a man like you can't control his wife,” I said, mentally smirking. Cliff was just neanderthal enough to believe he was in control. Of everything.

He looked at me steadily, teeth grinding. “That's gonna cost you,” he said and turned away with a glare.

“Great,” I muttered. I got the arms situated and lifted the Buick in the air, then dragged over the raised collector and a wrench to pop the nut from the pan. When I did, what looked like coffee with cream came pouring forth, but let me tell you – no matter how drinkable it appeared, it wasn't healthy.

Well.

Maybe for Sharon.

I headed into the main office and nearly ran into Cliff coming out of Rick's office. Cliff gave me a dead-eyed look as he went past.

“Rick?” I asked. He glanced up. “Buick has a blown head gasket or a cracked head. Water and oil mixing. I drained the pan and could add oil if they want to try and drive it out, but I recommend it gets flat-bedded.”

Rick grunted and took the paperwork, glanced at the top of the form, then said he'd take care of it and let me know. I walked out of his office feeling kind of odd. Cliff hadn't ever carried over the bullshit outside of work to the shop, but it seems that line was crossed. Question was – what did he say to Rick? Rick was normally pretty friendly and complimentary, so his cold shoulder really didn't sit well with me.

I went and disposed of the oil and coolant mix from the Buick and put the pan plug back in before setting it down. Rick waddled over to me and told me to top off the oil and coolant and put it back in the lot; it would be towed to a full-service shop.

After that I diagnosed and replaced a bad oxygen sensor, and then it was time for lunch. Ken and I walked across the street to Flubberbuster Burger, a local chain, and got some burgers to sit outside with. No sooner did I sit down beside Ken than my jogging inspiration came trotting by with another guy – both shirtless, both in their prime and worthy of an extended glance.

“Is it my birthday?” I asked absently as I sat down.

Ken chuckled. “They get younger every year.”

“What's that?” I asked, dipping a fry in ketchup.

“The guys.” Ken set his burger down. “When we met you used to ogle guys your own age.”

“Have you seen guys our age? I mean, look in the mirror lately?” I teased.

“You don't have to tell me,” Ken said with a laugh. “But...I guess when you get some maturity-”

“Get old, you mean.”

“Then looks aren't the only thing. I mean, Di still looks good to me, but she's also funny and smart.” He paused. “Can't figure why she likes you, but no one's perfect.”

We laughed, and then I nodded at him. “Joe and I talked about it. Basically it's a false sense of nostalgia.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, those guys that just ran by. Maybe/probably college? When I was in college I'd have done almost anything to get one of them to notice me – everything except come out, be emotionally available, or admit that I like them at all. For anything.”

“Wow. Joe's got you figured,” Ken said with a laugh. “I mean, what, we've known each other for about ten years?”

“Something like that,” I agreed.

“I mean...so you're stuck on younger guys? Kind of?”

“It's all fantasy,” I explained. “Like, I'm happy with Joe. But there's something exciting about the idea of a hot, younger guy. It's just the same as when some gal comes into the shop and you drool over her.”

“I know that. Jerk.” Ken leaned back. “No judgment, but...have you ever looked at Riley that way?”

“Now who’s being the jerk?”

Ken laughed. “What I mean is...remember that girl that came in here about six months ago that you busted my chops about for weeks?”

“The one that turned out to be a junior in high school? Yeah, not forgetting that anytime soon.”

Ken flipped me off. “My point is, you don't always know, do you? I mean not right off the bat. One day they’re just kids, and the next day they've matured physically, and it can catch you off guard. Like, you know I'd never cheat on Di, and I have all the faith in the world she'd never do that to me. What I'm talking about is noticing someone's hot, but then kind of putting that on a shelf.”

“You still feel bad over checking her out, don't you?”

“Well, not my proudest moment, but to be fair – I didn't know, and there were no girls as...developed as she was in my junior year!”

I chewed for a minute. “Look, here's the thing. This is all just mental crap, something short term in your brain that gets flushed out with the 90% of other things your short term memory fails to move into long term memory. Just because you notice someone blooming into the adult they're going to be doesn't mean you’re after kids or are going to cheat. Like...those guys that ran by? There's this one I've seen a few times when I run – and I hope I see him. Yeah, he's young and hot, but he's also a goal. A goal to get my belly that flat, to develop a better, healthier body.”

“But if you were single?”

“I could embarrass myself,” I conceded and shook my head. With a sigh I said, “The trouble with any fantasy is it can't stand up to reality. For example, those guys running by? Even if one were gay and even if one were inclined to give me a try, we may have nothing in common. They may be gym bros that are focused on lifting and bulking and teasing others about skipping leg day.” I raised an eyebrow. “None of which is me.

“Now imagine teenage guys like Riley. Sure, they can be cute – even adorable. Many times being a teen is when you'll be in the best shape of your life. There's a reason they get picked for advertising and acting – and it's rarely because they have talent. But then you want to listen to music and discover they like something with two notes and one guy saying 'duh' over and over and they think that's the best thing ever. Or you want to go dancing, and they think it's going to be Gangnam Style.”

“Little out of date,” Ken said.

Everything is with that age group. So of course I noticed Riley's growing up, but I also know how gross he is. That whole phase with the avocados should be required reading for anyone wanting to be a parent.” I cleared my throat. “It's kind of like being able to appreciate some things about someone, without it going anywhere else. But to be clear – I'd never get with anyone in your family tree just on the off chance we'd somehow, in some cultures, end up related for life.”

Ken laughed. “Fuck you.” Ken and I ate for a minute, then he leaned back and sipped from his drink. “I can remember in high school, looking at some of the teachers – the new ones. Fresh out of college. Watching movies for some tits. Now you can just search up whatever you want. It's an open pipeline of everything.” He glanced at me. “I know some teachers look back at students. I have to wonder how many of them never do anything, and how do people feel about that compared to the one that marries their class pet?”

“Hard to say,” I replied, wiping my face. “I mean, double standards are everywhere. We still allow for child marriage in the U.S. Some people try and get that changed, but there are others that say it's fine as long as the parent and a judge or pastor okays it. Those same people would fight it being anything other than an older man and a teenage girl. We have a lot of ideas about what's fucked up in this country; we just can't agree on any of it.”

Ken contemplated his burger. “Just so you know, I think Riley would be too good for you.” He bit his burger.

I rolled my eyes. “Please. You just want him to move out.”

Ken grinned. “In all seriousness...I appreciate the honest answer. To be clear, I know you're no threat to Riley or any other kid or anything. Just in case it needs saying.”

“Gee, thanks. I'm glad you don't think I'd diddle anyone's kids,” I said sarcastically.

“You're welcome. Did you talk to Joe about dinner?”

“I mentioned it, yeah.”

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

After lunch I got a Honda whose windshield wipers would go back and forth anytime you were trying to start the car. Yay for wiring and ground issues. About four I got called into Ricks' office.

“Ansel,” he said, jutting his chin toward the chair in front of his desk.

“What's up, Rick?” I asked without sitting. I guess the other shoe would be dropping now.

“You've had too many come backs,” he said with a sigh.

“I haven't seen-” I said, beginning to protest. Come backs were cars you said were fixed, but came back because they weren't fixed.

“It's just time. Not working out anymore. I can offer you a recommendation, of course.”

I stared for a moment. “You're firing me?”

“In so many words.”

My mind froze and then lurched into motion. “This is about whatever Cliff said to you. Isn't it?”

Rick clasped his meaty hands together on his desk blotter. “This is an at will shop. I appreciate your work in the past, but it's time to move on.”

With a certain amount of shock I turned and opened the door. In his doorway I paused and turned back to look at him. “You know, Rick, I always meant to tell you. You should change your deodorant – you could knock a buzzard off a shit-cart.”

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

“Did you actually say that?” Joe asked, trying not to laugh.

“Yes. I mean, what is the recommendation worth in this little town? Plus, honestly, whatever Cliff said to torpedo me is what Rick will say to anyone that calls for my references, illegal or not.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, that's true. There just isn't much in the way of car shops, at least not like that one. Have you given any thought to your next move?”

I moved my fork through the noddles in sauce Joe had made as part of dinner. “I don't know yet.” I paused and glanced up. “Something weird happened at the house last night.”

“Oh?”

So I told him about the clock stopping and how the next thing I knew I'd destroyed half my kitchen.

Joe smiled. “I bet that felt good.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that house looks like a monument to your parents. You dared to make a change, which is a big deal.”

“Huh,” I said, not sure if I believed what he was saying.

“I mean, think about it! Seriously! After all the stories you've told me about your domineering, asshole parents, the fact that you did anything to change the house at all seems like a big deal,” Joe said with a grin. “So I guess the first thing you'll do is put some sheet rock up? Redo the kitchen a bit?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, I could,” I said slowly. “I have some cash squirreled away, and I'm really not sure what to do next, but...yeah, can't leave the kitchen like that.”

After dinner we watched a movie and then managed to tease each other enough to make love. I mean, we'd been kind of tired, but then there was an inadvertent poke here and a smart comment there, and then we were tangled together in fun, and then tangled in love. Sex is odd at any age, but it's still good.

In the morning Joe headed off to work, and I headed over to the home improvement store to pick up some sheet rock and other odds and ends. By noon I had measured and set things up, trimmed the sheet rock panels and mounted them in place. Next was the taping and mudding. I went out to get lunch while the mud dried, and by the time I came back I'd decided to look around the house with a more critical eye to see if there were any other things that needed changing about the house – and the answer was yes.

Still, it felt odd. Joe wasn't wrong; I had a weird feeling my folks were dragging their corpses from their graves – which is why they had yet to arrive – and they were going to give me hell for changing their house. People die; their memories? Not always. By Friday I had the walls properly sanded and ready for paint. My parents had used wallpaper, so that was one strike against picking out a pattern, but the real deal breaker was that wallpaper is a pain in the ass. Of course, I had no idea what color to pick, so I called Joe.

“Ansel, what do you expect me to do about your kitchen paint color from work?” he asked, chuckling.

“Well...I figure you have all the shades memorized,” I teased.

“We can take a look tomorrow. I'm kind of curious to see what you did anyway.”

“You had no idea I was so handy,” I replied, looking over at my work.

“Well, I'll stop by after work; we're expected for dinner at 6:30. Have a good day.”

“Don't tell me what to do,” I said with a grin before we hung up. It was a good thing he'd reminded me. Although Ken and I had spoken briefly after my being fired. I was sure it'd be a topic of discussion tonight. I went outside to grab my trash cans from the curb and had the poor timing to see Sharon climbing from her car.

“Oh. Well, I guess you won't be here much longer, huh?” she said with a big smile. “No job, no mortgage.”

I tilted my head. “Is that why you spend so much time on your back? Still have to get that mortgage paid?”

I have a husband,” she said, tone shifting to something snotty.

“Yeah, but what does he get out of all this?”

Her nostrils flared and she took a few steps toward me, pointing her finger at me and jabbing the air as she spoke. “You're the reason this country is so weak! The worst thing that ever happened was someone feeling sorry for you people and treating you as something besides the perverted filth you are!”

“Wow,” I said, my anger rising. “Whatever you're taking to clear up your latest STD is really getting control of your mouth, Sharon.” I paused and smiled. “I know. Maybe you should drink more!”

“Why don't you just move?” she demanded.

I stepped to one side. “Like here?” I stepped back. “Over here?”

“Out of the neighborhood! I'm going to get a petition to vote you out of here!”

“You know, you just reminded me why HOAs are such a bad idea.”

“I don't need this,” she growled and turned from me.

“So nice to see you leave, Sharon!” I called as I dragged my can back up the driveway to the back door of my house. “Jesus, you'd think I'd kicked her dog or something,” I muttered. I picked up my tools in the kitchen and straightened the area a bit, but I was kind of stuck on what to do next. I sat down and looked at the wall, ready for painting, and looked up where the clock should be out of habit. That's right – the thing stopping had been the start of all this mess.

I hunted around until I found it. It had a green case – a shade popular never – and a white cardboard dial. Curious and with nothing better to do, I grabbed a few tools and sat down to take the clock apart and see why it wasn't working. The power cord needed replacing, the case probably needed to be soaked in degreaser...but maybe I could salvage it. I tinkered with it until Joe showed up and we headed over to the Nakamura's.

Greetings were exchanged, and we went through the house and out to their patio, which Diane had set up for entertaining.

“Diane! I just love this space!” Joe told her.

“It is so relaxing!” she replied with a smile. “I could use your help with some plants, though. Your garden is so peaceful to look at.”

“Ken's peaceful,” I said before adding, “When he's asleep.”

“That's what you know. Man snores like-”

“Okay now!” Ken interrupted, laughing at his wife. “I don't think we want to talk about who's loudest in their sleep.”

“That was one time!” she protested. “And it was your fault!”

We got drinks and sat down around the table while Ken got up periodically to check the grill. The Nakamuras tended toward the vegetarian side of things, mostly due to their son, Riley. Even when he wasn't there, habits were hard to break – not that they had any real desire to do so.

“Are those black bean patties?” Joe asked. His faded pastel shorts contrasted with his dark skin in a way that always fascinated me.

“Yeah. Riley found them not too long after he argued to go vegetarian. They were pretty good, to be honest,” Ken said.

I leaned close to Joe and stage whispered, “That's why he invited us over: they're so good he needed someone else to eat them.”

“You'd think,” Diane said with a laugh. “But I have to admit, Riley's been really focused on finding things that we'll like, and he's even been a big help with starting meals and doing research – hell, he even did some shopping for me. This vegetarian thing isn't too bad!”

“I'm curious; what was his big argument?” Joe asked.

“Empathy, mostly,” Ken said, taking his seat. “He knows Diane is big on animals anyway, and he showed us these pictures close up and asked which was a dog and which a cow, and some of the video's of calves being dragged or the way they mistreat cows before slaughter is just...it's cruel. No other way to say it.”

“Do you find it tough being around people that do eat meat?” Joe asked.

“No,” Diane replied with a smile. “This is our choice. We're not going to change the world or the eating habits of even our own street. If people ask, we tell them, but outside of that, no.”

“Riley's lobbied the school for better lunches, but so far that's not happening,” Ken said with a smile. “He still wants to change the world.”

“Someone should,” Joe said with a big smile.

“So how are you doing after they let you go?” Diane asked with a note of sympathy in her tone.

“Oh, you know. It was a shock at first. I figured if someone called for a reference they'd screw me over, so I burned that bridge.” I sighed. “Been working on the house, which needed serious updating. I'm not really sure what my next move is yet.”

“It was so sudden,” Diane said, frowning. “Why do you think they did it?”

“My neighbor said something to them,” I said. “Cliff's wife, as you know, is the original Shrew Shakespeare wrote about – and yeah, she looks like she's survived on nicotine and spite since the 1200s or whenever he was writing,” I said with a half-hearted chuckle.

“Hmm,” Ken said, tapping the top of his can with his finger. “I think I may know.”

The three of us looked at him.

“I overheard Cliff talking to Manny. First it was his normal shit about how much he can't stand his wife's kid. But then, maybe a day or two after they fired you, I heard him tell Manny it was because you were after kids.” Ken paused. “I wonder if he heard our conversation, somehow.”

“I didn't see him, but I guess that doesn't mean anything.” I paused. “It'd make more sense, though, than just a random 'Hey, he's gay so he's also a pedo' argument. I mean, Rick knew I was gay. If he had a problem with it, he never said.”

“What discussion did you have where he could have come to that idea?” Diane asked, mystified.

“It's basically seeing someone who's hot, then finding out they are underage or something,” I said. “Like remember when we went to Riley's baseball game last year? And you saw that guy-”

“He was six-foot four! He looked like a coach!” Diane protested, smiling as she did.

“Still,” I said. “He was still hot, but once you found out you felt guilty – even though all that changed was you found out he was off limits. Now it's just a joke. So Ken and I were sitting down to lunch, and a whole team of sweaty jocks ran by the store, and I cracked that it must be my birthday.”

“It was two guys,” Ken said with a roll of his eyes.

“You counted?” I asked slyly.

“Rick fired you for that?” Diane asked with shock.

“I think it was something along those lines, but who knows what Cliff actually said,” Ken said with a sigh.

“I still can't believe he was fifteen,” Diane said grumpily. “That wasn't fair. I mean I'd never normally look at a teenager – they aren't done yet, you know?”

I grinned and leaned forward, holding my beer can between my fingertips. “Do you remember any of your crushes from high school?”

“A few,” she said with a lazy grin.

“And in your head they are still hot – maybe with a side of nostalgia?”

“Eh. Hot...I remember how they made me feel at the time, sure. But more nostalgia.”

“Date any of your high school crushes?”

“One or two.”

“Well, for me, it was zero. Lots of crushes, no dating. As a consequence, Joe here says I experience a false sense of nostalgia. Seeing a guy I'd have loved to date – read crush on – in high school or college.”

“Unrequited mental crap in his attic,” Joe supplied with a grin. “Now I don't suffer from that, because I did date in high school and college – I had those experiences. What he really longs for is to be 16 and have the ability to be out and living. He misses the idea of what could have been.”

“Now see,” Ken said as he flipped the burgers over. “When Joe says it, it makes sense. You? Makes me feel weird.”

“Fuck you,” I said with a roll of my eyes amid the laughter.

Ken put the food down on the lazy Susan between us all, and we built our plates and enjoyed the unusual food. I even thought I wouldn't mind having them again, except that Riley would look smug, and I couldn't allow that.

“I'm always disappointed in the ways people look to separate themselves from 'the other'. You know? Today we are more tribal than we have been in a long time. Now groups that want to undermine same sex couples are gaining ground, and they may have mixed race couples in their sights as well.” She shook her head. “Did either of you have to deal with that? The racial bias?”

“My parents never met Joe, but they'd have had problems with him outside of his skin color.”

“Hmm,” Joe said, leaning back and crossing his legs. “Beyond being gay?”

“Yeah,” I said, pinching at his shorts. “They were very anti-pastel.”

Joe grinned widely as the others chuckled. “Well my parents would have disapproved of you, but since I haven't spoken to them in twenty years or so, you'll be spared.”

“What would have been their issue? The gay part or the interracial part?” Diane asked.

Joe's hand curled around mine as he replied. “I find culture to be a hard word to digest sometimes. When you say 'black culture', for instance, it's not even consistent in the U.S., let alone around the world. Same thing with 'gay culture'. But my parents’ specific brand of being black was rooted in some old, southern biases. You see, some black people prize a light-skinned black person over darker skin tones, because it means they mixed with whites.”

There was a beat of silence, and Ken said, “That's dumb.”

“Thank you!” Joe said, grinning widely again. “But to them, that's a catch. I almost think they'd be very all right with a light skinned or interracial relationship for me – far more than a gay one.”

“You mean to say they completely ignore that for the races to have mixed, slavery was involved? Probably rape of some kind, but they dig that out and say it has value?” Diane asked, eyes wide.

Joe shrugged. “I didn't say it made sense.”

“Thing that gets me,” Ken said, leaning back in his chair, “is what sort of damage you have to date this guy?”

“Have I said 'fuck you' tonight?” I asked to the laughter in the room.

“That's interesting,” Diane said. “Do you think any of that so-called culture made a difference to you when you went after Ansel?”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Joe said, wagging a finger. “First of all, I didn't go after him.”

“Here we go!” I said, throwing my hands in the air.

“Don't you start,” he said teasingly.

A door closed, and Ken glanced at his wife before calling out. “Riley?”

Even from the patio I could hear the kid's eyes roll.

“Yeah.”

“Come say hello,” Diane said.

I'm not sure I imagined a groan, but then Riley was there. Riley got his dark hair from his dad, but the rest was Diane – on the taller side, pleasant face and stubborn as a team of mules. He gave Joe and I a pleasant enough smile and a little wave.

“How was the date?” Diane asked.

“Anything but that,” Riley sighed.

“Uh oh,” Ken said. “What's the plan now?”

“I texted Kev, and he's going to come over. His friends are – well, one has family over, and the other one is grounded.”

“Kev only has two friends?” Ken asked.

Riley shrugged. “Two he hangs around with a lot, I guess. I'm going to get changed,” he said leaving the room.

“Poor Kevin,” Diana said with a shake of her head. “His mother – my sister – is an alcoholic. She married a man who believes marriage is forever, and so there is no hope of divorce to spare Kevin. Such a sad situation.”

We were letting dinner settle when Diane spoke up. “So you really haven't thought about your next move?”

I shrugged. “Not too much. Not yet.”

“Ever think about opening up your own shop?” she asked.

“Well...yes and no. Financing would be an issue-”

“Not if you sold your house and moved in with me!” Joe volunteered, laughing at my expression.

“There's also finding a location, rent, insurance, not to mention the ridiculous interest those tool companies charge you when you need something.” I sighed. “It'd have a lot of moving parts.”

Ken nodded as he drank his beer, making some noise that sounded like agreement. “Hang on,” he said, getting up and running into the house.

“What other choices do you have? I mean, you going to take a minimum wage job at an oil change place or what?”

“I'm really not sure yet,” I replied. “Joe and I were tossing this whole thing around the other day, and I'm sure Rick will poison the well for me to get anything in this industry.”

“Especially after you told him your true feelings about his manly scent,” Joe said, laughing behind his hand. That required an explanation and set Diane to laughing.

“Here's the moving parts,” Ken said, tossing a manila folder in my lap. I glanced at Ken for a moment before opening the folder. I frowned lightly.

“You came up with a business plan to open your own shop?” I asked.

“Yep,” Ken smiled widely. “I'd always had it in the back of my head, but it'd be easier with a partner.”

Joe slipped on his reading glasses and looked over my shoulder as I flipped through the documents. I looked up at Ken. “How did you project the revenue?”

“Partially from cutting the overhead of a guy like Rick, the branding of a chain and that sort of thing. Second was the number of unhappy customers in that place – I think personal service will make a huge difference. Third, you know they never pay enough to keep good techs – they are always hiring inexperienced people and do their best to drum out guys making too much. Honestly,” he said, looking from me to his wife and back, “I'm not sure how much longer before they let me go, too.”

Later that evening, Joe and I were snuggled in bed, both tired but sated.

“You know,” Joe said, “I know you're not quite ready to move, but maybe if you take a loan on the house while you renovate, you can also have the cash to start the business. Then, when you're done renovating, you can sell the house for more than the loan value.”

I hummed in acknowledgment. I wasn't sure why I was attached to being here at all, and maybe I needed to figure that out first. For the next few weeks that's exactly what I did. I went through each room to see what they needed for updates. Some were just basic – a new coat of paint and some serious floor cleaning or putting something new down to walk on. Others, like the bathroom with the urine-yellow tiling were going to be more of a project.

As I painted and sprayed, glued and replaced, I thought about my life. My parents. My family and what it was like to be a part of that while growing up. I was the last of four, and something less than expected, and the jury was still out on if I'd been welcome. My old man had lived through his kids. He had been the kind who'd never actually done anything, but liked to act as if he were an integral part of everything. State championships? Coach of the year? Conquering Saddam? Yep. No one knew his name, he wasn't celebrated, but it was all due to him – just ask him and he'd have told you.

The oldest, Roy, had a hard time growing up with the weight of that to follow – especially with two girls following him. My dad was a very polite misogynist. Women in the kitchen, hush now – the men are speaking. By the time I'd shown up, Roy was heading into the military – he used to joke going to war was easier than dealing with our parents. He'd been out of state last I'd heard, but we hadn't spoken in years. Carol had her first at fifteen and still pops one out every so often, as if testing to see if she still can. She had found someone with money to hitch herself to and had left the state. Kate was always working on herself or finding herself or something. She moved around a lot, and a person could go years without hearing from her. She could be in state, but the fact is she could be next door or in Timbuktu.

As I grew up my mind leaned into cars and the guys that loved cars. I'd spent time with a lot of guys who'd just needed a tune up or someone who understood how to install a new chip and tune their Honda beater. I wasn't much of an athlete, which left me off my father's interest list for most of my life. Neglect was his big gift to me, and my mother...well, if we'd been more well off she'd have been dipping into the cooking sherry, but as it was she was more likely to have a can of Genesee Cream Ale in her hand, a Pall Mall between her fingers, and acid on her tongue.

Late one night, with Joe asleep in my bed, I sat in the kitchen tinkering with the clock. I'd found a website with ways to fix them and was trying to revive it when Joe got up to use the bathroom and stopped in to see me afterward. Wrapping his arms around my shoulders from behind he nuzzled my ear.

“Can't sleep?”

“Little heartburn; think it was that last cup of coffee,” I replied.

He rested his chin on top of my head. “I can't get over the change in the kitchen. Maybe if you don't go back to mechanics you could do remodeling.”

I chuckled. “No name recognition, and I can't claim to have been doing it for years.” I let out a small sigh.

“What was that sigh for?”

“I was just thinking. About my parents. About how my dad was just...not interested in me and how my mother was just a shell of a person.” I paused. “I was living on my own, still just cautiously out, because people like auto mechanics aren't usually the most diverse group...and then Dad had his stroke. I'd had freedom before, and I wasn't really interested in giving that up, but then Roy called me and basically told me since I had no kids – and wasn't going to – that it was my responsibility. Like...really? Kids equals a reason to live? It's your purpose in life and if you don't have them, then you are worthless or less than?”

Joe swung around to sit beside me. “I know many people think of children as a blessing. That's fairly one-dimensional thinking. Kids are a responsibility. They can bring joy or pain, the same as any human, except their experiences often make them very aware of the big things – pain. Crying. Anger. Less so on the joy, except as it relates to them. It takes maturity to see the joy in others and make it your own joy. It takes experience to recognize the bad paths, the ones we often take in youth when we can't read the warning signs. I do believe sometimes there are bad kids, as well. There are people who just want to watch things burn – and they are the worst of all.

“But children don't define a life. They can enhance it. Teach us things about ourselves. Give us the chance to help someone else to see the good in life.”

I grunted. “After Roy and Carol guilted me into it, I moved back in. Had to help Dad get in and out of bed, strap him into his wheelchair. Cook for them – and you know that's more of a curse than anyone realizes.”

“Does seem cruel and unusual,” he agreed with a sleepy smile.

I shook my head. “I'm just thinking. Go back to bed.”

“Not yet,” he said, leaning his head on his hand. “I want to see where this train of thought ends up.”

I shrugged and turned my hands up on the table. “I just...I looked at this kitchen and thought how Dad would have hated the colors and Mom wouldn't have cared and I...don't care.” I glanced at Joe. “I suddenly don't care what they would have thought. Painting the bedrooms anything but the cheapest off-white available was anathema to them. Only God knows why they chose the tile in the bathroom, but I'll bet you it was on clearance because no one else liked the look of urine-colored tile.”

Joe covered his mouth and started to laugh. “Well,” he said, trying to regain his composure. “What does that mean to you?”

“It means...I guess it's time to let the place go. I think taking a loan to finish the upgrades and get it ready for sale is a good idea, and I'd better get to it so Ken and I can hang out our own shingle.”

“I,” he said, leaning forward and pecking my cheek, “think that's a great idea. Now come to bed, so tomorrow isn't a lost day because you're so tired.”

“Yeah,” I said tiredly and set the clock down to go back to bed.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Summer ended, and Ken and I looked around for a place we could rent or buy that would suit our needs. While that happened, I took a loan against the house and went full bore, twelve-hour days to refurbish the place, so it would look its best. Fall brought the changing of the leaves, and it made me think of the guy I'd hoped to see while out jogging – but I couldn't remember what he looked like anymore, just that he'd been pretty damn hot.

Karen assumed I was selling the house, and other than being smug, she didn't say much – probably because she wanted me out faster. Oh, she couldn't help herself sometimes, and she'd complain about the noise, but I'd just run something over her voice to annoy her. Honestly I felt petty enough to stay, if only it wouldn't delay other things in my life.

Joe called me one afternoon as I was standing back to get a good look at the sub-floor I'd just installed in the bathroom.

“Ansel! We have to go look right now!”

“We what? Look at what?”

“I already called Ken! We have an appointment at five-thirty!”

“Appointment for what, babe?” I asked, smiling at his enthusiasm.

“Oh! Ha! I can't believe I didn't say already – a garage! Jack Seaford called me – he was the real estate agent I used when I bought my house, if you recall? Anyway I'd mentioned to him that you and Ken were looking for a place, and he found one! I think we can afford it, and I can't wait to see it!”

I wiped at my eye, touched that he was so all in on this thing. Why hadn't I married this guy? “That sounds great. Should we meet there, or you want to meet up after work and head over together?”

“I'll get off a few minutes early, but if it won't be cutting into your work time too much, come shower at my place, since the shop is nearer my house than yours – maybe we can go for Thai afterward? I've had a craving.”

“Sure, sounds perfect.”

I thought about it for a minute and then glanced at my watch. I spent the next few hours measuring and experimentally laying down most of the floor tile – a neutral color my dad probably would have approved of, if not the cost, but I figured whoever was going to buy this place could match stuff to it. It was about two-thirty, and I figured I'd put off cutting the tile for under the sink, which needed round holes for the piping, and the tiles going under the toilet. I stood up and popped my back, thinking about heading to Joe's to get a shower in, when I heard something...odd. Something that made me think of drunk mothers and angry fathers.

There was a slapping sound. Leather on skin.

A scream.

A kid's scream.

The kind where the voice changes.

I think the technical term might be a warble, but with kids it's when a boy's voice is changing and when he gets loud, it all of a sudden goes really high.

In a daze I pulled out my phone and dialed 911. I reported a kid being beaten next door. Then I went to find my hammer, just to be able to defend myself, but I couldn't find it. Where was it? Another scream – agonizing to my psyche. My nerves began twisting under my forearms, feeling like an itch. I turned and ran to my front door, pulled it open, tripped on the threshold and went down, knocking my head on the floor and dazing myself for a moment.

In that moment...I was ten. I was running in terror from my old man. He worked construction and had come home in a foul mood. He was covered in sheet rock dust and stank of dried, sour sweat. It was summer, maybe. It was hot, and maybe I hadn't cleaned my room or swept the back steps, or maybe I picked the wrong day to exist or breathe or something. The 'reason' was no more than pretext. Daddy was mad, and he had his belt, and I was running. I was running, and I got to the door, and I tripped on the threshold and knocked a tooth out and split my lip. I cried in pain, and then my dad told me one of his favorite things.

“I'll give you something to cry about.”

A siren drew close, and I scrambled to my feet, the ghost of my father chasing my thoughts away. There was another scream. I went down my steps to the edge of the hedges, looking at the open doorway and listening to the raised voices inside. Another car pulled up, and one of the officers approached me, asking my name and if I'd placed the call. The next little while was a bit of a boring blur – questions asked and answered over and over about what I'd heard, what I was doing, how I got that bump on my forehead.

They said they would take it from here, and they would let me know if they needed anything. I nodded, I think. I don't really remember driving to Joe's, but he did come home early and found me standing in the shower, not having turned the water on and with tears running down my face. He got the water running and told me he'd go lay out some clothes for me, but not to rush. I looked down at my hands, no longer those of a small boy and tightened them into fists.

“Fuck you, old man,” I said to the room and slowly started to get clean. Once done I toweled off and walked into the bedroom, where Joe had laid out something for me to wear. I pulled on the underwear, socks and pants before he appeared in the doorway, sipping from a mug.

“I made some coffee. Would you like a cup?” he asked quietly.

“Uh, maybe to go, sure,” I replied, pulling the shirt over my head.

“You sure you still want to go? Whatever happened seemed...big.”

I nodded my head twice and then looked at him. “Yeah. I think I need out of my house – their house. I didn't realize it until today – maybe even just this afternoon. It...it all came together. In my head.”

He tilted his head. “What did?”

I chuckled, but there was no humor in it. “How much I hate that house. How much I hated my parents. How much I...gave up or lost or whatever...feeling that way. Giving them my time – my life!”

“Sounds like you had an epiphany,” he said, approaching and sitting beside me on the bed. I joined him and covered his hand with mine.

“I was just stopping the tile work for today.” I closed my eyes. “I heard him screaming. In pain.”

After a moment Joe prompted me, in a worried tone. “Who? Who was in pain, Ansel?”

I tightened my hold on his hand and then let it go. “The boy next door. Someone was beating on him. So I called 911. I went to go next door, but I tripped on the stupid threshold and...and all of a sudden I was ten again, and my father was coming to beat my ass for the crime of being alive.” I shuddered.

Joe leaned his head against my shoulder. “I think, after careful consideration and having dated you for two years, that your father was an asshole.”

I snorted and then laughed a bit. “Yeah.” I rubbed my face with my free hand. “Anyway. Cops came, took statements. They'll call if they need anything else.”

Joe was quiet for a minute and then asked, “Would you rather stay in tonight? I can reschedule the showing.”

I shook my head. “Nah. Let's go do this thing. Maybe it's my first step out of there and into something better.”

Joe fixed me a travel cup of coffee while I found my shoes and keys, then we headed over to the shop. Joe lived fairly close to this spot, so I could guess he'd suggest my commute would be shorter from his house. We pulled into the parking lot, half grass and half asphalt, and I looked out the window at the weed choked lot and the growth around the building itself.

“I think it has character,” Joe said, and a glance confirmed the smile I knew I'd find on his face.

The building looked like a shop right out of the 1960s, with two tall bay doors in the center and an office space to the left side with angled glass that made me think of The Jetson's. The outside of the building was stone, and there were stone planters, matching the building, to either side of the plate glass door.

“We could do something nice with those planters,” Joe said. Before I could reply that he'd be the one doing something with them, Ken and Diane pulled in, followed by the familiar Toyota truck of Jack Seaford, who was a real estate agent, apparently.

“Hi there, guys,” Jack said as he closed the door on his beloved little truck. “Ansel, not a leak since you fixed her up!”

“Better not be,” I said with a grin and shook his hand. I made introductions. “You know Joe, that pretty lady is Diane, and unfortunately, I think you know Ken.”

Jack laughed, and Ken gave me the finger before shaking Jack's hand and introducing Diane.

“I hear you're thinking about hanging out your own shingle?” Jack asked as we walked toward the building.

“That's the mad plan,” Ken replied.

“Well, this shop was built in 1965 and is just over 2400 square feet. It's properly zoned, though it has been empty for a few years. The roof was done the year before the shop closed – maybe five or six years ago now. The owner, sad to say, died in the building while working. The shop sat for a while due to probate issues that have only recently been ironed out, and the family is motivated to sell.”

“That a term you only hear in real estate – motivated to sell,” Diane said with a smile.

Jack laughed. “It translates to none of the family want a garage, and they just want to cash out as quickly as they can, because this has already dragged on far too darned long!”

We laughed with him, and he continued. “In addition, the property has accrued taxes that are behind, and the family is eager to get this off their back – which contributes to the lower price than you may expect for commercial property. Plus there is one really nice bonus that comes with the property – all the tools and equipment are part and parcel of the sale.”

“Oh? That has possibilities,” Ken said, glancing at me. We followed Jack into the office side of the building.

“That...smell,” Diane said, covering her mouth with her forearm before sneezing.

“It's been buttoned up, but with the absence of humans we may find a rodent issue or perhaps some structural items of note – hard to say. We'd need a building inspector, of course, before any sale,” Jack replied.

The smell she was complaining of was the musty odor of disuse, probably some mouse crap, and an underlying petroleum smell from oils and other lubricants that garages have. The office had a waist-high counter to separate the customer from the business side of things. One desk and a few old metal filing cabinets took up the bulk of space on one side, while the customer side ended with a half door to the desk side, a door that had a small sign stating 'main drain' and a triangular sticker with a flame on it that was labeled 'flammable', and a third door that faced toward the right that likely opened out into the service area.

Dust was everywhere, and my imagination conjured up squeaks and the sounds of claws skittering in the walls. Jack led us into the service area, and it was obvious that things had been left where they'd fallen.

“How is it this place hasn't been destroyed by the local bored youth brigade?” I mused.

“Easy answer – the cops like to sit behind the building; they use it as a speed trap,” Jack said with a grin. “As you might have noted, its location doesn't hurt in terms of cars going by, so kids would probably have been seen. This bit of angled land the garage was built on makes it unique in a few ways. Tough to build anything on it due to shape and size – the parking area is not huge, though you have some room out back. There was a rumor of a coffee chain going in here, but I think the logistics of how to get in and out and not have an unsafe traffic flow doomed it. Considering you don't have drive-through service in a garage...you'd do a bit better.”

Jack said he'd give us some time to look around without him hanging over our shoulders and to call him if we needed anything.

“What are you thinking?” Ken asked as he looked up at the overhead lights.

“I'm thinking...there are possibilities. I'm wondering what a building inspection will reveal. If we can scrape enough money together or if we'd need a loan.”

“So,” he asked, looking at me with a knowing smile. “You want to go into business with me.”

I shivered for effect. “You make it sound so dirty.”

Our footfalls echoed in the large space as we looked all around at our potential business venture. There were a couple of doors on the far end of the building, which we found to be a partially filled stock room with shelving and a second bathroom. A third door opened to a storage room with an oil tank and other HVAC mechanicals. A large air tank was present, and I assumed it worked to pressurize the pneumatic hoses for tools, though we'd likely use more battery powered tools now.

“These lifts are like $5K a piece,” Ken said, slapping his hand against one of the lift supports. “The toolbox probably has some specialty stuff – we could be on a gold mine.”

“Well,” I said with a sigh and rubbing my chin. “I wouldn't go that far. We do have a few issues with the location – partially being we have very little room for customer vehicles, so anything that comes in can't sit. Second if this place was a great garage spot, I think the family would have been told and worked through their shit faster – assuming they had any choice. But since he said probate...maybe they were fighting over the estate and...I don't know. Plus we can't forget we have competition in town.”

“Solid work will get us a reputation,” Ken said with confidence. He headed back out to talk to Jack, who was outside with Diane and Joe.

I looked around the space, feeling as if my breath were echoing, though that couldn't be true. “Well. I guess we're going to see more of each other,” I said to the room.

Joe had me head over to his house, then he insisted I come inside. I knew he'd want to talk more about the state he'd found me in, but I wasn't sure how much of that I was ready to process. Instead he put the radio on, and we sat out on his porch swing, nursing a beer, and he talked about the possibilities of the shop.

It was tough getting to sleep, though, hearing that scream echo in my head.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

As Autumn settled in for its brief annual visit, leaves turned and the weather began to get colder in the morning and night, with the middle of the day still being quite nice. While the bank did their calculations on our financials and business plan, I worked to finish the house, so I could sell it and try to leave as much of my childhood in my past as I could. When I'd been a young man I'd thought I was free, but I'd been reminded of a lot when I'd had to move back home – and was only now realizing I had the keys to my own cell.

I got up ridiculously early on Monday, put on some exercise clothes, and went for a run. I let my mind wander to the terrible things my parents did, and oddly my mind jumped to Joe's interpretation of my fantasies about younger men. It's funny, I guess, that my mind just wants a big old redo of my teenage years. In a way I guess it's a bit immature, but in another sense my brain just thinks I was cheated and I should get a second shot. No one gets that, though.

I slowed as a stitch settled into my side and I bent over a bit, trying to moderate my breath.

“Hey.”

I looked up as one of my running motivations slowed down, pulling an airpod from his ear. “Hey,” I nodded.

“You okay? Haven't seen you out in a few weeks.”

He'd noticed me? How odd. “Yeah. Been doing remodeling work at home, not as much time for exercise.”

“Yeah, I get that. It's harder for me with school starting back up, too. Grades, athletics. Plus my family bought an old Victorian, and we're turning it into a B&B, so that takes up a lot of time.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That's a heavy schedule.” I paused a moment and then put my hand out. “Ansel Wagner.”

He smiled and took my hand. “Derek Pellegrini.”

Derek was young enough to run bare chested, having everything to show off. He'd obviously been out for a bit, judging from the sweat on his skin.

“You look like you really settled into your running routine,” Derek said. “Did you run track or cross country in high school?”

“Me? No. I'm just trying to lose some weight, fight off the middle-aged flab. You know?” Then I laughed at myself. “Yeah, of course you'd know – look at you; what's your body fat percent? Zero? Mine's glazed doughnut.”

Derek smiled widely and laughed. “I have to keep up with my boyfriend. He likes lifting more than running, but he's still in pretty solid shape.” Derek grinned. “I'm working on a plan to keep the 'freshman fifteen' off him when he starts college next year.”

Shit. I was ogling a high school senior. “College, huh? What's he going to major in?”

“Dentistry,” Derek replied. “I'm going to work on the B&B, but I may need to take some hospitality courses later. We'll see how it goes. What are you going to do, now that you've lost so much weight?”

That brought my thoughts to a sudden stop. “Sorry?”

Derek looked flustered for just a heartbeat. “I mean, you said you were trying to lose weight. You were...a lot heavier at the start of the summer, but it looks like your plan worked out. Just wondering if you're going to stop now or find something else for the winter. I'm not a huge fan of swimming, but some friends of mine were on the swim team and said it was really good exercise. I'm kind of not sure if it's for me.”

Pushing aside thoughts that he'd noticed me – and wondering why he'd noticed me – I replied, “I actually hadn't thought about it. Things have been so busy lately, I hadn't really noticed my...weight loss. We're opening a new business and trying to get the house ready for sale...not a lot of extra bandwidth.”

“I can relate,” Derek replied. “What kind of business?”

“Mechanic shop. A buddy of mine and I were at a place and decided to work for ourselves.”

“That's one thing I love about the B&B idea. Control over my own schedule, making more decisions because they are better for me than some shareholder.” Derek wiped the airpod on his shorts. “Let me know when your shop opens. Our friend that used to do our repairs is up in Albany with his boyfriend now, and their shop is mostly for fixing their own used car stock – not general public stuff.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Does everyone you know have a boyfriend?”

He got a devilish look. “Why, you looking for one?”

I gut laughed. I mean, really, the tone, the expression...it was seriously funny. “No,” I managed. “No, I have my own. Just seems odd. Not something I could say when I was your age.”

Derek grinned. “Something in the water here. I have a lot of gay friends, which is really nice. They can all relate, and sometimes it feels like we're the average thing, you know? The norm.”

I looked back at him for a minute. “No. I don't think I can imagine that. In my day...wow I sound old, but in my day it was all faggot and fairy and queer as standard insults.”

Derek nodded. “Still some of that. It's making a comeback. Some adults are like, you're a snowflake if their kid can't be insulting. For a while our school was a lot better, but there's a new principal, and their policies are a little different. Some parents are protesting books and actual people – like if they say they don't exist, then they don't. I don't know how people can be so insane about treating other people the same way. Like if you're married to someone of the opposite sex, why does that mean you get to put down people of the same sex? Then they want to complain about gay people raising kids, when straight people failing to take care of them is why the gay parents step in.”

I nodded. “They want to take your tax money and discriminate against you with it.” I looked at Derek as he glanced across the street, then thanked me for the chat, reminded me to let him know when we opened our shop, then said he had to go get ready for school. He popped his airpod back in and started jogging away. I watched him go for a minute and thought that he wasn't any less attractive, but I saw him as more of a person now. He was more real and had turned out to be a thoughtful individual.

My stitch having abated, I started jogging back toward home, turning the conversation over in my head. I jogged slowly into my driveway, noting the vehicle in front of the neighbor's house. Sharon was standing on the front stoop, tears on her face, though she looked madder than a wet hen. I came to a stop and sat on my stoop, listening from behind the hedges to her speak to the woman who was standing on the stone path between the sidewalk and Sharon's porch.

“He misbehaves, you know? His father walked off – and God only knows where to! He needs discipline, and Cliff gives him that,” Sharon was saying in a defensive yet condescending tone.

“Mrs. Cataldo,” the lady said, her hands folded over one another before her. “That 'discipline' was harsh enough to break his skin. That isn't discipline. It's abuse, and it's why your son isn't here now.”

Sharon snorted. “Please. He's had worse – he's a boy! He's fine!”

“Mrs. Cataldo,” the lady said, sounding tired. “There will be an investigation. You have my card; we will speak soon. Maybe you should head down to the police station and see about bailing out your husband?”

“Jesus Christ!” Sharon said, raising a hand to her forehead. The other lady gave Sharon a tiny nod and turned to her car, while Sharon turned and stomped into the house. Huh. Cliff had been arrested? But he'd beaten the kid maybe a week ago? What in the Christ took so long? I headed inside and showered, then took a cup of coffee out onto the back porch to enjoy the late morning sunshine while I planned out what to work on that day.

“I don't know!” I heard Sharon yell from her kitchen.

“I hate him,” said a female voice – probably the daughter.

“I don't know what his problem is. All he has to do is listen,” Sharon replied, agreeing without saying as much.

“He's jealous. I'm so much better than he is,” the younger voice said confidently.

“You were lucky,” Sharon replied. “You've had a dad the whole way to be strong for you. He didn't have that, but now it might be too late. I can't believe this!” Sharon stalked out the back door to her little patio and lit up a cigarette. She turned and spotted me and narrowed her eyes through the smoke.

“Aren't you gone yet?”

I sipped my coffee. “I have some time. They're still lining up all the dates.”

She blew out a plume of smoke. “Dates? What dates?”

“I've rented the place out,” I said with a gentle smile. “Pretty soon there is going to be a licensed daycare here. Little Rainbows. They're lining up the performers for their drag queen story hours.”

Her eyes bugged out. “What? You can't do that here! This is a family neighborhood!”

I smiled again. “Welcome to the gayborhood, Sharon. You can play the part of the wicked witch.”

She pointed at me, fingers pinching her cigarette while a trail of smoke followed her wild movements. “I will go to the town council! I'll call the news! That is grooming, you disgusting pedophile!

A flame lit deep within me. “Please, call them, Sharon. Good publicity. When they ask me about all this, I'll point out that the only problem we have is that there is a child abuser and enabler living next door. Let's see how fast that media spotlight turns, Karen.”

“It's. Not. Natural.” she stated, puncturing each word with her smoke laden fingers.

“Neither is your hair color,” I said.

She snorted. “That's all you have? Making fun of my hair?”

“Well, we already covered how you let a man abuse your son. You probably encourage it. After that, everything is kind of small potatoes.”

“It wasn't abuse!” she snapped. “He was told to get those grades up! That's what's wrong with the world – no discipline for children. When I was a girl I got my ass whooped when I disobeyed.”

“Did daddy hit your face a lot? Sure looks like it.”

Laughter erupted from inside her house.

“You're disgusting!” She shrieked, and her speech devolved into one insult running over another in breathless fashion, so much so that I stopped being able to decipher individual words. She finally punctuated her comments with, “so fuck off!”

I stood and swigged the last of my coffee. “As much as I'd love to continue this erudite conversation,” I said, smiling at her even though my insides were wound up at her behavior.

“What did you call me?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing.

“I have work to do, and you have a child abuser to bail out of jail.” I paused. “I think I like my day better.”

She started up with the 'fuck yous' and more, but I turned and went back inside and decided I'd have my second cup in the house.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

For now, we were officially open Monday through Saturday, but we were mostly cleaning up the place. Having sat for so long, it was mostly just dirty, so we weren't in any kind of shape for a grand opening or anything. The building inspection hadn't found anything major, which was a relief, but we did have a company out to inspect the HVAC, since it was old and hadn't really been used for a few years. Ken and I worked to get the place ready for business, and Joe worked on getting flowers into the planters out front, while Diane got an artist friend of hers to give us a reasonable price on putting gold lettering on the front door – Shade Tree Mechanics.

The permitting process was surprisingly simple, and before you knew it the shop was officially open. Business was predictably slow at first, but that was to be expected. It allowed me to finish up a few things on the old home and to move my things into Joe's place.

The second Saturday we were open a nice looking young guy pulled his car into the lot and got out as if he wasn't entirely confident in being there. I put down the tools I was arranging, grabbed a rag and headed for the office, as I could see the kid heading for the front door.

He had probably just had time to sit down before I walked through the door and greeted him. “Hey there. How can I help you?”

Looking up at me as I wiped my hands on the rag, he stood awkwardly, his foot catching on a leg of the chair. “Uh, my dad told me to stop by. I have a tire with a nail in it. Are you Ansel?”

“I am, and you must be Noah,” I said with a smile. “Let's have a look.”

He trailed behind me as I walked to the car and squatted down, feeling around the outside of the soft tire.

“It's a nail. The people next door are putting on a new roof – I think it was one of their nails that got me.”

“Well,” I said as I stood. “Normally a tire would survive a nail puncture, but...your tires are shot.” He shook his head. “I'll call your dad, but you're going to need new rubber on this beastie.”

“New tires?” he asked, sounding bummed. “How much will that be?”

“Well,” I said as I walked around his car, squatting to touch each tire in turn to see if they'd last long enough to let the kid drive away. “Probably about five to six hundred, depending on which tires. See the little rubber hash marks between the treads? When tires are new this little hash mark is down low, but see how it's almost even with your treads? That's when you know these things are totally done in.”

He frowned. “Okay. I see what you mean. I just wasn't expecting that much,” he said with a sigh.

I smiled. “Don't worry – your dad said to get you tires if you needed them. Safety first, you know?” I leaned closer. “But I bet he gets the cost out of you later, huh?”

Noah chuckled. “Yeah. It may not be cash, but....”

“Yeah. Mowing, shoveling, college tuition...parents are the worst,” I teased and laughed. Noah laughed a little too. Probably a sympathetic response, as the joke wasn't that funny. “Anyway. Have to order the tires, so let me plug this one gratis, and we'll book an appointment for your new tires.”

Twenty minutes later Noah was back on the road, appointment in the books. As I did some more tidying up, I thought about Noah and his dad, about how much work went into raising a kid, if you did it right. There was Cliff, despising his stepson and treating him in a way that let him know how little Cliff thought of him. Then there was Noah, who looked like he was cared for, from his disposition down to his manner of dress.

I guess it helped as a parent if you liked your kid, but even if you didn't – like if they turned into a Republican – at least you could be decent to them.

Memories of my parents had slipped back into whatever hole in my mind they'd been hiding in, but Wednesday Joe and I were cleaning up a little while we waited for Jack Seaford to come over, as he was going to be my agent for selling the house. I tied off a bag of trash and took it out back to put into the rolling trash bin and paused to look around the small yard. Joe had spread some grass seed and we'd done a bit of work to make the shrubs and trees look a bit neater, but it reminded me of the old saying about lipstick on a pig.

My musing was interrupted by Sharon stepping out on to the back deck behind Cliff, her voice a weird cross of accusatory and afraid.

“But what will that mean?” she asked.

Cliff shrugged. “Hard to be sure, Sharon. Lawyer said they might leave him in the system and make us pay something in support. I'm not paying for that little fucker – this is all his fault to begin with. Christ, if you hadn't been so lenient with him before, he wouldn't be such a goddamn waste now.”

“It was hard with no man around!” Sharon yelped. “Lord knows he needs discipline, but maybe...maybe if you don't hit him quite so hard we can get back to normal?”

Cliff lit a cigarette and shook his head. “I won't have anyone telling me how to act in my own house. Christ, that damn black football player took a switch to his kid, and they tried to say that was abuse, too.”

“He was rich, though. You can do anything and get away with it if you have money.” Sharon suddenly spotted me on my porch and snarled. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Oh, Christ,” I said with a sigh. “No one said your name three times.”

“What? What does he mean?” she demanded, looking at Cliff.

“Hey, Cliff. I see you're still being an asshole.”

“Fuck you, Ansel,” he said quietly. “Go get a fuckin' job.” He snuffed out his smoke and went inside.

Joe stepped out of the house. “Ansel, are you avoiding work? It's your house, you know.”

“Nah, just about to come in. Smell of brimstone is a bit strong out here.”

“Figures you'd be sleeping with a jungle man,” she sneered.

Joe glanced at her and then said to me, “She's just as charming as you described.”

We went inside and met Jack shortly thereafter. We walked him through the house, and he took notes of all the updates I'd made and took a video walk through of the place. He was going to walk outside the house for a video of the perimeter, but we had to warn him in case she-who-shall-not-be-named spotted him. Jack asked if there was anything to stipulate in the contract that wouldn't come with the house, like a chandelier or something. I told him I was keeping the kitchen clock, since I'd gotten it working again.

A few days later the house was listed for sale, officially. Jack did tell me putting a sign out that the home was for sale because the neighbor was an asshole might affect the final price of the home.

Life slowly went on as the business began to pick up. Joe and I settled into a routine, with dinner together at home and learning how to live together, sharing space all the time versus the way we'd been when we each had our own places. It really wasn't that hard; in fact, it was good to have him close all the time. We talked more and shared the upkeep together. We talked some about my parents, but only when he prompted the conversation. I didn't think of it often, but I guess he was trying to be supportive. Honestly, the thought of them popped up sometimes, but I felt a lot more at peace where they were concerned.

Joe had to wait for me to be cleared as someone living in his home before he could do any more fostering, but I was good with them taking however long they needed to. That didn't last, mostly because of Joe's nature. He called me on a Tuesday while I was changing a muffler.

“I'm sorry to call you in the middle of the day, but it's important,” he started.

“All good. What's going on? Everything okay?”

“Sort of,” he hedged. “I know you agreed to get cleared, but we never really discussed how you felt about me taking in kids while we were together. On the one hand I feel pretty strongly about this, but I also feel like we're sharing space and it would be completely inconsiderate not to discuss this with you.”

I sat on my creeper and frowned slightly. “Well, I mean I'm not a big kid person, but I'm not sure what you expect of me.”

“Not a lot, really,” Joe said hurriedly, “but I got a call today about a boy they need to place right away. He was staying with a friend's family, but not only are they not registered as a foster family, the parents of the friend are hesitant to get into fostering. They have a full house and a busy family, and while they love the kid, keeping him full time might be more than they can manage – especially since the county has him in therapy. I guess the family doesn't really believe in that sort of thing, but when you're in foster care you're a ward of the county, so the family doesn't get as much say.”

I was quiet for a moment. “So you're saying there's going to be a kid at home tonight?”

“Well...I want to, yes. Otherwise he may end up in Kilmer Hills, and that's...not a nice place for anyone, let alone a kid who may be acting out from his own hurt.”

I let out a small breath. “Well, I guess we'll see how it goes, then.”

“You're okay with it?” Joe asked.

“Well...I won't go that far. Like I said, let's try and see how it goes.”

Joe paused for a moment and then said, “Thank you. I appreciate you being willing to try.”

After we hung up I thought about it for a minute. I wasn't sure how much I wanted to look after someone else. I was just getting this thing with Joe and I living together down, and I thought we were in a good spot. We were in a state of transition, as Joe would say, with me selling my old house and opening the shop with Ken, not to mention having lost my job before. Add in moving in with someone, and it's a lot of change, which can be tough for anyone.

No matter what anyone else says, change is hard. It's inevitable, it's normal and should be expected – even anticipated – but it's not easy. We crave routine, understanding and security – all of which can be tough to achieve with constant change.

I heard the front door open, but Ken was out in the office placing a parts order, so I stuck with my muffler. I twisted it side to side, working it loose from the preceding pipe that had been clamped too hard. I grabbed my mallet and gave it a few hard hits toward the back of the car, alternating sides until it broke free, dangling from the rubber hangers.

“Damn thing,” I muttered as I worked the rubber hangars free of their hooks.

“Hey, Ansel? Got a minute?” Ken asked, calling from the office.

“Yeah. Give me a second,” I replied. I took the muffler to the show-and-tell bin where we kept old parts to show what parts were removed and why they'd needed to be replaced. I wiped my hands and headed into the office, surprised to find Ken in the office with two guys – one in a shirt and tie, the other adding in a sports coat. I glanced at Ken with curiosity, but he didn't get a chance to say anything.

“Mr. Wagner? I'm Gary Freidman, Environmental Protection Agency. This is my associate, John Cannis from the Internal Revenue Service.”

“Okay,” I said. “I did not just pucker at those agency names.”

Cannis's mouth curved into a small smile. “We're investigating a man you may know – Richard Lister?”

I tilted my head. “Rick? Yeah. I – we – worked for him over at our old garage. He was our supervisor.”

Friedman jutted his chin. “What was your procedure for disposal of petroleum waste – old oil, chemicals from parts washers. Things like that.”

I crossed my arms and looked up at the ceiling. “Let's see...the parts washer was kind of old, but there was a guy that would come with a truck every three or four weeks. He'd change out the tub with the chemicals and pick up the drums with old oil.” I looked at Friedman. “Always struck me funny that he always dressed in work pants and a beater rather than a whole uniform.”

Ken nodded. “Rick said the guy was the cheapest around.” He paused. “I was talking to Rick about it one time, because he'd been gone for an appointment or something, and this sales guy had come in and dropped a card for a recycling service. Riley – my son – is very much into environmental conservation, and he'd heard about this business. I'd bet Riley called them up and sent the sales guy over,” he said with a grin. “Anyway, I showed the card to Rick the next morning and related the company's virtues, and he said he had a sweetheart deal with this guy Cliff had introduced him to.”

“Cliff?” Cannis asked.

“Cliff Cataldo. He and his wife live next door to me. Or did,” I said. “I'm selling the place.”

“Hey, what's this about?” Ken asked.

“I can't get into specifics, because this is an ongoing investigation,” Freidman said. “Do you recall any other information? Name of the individual or company that was picking up the used oil and chemicals? Description of the individual?”

Ken and I spent another thirty minutes or so with them, providing whatever detail we could. Later we were out in the shop, speculating on what that had been all about. It's never a good thing when the government is looking into you – and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

“Doesn't take much to figure it's illegal dumping, probably,” Ken mused.

“Sure, as far as the EPA goes. What about the IRS?”

“Must be some kickback kind of fuckery, I guess,” Ken replied.

I finished clamping the new muffler in place and lowered the car so I could start it and check to be sure it was quiet. That done I grabbed a tablet and scanned the registration on the car – our fancy software tracked customer records through their registration bar code, but it wasn't hooked into the DMV or anything. I wrote up the bill, called the customer to let them know they could swing by in the morning and washed up to head home.

“Christ,” Ken muttered as he studied his phone.

“What's up?”

He rolled his eyes. “Diane says Riley is all tense because of this new boy he's been seeing. First one to last more than two weeks. I guess he's all wound up, and she doesn't know why, and she's trying to get him to talk to her.”

“Well, at least you know it's not because his date is pregnant,” I said with a chuckle.

“Right?” Ken said with a snicker. “I mean, Riley seems to like this guy a lot. He's dated like three guys, and none of them could put up with his lines in the sand about the environment and not eating meat.”

“It's a lot to ask of someone to change,” I agreed.

“Well, their first date was to a park, and he said the other guy was pretty attentive to what he was saying, and then they went with a local group to pick up trash down on the riverbank.”

“Your kid can sure pick dating places, huh?” I said and laughed.

Ken grinned and shook his head. “I mean, it's weird, but it's also close to Riley's heart. I guess he figured ‘I'll take someone to do something I like and see what happens.’ ”

“What happens when the other kid wants to take him out for a steak?”

“I wanted to ask, but Diane intervened,” Ken replied. “I just hope this wasn't another break up. They have been seeing each other for about a month, and Riley just...he's been really happy. It's nice to see.”

“Speaking of kids,” I said as I locked the door behind us. “Joe said there would be a waif on our doorstep tonight, so....”

“You? Around a child?”

“I spend all day with you, don't I?”

“But you love me. Some random kid? I don't know.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “Me either.”

Glancing out the window, I spotted Jack Seaford with his son and another boy – tall with blond hair parted down the center – no doubt here to pick up Noah's car with its new tires. I pulled up the bill and had things ready when they walked in.

“Ansel, how are you?” Jack asked, extending his hand.

“Good, Jack, thanks. Nice to see you, Noah,” I said, and let my gaze go back and forth between father and son. “We came in a bit under the quote; our supplier had gotten stuck with some tires he needed to move, and they were actually better than we were going to get; got to pass that savings on to you, so good deal all around. Tires were mounted and balanced with no trouble and road-tested. The car seems to be in good shape. You may need some exhaust work in the spring, but it looks good.”

“Good news,” Jack replied and I handed him the tablet with his bill and the details.

“Must be nice to have your wheels back, eh?” I asked Noah.

“Makes it easier to pick up my boyfriend,” he said in agreement. I glanced at the tall blonde and gave what I hoped was a friendly smile.

“Ah. The good old days when a full tank of gas and someone to ride with you was the best day ever,” I said to Noah, handing him the keys.

“Thanks, Ansel. Thanks, Dad. See you at dinner?” Noah said looking at Jack.

“Sounds good,” Jack agreed, nodding at the tall blonde. “Walker. Keep him out of trouble.”

“C'mon, Babe,” Noah said with a heavy-duty eyeroll.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

I stopped for gas on the way home and considered making sure the whore next door hadn't burned my house down before I could sell it or anything, but I knew I was just stalling. I pulled up in front of Joe's house and left my work boots out on the enclosed porch. I opened the door and called out to Joe that I was home.

“In the kitchen!” he called out.

I took a breath and headed toward the back of the house to the kitchen, where some nice smells were coming from.

“What are you-” I stopped, my jaw unhinging as I looked at the boy standing next to Joe.

“You?” Bryce asked, looking stunned in his own right.

“Uh. Me. Yeah.”

Joe looked between us. “Okay, how do we know each other?”

“Uh. Bryce lives – lived – next door to me.”

“Oh!” Joe said and then smiled. “Well, let's get everything on the table with a few cookies so there isn't anything to trip over later, huh? Let the awkward be settled right away,” he said, picking up a plate of cookies from the counter and making a shooing motion. Bryce gave me an uncertain look, one I wasn't sure I didn't give back, before following Joe. Joe and I sat down on the back porch, while Bryce leaned against a post.

“So I guess the first big question is if you guys ever had any bad interactions, considering how...contentious things have been between your parents, Bryce, and Ansel.” Joe looked back and forth between us, and I figured I'd best be an adult and say something.

“Not that I know of. Most of my...interactions...were with Bryce's mom. I don't really know Bryce.”

Bryce studied me for a moment and then looked at Joe. “My mom hates his guts. She's always talking about how disgusting he is and how much better things would be without...without him,” Bryce said, glancing at me as he finished.

“If it makes you feel any better, I'm not your mom's number one fan, either,” I said, leaning back into my chair.

Bryce sat down, back to the post. “Cliff doesn't like you, either.”

“And you? What do you think?” Joe asked. Bryce looked at him, and Joe looked back for a moment before continuing. “Let me take that back; it wasn't a fair question. Let me ask this instead. Do you think your experience will make it hard for you to be around Ansel?”

Bryce shrugged. “I mean...I guess not? I never really thought about it before, but...I didn't do anything to him, and he didn't do anything to me.”

“It's a starting point,” Joe said with confidence. “I won't speak poorly of your parents, but it's important to point out that we all think about some things – and some people – differently than our parents do or did. You may never get along with Ansel all the time – and who could?” Joe said, grinning and making a face.

“Hey,” I said in a tone of warning.

“He's very disagreeable, can't cook and -”

“Can leave anytime,” I finished for him.

Joe looked at me and grinned. “And he's got a big heart and he grumbles a lot, but you get used to it. Plus you may have a lot more in common than you think.”

After a moment Bryce said, “I don't see how.”

“Parental relationships can be...difficult, sometimes. When we're younger it's usually when we're straining to identify our own selves as teens, but when we've had difficult experiences as a child with our parents, that can complicate things in adulthood.” Joe cleared his throat. “I come from a big family, and while we all got love and attention, we didn't have much in the way of money. Sometimes that was embarrassing, but it led me to value experiences and people over physical things like clothes or houses. Ansel had a hard time with his parents because they treated him like being who he was wasn't enough, and they had their own demons, which made for a poor experience in their home.”

I snorted.

Bryce studied me for a minute. “Cliff's not my dad. My mom makes me call him that, but I don't think he likes it, either.”

I nodded, thinking of the things I overheard Cliff say at work about Bryce. “You may be onto something.” I glanced at Joe and cleared my throat. “Look, Bryce, I'm not what you'd call a kid person. I won't treat you like a little boy. This is Joe's home; I'm still kind of getting settled in here. I guess this only has to be awkward if we make it that way.”

Bryce's expression shifted, the corners of his mouth pinching. “I...I'm in a relationship. I kind of would like to see him.”

I admit, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Bryce was gay? With those parents? All of a sudden I had a lot more empathy for him.

“Well I think you should invite him over – after all, we have cookies,” Joe said warmly.

“Maybe.” Bryce looked at me. “You can't tell my mom or Cliff.”

I raised my hand. “What you tell me stays here. I'm not exactly on speaking terms with your mom, unless you count insults.”

Bryce went off to text his boyfriend – a thought that still surprised me – and I sat on the porch in silence with Joe, which couldn't last.

“Well, I think that went pretty well,” Joe said.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “I can't cook and I'm disagreeable?”

Joe grinned. “You didn't want me to lie, did you?” He laughed at me and then stood, moved behind me and squatted down, hugging me in my chair. “I think you did really well. Knowing Bryce added a layer of awkward to everything, but it's not fatal. Now we just try to be a safe place where he can finish growing up, if the mom doesn't get him back.”

I thought for a moment and then said softly, “She could get him back?”

“It's always a possibility. The courts are set on the idea of family reunification. If they think she's taken the steps to be an acceptable parent under the law, then yeah – they'll start visits with her and eventually send him home.”

I let out a slow breath. “Poor kid.”

“Indeed,” Joe replied. He stood and patted my shoulders. “Why don't you get changed, and I'll see how dinner is coming along?”

Dinner was a quiet affair with the standard questions adults ask kids they don't know - how's school? Favorite class? We got quiet responses from him, but I didn't feel the need to press him. Instead, I asked Joe about his day and then related to him the jobs I'd worked that day.

“Oh, weird thing at the end of the day,” I said and related the two government fellows that had stopped by the shop.

“That sounds ominous. The IRS is usually looking into cheating the government, but the EPA strikes me as odd. The two must be tied together. Any ideas?”

“Ken and I were speculating, yeah. There was this guy who collected chemicals and used oil who didn't seem to be part of a professional service – like, he didn't dress the part. We're thinking maybe there was some kickback thing going on.”

Joe nodded and made a noise to acknowledge me.

“How do you...not dress the part?” Bryce asked.

“Well, if you work for a company, usually there is some kind of uniform, and if you get messy then your clothes are usually dark colored to help hide stuff and whatnot. This guy? He'd wear work pants and a beater. You'd expect him to wear a uniform top with the company name and maybe his first name or something,” I explained.

Bryce nodded and puffed out his lips as if thinking. “Yeah, makes sense. Like if you see someone at Target in a beater behind the counter, that's be, like, sus.”

Joe raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Sus? As in suspicious?”

“Yeah,” Bryce replied.

“I love how language changes,” Joe said. “Is yeet still a thing? I kind of liked that word. It was fun to say.”

“Yeet?” I asked with doubt.

“Sure. Like I'm going to yeet dessert at your head if you make fun of me,” Joe said with a grin.

“That doesn't sound like a real word,” I said with a shake of my head.

“Rizz doesn't sound like a word,” Joe replied.

“It's a word,” Bryce said.

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Like, if you have game,” Bryce replied. I looked at Joe.

“It's short for charisma,” Joe replied.

Swallowing and leaning back I said, “Okay, these are all cute, short-term slang things. But you and I grew up with some slang, too. Crap directed at us.”

“Oh. Well, slurs and slang are different, I think,” Joe replied. “Although I'm sure some slurs started out as slang.”

“Yep,” Bryce volunteered. “If you're saying someone is gay they're fruity or zesty.”

“Zesty? I thought that was reserved for describing salad dressing?”

Bryce cracked a smile, briefly.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Joe complimented me at bedtime for making an effort to work through the awkwardness with Bryce, but I hadn't thought I'd done anything more than follow Joe's lead. As I was drifting to sleep my mind wandered to the day I'd heard Cliff beating Bryce, and suddenly I was awake and sweating. In my head my old man was putting me down and I felt the same strange mix of emotions he'd elicited in me as a kid. Fear mixed with shame at not being better, at not getting his approval like my sporty sibling. The inadequacy was almost overwhelming sometimes, and I felt that now. I climbed from the bed and took a breath before heading from the room, closing the door quietly so as not to disturb Joe. I went out into the kitchen and got a glass of water and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Hey.”

Startled, I looked up to see Bryce leaning against the doorway. He was dressed in a tee shirt that was a bit big on him and a pair of middie shorts that showed his long, coltish legs.

“Gave me a start,” I said and let out a sigh. “Can't sleep?”

Bryce shook his head.

“Pull up a seat, kid,” I said, nudging a chair with my toe. He appeared to hesitate, than ambled over and dropped down. I sipped from my glass and looked down at the still water as I spoke. “My old man was a fucker. Couldn't do anything right for him. He was consistently abusive, but he liked to change things up because I disgusted him so much.”

I paused, and in my silence, Bryce asked, “Did he find out you were gay?”

I pushed my bottom lip up, my chin muscles twitching. “Not until I was an adult. There were other ways I disappointed him. Grades. Sports. Breathing.” I smiled wanly at Bryce. “Cliff was hitting you.”

Bryce looked at me steadily and then nodded.

I sighed and leaned forward, wrapping my glass with both hands. “You never really know what's going on with people. My childhood was so shitty I still haven't outrun it, but I used to be jealous of you – or guys like you.”

“Um.”

I waved a hand at him without looking and wrapped my glass again. “Kids – gay kids – have it easier today, on average. They can date in high school. Coming out is easier. Public acceptance has never been higher.” I closed my eyes. “But it's not easy for everyone.”

Bryce cleared his throat. “Cliff didn't beat me for being gay. It's just 'cause he doesn't like me. Like you said...my grades. I breathe wrong. My half-sister, his daughter, gets treated like her shit don't stink, and I can't do a fucking thing right.”

I nodded my head. “Sounds familiar.”

Bryce sighed. “I thought I could stay with my friends, but Mrs. Fernandez...I don't know. She loves me and all, but there were some things people have to do to be foster parents, and they weren't too sure about doing that. I mean...it sounds lame.”

I nodded. “It does. But...it's hard to be responsible for a kid, especially one that isn't yours.”

“I mean....”

“No. Think about it,” I said, looking up at him. “First time you fuck up enough so that nice mom of your friend has to give you consequences you don't agree with. Then you say shit, they say shit, and eventually they think – why? This isn't my kid? I'm a good person, compassionate, I took him in. Now he's being a fucker. It's not a you thing, really, it's just a human thing.”

Bryce was quiet a minute. “So, in foster care I guess you can just send them back?”

I sighed. “I'm sure that happens sometimes. But the reality is foster parents are stepping in to pick up the slack and to try and get you into society as a functional individual. They don't have the history with you, the baby pictures or the trust a kid may have for a parent built up over years. They have to try and get through to someone in a short time and convince them to learn from them.” I shook my head. “I don't know how Joe does it. I know why he does it, but I don't know how. Factor in he usually takes in temporary kids – like for a weekend, forget the special name they use for that. You're his first placement that's not going back once the weekend is over.”

Bryce shifted. “Well, maybe I don't want to stay.”

I snorted. “You might not. “

He waited a beat. “You don't want me to.”

I rubbed my face and looked at him. “You know what? Life happens at its own speed. If you asked me this morning or last week, I'd say hell no. That Karen's kid with me? Fuck that.” I leaned back in my chair. “My boyfriend and I just moved in together, and maybe you played a little part in that without knowing. So, we're sharing space and now we have another person, which always changes things. So is the timing perfect? No. Are you a little thing we might grow together? No. Where would you be if not here? Kilmer Hills. That place had a reputation even when I was in high school, and even if you were half the Karen your mother is – no offense – I'd be hard pressed to say that's where you should be.”

Bryce sat quietly, not sure what to say, perhaps. I wasn't sure, either. But I'd already started whatever this was, and he hadn't gotten up to leave or started acting like his mother.

“Fact is, kid, this isn't convenient for you either. No matter what, she was still your mom and what you were used to. That's shaped you, and you'll be up against that for a long time. Then people you wanted to be with couldn't do it. So...let me offer you some free advice, and by free I mean you can choose to take it or not.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him and waited until he nodded subtly.

“I've been living in my parents' shadow all my life. I'm just barely waking up to the facts – they are gone. Have been in all but my head. I have someone that loves me, despite any damage I may have.” I cleared my throat. “It's taken me until this moment to understand how much my programming as a young person held me back. That, at your age, I'd have never considered being able to be in a relationship with a black man.” I waved a hand at him. “Not that the skin color is the important factor outside it was beyond my imagination. See...some people think you get life everlasting after we die, if you do certain things and believe certain things with all your heart.

Bryce pressed his lips together slightly and said, “Mrs. Fernandez is Catholic. She took me to church while I was with them. Kind of boring. You mean like that?”

I nodded. “I think the truth is you get one chance. Sometimes you swing and miss, sometimes you hit the ball. But you miss every time you don't swing.”

Bryce crossed his arms. “So...you're saying I'm going to be a shitty baseball player because of my parents?”

I smiled at his ploy. “I hope to goodness that you don't become anything like that, or like me. Recognize the parts about you that are the bad influence on the things in your life – honestly. I had to do it, and at some point on a journey to maturity, you'll have to. Otherwise, if you don't learn and grow, you become stagnant and you slide back into being your parents.”

He frowned at me deeply.

“It's a thing we call an unconscious bias,” I said, warming to something Joe had told me and that I'd looked into. “It helps us make quick decisions sometimes, but it can also cause us to rely on things that we just don't know better about. Like...maybe you get older and your kid is on your last nerve and your boss was a dick all day and there was this one guy in traffic...and you smack your kid. And you think to yourself – Dad was right, that's not so bad. Kid had it coming. He should learn to be more respectful. So next time...it comes easier.”

His frown stayed, and he shifted in his chair. “I don't want to be anything like Cliff or my mom.”

I drained my glass and stood to place it in the sink. “Takes more than want.” I set my glass down and turned to head back to bed, but something about Bryce's posture made me pause. “You okay, kid?”

His frown eased a bit, and he shifted his gaze toward me, if not his head. “I...so my boyfriend he's...never mind.”

I moved to the doorway. “Okay. But if you change your mind.”

“How are you like your parents?” he blurted.

I leaned against the door frame and crossed my arms. “My experience with my parents made relationships really difficult. I didn't know how to love anyone or myself. I just...tried to please people.” I sighed. “You may not understand this, and some days I still struggle with it, but being able to accept who you are – flaws and all – makes you available to good people. Like Joe. Maybe like your boyfriend.”

His lips moved as though chewing his words. “My boyfriend is...he's really intensely interested in stuff. Like, he cares about something the way some guys want to lift or play sports. But bigger. Like...way more important than playing a high school game. I don't have that. Like, I'm just trying to not drown in the bullshit around me.” He paused. “I even had to talk to some stranger at my school to figure out I was...gay.”

“Well, finding your passion doesn't always happen right away. Be patient.” I shrugged. “The entire point of youth is to learn – from school, from your interactions with the world around you. Some people want to protect kids from everything because they love them, and some people want to show kids how tough the world really is because they think it's a disservice to them to make them think everything always works out.”

Bryce shifted and pulled down a bit on the hem of his shorts, covering more of his thigh – fruitless, as there wasn't much give in the material. “Cliff always said the world wasn't fair. Usually after I told him he wasn't being fair with how he treated me versus his daughter.”

I pursed my lips, wanting to frame this in a way that would make sense to him. “I always thought that you had to find a balance in how you present the world. You can't sugarcoat the dangers, but you also can't be so afraid of life that you don't live.” I met his gaze and was impressed that he didn't avert his eyes. “Bryce, Cliff wasn't wrong. The world isn't fair. Some assholes seem to live forever and win when they cheat, and others – good people – die young or get cancer and suffer. Even people that love you as you should be loved will make mistakes and not always treat you well, but they'll apologize and try to fix it.” I rolled my head on my shoulders, letting some tension from my neck before looking at him again. “Learning to control what you can and trying to make good decisions and living with the results – learning from them – is sometimes the best you can do.”

“If...it's so unfair and you really can't fix it...what's the point?”

I smiled, just a little one. “You. Your happiness. The good people you meet and let be part of your life. For me, it's people like Joe and my buddy Ken, which I will deny ever having said,” I told him, pointing and trying to look a bit serious. “For you, probably the people you count as friends. Maybe your boyfriend. Just because the world isn't fair, doesn't mean there isn't good in it – value.”

He bit his lower lip for the briefest moment and swallowed, then shifted his hands in his lap.

“As far as the other thing, so what? Everyone has to go through figuring out who they are. I guess it worked out? Unconventional, but you found a way.”

He tilted his head a bit. “It did work out. He's a good friend now, kind of a...big brother. He...well, suggested I talk to you.”

I sighed. “Yeah. Well, maybe we just set aside things between me and your mom and just try to have some kind of non-screwed up relationship.”

“Going to be tough,” he said with a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “I mean, with you being jealous and all.”

“Don't make it weird,” I said. “Goodnight.”

I lay in bed and thought about being Bryce's age again, but found that Bryce wasn't attractive to me, despite being a good looking kid. No...there are definite lines between fantasies like wishing you were young and whatever this is that passes for reality.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

“I may have to kill Riley,” Ken said to me later in the week when we were working together to finish up a car so we could get paid.

“Oh? Make sure you bury him standing. They use drones to look for holes that are long enough for a body.”

He glanced at me. “You watch too many crime shows.”

“Eh. So what did he do?”

“He's just bouncing off the walls about this boyfriend. I think they sort-of broke up, but then got back together. I guess the boyfriend may be having some trouble at home, but Riley doesn't want to get into it.” Ken sighed. “I assumed Riley was being too harsh about the stuff he's so passionate about, but he said no – this new guy is okay with going along with trying vegetarian or vegan meals and helping Riley when his environmental club does a clean up.”

I laughed. “Riley better propose soon!”

Ken chuckled. “He says there's all this stuff they can't control, but then the guy says to him that he's not sure what he's all about and with Riley being so into things, he doesn't want to just be his clone. He wants to figure out what he's into, besides Riley.”

“That sounds healthy, so naturally it's creating a problem – right?”

Ken wiped his hands with a rag and grinned. “Riley is a basket case. For once I think he found someone he likes so much that he's more concerned about this guy than the planet, so that's saying something.”

“On a more interesting note, Joe's been marinating all day and I'm very concerned,” I said with a grimace. “I don't even know what you marinate if there isn't any meat.”

“I'm actually shocked at how many alternatives there are,” Ken replied. “Of course I also have a fridge full of food at home if it's terrible.”

“Evil,” I said with a laugh.

We finished up and customers came by to pick up their cars. We'd have to be in for a few hours on Sunday to do some bookkeeping, but so far it looked like we were paying our bills, anyway. Ken said he'd see me for dinner, and I locked the door and motored home. Once home I took a quick shower and joined Joe in final prep for Ken, Diane and Riley – he probably couldn't squirm out of it like his sister, Natalie, who'd suddenly gotten an invite to sleep over. Maybe Riley and Bryce will get on okay.

“Bryce, looking good,” I said complimenting his outfit.

“Is it making you jealous?” he asked, turning exaggeratedly like he was on a catwalk.

“Don't make it weird,” I said in a monotone. He just laughed, which I guess was good. I helped Joe get the food into containers that would keep them warm and brought it to the enclosed back porch. The doorbell went off and Joe asked Bryce to go answer it while we brought the cooler from the kitchen to the porch. There was something of a commotion from the front of the house, and Joe and I looked at each other in confusion. We went back inside and found Bryce and Riley engaged in a hug. A long one, by the looks of it.

Ken looked at me. “This does not make us in-laws!”

I looked at Bryce and Riley, and my jaw dropped. “No. These two? No way.”

^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^

A few days later we heard that our old shop had closed down, at least temporarily. Turns out Cliff had introduced Rick to the guy that had been picking up our waste chemicals and oil, and he'd been dumping it illegally – and there was a kickback to Rick and Cliff. Most of it was rumor, but the idea seemed to fit with the facts as we knew them.

I lay awake after Joe and I'd made love, thinking in the dark. Sometimes it takes a while for things to work out. I was just getting the clue that Bryce was maybe seeing that things could be okay, and the possibility of playing a role in that made my heart quake a bit; to do something that good. We all may be products of our parents, but we can also grow beyond them. It's scary, it feels like unfamiliar territory, and it's damn uncomfortable. But we're worth it. I'm worth it. Bryce, hopefully, will learn he's worth it. Joe...knew it before I had a clue.

It's not over, though. I still have work to do. I have someone to love, and I love myself enough to do it right.

The End

Copyright © 2023 Dabeagle; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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If I didn't know Ansel was a mechanic I would have thought he was a psychologist! His conversation with Bryce has been wise, profound and deep. 

Fantastic story!

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As I read this story, I realized how close it hit home with me in so many way. Thank-You for another great story 

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