I was nervous as I walked the street to Paul’s house. If I knew why there was tension, I probably wouldn’t have been so high strung. I was a fixer and I couldn’t fix this because I didn’t know what was broke. It was never like this before. When I first joined Yevo, Paul and I were close. He was excited for our partnership, and together, we dreamed up a vision for the mission.
At some point in the last year, everything changed.
Paul was full of contempt the moment he opened the door for me. I knew I was in for another frustrating meeting. He didn’t offer coffee or water like he used to, he simply led me to the kitchen table and sat down.
I always thought he was an attractive man. He wasn’t tall, maybe five-seven. He was the manager of a lumber yard. He every bit the man’s man you’d expect and arrogant to boot. Now that he was being an ass, I started to notice other things, like, his nose wasn’t all that great and he walked like he was trying to keep a turd from dropping.
If he had the power to fire me, I’d have been out a last year. Luckily, I was employed by Yevo and, although Paul’s family had sustained the non-profit since the eighties and were key supporters, they couldn’t do anything besides drive me insane.
“How’s the fundraising going? Camp is less than a month away.”
Ignoring his condescending tone, I pulled out my iPad and, with a few touches, I had the financials for all one-hundred-thirteen kids who were signed up.
“Great,” I answered. “We finished the last fundraiser. They raised a bit more than we planned.”
I scrolled through the spreadsheet which showed a breakdown of all the kids, which fundraisers they participated in, how much they earned, what their balance was, and if they earned a scholarship, that was listed also.
“How’s the fundraising on your part?” I asked. Last fall we had created a camp budget. It specified how much I needed to fundraise, how much we wanted the kids to fundraise, and how much the committee would raise. Camp is quite the production and costs around one-hundred-thousand dollars total. Paul wanted me to come up short and I hadn’t.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “We’re doing one last push. I’m not worried.”
He might not be worried but he was annoyed that I’d surpassed my goal when they hadn’t even reached theirs. We talked more about camp and put together bullet points for the next committee meeting. He even asked if I could talk to Sam Masey about giving some money. Macey was an old friend of mine, literally, he was in his nineties. He had more money than anyone else I knew. When I told him that Sam had already been generous, and that I didn’t want to push for more, he lectured me on not being a team player.
I wasn’t a violent guy but something about Paul’s behavior made me want to deck him in the face. I was fed up with his pointed statements and dismissive behavior.
“Nash.” Paul’s voice was laced with annoyance. “I noticed we don’t have as many kids going to camp as we wanted. What happened there?”
“We couldn’t get the spots,” I pointed out. “There’s other schools going and the camp has limited numbers. You know this, Paul. We addressed this months ago.”
“It’s just disappointing is all. It feels like you’re slipping a bit. It might be time to evaluate where your priorities are. If you weren’t so busy planning time away from Lincoln, we might have more kids going.”
I stared at him, unbelievingly. My whole life was Yevo. I lived and breathed for the kids. I volunteered at the school so I could understand them and be in their lives. I attended almost every school event, sporting event, and judged competitions for them. I drove them around, spent countless weekends on adventures with them, raised money, and put myself out there every day, for them, for Yevo.
For the kids.
Since I became the director, the numbers have exploded. Eight kids went to camp the year before I came on. Eight. Now there was one-hundred-thirteen. That number was unheard of considering the size of our school.
“If there’s a problem with my job performance I’d be happy to discuss it with the rest of the Committee present. If this is all, I’ll see my way out.”I was fuming. I grabbed my tablet and left before he could say anything else to cut me down. Something had soured him and I literally had no clue what it could be.
I was practically exploding when I entered the house, slamming the front door behind me. I paced around and then started cleaning things that didn’t need cleaning. That’s what I did when I was angry, I cleaned. More like slammed things around in frustration while I stewed. I was in my head for so long I almost missed the game.
I didn’t want to miss the playoff game but I was so angry I was shaking. I figured that if I didn’t want to be a pissy asshole then I needed to run off my frustration.
It was amazing. I made it to the ballfield in record time. I think my anger metabolized into some sort of unbridled energy. I ran faster and harder than I ever had and I still felt like I had energy to spare as I walked the final distance to the bleachers.
Running had done its job; I was feeling better.
I was buying a bottle of water from the small parent run concession when I heard my name being yelled.
I found a group of fifteen kids waving me over. The bleachers were full but they made room as I climbed to the top.
“What’s up Ninja Nash?” David greeted, making everyone laugh.
Ninja Nash was supposed to be a one-time character I used during a special edition club for night games. The character and the skit were a huge hit and since I had worn my running clothes to save money, Ninja Nash never died.
It always surprised me that parents never wanted to spend time with their kids because they have better things to do only to turn around and complain that their kids don’t want anything to do with them.There were times that they drove me insane but otherwise I really enjoyed our times together. I thought they were hilarious and surprisingly insightful.
I sat with everyone for a while and talked about nothing and everything until I saw Tim, a friend of mine. I excused myself to say hi. We didn’t hang out often but we’d been friends for years and I enjoyed his company.
“So, this is what teenagers have done to your fashion, huh? Very Tiger Beat of you,” he teased my spandex running outfit.
“Tiger Beat?” I asked, surprised he remembered the popular teen bop magazine from middle school. “What would you know about Tiger Beat?”
“I know they always had a blonde boy-band on the cover.”
“Yeah? You remember all the covers that had blonde boy-bands on the cover?” I raised a brow, genuinely humored by his response.
“Shut up. I just meant that you’re blonde.” He rolled his eyes but his cheeks pinked. “Your hair looks good by the way,” he reached out and pulled at the blonde hair that was sticking out every which way because of my elastic headband.
Tim was never good at jokes, but he sure found himself funny. He made a few more lame jokes that didn’t come close to actually insulting me before Ryan and a few other guys, including his brother Logan, joined us. They come straight from work.Ryan wore a ball cap and tattered sweatshirt with his company logo. His boots and jeans were in the same terrible shape.
Logan was cleaner than his brother, who was covered in concrete dust, but dirty enough to have that hot construction guy thing going on.
“What’s got you in stitches?” Ryan asked Tim, who in response, gestured at my whole being.
“Nash, that’s what,” he laughed.
“He’s just jealous that he doesn’t have the body to pull this off,” I said confidently, striking a pose.
They were country loving, 4x4 driving, all American men and I was probably the only gay person they knew (well, Lee and I), and was currently wearing nothing but black spandex at a baseball playoff game.
“Not many do,” Ryan laughed and I blushed.
Logan looked confused. “You ran here? I thought I saw you running this morning?” Before I could respond, Logan smiled at someone behind me. I turned to see who it was.
It wasn’t bad enough to have two of the three Knott brothers, plus a few others, while wearing nothing but spandex. Penn had to come too.
I felt myself flexing in an effort to appear fit in front of the trio. I had a nice body but spandex wasn’t a forgiving outfit. It had a way of accentuating things like love handles and soft bellies even on the hardest of bodies.
I was lost in my thoughts, trying to subtly tighten and tone for a group of guys who probably never looked twice at another man, when I realized that everyone was looking at me, waiting. My eyes darted around the group, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Didn’t you already run this morning?” Logan repeated, refreshing my memory.
“Oh, yeah. You did see me, right before some psycho tried to run me over,” I added, shooting Ryan my most intimidating glare, to which he laughed.
Everyone wanted the details of my near-death experience.
“I was just trying to get your attention, sue me!” Ryan cried.
“Who am I suing and why?” Lee interrupted, wrapping an arm around my waist as he joined the conversation.
“Ryan tried to murder me with his car. I think we can get him with attempted murder, vehicular manslaughter, reckless driving, endangerment, maybe something about a using a car as a weapon? I’m sure there’s more.” I nudge Lee toward Ryan. “Now go nail his ass to the wall, babe!”
“Next time I’m going to finish the job,” Ryan grumbled under his breath.
I squeezed Lee, “Now he’s threatening me! Isn’t that harassment?”.
“Fine,” Ryan sighed with faux annoyance, “I’ll buy dinner tonight, in exchange, you drop all charges.”
“Throw in two alcoholic beverages each and you have yourself a deal,” Lee offered. Ryan shook his hand and the deal was done.
“You’re a shitty lawyer, you know that?” I complained. I pulled Lee into my side, squeezing him extra hard out of love and punishment. He laughed and tried to wiggle his way out of my grip. The thing I loved about Lee was how contagious he was. When he was happy, everyone was happy.
“This is the last time I work pro-bono for you, you ungrateful swine,” he responded, digging his fingers into my side just enough to make me curl over.
“That’s fine, Chambers will represent me.”
He looked at me and growled. It was a pathetic growl, making me, along with everyone else, laugh. Lee hated that Chambers liked me better than him.He looked at Ryan with a serious expression. “Next time don’t hesitate, accelerate.”
I looked at my precious little Lee and gasped. Lee turned away from me, making me laugh even harder. Logan and Ryan high fived him on the epic burn.
“Traitors, all of you,” I said, pointing to everyone in the group with a smile.
We continued talking and laughing until the game ended in a victory for Lincoln High. Most everyone filtered off the field and into their cars when Ryan stopped us.
“We’re heading straight to Mazatlan.”
“See you there,” Lee replied as we walked away.
Realizing that the earlier invitation to dinner wasn’t a joke, I quickly turned back toward Ryan. “Oh no,” I said, waving my hand frantically. “Thanks for the offer but we have to pass.”
“C’mon. It’s a celebration for today’s win. Join us,” Jane said with a sweet smile gracing her face.
I liked her the most. Jane was blonde, fun, and absolutely hilarious. In a family of picture-perfect wives, Jane stood out. She in her mid-forties with more important things to do than eating salads. She was by no means fat but she was definitely bigger than the other wives despite being an avid runner. She never made excuses. She was who she was.
“Sorry,” I frowned.
Lee nudged me, silently telling me to shut up. He wanted to join them for dinner. Easy for him since he was dressed like a normal person.
“I’m sweaty, gross, and in desperate need of a shower and a change. Maybe another time?”
“No one cares what you’re wearing,” Ryan said, rolling his eyes. “Just come.”
“If no one cares, then trade me clothes and I’ll go,” I challenged. It was easy for people to force others to do something they didn’t have to do. Like, going to a restaurant dressed like Cat-woman.“Another time then?” I offered, letting him off the hook.
“No. Let’s trade.” He looked at Jane then at Penn. His brother looked at him like he was certifiable. Ryan waved me over. “Well, hurry, we have a reservation to make.”
“Oh my god, Ryan is going to strip,” Lee whispered beside me.
I started laughing.“No way,” I shook my head. “I’m not striping down in the parking lot and I’m not trading you clothes. I was joking! It was a joke!”
“Everyone is gone,” he tossed his hat to his wife and pulled off his sweatshirt. “If you want privacy, you might want to come over here.”Where they parked their car was more private, not that there were many cars left in this section of the parking lot, anyway. Lee had to nudge me several times before I moved voluntarily.
Ryan took his shirt off. He was literally undressing in the parking lot and waiting me to do the same.
“Ryan, stop,” I said as he started unbuttoning his jeans and toeing off his boots. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I stink. I sweated a ton during the run. You don’t want to trade, trust me.”
He didn’t seem to care so I decided to go with the flow. If he wanted to strip naked and swap dirty clothes in the middle of a deserted parking lot then who was I to say no?
Everyone cheered when I pulled the hem of my shirt over my head. The air was electric, buzzing with excitement.
“There’s no turning back,” I said as I tossed him my running shirt and started for my pants.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he pulled his jeans off until he stood wearing nothing but socks and plaid boxers.
Ryan was solid, I knew he would be. I was taller, leaner with a smaller waist and more definition, but he was undoubtedly stronger. Built from a life of physical labor.
I stood in my compression shorts and watched as Ryan pulled on my running pants. Everyone started laughing at the sight. The pants didn’t go on him as easy as they did for me. He looked at me and laughed as he shimmied and jumped around.
Ryan stuck his hand down the front of the pants and tried to smooth his boxers out. There’s a reason boxers shouldn’t be worn under spandex. That reason was now painfully obvious. Jane tossed him my shirt and he pulled it on. It was tight on me, on Ryan, it looked plain ridiculous.
“I’m going to insist you replace those when you’re done. They’ll never return to normal.”
“What are you talking about? Fits like a dream.”The fabric looked like it was going to cut off his circulation when he flexed his muscles. Once he was satisfied, he tossed me his clothes.
I started with pants, which were too big. Even buttoned they hung so low they barely stayed on my hips. I glanced at Lee and noticed he was practically drooling as he watched me. I was thankful I’d been taking my training and nutrition seriously. I ran my fingers along the waistband ‘adjusting my pants’ just to drive my husband nuts before pulling on Ryan’s shirt and sweatshirt.
I made a face. His clothes smelled like rock dust. There was so much I could practically taste it.
“And you thought I was going to be the one suffering,” Ryan laughed as he watched my reaction.
I rolled my eyes and we both finished putting on our shoes. I took one final look at Ryan and laughed. As hot as I thought he was, his bulkier body was not made for a spandex suit. The loose boxers didn’t help and neither did his work boots.
“How’s it hanging over there?” I asked, smirking as he tried to adjust the pants once more.
“Nice and tight,” he said, grabbing his junk. “Other than that, not too bad. Actually—” he started stretching his body, “it’s pretty comfy.”
“We need a picture. This is too good to pass up,” someone said. The next thing I knew, Ryan and I were striking poses while everyone laughed and took pictures with their phones. When the group had enough photographic evidence to last a lifetime, we left.
Lee and I laughed on the way to the restaurant. Of all the things I thought would happen in my life, trading clothes with Ryan in the middle of a parking lot after a baseball game wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t even begin to dissect why he’d go to such extremes just to have Lee and I join them for dinner.
It was hard to miss them when we arrived. Even if they hadn’t been a group of twelve standing in the front of the restaurant, their energy would have given them away. They always radiated. That’s why people love them. That energy was ten-fold now that Ryan was dressed in black spandex, preening at all the comments.
“Does this outfit come with your company credit card? If not, I must insist that it does,” I said, gesturing at the branded logo I was wearing.
“In your dreams.” He waved wallet, which I snatched from his fingers before joining the rest of the group in the lobby. Ryan’s protests quickly turned into laughter.
“Hello,” I leaned against the counter. “I’m Ryan Knott and I smell like dirt. This is my family and I have a reservation for all one thousand of us. It should be under my name, Ryan Knott, because that’s me,” I opened the wallet and flashed Ryan’s driver's license for verification.
The host looked between me and Ryan and laughed. They ate there once or twice a week for years; everyone knew who they were. They even knew what they ate. I put my arm around Jane and followed the host to the table. Not to be one-upped, Ryan slipped his fingers in Lee’s, who blushed at the attention.
Ryan and Lee sat across from Jane and I. The others randomly filled in the empty spots, sitting by whomever they felt like chatting with until the only spot left was next to me.
I glanced at Lee and noticed Logan was sitting on his other side. I tried not to be obvious but I couldn’t stop the smirk. If heaven was sitting between Ryan and Logan, then Lee was a dead man.
I was looking at the menu when the table erupted.“Look who decided to join us! Don’t worry, we saved you a spot. Prime seating I might add,” Ryan gestured toward me and the open seat, bowing slightly as if he was addressing royalty.
Penn didn’t seem happy about it, maybe even a little stressed, but he sat next to me.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked, trying to be friendly. He stared, like a deer in headlights, then mumbled ‘fine’. The next thing I knew I was staring at the back of his head as he spoke to his father, who sat on his other side.
Despite Penn’s less-than-friendly behavior, dinner was awesome. Everyone made fun of Ryan, who easily laughed along. He and I went back and forth all night. I pretended to be him and he pretended to be me.
Imitation is the best form of flattery they say. And Ryan was definitely flattering me. ‘Look at me, I’m Nash Cushman and I walk on water. I work with kids, volunteer my time, and run marathons all over the world,’.None of his comments had spiteful undertones. He really thought me a decent person.
When the check came his family tossed bills on the table to cover their part of dinner. Not really expecting him to pay for us, I signaled for Lee to do the same. Ryan stopped Lee before he could get his wallet out.
“Dinners on me, I insist.”
“No,” I pressed. “We’re celebrating teams’s victory. Lee and I are happy to pay for our own meal. We appreciate the gesture.”
Ryan stopped Lee again, this time giving him a stern look. Lee put his wallet away. For a lawyer, Lee was terrible at confrontation.
“We’re celebrating the team’s win and your nomination.”
I looked at Ryan in confusion. I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t been nominated for anything. Lee looked just as confused as me. Everyone was staring at me, surprised by my surprise.
After what felt like an eternity of silence, Ryan clarified. “Your nomination for Man of the Year.”
Every year there was a big event called Loyalty Days. It was a week-long event that spotlighted our community. At the end of the week, there was an award banquet for people and business’. The biggest award was the Man and Woman of the Year. Those who got nominated for this were amazing. They were movers and shakers, selfless, caring, compassionate, and giving. There were five people nominated in each category. The saying ‘just being nominated is an honor’ never rang truer.
“You had no idea?” Penn asked.
I looked at him and shook my head. I had no idea. Not one. Jane handed me her phone. On the screen was the Facebook page for the Chamber of Commerce.
Sure enough, between the former Mayor and the guy that ran the soup kitchen, was me, Nash Cushman.
“I thought this was supposed to be a respectable event.” I asked, not knowing what to say.
“Because of the work you do with the youth? Your involvement with the community? Your kind-heartedness? Or the fact you’re the most liked person in all of Lincoln?”
I was shocked to hear the words come out of Penn’s mouth.
“It’s true,” Jane agreed.
“Well, I don’t know what to say. I feel like there are so many other people who deserve the nomination. It’s flattering but, honestly, I don’t want that kind of recognition. Whatever it is I do; I don’t do it to win awards. I’d hate for anyone to think that. That would be demeaning to what I do.”
“Your humility is only proving your nomination,” Ryan pointed out.
I sat, awkwardly. I didn’t know what else to say and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the nomination. Yes, it was a privilege and honor, but it also made me feel uncomfortable. No one seemed inclined to stay on the subject and, as soon as the bill was settled, everyone shuffled out of the restaurant.
Lee was full of energy when we got in the car. He spent the whole ride home retelling the evening like I hadn’t been there. I thought it was cute the way he went on and on, like he’d met his idol for the first time. Lee was their lawyer and saw them semi-regularly but never hung out with them on a social level. We’d been invited to their house for parties and BBQs lots of times but never attended. I was usually busy with Yevo.
The invites were generous but we really weren’t friends with the Knotts. We were merely acquaintances and I didn’t want to overstep. I think Lee had always resented that. He really wanted to be included in their circle, even if it was just for show.
When we got home, I threw Ryan’s clothes in the washer. Lee tried to convince me to keep them like a relic or something. I refused. I thought he was cute as hell but I wasn’t crazy enough to stalk him.
I actually respected him more now than I did before. Nothing good could come from holding his smelly, dirty clothes hostage.
I took a quick shower and then sat in bed with Lee and we recapped our day. Mostly, I vented about Paul. When I finished, I knew I needed to let it go. I couldn’t control him but I could control how he affected me. I didn’t want to hate him and I didn’t want to be angry all the time because of him. I decided that I wasn’t going to meet with him anymore. I also decided to call my boss and let him know what was going on. The relationship between Paul and I was reaching a toxic level and I didn’t want work to be negatively impacted because of it. I knew my boss would do what he could to resolve the matter. He’d have my back.
With that matter settled, I fell asleep with the love of my life against my chest.
Like it always was, the end of the school year was a whirlwind. Between fundraising, training for the Seattle Marathon, preparing for summer camp, life, work, eating, breathing, sleeping and everything else, there weren’t enough hours in the day.
A part of me thrived on the chaos. I was sharper and more efficient when things were down to the wire. It was a redeeming quality and balanced out my inner procrastinator. Something that drove Lee crazy.But being a procrastinator, thriving under pressure, and wanting to make the last club of the year an epic one had put me in a bit of a pickle.
The last club was always a big food fight. It had become a tradition that everyone looked forward to. But I wanted to take it to the next level so I dreamed up something better.
It was going to be club in a bubble and would be the most epic food fight ever.
I laid in bed Monday morning thinking about how much fun it was going to be, how bright their smiles would be as they ran inside a giant plastic dome. Then, like a lightning bolt on a summer day, I shot out of bed. Lee looked panicked as he watched me run around like a chicken with my head cut off. He kept asking me what was going on but I didn’t have time for him. I was in emergency mode.
I spent so much time thinking and dreaming that I hadn’t begun putting the plan into action. I had nothing but an idea and eight hours to manifest it.
I frantically jotted everything on to a piece of paper and barely acknowledged Lee as I rushed out the door. The hardware store was still closed when I got there so I waited patiently outside until the owner showed.
“Morning Nash, what can I help you with?”
“Club is tonight. I have an idea but I need your help.”
I explained my grand plan in as much depth as I could. He smiled approvingly and followed him to the warehouse. He showed me a few different options and we talked logistics. After working through a few scenarios and calculations, we settled on a roll of thick, clear industrial strength plastic and super tape.
Bob must have seen me trying not to gawk at the price. Being frugal was a requirement in the nonprofit world. I was spending other people’s money and I needed to steward it wisely.
“Don’t worry, consider this a donation. If this isn’t enough, let me know and we’ll get you another box.”
I kept thanking him for his generosity. I would have gone way over budget without his help and the last thing I wanted was to give Paul more motivation.
I texted all the volunteers to see if anyone was free to help me set up. It was going to be a big undertaking and the reality that I might not succeed was hitting me hard. While I waited for their replies, I drove thirty minutes to the next town over. There was a large wholesale store that sold bulk food and supplies at a discounted rate. I loaded my truck up with the best foods for throwing around.
When I got back to Lincoln, I drove straight to the park. Constructing the beast on location was a must. Once it was erect, there’d be no moving it.
Trying to picking up the box of plastic was a shock. Like picking up an empty gallon of milk only to find out it’s full. I was a strong, fit man in my early thirties but it took some serious manhandling to move that stuff. I carried it as far as I could before it dropped to the ground. I looked around and decided it was as good of a spot as any.
Once the plastic was rolled out, I realized just how big it was. Big was an understatement, it was huge. So huge I was scared to make the first cut. I literally couldn’t afford to mess up. With a deep breath, I dragged the box knife through the plastic like butter.
I tried to align the long, heavy strips of plastic so I could tape them together but the wind kept moving the sheet of plastic, making everything more difficult. After several failed attempts, I grew agitated at my lack of progress. I spent more time running after flying plastic than getting the dang project completed.
I checked my phone but didn’t see a single notification. It was already noon and I had nothing but a mess on my hands. In a moment of desperation, I called Lee.
“Please tell me you’re not busy and you can come help me before tonight turns into an epic failure,” I said before he had a chance to say anything.
“Whoa, slow down Nash. What’s going on?”
“I’m in over my head, Lee. I’m sitting at the park by myself with a thousand feet of plastic sheathing. I can’t do this. I haven’t even started prepping food for the fight and I have to pick up pizza and kids. I really screwed the pooch on this. I need help, Lee. I really, really need help.”
With the phone pressed to my ear, I ran a hand through my hair as I turned in a circle, looking at the giant mess I made.
“Shit, I—I’ll see what I can do. I’m slammed today but I’ll try. Maybe I can get off early?”
I could tell by his tone that he couldn’t help me. He wanted to, but he was busy. By the time he got off work, even if it was early, it would be too late. I sighed as I looked at the pile of my own defeat.
“It’s fine. I just needed to vent. I need to go.”
I hung up the phone and slipped it into my pocket. I didn’t have time to feel overwhelmed. I pulled the large containers of food from the back of the truck and used them as weights to hold the plastic down.
The weight seemed to be working so I grabbed the tape and began to lay it down. I know I was rushing, pressed by a clock that wouldn’t slow down, but I couldn’t get the tape to lay straight. It looked like it was done by a three-year-old. I decided to pull the tape off and try again but they called it super tape for a reason. I finally got the tape removed and was actually making progress when the wind picked up. It wasn’t much but was strong enough to be an inconvenience to me.
I wanted to burn the whole thing down.
“It looks like you could use a hand.”
I startled. I hadn’t seen or heard anyone drive up. I definitely didn’t expect to see Penn walking by my mess with an amused look on his face.
“Honestly, yes. I’ve been running in circles all morning.”
“What are you doing?” He stepped over a twenty-five-pound bag of oatmeal until he was standing next to me.
“The goal is to create a giant plastic bubble that we can have a food fight in. I cut the plastic and now I need to build it.”
“How wide is each strip?” He asked as he sorted through the heavy plastic.
“I don’t know. I think twenty-five feet wide and sixty feet long? I was planning on doing two strips each for top and bottom and one for each side.”
He paused and looked at me like I was crazy. “That’s huge.”
“Yeah, but it will fill up fast with a hundred kids.”
He let out a whistle and nodded. He was thinking through the process. When his brain had everything sorted, he got to work. Two more guys appeared out of nowhere. They were Penn’s employees.I would’ve kissed all three of them if they weren’t nasty from pumping porta-potties.
With their help we got the plastic laid out and began tapping the pieces together. They were professionals. Where I had struggled, they excelled. They had everything laid and taped perfectly.The further we got into the project, the more confused I got. Everything was unfolded and I couldn’t tell what was up, down, left, or right. Penn and the guys seemed to know what was happening, so I let them lead the way. I might’ve started as the boss but quickly became a nobody.
“Okay, phase one done,” Penn announced as we stood in a line starting at a massive pile of plastic and tape that would hopefully become an oasis of memories.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at but I really hope this is right,” I said, mostly to myself at this point. As much as I trusted these guys to get it right, I was nervous. It almost seemed too easy for them.
They followed me to my truck and helped get the fans from the back. I had a friend who owned a carpet cleaning business and he lent me a few of the industrial fans they used to dry carpet.
Penn moved the plastic around until they found the right spots. He cut holes big enough for the fans, then reinforced the plastic with some super tape.
“Are the extension cords and the generator in the back of the Suburban?”
I closed my eyes at my own stupidity. Penn saw the look on my face and took pity on me.
“The work truck has a built-in generator few extension cords.”
He jogged to his truck and pulled out a bundle of neatly wound cords. He held them up in victory then plugged them into the truck.
How convenient for me.
We ran the extension cords to the fans and a few minutes later we were breathing life into the mound of plastic.
I looked at Penn, Marcos, and Dennis, who were all watching the lump of plastic slowly inflate with air, a bit of excitement in their eyes. Marcos had been really animated the entire process. He knew we were doing this for our youth and enjoyed being a part of something bigger.
“You guys are amazing. Is there anything I can do to bribe a little more help out of you?” I put my hands together in prayer and gave them my biggest puppy dog eyes. It was already four o’clock and I had a long list of things that still needed to be done. But they had already done so much. More than I could ever thank them for.
Marcos jumped eagerly enough so I looked at Penn and pouted.
“Uh, sure, what do you need?” He didn’t seem overly happy but he also didn’t look annoyed or unamused like he normally did when I was around.
“I have to get all this food prepped,” I gestured at the food that had been set off to the side in a pile.
We got everything organized then sat in the grass and began working. I had boxes of empty squeeze bottles that needed to be filled with various condiments, the oatmeal needed to be divided into eight totes, then water and gummy worms added to each.
Scooping condiments into squeeze bottles was a tedious process but went quickly with four people. Thirty minutes later everything was ready, even the Clubble was almost fully inflated and...
It was big. I had never been good with measurements. In my head, sixty-by-fifty feet wide and twenty-foot-tall was barely big enough to hold a hundred people. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. It was massive. It could’ve easily held three hundred people.
“I told you it was huge.”
I glared at Penn’s told you so attitude. His smile was alarmingly genuine and warm. He found my reaction funny and I found his reaction comforting. We returned to watching the magnificent structure vibrate to life.
“It’s tall,” I said in awe.
We were looking at a two-story high plastic dome. Two stories! It was insane. We’d already had dozens of park goers stop to ask questions. They’d never seen anything like it. Hell, I’d never seen anything like it. It was kind of like Noah’s Ark.
The four of us were standing in awe when I felt a slight breeze pass by, not much, but enough to make the bubble wobble. All four of us tensed. No words were needed to know we were thinking the same thing.
The only thing holding down this giant balloon were a couple of industrial fans. One semi decent gust and this baby would be long gone, no doubt killing someone in the process. No one would survive a run in with that beast in the wild. We had to find a way to anchor the bad boy.
All it took was another slight breeze for everyone to jump into action. Like some emergency field doctor, Penn pulled a knife out of his pocket and sliced through the plastic without a second thought. Well, I guess that’s where the door will be, I thought as Penn began to wave us over.
We each rushed to a separate corner and sat down against the plastic wall. There was a moment of silence as everyone looked at me like I was supposed to have some great solution.
“I did not think this through.”
I never thought the thing would fly away. It never crossed my mind. Hindsight’s twenty-twenty.
“It’s fine,” Penn said from the furthest corner away from me. “It didn’t occur to me either until just now.”
“What if we use sandbags? A couple bags in each corner,” Dennis suggested. The three workers glanced between themselves as they thought it through.
Penn shrugged. “That could work. I think we have a bunch of rope, too. We could probably toss it over the bubble and stake it to the ground. That should help keep it in place until it’s full of people.”
They tossed around a few more ideas then decided that the sandbags were our best bet. They left the bubble to grab them while I risked my life inside.
The septic guys were heroing it big time.
“Are those clean?” I asked as they each brought in two sandbags. Dennis and Penn looked confused. “Were they used for septic stuff? Because, gross,” I made a face.
Penn rolled his eyes and smirked. He was kind of cute when he smiled.
“No, these aren’t shit bags, those get left on the pump trucks. These are just regular ol’ sandbags,” he said as he easily tossed a sandbag in each corner before leaving to fetch more.
They ended up putting three bags in each corner. They also managed to use rope to tie the Clubble in place. I had to admit that watching them work was impressive. They knew what they were doing and they worked well together. They even fixed Penn’s knife slash into a fun little door that looked like it would hold up well to the constant barrage of kids.
When they were all done, we stood back and admired their work. Giant and impressive. As long as nothing else went wrong, like a windstorm or tornado, tonight would be epic.
“Give me your keys,” Penn said with his hand held out.
I wasn’t about to tell him no. Penn single-handedly saved the day. He could have my truck or my first-born son for all I cared. I’d rather him take my truck anyway since his truck was my generator.
We unloaded the rest of the stuff then he left with Marcos and Dennis.
I was eating pizza on the picnic bench with a group of boys when Penn and his posse came back. I figured they had forgotten something so I left the table and started toward them. Penn waved me off, letting me know they didn’t need me. Wouldn’t be the first time today, I laughed to myself. I watched as they opened the back door and started pulling out new fans. Bigger fans. These made the current fans like ones you buy at the dollar store.
I watched with a happy heart as the three men worked. The new fans were louder but the difference was almost instant. There was no more sag in the clubble. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. They'd gone above and beyond.
When it was time, I explained what we were doing and led everyone into the clubble. Being inside was an experience all its own. It was massive and awe-inspiring. Watching the reactions was priceless and made the stress of the day totally worth it.
The food fight lasted thirty minutes and, in that time, I had never laughed so hard.Everything that could go wrong, went wrong but it made it even better.
First, Lincoln might not get hot, but the bubble had been sitting in the sun all day and felt like a sauna.
Second, mustard is a terrible condiment choice. The pungent smell was amplified by the greenhouse effect.
The park was on a hill. I knew it when I picked the spot. I knew it when we blew it up, and I knew when we started Club. But I didn’t think it would be a big deal. The slop didn’t seem like much.
The second the plastic was slick with wet oatmeal and condiments, moving around the dome was almost impossible. It was like trying to walk up a slip n slide covered in oil. Three minutes into the food fight and almost every person was sliding downhill on their hands and knees. Penn ended up cutting a second door at the bottom. Everyone entered at the top, slid their way down while throwing food, then exited at the bottom.
Rinse and repeat.
Even the hot, smelly, slippery faux pas didn’t slow anyone down. Everyone had a great time.I was the only one that stayed inside, letting everyone pelt me with food. They relished the day they got to pay me back for all that I put them through throughout the year.
Stepping outside made me realize how terrible it smelled on the inside. All that mustard.
I held the door open and the kids piled out. They were covered from head to toe in slop and they happily re-lived their favorite moments. For me, there were too many to choose from.
Clean up was easy, everyone ran down to the lake and jumped off the dock. The cold water stopped no one.
I was making sure everyone was accounted for when a bucket of slop got poured on my head.I knew it was coming. It happened every year, still I pretended to be surprised and upset with betrayal. It made them feel like they pulled one over on me. I wiped the slop off my face and found David and Christian standing there with giant grins on their faces.
The crowd roared.
Before they knew what was happening, I threw each of them over a shoulder and ran toward the dock. They weren’t big guys, maybe a buck twenty each. Slop dripped down my face and the dock vibrated under my feet. I had the whole group following me. When I reached the end I kept running, right off the dock and into the cold water. When I surfaced the air was full of laughter and splashes as everyone re-entered for an encore.
It didn’t last long. We made our way back up the clubble and toweled off. Everyone settled into the grass and waited for me to give the final club talk of the year.
I asked for a volunteer. Several kids raised their hand. I had Britney come forward and I handed her a paper plate with a tube of toothpaste on it.
“I want you to squeeze some toothpaste out,” I instructed.
She took the toothpaste and squeezed a line onto the paper plate. She stood awkwardly like all kids do when they’re standing in front of their peers. I looked at the toothpaste and frowned.
“That’s barely any. More,” I encouraged her.
Britney laughed and then squeezed a big dollop onto a plate. I quickly held out my hand and stopped her.“Whoa! Too much. I need you to put some of it back in the tube.”
Britney looked at me like I was crazy. “I can’t. It’s impossible.”
“Well, I need you to try. I need you to try really hard. I need all this toothpaste back in the tube.”
The crowd eagerly watched as Britney tried to finger the toothpaste back into the tube. When it didn’t work, she tried again. When she finally gave up, the toothpaste was smeared all over the plate, her fingers were a mess, and the tube was covered. All that work and none of it had actually been pushed back into the tube.
I grabbed the plate, thanked her for her help, and sent her back to the audience.
I explained about a time when I was younger. A friend of mine had upset. In retaliation, I said some really hurtful things that damaged our relationship past the point of fixing.
“Here’s the thing about words, you can’t unsay them. It’s like the toothpaste, once it’s out, you can’t get it back in,”I held up the plate so everyone could see the mess that Britney made.“It doesn’t matter how hard you try; you’re left with the mess you made.”
I talked a little more about how to choose our words. Words said out of anger can cause damage that we can’t repair. Words said out of ignorance can build divides. We have a choice to use words to build people up or to tear them down.
“Which do you want to be known for?” I asked.
The atmosphere was always somber after I spoke. I gave them something to think about and wrestle with. I challenged them in ways others were too scared to. They needed someone to call them up.
After updating them with camp info and saying farewell for the summer, everyone left.
I was so busy I didn’t realize Penn and Marcos were still there. I don’t know why I expected them to be gone. Their truck was the literal power supply to the cornerstone of my evening. They were kind of stuck.
“That was amazing. Watching those kids made my heart beat with joy. And your words, so important,” Marcos said, his Spanish accent thick and broken.
I shook his hand and thanked him for his kind words. They were gracious enough to help me clean up. They’d already removed the sandbags and turned off the fans so the clubble was almost completely collapsed. They helped me hose off the totes and load everything in the back of the Suburban. When it was mostly done, we went back to the pile of plastic.
I sighed.“I really didn’t think this through, I have no clue how to get rid of this.”
It was too big to fit in the back of a truck and too smelly for me to even consider putting in my SUV. It was heavy to begin with but now there was one-hundred pounds of food in it.
“I’m sure Len could have one of the drivers pick it up tomorrow.”
I roughly cupped Penn’s face in my hands and smiled brightly.“You’re a genius! I didn’t even think of that!”
I let go and grabbed my phone. I explained the situation to Lenny and he agreed to have one of his garbage trucks come by and pick it up in the morning, no charge of course.
With everything loaded in the truck, I pulled out a pair of clean sweat pants and a sweatshirt that I had hidden under my seat and changed. It was cold and I smelled. There was no one left at the park besides the three of us so I stripped off my shorts. I covered myself with a towel and pulled off my wet underwear, slid a new pair on, then tossed the towel on the seat while I finished getting dressed.
“As guilty as I feel that you guys stayed here all day, I’m so thankful you did,” I said as I adjusted the waistband low on my hips before grabbing a fresh shirt.
“It was more fun than cleaning toilets,” Marcos said with a laugh. “It was a good day. A big adventure.”
I liked Marcos. He had lines on his face and callused hands, yet there was a softness in his chocolate eyes, a sparkle that made you comfortable. He was good people, that much I knew.
“Yes,” I laughed, “Today was definitely an adventure.”
I looked at Penn, who was smiling. He really looked nothing like his brothers. Ryan and Logan had short, dirty blond hair while Penn’s hair was shaggy and dark brown. Ryan and Logan had blue eyes; Penn’s were dark brown. He was stocky but leaner than both his brothers. It wasn’t fair that they were all so gorgeous and nice. I mean, Penn had just spent the entire day saving my ass and I was pretty sure he didn’t even like me all that much. That showed just how good a person he was.
I reached out and shook his hand.“Seriously,” I looked straight into his eyes. “Thank you so much. I owe you.”
“Nah, it was my pleasure. I had fun.”
“If you have fun saving my ass, then expect a lot more requests of this.”
I pulled the sweatshirt over my head and smiled, “Careful what you agree to. I need someone who can put my crazy plans into action.”
“Just let me know.”
There was no doubt he meant it. He was a Knott after all. They were nothing if not the most helpful people on the planet. It was in their DNA.
I thanked him again then drove home. It was another long day and I was in need of a shower. There was something about the final Club of the year that was bittersweet. Bitter, because I loved my Monday nights and I missed the hustle and bustle of the school year. Sweet, because work was exhausting and the summer allowed me to recharge a bit. I still had camp but life would be slower until September.
When I got home, Lee was asleep. I wanted to tell him all about my day but, at the same time, I was happy to have a little peace and quiet. An hour later I crawled into bed. Lee looked inviting as he slept. I kissed his soft skin a few times and he roused to my touch, then settled back down. I wrapped myself around him.
My fingers wandered over his belly. It was something Lee didn’t like me to do when he was awake. He wasn’t insecure but he wasn’t happy with his body. Years of working hard at the firm had made him soft. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I thought he was dynamite and he knew I couldn’t get enough of him. I used his sleep as an opportunity to fulfill my need for touch. I never wanted to stop touching him.
On Thursday I visited Sam Masey. I would’ve visited him a lot more but he insisted I had better things to do, said he only wanted to see me before and after my marathons.
He was passionate about running in his younger years. He coached track and field for the University and was always running marathons in his free time. One day he woke up and couldn’t move his legs. They thought it was temporary paralysis, that was forty years ago.
He was the reason I ran marathons. He became a mentor and challenged me to push my own limits both mentally and physically. Then he bribed me; told me he’d pay my entry fees and travel expenses if I started running marathons. It was a no limit situation. I could run as many as I wanted, wherever I wanted, and he’d pay for it all.He said it brought him joy to see someone who shared his passion.
“I brought you coffee. How you drink this dark lava I will never know.” I handed him the coffee I picked up on my way over. He took a sip of the bitter dark roast and smiled.
“Hmm, nothing better than life juice.”
I gagged, making the old man chuckle. I might’ve shared his passion for running but I didn’t share his passion for coffee. He was sitting in his lift chair with a blanket tucked around his waist. His legs had lost their muscle tone and his arms weren’t far behind. It had been years, maybe even a decade, since he was able to transfer himself from chair to chair. Despite his failing independence, Sam hadn’t lost his spirit.
“When do you leave?” he asked.
“We’ll drive up Saturday and drive home Monday.”
“How are you feeling about it?”
“Good. I haven’t been training as hard as I wanted, and I know it won’t be my best race, but I’m confident that I’ll make a qualifying time.”
“It’s fine if you don’t. Every race you get to participate in is a gift.”
“I’ll cheers to that,” I lifted my water bottle and tapped it against Sam’s coffee. “If I qualify, are you going to make it to Boston and watch me cross that finish line?”
“I dream,” he said with a sad smile. “It would be a production to get me there. I don’t think it’s possible.”
“I’ll only run if you’re there to cheer.”
Boston was a big deal because Sam had been six days from racing it himself before the paralysis. He wouldn’t admit it but me running that race was a big deal for him. I would get him there no matter what.
“We’ll see. First, you qualify, then you register, then we wait until April. A lot can happen between now and then.”