THINGS, he was now certain, never changed.
After a time, life settled in and became stubborn, refusing to evolve in any way, shape, or form. Tony Fisher stood at his only apartment window (he couldn’t afford an apartment with two) regretting a life wasted and leaning on the same walking cane he had used for the past five years. The same window, the same cane, the same day, for five years. He was only twenty-nine. Way too early to be bored of life.
It was a rainy morning. The street down below was a miserable mix of gray and slick black. People rushed to and fro under umbrellas and newspapers. The multicolored umbrellas at least tried to add color to the day, but they hardly succeeded. The sky rumbled sleepily overhead as if annoyed it even had to bother passing over the city of Holt. Occasionally the storm would make a sound that resembled a big, clumsy football player knocking over everything in its path. But then it would calm down again and the clouds would continue passing slowly… slowly… slowly by.
Tony longed for something poetic, something beautiful. It was an everyday longing, but there seemed to be no way out of the life he had been given. He wanted out of the gray but felt weighed down. “How am I supposed to start my day,” he wondered aloud, “when even the sky looks lazy?”
The dullness of the street was abruptly interrupted, however, by the appearance of a massive 1955 striking blue Ford Fairlane. All the other vehicles parked or being driven seemed to gawk in envy as the car paraded down the street (though it reminded Tony more of a bed than a float, probably due to what he knew of its owner). Douglas Dester, heartthrob to hundreds at least, fell in love with the Fairlane back when he, Tony, and their other best friend, Jerry Wilkins, were students at Verona College. He fell for the car the way most fall for movie stars—with untouchable reverence. He named it Baby Baby because his first words on seeing it on the lawn at an estate sale were, “Oh, baby! Baby!”
The land yacht pulled up to the curb and parked. Tony smiled. He had told them he wasn’t going. Doug and Jerry were headed to a quiet seaside resort community six hours north called Beechwood. The kind that makes a fortune from tourists in the summer so it can hibernate beneath feet of snow in the winter. They had asked him to come along in terms that resembled peer pressure. He had refused. Life outside the apartment—especially outside Holt—was awkward for him. Any small knoll or mound of earth, and he and his cane would be kissing it. His balance was as imperfect as could be imagined, and no amount of therapy had helped.
Doug got out of the car and waved at Tony. If it was at all possible, Doug had become even better looking and more muscular since their days at Verona. His workout routines were designed for one purpose: to get the man. And he always succeeded in that endeavor. Tony had met Doug through Jerry. Jerry’s eyes had been glazed over with an infatuated longing after he and Doug had fooled around just once at a party. Jerry had clearly hoped it would turn serious. Doug seemed to just want a friend. He and Jerry played around a few times after that, but Doug soon decided that, at least from Jerry, friendship was all he needed. Jerry’s infatuation never quite went away, though he claimed otherwise.
Doug sprinted through the rain and in no time was at the apartment door, his white T-shirt soaked through, just the way he liked it. He was all smiles, muscles, and rainwater. “Why aren’t you ready?” he asked.
He charged into the apartment, looking for a suitcase. “You know you’re going to have to go. Jerry won’t go without you.”
He looked through closets until he found a suitable piece of luggage and then hauled his ass to the bedroom.
“I’m not going,” Tony said. “How many times do—”
“You’ll have a good time.” He went through the chest of drawers, clearly unimpressed by Tony’s taste in fashion. “Besides, I don’t want to hear him bitching the whole time. You know we don’t always have the same idea of fun. He likes to read books. The longest piece of literature I’ve read lately was a tattoo on this biker I picked up last night. It said, If you’re this close, you’ve gotta suck it. And besides, I’m doing you a favor too.”
“How exactly?” Tony stood at the bedroom door with his cane and watched Doug lay waste to his neatly folded clothes. He hadn’t bought anything new in three years, so Doug was familiar with everything he owned.
“If you don’t go, when he comes back, he’ll complain nonstop about how it would have been so much better if you had made the trip.” He looked up from his sloppy packing job. “Underwear?”
Tony sighed. “Bottom drawer. But there’s no point to packing any, because I… am… not… going.”
Doug stopped packing and retrieved his cell phone from a strap on his blue jeans’ belt loop. He pressed a button. “Yeah, Jerr? I’m up here packing, and he says no. He’s pretty adamant about it.”
Doug and Tony stared at one another as Jerry relayed some information.
“Right,” Doug said and pressed another button.
“You… are… going!” Jerry blared over the speaker.
“You can’t kidnap me,” Tony said.
“Yes, we can,” Jerry replied. “Hang me up, Doug.”
Doug hung up. He flipped the suitcase closed and zipped it shut. “Come on, man,” he said. “A wise woman once said ‘Take a chance, you stupid ho.’ You never know, this could be great.”
“Gwen Stefani does not count as a wise woman, and this will more than likely be a disaster.” He looked out the window at the dreary day. “And besides, I can’t walk on wet pavement. What if I slip? Then you’ll be a very bad friend.”
He knew when he said it that that particular issue could be easily solved. Doug picked up the suitcase, walked toward him, and said, “Do you know how many hot guys live in Beechwood? More than in Holt, that’s for goddamn sure. And I’m gonna net me some. I don’t have time to deal with your angst.”
With one quick movement, he bent and flung Tony over his shoulder. “Still got your cane?”
“Yes.” Tony knew when he was defeated.
“Good. We’re off.”
“At least there’s a show,” Tony said, swatting his friend’s butt.
“It’s Broadway with every step, isn’t it?” Doug locked the apartment up as they left.
“Suck my angst.”
“WAIT! What did that sign say?”
The rain hit Baby Baby’s windshield so furiously that it was impossible to see anything but the blur of passing car lights, and those had become sparse since leaving the interstate. Many people were pulling over to the shoulder of the road until the storm passed. It was as if the storm had followed them—or they had dragged it like road kill—all the way from Holt. Doug was trying his best to keep the car on the road, petting the dashboard on occasion and whispering “It’s going to be okay.”
“I couldn’t see it,” Jerry said, sitting in the passenger’s seat and holding the map. Though the spring weather was not intolerably cold (it was the tail end of April,) Jerry was so thin of a guy that he usually wore a light jacket every year up until after Memorial Day. “But we should be going in the right direction… I think.”
“Have you ever given directions before, Jerr?”
“So we could be lost. We could end up in some creepy town where who knows what they do to pretty boys like me. We can’t keep driving around in this rain. Baby Baby won’t take this abuse.”
“Good,” came a cantankerous voice from the backseat. “Let’s go home. I didn’t want to come anyway. I get along just fine with my cane. Doug? Can you turn around and carry me back up to my apartment?”
“You hush, old man. I need to concentrate on the road.”
Jerry turned in his seat so that he was looking directly at Tony, who held his walking cane in his lap like a weapon ready to be thrust. “You needed to get out,” Jerry said. “You’ve turned into a hermit since the accident. You’re too young to be a hermit. I’m too young for you to be a hermit.”
Tony rolled his green eyes and watched the rain-soaked world outside pass by slower and slower as Doug carefully drove on.
“Yeah,” Doug cut in. “Don’t you want to have sex again? I mean, it’s been over a year since you’ve fucked.” (In fact, it had been much longer.) “That’s not right. We need to find you a man before it falls off.” Doug was crouched at the wheel, squinting at the windshield.
“I’m fine. Nothing is going to fall off.”
“You’re really not,” Doug said. “My balls hurt just thinking about the time and men you’ve let get away.”
“So, what’s a trip to a sleepy B&B in a sleepier beach town supposed to do about my balls? I’m not you, Douglas. I don’t look at every keyhole as a possible future sex partner.”
“Listen, you grumpy fucker. My mom’s friend said we had the whole place to ourselves. Mom was originally invited, but she and Dad couldn’t go. So then they asked my sister if she wanted to go with hubby number three. She said no, because they’re getting a divorce. Finally, Mom let it slip one day that the place was free. She had to let me have it or else become, like, the worst mother ever, and trust me, she doesn’t want to waste any bars on that particular cell phone.” Jerry and Tony were well aware of Doug’s emotionless and strained family. “It’s just the three of us. Not another guest in sight. We get to open the season in that big old place. My mom’s friend says it’s magical. You know how my mom’s friends like to overdo it with the adjectives. Anyway, the Manor House—that’s what it’s called—is right above Beechwood. We can keep an eye on things. Where there’s a seaside town, there are sailors, and where there are sailors, there are horny gay men. Lots of them.”
“Who told you that?” Jerry laughed.
“Tom of Finland.”
The response made Jerry laugh even harder. Tony watched the two in front interact. Jerry was so obviously still smitten with Doug, it was annoying. Tony gripped his cane and gritted his teeth. Doug, of course, seemed oblivious to any of Jerry’s flirtations, or at least he acted that way. They would have made a lopsided couple anyway, Tony thought. Jerry was so long and lanky he had been asked if he was anorexic more than once, and Doug was the quintessential gay muscle boy. And himself? Tony was…. Well…. He looked at himself in the window reflection, at the cane, at the casual way he was dressed. Tony was unimpressive in most respects. He couldn’t believe he had actually given up the fight and let Doug carry him to the car. Baby Baby, the big car that looked like a bed and had been used as such on more than one—more than one hundred—occasions.
Jerry squealed in laughter again at something Doug said. Tony wondered if he could get away with hitting Jerry with his cane. Friend or not, he was acting like a silly love-struck teenager. There were a couple of those in Tony’s apartment complex, and he hated them. He was certain he would one day be that crotchety old man read about in so much fiction. And when that happened, he would never give little Tommy or little Suzy back their baseball after they’d hit it through his window. One goes all out crotchety or one doesn’t go at all.
The B&B was difficult to find through the storm, but soon the rain let up and they found it high on a hill. It was dark when they arrived, Doug having driven as slow as possible through much of the trip, so the structure looked like a blotted mass against the night. The power had been victim to the storm, but the warm glow of candlelight was coming from a couple of windows. The lightning of the now fading storm offered little help in defining the structure’s curves and edges. Tony had taken a nap and was awakened by Jerry.
A figure approached them with a flashlight. He wore dark, everyday clothes that were soaked with the rain and a baseball cap that did well to hide his face. Doug rolled down the window, and at once all three smelled a pleasant, somewhat calming aroma. They couldn’t place it, and it didn’t linger for too long before it was hurried away by the breeze. It was botanical, though, with a mix of salt from the sea.
“The power has failed,” the young man said as he leaned into Doug’s window. “There’s only candlelight until tomorrow morning, most likely.” He sounded a bit foreign. Possibly of Italian origin, but in the States for so long a time now that his edges had been rubbed off. “You can park here.”
Doug looked up at the large tree limb they were under, in a corner of the drive. “I think I’ll park over there.” He pointed to the middle of the Manor House drive, which, admittedly, was not too large a thing.
“Just leave it here,” Jerry said. “It’s less of a distance to walk.”
“Nobody puts Baby Baby in the corner. I’ll park over there.”
It was too dark to see anything distinctive about their host after Doug had parked. He waited for them on the simple stoop at the door, unbothered by the drizzle of rain still falling. The guys wrestled themselves and their luggage from the car and made their way to him.
“I’ll get your bag, Tony,” Jerry said. “Go ahead and get up to the Manor House.”
Tony thanked him with a silent nod and made his way to the mysterious parking attendant, wet and limping. The gravel of the driveway made his cane nearly betray him more than once. The stranger at the door watched him. Tony knew the feeling. It made him self-conscious. He avoided the stranger’s face.
Once they were inside the Manor House, a cathedral couldn’t have been more silent. Everything was shaded and asleep. Though they were surrounded by beautiful old things, the guys were all too tired to take much notice. The sparse light and flashes of lightning made their eyes dizzy and unfocused. Tony especially kept his attention to what was in front of him. It might have been treacherous not to. He had found that older homes, the ones with the loveliest furnishings, were often the least friendly to him. When they rolled out their welcome mats, they always did it with a few bumps.
The ceiling must have been high above them, because they felt the rush of a breeze from an open window sweep past and over them. It was possibly even vaulted, for there was an echo, but they didn’t care to look up and satisfy their suspicions. Looking up meant work.
All three rooms were on the second level of the house at the back, and one by one they were led to them.
“I can get you moved to another room,” the mysterious host said to Tony. The voice was striking in its serenity.
“I’m fine. Don’t treat me any differently, please.”
Their host (for they had nothing else to refer to him as) guided them on with a candle like a servant in an old black-and-white movie. He opened each bedroom door. First for Doug, then Jerry, and then Tony, each receiving a nod before they went in, and each trying to decipher a little bit more about this wet man who held the candle. Tony, being the last of the guests to be shown to his room, was the only one to catch a true glimpse into the mysterious young man’s face. There was a shine in his eyes.
“Don’t worry,” the man said. “You’re going to love it here.” And then he left. Tony was certain their guide was wrong. The vacation was already a soggy mess. Certainly not what any of them had expected. It had a long way to go to reach “better,” and even farther to reach something he would describe as having loved.
Tony fell down on the huge bed, unable to appreciate the extreme comfort it offered because he was so soon cradled to sleep without having so much as untied his shoelaces. He hadn’t even taken the time to look around the room or investigate. The room was dark and dangerous, and in the night, everything becomes a sick man’s enemy. Everything but sleep.
His rest was interrupted only once and early on, when he heard Doug yell out from his own room, “Good night, bitches!”