August, Five Years Ago
THEY gawked, the man and woman in the purplish car that had slowed to a crawl. Billowing dust followed the vehicle like a rusty shadow.
Faron boldly met the couple’s curious gazes. His two sisters, properly demure, turned down their heads and lowered their eyes, unable to hide beneath their small white bonnets.
Can’t be from around here, Faron thought, watching the car as it picked up speed. The locals were used to seeing Amish, didn’t treat them like a sight rarer than a solar eclipse.
He gently steered his sisters to the edge of the dirt road. A startled frog leaped into the overgrown drainage ditch. Miriam waved the remnants of airborne grit away from her face. Younger Sarah, playing copycat, did the same.
The car disappeared over the hill Faron and the girls had recently descended. Another hill, gently lifting the ribbon of road, lay ahead. No longer weighted by the stares of the tourists, Miriam’s eyes scanned the spectacle of cattails that stretched beyond the ditch. Sarah, swinging her gathering basket, skipped ahead.
Up the next rise they trudged, woods thickening as the marshland fell away. The sky, a clean blue swatch overhead, reminded Faron of shirts and dresses hanging from his mother’s laundry line. Birds chirped and sang. Occasionally, a squirrel chattered.
It was pretty and peaceful, this fecund, rolling land, and easy to take for granted. Would it be just as easy to leave behind?
A crow cawed—why did crows always sound vexed?—before it took flight. Faron watched its beating wings tear black holes in the sky.
“Will you be going out tonight?” Miriam asked, her basket snug in the crook of one arm.
“No. I’m staying home.”
“Yes. I have things to do this weekend. I need to get to bed early.”
Miriam brushed at the short sleeves of her dress, the long drape of her smock-like apron. She tilted a shy smile and veiled glance at her brother. “Have you met a girl you like?”
Faron understood the implication: that he’d paired up with someone special, and if he couldn’t be with her, he preferred being alone. “Not yet.”
“You might have a better chance if you stayed for Sunday lunch and singings. I’ve seen at least three girls looking at you before and after church.”
“That’ll only mean something when you see me looking back.”
Miriam returned her brother’s wan smile. “Don’t feel discouraged. Somebody’s bound to catch your eye sooner or later.” She let the subject drop. Sarah, still many paces ahead of them, was oblivious to the whole conversation.
Faron had been pulling away from social situations—the gatherings after church services, the more unrestrained parties he’d once looked forward to on Friday and Saturday nights. He was almost two years into Rumspringa, but his soul felt more unsettled than ever. After that bonfire he’d attended last month, he knew why. He didn’t want to invite more of the same disturbance. What he did want—and need, actually—was enough independence to figure out what was going on inside of him. Being in a distracting herd of young people every weekend didn’t bring him any closer to that goal.
The breaking free and running around had been exhilarating at first, whole self-indulgent weekends spent cruising malls and going to concerts, enjoying fairs, getting high in dim apartments or drunk at fire-lit campsites. Faron had reveled in his new clothes and attitude, in conversations more loud than quiet and music that drove rather than lulled his blood.
He’d danced and laughed a lot. He’d sped down country roads on a motorbike and wrecked it within weeks. He’d been involved in a couple of fights. He’d smoked pot and snorted coke and felt the unique, disorienting thrill of sloughing off the dross of life, his many responsibilities included.
Boys from his community trusted him, and girls from most everywhere liked him. He could sense it. He’d even been told as much. English girls liked his physique, increasingly solid with muscle, and his large blue eyes. Amish girls liked the full, wavy fall of his longish hair, dark as pitch, and his careless swagger. One or another girl was always trying to take him aside for some private fun. They were shamelessly flirtatious when they were away from their parents, when they were drinking beer or popping Ecstasy with their friends. Initially, Faron had been amazed and abashed.
A few times, after he was past being a simmie still wet behind the ears, he’d given in to some girl’s persuasions and crept away with her. Whatever gang he was a part of on any given evening barely noticed such disappearances. He barely noticed them. Couples slipped away all the time, at every gathering.
This slinking into the shadows was always the same for Faron. A babel of voices speaking Pennsylvania Deitsch and English and Spanish receding at his back. His hand dampening as a would-be seductress clutched it and led him into deepening darkness. The straining hope that this time, whatever chemistry or magic or blessing bonded male to female would descend on him.
From what other boys had said, it was something worth coveting, this shock of bliss. Faron figured it was more gratifying than the most bountiful harvest, and he was desperate to experience the feeling.
But it kept eluding him.
Until last month, that is. Until, one cool evening, he’d lackadaisically tagged along to a bonfire at a farm outside of Cashton, where he’d finally discovered what his peers had been talking about.
“Slower, Sarah!” Miriam called out.
The eight-year-old was bounding toward the patches of wild berries along Bentbow Creek, the trio’s destination. The girls were to gather raspberries for preserves and blackberries for pies. Seventeen-year-old Faron was serving as their temporary guardian. One older brother was already married and off on his own, the other was tending the beehives, and their father was in the fields.
Sarah’s shrill voice, full of dismay, got Faron running. He nimbly jumped over rocks and pushed away branches, but thorns still caught at his trousers. He clamped a hand to his broad-brimmed straw hat lest it get knocked off his head.
Miriam, the perfect little mother, had a good German scold worked up by the time Faron reached his sisters. He hadn’t realized his reverie had made him lag behind. Sarah held up a miniature, vaguely human figure dressed in crudely-sewn blue clothes. It was one of the dolls she’d made—a doll so small, Faron marveled at how she’d stitched its halves together, turned it inside out, and stuffed the small spaces left for head and torso, arms and legs. Yet Sarah had managed to construct seven such dolls, one to represent each member of their family. A stubborn little girl, she simply chose not to respect the fact her dolls shouldn’t have represented any particular people.
“She wasn’t paying attention to where she was going,” Miriam informed her brother. “Something caught on the pocket of her apron and ripped it open.”
“You fell out, Faron,” Sarah said morosely. “You fell on your head in the mud.”
No wonder the figure’s white body wasn’t so white anymore.
“Hush,” Miriam said. “That isn’t Faron. It’s only a toy.”
Faron eyed the hopelessly soiled figure as it dangled upside down, one shapeless foot grasped between Sarah’s thumb and forefinger.
“No,” he said quietly. “That’s me, all right. It sure is me.”
“YOUR cheatin’ aaaaassssss…”
Oh, shit, doesn’t this guy’s voice ever give out? Greg Aubuchon couldn’t move any farther away. The damned bar was packed. Seasonal layoffs, Thanksgiving coming, another long, brutal winter not far behind—yeah, these people had good reason to get drunk and stupid. He wondered if he should try it himself.
“But sleep won’t coooooome, although you will….”
Greg tipped a smile. Sounded like the singer had an ax to grind—not with Hank Williams but with a none-too-faithful former sweetheart. He glanced at the guy, who stood wedged between Greg’s stool and the one to the right, the one being swallowed by Arnelle Herzberg’s butt cheeks. The disenchanted wailer was maybe a little younger than Greg and surprisingly good-looking, an asset that was rare around here.
“Your cheatin’ aaaa—” The guy’s voice sheared off when he noticed Greg’s eyes on him. “What’re you lookin’ at?”
“Shouldn’t it be ‘your cheatin’ heart’?”
With a flourish, the guy whisked his bottle of beer off the bar and poured a long stream down his throat. “Not in this case. No heart involved. Only ass.” He hitched up his dark brows and cocked his head. “A pretty nice ass, but that’s probably why it ain’t just mine.”
Greg was tempted to give him an encouraging clap on the back but quickly decided to keep his hands on the bar’s varnished, knotty pine surface. “There are always more fish in the sea, my friend.”
The standing man swayed and smirked. “Not this sea.” He finished his beer.
“Here, why don’t you have a seat?” Greg began sliding off the stool. His accidental companion laid a hand on his shoulder. The gesture felt oddly intimate, but of course it meant nothing.
“Nah, stay there. I’m okay.” The guy’s scrutiny of Greg began to intensify. At least, he tried moving it in that direction by narrowing his eyes. Or maybe he was seeing double and trying to sharpen his focus. “What’s your name?”
“Hi. I’m….” The name he spoke wasn’t quite intelligible.
“Aaron?” Greg asked.
The guy wagged his head, then planted his upper front teeth on his lower lip. “Ffffffaron,” he said, drawing out the F. Tiny sparkles of saliva like champagne bubbles appeared just inside his mouth. Reflexively, he licked his lips. “You live around here?”
Greg had to tear his gaze away from the lower half of Ffffffaron’s face. “Yeah. But more important, do you?” No way in hell could this guy drive home.
“Rabbits,” Faron said.
Shit, now he’s not making any sense. Greg leaned toward him. “I’m sorry. What was that?”
Faron frowned. “Sorry for what? What was what?”
Although he was only on his third drink, Greg felt a headache coming on. Trying to communicate with a drunk was enough of a strain, but the cacophony of loud voices over nonstop music made the situation torturous.
“You said something about rabbits,” he reminded Faron, who gave him a look of pure, depthless bewilderment… until a few synapses dried out enough to spark.
Faron cracked up. His lips made a spluttering sound. “I said Rapids.” The P, as emphatic as his earlier F, sent a thin mist of spit into the amber-colored air.
Greg wanted to tell him that he wouldn’t win over any ladies if he couldn’t keep his saliva in his mouth when he talked. But why bother? It would be a waste of good advice. “Oh! You live in the Rapids.”
Not oh but uh-oh. Greg had been thinking of offering Faron a ride home, since he didn’t seem to know anybody here, but Wisconsin Rapids was a thirty-mile drive to the north on a fairly busy highway. Greg had been drinking himself. He couldn’t risk being on the road for an hour.
Faron’s gaze cut Greg’s way. He had arresting blue eyes that were probably a lot more stunning when he was sober. “You got a hearing problem or something?” he asked with genuine curiosity.
“No. It’s just loud in here.” And you sound like you have a mouth full of mashed potatoes. Greg felt behind him for his jacket. He was restive, uncomfortable. The headache hadn’t formed, but a more disconcerting feeling had. “Why don’t you do your drinking closer to home?”
“That ain’t my home. All my stuff’s in my truck now. I was heading for Chicago—” Faron hiccupped. “—but this’s as far as I got.”
“You live out of your truck?”
The question clearly irked Faron. Maybe he was insulted by it. “No, I don’t live out of my truck. I just today packed my stuff into it.”
“So you’re moving to Chicago?”
Dramatically, Faron sighed and rolled up his eyes. He dropped forward to lean on the bar. “No, I’m not moving to Chicago. I was just gonna hang out there for a while, maybe meet some new people.”
“Sorry. I can’t read your mind.”
Another angled glance, this one accompanied by a smile that held mischief. “Lucky for both of us.” Faron slid his empty beer bottle across the bar and ordered a shot of Jim Beam.
A gust of evening air momentarily cooled the overheated tavern as a group of patrons took their time getting out the door. Vacantly, Greg watched. He couldn’t shake that low-in-the-pelvis antsy feeling, the one that could easily lead to a pre-bedtime performance of “Me and My Penis” if the attractive man next to him were more sober. He shifted on the stool just as a full shot glass appeared in front of Faron, and Greg’s disturbance haltingly switched tracks.
“I hope you’re not planning on resuming your trek to Chicago tonight.”
Faron tossed back the Beam, his pinkie finger extended in a way that didn’t seem at all feminine. He licked his lips with a soft smack. “I’m not that stupid. Close, though.”
“Do you have a friend in town to stay with?”
“Nope.” Faron did a half turn and leaned on the bar with one elbow. Hands linked and legs crossed, he faced Greg. “Don’t need one. I can sleep in my truck. When this place opens in the morning, I’ll use the men’s room, get a cuppa coffee, and be on my way.”
“But it’s going to be cold tonight. Right around freezing, I heard.”
Faron shrugged with one shoulder. “Oh well.”
Shit! Greg knew his Good Samaritan impulse was genuine enough, but he couldn’t seem to untangle it from the way this guy looked—a truly nonsensical pairing of motives.
“Listen,” he said, trying to ignore Faron’s physical appeal, “I’m renting a place just a couple miles east of town. You’re welcome to crash there if you want. That way you won’t have third-degree shivers or a cop’s flashlight or a pack of delinquents waking you up at three a.m. Leave your truck here. I’ll bring you back in the morning.”
“Are you serious?”
“What’s in it for you?”
“Nothing. It’s called doing a good deed. I’m not going to roll you or anything. If you don’t trust me, leave your wallet in your truck.”
“I can drive to your place.”
“No you can’t.”
“A few miles?”
“That’s a few miles too many.”
Faron looked perplexed. “How do you know you can trust me?”
“Well… yeah. But you don’t know that.”
Smiling, Greg twisted around to pull his jacket off the back of the stool. “What I do know is I don’t have anything worth stealing. And you’re too wasted to be much of a danger anyway.” He called out to Ernie, the owner and bartender.
“’Nother one?” Ernie grabbed for Greg’s empty beer glass.
“No, thanks. I just wanted to ask if this guy”—Greg tilted his head toward Faron—“could keep his truck parked out back overnight. He needs a ride.”
“He sure as shit does.” Ernie was a good egg who always put his customers first, even looked after them the way a gruff but loving uncle would. “Yeah, that’s fine. Lock it up, though.”
“It’s already locked,” Faron mumbled. “Thanks, man.”
“Come on,” Greg said to his new charge. “Let’s go.”
He led the teetering man to his car, which was parked out front. Greg didn’t touch him—and wouldn’t, unless Faron seemed on the verge of planting his face on the sidewalk. Although Greg’s attraction had largely mutated into a sense of duty, he didn’t want, didn’t need to feel the solid contours of that unsteady body, to smell the sweetness of that tousled dark hair.
Good thing Faron was able to pour himself into the passenger seat without any assistance.
Conversation wasn’t possible on the short drive to the house Greg rented. Faron kept nodding off—another good thing. From here on, the only effort Greg needed to expend was getting his ward from the car into the living room and onto the couch. He’d make sure a throw pillow was under Faron’s head, drape the afghan over him, and simply leave him be until morning.
Then he’d return to a routine that was comfortably devoid of tall, dark, handsome young men.
Greg pulled around to the back of house, a simple, cottagey place, green with white shutters, that nearly faded into the surrounding woods. “Damn it,” he whispered, and came to a hard stop. Lenny’s truck was there.
Lenny was his thirty-something housemate, a fairly typical local guy with receding blond hair, burgeoning belly, and a penchant for gossip. Greg had expected him to be at his girlfriend’s place tonight, since he often hung out there whether or not she was working. Now he had to deal with Lenny’s questions.
A light glowed over the back door, but the yard beyond the small parking area was thick with shadow. Faron stirred, lifted his head off the backrest, stretched his eyelids. He turned to Greg and squinted. “You got condoms?”
Faron blinked. “I’m sorry, I forgot your name.”
“Greg.” Wonderful. Now he thinks I’m some woman he picked up. “We met at the Hideaway in Green Bluff. You’re spending the night at my place.”
“I know.” Faron’s smile, dozy and lopsided, was actually pretty charming. “Man, I gotta pee somethin’ fierce.”
After fumbling for a moment to find the door latch, he lurched out of the car and toward the edge of the yard. Greg got out, too, just in time to hear the patter of piss on dried leaves and pine needles. He stayed put and waited. A series of shuffling footsteps brought Faron out of the dark and into the pool of light. He stopped in front of Greg, looked into his face, put a hand on his upper arm, and smiled again.
“I’ll just take a little nap, okay? And then—”
The storm door squealed open and Lenny’s inquisitive face appeared. “I thought I heard….” His eyes fixed on Greg’s guest.
“This way,” Greg said. He moved behind Faron, laid both hands on his shoulder blades, and nudged him toward the door.
Lenny stepped aside, his forehead going washboard.
“Hi,” Faron said, lifting a hand.
Greg glanced at Lenny and shook his head as he steered his guest through the enclosed back porch and let him into the kitchen. “Keep going,” he said. “The living room’s straight ahead.”
“I feel like I need a shower,” Faron mumbled.
“You can take one in the morning.”
“I gotta get my toothbrush out of my truck.”
“Your truck’s too far away.” Greg led him to the long, well-cushioned corduroy couch that sat roughly in the center of the room. “Here. Lie down.”
Faron, practically asleep on his feet, went through some slow-motion gyrations to get his jacket off. He dropped onto the couch, untied his boots, and toed them from his feet. By the time Greg had picked up the discarded jacket, clicked off the TV, and turned off the end table lamp, Faron was curled up on his side, dead to the world.
He looked innocent and vulnerable.
Greg lifted the folded afghan from the back of the couch and draped it over the boy. But he isn’t a boy. He can’t be more than a few years younger than I am. And he sure as hell isn’t innocent.
Greg circled past Lenny, who stood just outside the kitchen watching him, and went into the bathroom. He lifted the bottle of ibuprofen out of the medicine chest and returned to the kitchen.
“Why’s that dude sleeping on our couch?” Lenny was peeved.
Greg shushed him and poured a glass of orange juice. “I’ll explain in a minute,” he whispered as he passed Lenny and reentered the living room. He set the juice and the bottle of pills on the coffee table, where Faron would be sure to see them when he awoke.
These simple acts of consideration suddenly wrenched him back to Bellarmine Abbey, to the way various brothers, as colorless and silent as humility itself, padded to and from the bedside of Brother Felician in the long weeks of his recovery from an illness Greg had never known the nature of. He’d never asked—it wasn’t his place to inquire; it wasn’t his business to know—but the image and its import had made an impression on him. Now, it seemed to be dictating his actions.
Smiling, Greg gazed at the couch. Funny how the mind worked. A drunk had reminded him of a monk. “And why not?” Dom Frederic, the abbot, would likely have said. “In the eyes of God, there’s no difference.”
Reluctantly, Greg turned back to the kitchen. And Lenny.
Lenny immediately took a seat at the table and motioned with his head for Greg to join him. “Well?” he said. “You bringing strays home now or what?”
“His name is Faron.” Greg poured himself a glass of ice water before he sat down. “We got to talking at the Hideaway and I realized he was too trashed to drive anywhere. I think he lives in the Rapids. Seems his girlfriend just dumped him.”
“Girlfriend? Yeah, right,” Lenny sneered. “I know that guy.”
“How? He doesn’t seem to know you.”
Lenny riffled through a deck of cards that had a permanent place on the table. “He’s seen me. He works for Garnet Marsh Growers, although he’s probably laid off for the winter.”
The name sounded familiar. “The outfit that owns all the cranberry bogs?”
“Yeah. Sometimes when I make deliveries up that way, I’ll stop to see my brother-in-law. He works in the office.”
Lenny drove truck for a local agrichemicals supplier, so he hauled tanker loads of fertilizers and pesticides to farms all over central Wisconsin. The stuff was used on a variety of crops—mostly corn, soybeans, and potatoes, although some owners planted peas and green beans as well.
“Don’t you deliver to Garnet Marsh?” Greg asked.
“No. They order through a specialty supplier.”
“So… what’s your point about—” Greg jerked a thumb toward the living room.
Lenny leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Seems your new pal is a fag.” He hissed the last word like a leaking tire.
Greg’s heart stuttered. “You got condoms?” He spoke before he had a chance to choke. “How would anybody know that? Is he open about it?”
“Not at work, no, but people’ve seen him flitting around the Rapids and Point with his ‘special’ friend, who he also happens to live with. I guess the dude’s shown up a few times at the bogs, too. So have a couple more guys.”
Greg’s mind backpedaled. Had there been any other indication Faron was gay? No, not really. Certainly nothing concrete. “That crap doesn’t mean anything. There are dozens of single men around here who hang out together or share a rental. Look at us.”
“Buddy,” Lenny said, reaching across the corner of the table and clapping a hand to Greg’s shoulder, “we don’t flit around and we sure as shit don’t get all touchy-feely with each other.” He abruptly, and quite comically, pulled his hand back. God forbid Lenny Lorta should be mistaken for a “flitter.”
Greg squelched an impulse to laugh. “Sounds like folks are jumping to a whole lot of conclusions based on a whole lot of nothing. You know how it is. One person makes an assumption and pretty soon it’s being spread like the Gospel.”
“Yeah, I know, but you don’t often hear about dudes being pegged as homos. Where there’s smoke, blah-blah-blah.”
“Oh, bullshit.” Greg seemed to be saying it to himself as much as to Lenny. He needed to quell the flutter of excitement he felt, the pale images that rose in his mind like resurfacing stains. “You don’t know him any better than I do.”
“Whatever. But the fucker better not wander into my bedroom. I’m gonna lock my door just to be on the safe side.”
Greg gave Lenny a look that said, You must be kidding. “Do that. God knows we don’t want a maybe-gay man with maybe-rampaging hormones mistaking you for David Beckham.” He rolled his eyes.
“A photogenic soccer player.”
“Well shit, Greg, that’d never happen.” Lenny grinned. “We all know I look like Aaron Rodgers.” Lenny was an American football fan, and proud of it.
Yawning, Greg got up from the table and patted Lenny on the back. “Well, you just hustle yourself off to Lambeau Field and secure all the gates behind you.” He was about to turn and head for his room when Lenny spoke again.
“Hey, you know what the real kicker is? Especially if he is queer?”
“I don’t have a clue,” Greg said wearily.
“He’s fuckin’ Amish. And that’s a fact.”
Greg let it sink in. Allegedly a gay player and definitely Amish. Was it any stranger than definitely a gay virgin and formerly a Catholic monk?
Leaning against the wall, he gave in to welling laughter and covered his face with his hands.
“It is pretty bizarre, ain’t it?” Lenny said with a smile in his voice.
Greg nodded. Mysterious ways indeed.