Chapter One

 

CALL ME Ishmael.

Nah, just kidding. Call me Larry. Larry Boots.

I’m pushing thirty and growing a beard that, at the moment, looks kind of scruffy. Also I shaved my head last week out of sheer boredom, so now I look like a cue ball with algae growing on the bottom of it. When I have hair on my head, it’s brown and drab. So are my eyes. Brown and drab. I stand about six feet tall, and I have a little patch of freckles that scatter across the bridge of my nose, which I spent two months in high school trying to eliminate with fading cream. Didn’t work, of course. My mother told me it wouldn’t. She also told me my freckles were cute, and I should leave them alone.

So now I leave them alone.

My mother also once told me I’d grow out of this gay phase I was going through. As you can imagine, that didn’t work out so well. I’m still as gay as a maypole. Well, perhaps a little butcher than a maypole. At least I hope I am. Not that being swishy is a character fault. I have a couple of friends who couldn’t walk a straight line without flipping something if their lives depended on it.

I’m between boyfriends at the moment, but I still have my mother. I mean, I don’t live with her or anything, but she’s still around. We reside in San Diego. She’s on one side of town; I’m on the other. Happily, it’s a pretty big town. A lot of acreage. Praise Allah. She tells all her friends I’m a software developer. I love that. One day out of the blue I told her, “Yeah, Mom, I’m a software developer,” and she believed me. I’ve never been to college or business school in my life, so I don’t know how she thought I learned the trade. Osmosis?

My mom still goes by her married name. Mrs. Bootchinski. Gladys Bootchinski. After about twenty years, that Bootchinski tag started to irk me, so I shortened it. Now I’m plain old Larry Boots. Much nicer. Of course, every time my mom has to use my new-and-improved last name, she gets this look on her face like I’ve just launched another invasion on her beloved Poland. By the way, she has never set foot in Poland and probably never will, since prying her more than ten feet away from her TV set and her beloved soaps is like pulling teeth.

Anyhoo…

The reason I lied to my mother about what I do for a living is pretty simple. I didn’t want her to know the truth. If I did tell her what I do to earn a buck, she would probably pull one of those aghast faces she’s so proficient at. She’s been using those faces on me since I was old enough to walk, and frankly, they’ve grown annoying. Not that I don’t love my mom. I do. It’s just that as the years accrue, it gets harder and harder to work up a good dose of sonly adoration, not to mention gathering the wherewithal to lay it on her out of the blue. I need time to get in the mood. And if you knew my mom, you’d know she doesn’t give anybody a lot of time to adjust. Interactions with my mother are like the rear-end collisions you don’t see coming. One big bam, and there you are, lying in a ditch with a spare tire up your butt.

Well, maybe she’s not quite that bad. Oh wait. Yes, she is.

I adjusted the right lens of my binoculars a smidgeon since things were getting a bit blurry on that side. Also, the tree I was sitting in had been digging into my backside for the last thirty minutes, and I wondered if it was doing irreparable damage to my perky little butt. Not that my butt is really that perky anymore. Or maybe it is. Heaven knows I work out religiously trying to keep myself fit. In my line of work, my real line of work, you sort of need to.

But enough about me.

With the binoculars properly adjusted I could see the man sitting in the battered old Econoline van more clearly now. He was probably pushing fifty, way overweight, with scraggly gray hair and a paunchy jawline bristling with what looked like a week’s worth of patchy, untrimmed facial hair. Even a fashionista like me (that was a joke) could look at the guy and see he wasn’t trying to grow a beard. He was simply too lazy to shave. Actually, he didn’t look like he was too diligent about taking the occasional bath either. And his van didn’t appear to have been run through a car wash since it rolled off the assembly line sometime back in the eighties. Jeez. Let’s face it, the guy was a slob.

What I really detested about the man I was watching was the arm casually dangling out the driver’s-side window. There was a trail of smoke dribbling up from the lit cigarette he held in his hand, but that wasn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was the tattoo he sported on his forearm of two naked cherubs. They were innocently frolicking in a patch of arm hair.

I stared a long time at those two cherubs on the forearm of the man in the van. And the longer I stared, the angrier I became.

The tree I sat in was a tall eucalyptus, situated alongside the Blind Community Center just off Park Boulevard in the North Park section of the city. I was perched about twenty feet up, Reeboks swinging. Since there was a cluster of other eucalyptus trees surrounding me, I was pretty well hidden. The van I sat eyeballing was parked 400 yards away, across the boulevard. It was nestled up to the curb beside Roosevelt Middle School, right where you’d expect a pervert like Jackson Boils to be parked. The students had been set free for the day, and through my trusty binoculars, I could see Jackson Boils leering at every prepubescent child who pranced past, be they male or female. Obviously Boils was an equal opportunity pervert, which in my book made him doubly despicable.

I glanced at my watch. It would be dark in a couple of hours. The pervert wasn’t doing anything overtly malicious, so I let my attention wander. Training my binoculars off to the south, I could see the tourists beginning to straggle out of the San Diego Zoo’s front gates and head toward their cars, each and every one of them looking tired and happy and sunburned. One young boy was still gnawing on a ball of cotton candy, while another was admiring the stuffed python he wore wrapped around his neck, making faces and going all googly-eyed like it was strangling him. I snorted. Kids.

Down below, the sound of footsteps caught my ear.

At the base of my tree, a young man with a white cane and a sweet smile on his face tippy-tapped his way across the grass toward a park bench situated along a ravine about ten yards away. That sweet smile he wore mesmerized me. On the bench, after taking a minute to wiggle around and get comfortable, he pulled a book from the backpack draped across his shoulder and commenced trailing his fingers over the page he had previously marked with a slip of paper. Clearly, the book was in braille, and as he read, the sweet smile never once left his face, even when his eyes narrowed once in concentration at whatever it was he was reading. A thriller. Maybe. Yeah, I decided. Definitely a thriller.

When I shifted around on my tree limb because my butt was hurting again, he turned his head in my direction and looked up. He couldn’t see me, of course, but he knew I was there. I could tell by the way he kept peering up toward the treetops.

Head-on, he was so handsome I almost fell out of the tree. Honest to God, in his little sweater-vest and bow tie, he almost took my breath away. I draped my binoculars around my neck so I wouldn’t drop them and started climbing down. Along the way, I took a last glance toward the school and saw that the van had vanished. Good. Jackson Boils had gone home. If things went according to plan, I would see him there later.

For the moment, I hopped the last few feet to the ground, brushed off my clothes, and turned my attention to the young man on the bench.

Clearing my throat to let him know my intent, I cautiously approached. When I did, he looked surprised.

“Oh! You’re a grown-up. I thought you were a kid.”

“Why’d you think that?” I asked.

“Well, you were sitting in a tree. How many adults do you see doing that?”

“Not many, I guess.”

He smiled at that. “No. Not many at all.”

By this time, I was within three feet of him. I stopped and shuffled my feet, wondering what to say next.

“Sit,” he said, patting the bench beside him.

“Thanks,” I muttered and plopped myself down mere inches away. He moved his backpack and his white cane to his other side to give me room. That wee task accomplished, he turned and pointed another one of those monumental smiles directly at me. “So what were you doing in that tree?”

“I was watching someone.”

“Me?”

I chuckled. “No. Someone across the street by the school.”

“Are they close enough to see?”

“I have binoculars.”

“Why were you watching them? Are you a private detective?”

I blinked. “Well, yeah. Sort of, I guess.” About as much as I’m a software developer. I made it a point to ignore the why part of his question, and I was happy when he let it go.

“How can you be ‘sort of’ a private detective?”

“Someday I’ll explain it to you,” I said.

“That implies we’re beginning a friendship.”

I blinked again. “Golly, I guess it does.” After a pause, I asked, “Would that be okay with you? Starting a friendship, I mean?”

His smile widened, displaying a row of beautiful white teeth. Toothpaste commercials have won Clio Awards for showing teeth like that. He gave a teeny shrug. “You can never have too many friends, they say.”

Somewhere over our heads in one of the other trees, a mockingbird started riffing. No other creature riffs like a mockingbird. In fact, once they start, they almost never shut up. And they do it in twelve different languages. That’s the amazing thing about mockingbirds.

“Pretty,” I said before I could stop myself. I was still staring at the young man’s smile.

He misunderstood and said, “It is. I love hearing the birds sing.”

“Oh. Yeah. Me too.”

After a beat of silence, he lowered his unseeing eyes from the treetops and focused his attention on me. The way he found me in those sightless green eyes made me wonder if perhaps he wasn’t completely blind.

“You have the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen,” I said. “Did you know they were green?”

“Yes,” he said. “I remember.”

“So you weren’t always…?”

“No,” he said, cutting me off. Kindly, but effectively. “No, I wasn’t always.”

“Can you see me at all? I mean, your eyes are dead center on my face.”

“I can hear you breathing. I know precisely where you are.”

“What else do you know?” I asked.

This time it was his turn to blink. The tip of a pink tongue came out to moisten his upper lip. It was a hot day. Maybe he was licking away the sweat.

“You mean about you?” he asked.

“Yes. What else do you know about me?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yeah, I do.” I attempted to insert a bit of joviality into my voice. I had never tried to intentionally do that before, but it seemed a helpful thing to do when dealing with someone who couldn’t see. “Lay it on me, O Perceptive One.”

He shifted around on the bench and draped an arm across the backrest, then leaned in a little closer. His smile had returned, and it really was a knockout.

“You’re around thirty. You’re not heavy. You’re well-built. You don’t smoke. You don’t wear aftershave, but you do splash your face with Sea Breeze after you shave. The scent is almost gone now, so you must have shaved early this morning.”

“I trimmed my beard and shaved my neck, yeah.”

“Close enough. Let’s see. What else? You’re wearing blue jeans, and you stepped in dog doo sometime in the not too distant past. Oh! And you had onions for lunch.”

I barked out a laugh. “Whoa! That’s a little too perceptive.”

He laughed with me. Our laughter dwindled down to silence; then we let that silence linger for a long moment because it seemed sort of comforting to let it simmer there between us. At least it did to me. Finally, he said, “You came over to speak with me. I’m wondering why.”

I thought about that. “Leaving out the onions and the dog doo, tell me how you know all those things you said. If you tell me that, then I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

A dimple bored a hole in his cheek as he flashed those pearly whites at me again. Little crinkly laugh lines appeared at the corners of his eyes. I tapped his age at about twenty-eight. Close to mine.

“Deal,” he said. Leaning his head back, he let the dappled shade from the tree play games across his face. His hair stirred in the wind. It was reddish blond and worn fairly short, barely a couple of inches long. I found myself wishing I could dig my fingers through it.

“The timbre of a voice can pinpoint a person’s age, if one listens closely enough. At least it works for me. Sometimes.” He grinned to let me know this wasn’t an exact science. “I know you aren’t heavy by the sound you made when you dropped out of the tree. I know you are well-built by the fact that you climbed the tree to begin with. I know you don’t smoke because you don’t reek of tobacco. I know you’re wearing blue jeans because denim makes a very distinctive sound when the legs rub together. So you see, my dear Watson, it’s quite elementary. The Sea Breeze, of course, is self-explanatory.”

I laughed. “As were the onions.”

“And the dog doo. Indubitably.”

I laughed again. Turning, I surveyed the Blind Community Center behind us. A caretaker was sweeping the front walk. When he finished, he leaned through the front door and tossed the broom inside. That chore finished, he fished a ring of keys from his pocket and locked the door behind him. He tested the knob, dropped the keys back in his pocket, and walked away whistling. Workday over.

I turned back to my companion on the bench.

Before I could ask, he said, “That’s Tommy, the janitor.”

“So you work at the blind center,” I said.

“I volunteer.”

“Volunteer doing what?”

He gazed down at his lap, as if he’d heard this question more than once. “I volunteer teaching the recently blinded how to survive in a world they can no longer see.”

I lowered my voice, lost yet again in those wondrous green eyes that took nothing at all in but gave everything back. “It must be hard.”

He nodded. Businesslike, without nonsense. Yet kind. Always kind. “It is indeed hard. For some it proves impossible.”

“Can I ask your name?”

He offered up a soft chuckle. “I wondered when you would. I’m Ken.”

“Like the doll,” I said.

He laughed. “Yes. Like the doll.”

“I’m Larry.”

“Larry,” he repeated softly, as if tasting the word on his tongue.

“Shake my hand?” I asked.

He almost jumped, as if he had forgotten the proper way to go about meeting people. He stuck his hand out in my general direction, and I immediately slipped my own around it. His skin was warm and soft in my grip. I felt my heart give a tiny lunge inside my chest at the first physical contact between the two of us. His thumb slid over the hair on the back of my hand, and I shuddered at the touch. When his thumb lingered there, I shuddered again.

“So are you married?” I asked, easing my hand away, although I certainly didn’t want to.

“No,” he said. “I’m not married.”

Joking, I asked, “Never found the right woman?”

He didn’t crack a smile. “Never found the right man. I’m gay.”

“Oh,” I said.

After a beat of silence that wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, he asked, “Are you married?”

I reached over and, without touching him, deftly brushed a ladybug from his shoulder. When it flew away, I found myself wishing Ken could have seen the tiny creature’s red-and-black wings. I also wondered if he knew they were named for the Virgin Mary.

Somehow he knew what I had done. “Thank you,” he muttered, still waiting for my response. “What was it?”

“Ladybug.”

“Ah. The holiest of ladies.”

“Yes,” I said. He knew.

Finally, I answered his question. “No. I’m not married.” And with a grin, I added, “I never found the right man either.”

He nodded, as if he’d expected as much. I realized he had known, or at least suspected, since the moment I sat down that I was gay. Apparently gaydar is even stronger in those without sight. And why wouldn’t it be? I silently asked myself.

Almost as if he was embarrassed to be doing it, he surreptitiously ran his fingertips over a high-tech contraption strapped to his wrist. After a moment, I realized it was a Dot Watch, designed for blind people to tell time using braille. I had heard of them but never actually seen one before.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to go.”

“Oh!” I jumped. “I didn’t mean to keep you.”

The laugh lines formed at his eyes again. This time both dimples popped into view. “You didn’t keep me. I’ve enjoyed our chat.”

“Me too,” I said. And before I knew it was coming, I added, “Thank you.”

He rose to his feet, lifted his book from the bench beside him, and tucked it in his backpack. He slipped his free hand through the strap on his white cane and faced me one last time. With the cane dangling from his wrist, he held his hand out once more. And once more, I took it in my own.

“It was nice meeting you, Larry,” he said.

“Same here, Ken.” Desperately, I stirred the thoughts around in my head, trying to figure out how to postpone our parting for another few moments. “Where do you live?” I jabbered. “I can give you a ride if you like. My car is just over—”

His hand still gripped my own. “I live across the street, I’m afraid. In those apartments to your left.”

“Then can I walk you home?” Once again I asked the question before I even knew it was coming. Blood rushed to my cheeks, and I found myself inordinately glad he was blind so he couldn’t see me blush.

“Sure,” he said. “Come on.”

Keeping his cane on the side farthest from me, he rested his other hand on my arm. We walked slowly over the sloping lawn toward the sidewalk lining the street where his apartment building stood.

“It isn’t necessary that you walk me home, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.”

“Oh.”

We walked quietly for a few steps before he said, “Actually, neither was I.”

His apartment building was a sprawling two-story compound perched on the edge of a canyon. Nothing fancy, but well maintained. Across the street behind us, the blind center sat alongside the same canyon. Across Park Boulevard, less than a quarter mile away, lay the sprawling San Diego Zoo, as I mentioned before. With evening coming on, I could hear the monkeys hooting for their dinners.

Obviously, Ken heard them too. “I love listening to the animals,” he remarked around a grin. “Makes me feel like I’m traveling in Africa.”

“How long have you lived here? In this building?”

“I’ve been here ever since….” He faltered and quickly regrouped. “I’ve been here four years. Four years next month, in fact.”

He had been about to say he had been there since whatever event took place that robbed him of his sight. I was sure of it. But I didn’t want to pry. I merely nodded and said, “It’s a nice building.”

He stopped at the outer gate leading into the compound and faced me. The red tip at the bottom of his white cane still rested against the edge of the gate, telling him exactly where it was.

His teeth flashed one last time. “Thanks for walking me home, kind sir.”

I tried to make light, but somehow I didn’t feel like joking. “It was really nice to meet you” was all I said.

He did a little foot shuffling, like he was embarrassed; then he asked point-blank, “You know, you never did tell me why you came over to talk to me. You said you would, but you didn’t.”

I hesitated. Then I decided to be honest. “You intrigued me. I thought my day would be much nicer if I spent a small part of it with you.”

He licked his upper lip, like maybe it was a nervous habit of his. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Well, then, thank you,” he said. “Just so you know, you made my day nicer too.”

It was my turn to shuffle my feet. “I’m glad,” I said, then bit down on my tongue before I started jabbering again and saying too much. God knows I have a tendency to do that.

Ken nodded and dipped a hand in his pocket to pull out his keys.

“Well, goodbye, then,” I said, taking an unsure step backward.

“Goodbye,” he answered softly, his green eyes not quite aimed directly at my face, so I edged sideways a tad to put me in their line of sight, if there had been any sight in them.

With my heart thudding forlornly—God, was I pathetic or what?—I began to walk away.

“Hey!” he called, and happily I turned back.

He stood with the gate propped open. Somehow in his blindness, he knew exactly where I stood. “I hope I’ll see you around,” he said with a self-deprecating smirk, making light of his own frailty.

“Yes,” I answered back. “I hope I’ll see you around too.”

Offering one last beautiful smile, he turned away and proceeded along the ivied walk. The gate slowly swung closed behind him, pulled shut on a spring under its own weight. By the time the latch had clicked into place, locking me out, Ken had rounded a bend in the path and disappeared from view.

I returned to the gate. Trying not to appear to be actually moping, in case anyone normal should stroll by, I stood there with my chin on the gate, peering in, hoping Ken would reappear. When he didn’t, I finally walked away, feeling more like a lonely putz than I had felt in a long, long time.

Oddly, I was grinning too, and some gland or other was pumping massive amounts of happy juice through my system.

“Ken,” I whispered under my breath. And still grinning, I headed for the car.