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I WAS saying good-bye to the people who’d showed up for the last “Fridays with Frank” before the summer season began. I’d explained basic spring-cleaning and distributed a detailed handout to help cut down on area wildfires and was answering the last few questions when I saw the newcomer wandering around the shop. A lot of people—mostly men—seemed to do that here in my old-fashioned hardware store.

Riley, my seventy-year-old assistant, raised a brow at me and gave a minimal shrug. I shrugged back, took out my pocket watch, and gestured for him to take his break. While I had no problem with Riley watching the stranger, I wanted the privilege to do so myself. This good-looking newcomer liked walking around the store as much as I liked admiring him.

Oh, I knew it wasn’t me he came to see. There’s just something ambrosia-like about hardware—screws and nails, and little bits and pieces, all of them fashioned to make bigger pieces stay together and work. Not to mention the tools to put everything together or take it apart.

For whatever reason, many men responded to the siren song of the store. They ambled in and wandered around with no particular purchase in mind. Some ended up buying all kinds of stuff I knew they’d never use, and some just spent the time moseying and left in better spirits, smiles on their faces.

Even now at age thirty-five, I don’t know what siren sings to anyone else. Hardware stores, even though I own and operate one, still do it for me.

At any rate, for the past week or so, the newcomer had walked the aisles in the mornings, never buying anything he couldn’t pay for with cash but always with a relaxed, happy attitude. A dark, handsome man, maybe a couple of years older than me, the stranger had the easy grace of the rich men who strolled around town in the summer while on vacation. Instead of exuding entitlement as so many of them did, this stranger acted like he’d arrived home and it was good to relax.

With his tawny, messily chic hairdo, his twinkling brown-gold eyes, and his charming smile, he looked like he could lean up against a wall or sit outside on one of the benches and photographers would flock to take a shot. Despite the fact that he wore boat shoes, no socks, chino pants, and designer sweaters in a town where boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and lumberman jackets ruled, he looked like an all right sort to me.

Actually, if I were being honest, he looked a whole lot better than all right. In fact, he was up there in the exclusive category where I’d buy him a few beers at Stonewall Saloon and try to get him to go home with me.

If I was that sort of guy.

But I’m not.

After all, I was wearing my monkey suit: denim overalls, button-down shirt, and clip-on bow tie. My grandfather all but patented the getup in the early 1900s as part of the nonthreatening hardware helper image he was convinced oversold merchandise. Even though he was a taciturn curmudgeon at heart, he mainlined helpful and genial until closing time.

The men in my family were clones of my grandfather as far as appearance went. We’re all tall, thin, and geeky, with prominent Adam’s apples, pale blue eyes, and dirt-brown hair. The only differences began internally and seeped out externally as people got to know us. My grandfather was addicted to Stoker’s chewing tobacco and Jim Beam, but only indulged outside work hours. Dad, on the other hand, at least early in my life, found religion and shunned all things mind-altering, except the Good Book.

I’d strayed from the straight and narrow after my preteen years. But I didn’t advertise it. My persona as helpful Frank McCord had long ago marked and unsexed me around here. Coming out wouldn’t serve any purpose now.

So I had spent years watching men come and go without a problem. Not this time. This stranger I wanted to meet and get to know. But how did other men do that? I was still working on the answer.

 

 

TODAY WHEN the stranger came into the store, instead of wandering and giving me a moment to fully admire him, he stepped confidently up to the counter.

“Hi there. I’m Christopher (mumble, mumble).” He stuck out a hand.

“Frank McCord. Sorry, I didn’t catch the last name.” I gripped his hand firmly, happy to get a chance to touch him. He shone. Handsome as they come, with a clear, warm smile and a gleam in his eyes. I wasn’t ever going to win a beauty contest, but I stood up straight as I looked at him.

Then I noticed his cheeks had reddened in what looked suspiciously like a blush and wondered what that was about. I was still waiting to hear his full name.

“Uh, yeah. Uh. Don’t laugh.” He cleared his throat and pulled out of our too-long handshake. “I’m, uh, Christopher Darling.”

It took me a minute because he hesitated between his first and last names. Had he called me…? Naw. But for a second I let myself believe. No, no. Darling was his last name. I almost chuckled before I remembered he’d asked me not to.

Instead, I put on my helpful store smile.

“Nice to meet you, Christopher. What can I do for you?”

His grin grew in confidence, probably because not only hadn’t I laughed at his name but I also looked as benign as they came.

“I saw you had a Help Wanted sign in the window.” He turned a little and pointed behind him.

“Well, now, I’m not saying you’re old, but I’m looking for a couple of teenagers to work either full- or part-time for the summer. Are you in high school?” I thought I’d asked it teasingly, but he reddened again.

“It’s not for me, but my son. He’s fifteen. Is he too young?” Before I could answer, Christopher scurried on. “He’s a junior, going into senior year. We think he’ll be going to MIT or Stanford after he graduates.”

“Oh my. He’s a child prodigy. You must be proud of him.” I was impressed.

Christopher flushed. “Yes, I’m terribly proud of him. We’re hoping he won’t have as many problems here as he did in Mountain View.”

Who were we? Him and the boy’s mother? I hesitated to ask. After all, it wasn’t really my business. But now that we’d broken the ice, I hoped to learn more about him.

“He had problems?” I couldn’t imagine any kid having problems with a father who seemed as supportive as the god standing in front of me.

“My son’s gay like I am. A group of kids his age thought it unacceptable there.”

Now wasn’t that good news? Focus, I reminded myself. Answer the man’s concerns.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Stone Acres Regional High, and the town as well, are gay-friendly and no-hate. The new principal and the gay sheriff go out of their way to keep it that way.” I gave a dry laugh. “Besides, as far as the school is concerned, only a half-dozen kids went out for football and even fewer for basketball last year. That cut down on the number of jocks. Mostly, Stone Acres is a live-and-let-live place with squalls only breaking out now and again.”

The bell tinkled as someone walked into the store. I shifted from one foot to the other and looked over Christopher’s shoulder. Speaking of teenagers, the half day of school must be out, and here was a potential applicant who was the right age, if I wasn’t mistaken.

The boy moving up behind Christopher stood almost as tall as me. I thought I was skinny, but this kid gave a whole new meaning to the word. His T-shirt caved in toward his chest as he walked, and I swear I could see his hip bones outlined at the top of his slacks.

Going by looks alone, he could have easily been my son. The boy and I shared prominent Adam’s apples under long, thin faces and unruly, cowlick-prone brown hair. Only our eyes were different, his a striking light tawny brown flecked with gold, like Christopher’s, to my plain old brown.

“Dad.” The way the kid groaned it, the word had four or five syllables. “I told you’d I’d come talk to him myself.”

Yup, fifteen years old all right.

It’d been on the tip of my tongue to ask Christopher why in the world his son would want to work here, in what some considered the dullest store in town. Now I’d be able to ask the kid himself.

“May I help you?” I mainly asked the question so the two of them wouldn’t start discussing—or even worse, fighting over—why the dad hadn’t waited for the kid to come in on his own. I didn’t want to give Christopher a chance to say something that would deflate his son, like the dad didn’t think the kid had enough nerve or could handle the conversation with me.

The kid gave me a blinding smile.

“Hi. I’m Henry Darling, and I’d like to apply for the summer position.” He hadn’t stumbled over his last name, so there was no question whether he was addressing me by a pet name.

Henry held out his skinny hand, and I shook it. The kid was stronger than he looked. “Well, Henry, I’m Franklin McCord. Everybody around here calls me Frank. Let me get my calendar.” I squatted and pulled out my paper day planner and plunked it down on the counter.

Father and son shared a smile. Oh, I knew why. They’d come from Silicon Valley and probably had their calendars on their iPhones or Androids or somewhere else in a cloud or in the ether. Just because I kept the paper tradition started by my grandfather didn’t mean I was a complete Luddite.

I flipped through the pages, then took out a piece of paper from the back of the book.

“I’m having applicants take a little test after they fill out this form. So if you want to complete it right now, we’ll set up a time for you to come in.”

“Okay. May I ask what kind of test, sir?”

Wow. “May,” not “can.” What an interesting kid. But I had to break him of the “sir” habit. Made me sound way too old. At least too old for his father.

“Like I said, everyone calls me Frank, even the kids.” I pointed to the former soup can overflowing with pens and pencils. “The test’s pretty simple, really. I’ll have you name some hardware items and build a little something. I’ll provide directions. You just have to follow them.”

The test was the only way to separate the potential baristas and movie ushers from the hardware enthusiasts. Not only did everyone in town call me Frank, but they also knew I paid more than minimum wage to my high school help. So kids who didn’t give a damn about the difference between a nail and a screw—except when they were talking about sex—applied for any jobs I offered.

I watched as Henry filled out the application quickly and neatly. Christopher was eyeing him with a proud, besotted look on his face. His gaze turned to me, and he smiled over his son’s head. He nodded like we were sharing a moment here.

A pang of longing shot through me. I’ve always wanted kids—the more the merrier. As a modern gay man, I knew it was possible. Proof stood in front of me. As the geeky town tinkerer without any hope of finding a man I could love and want as my husband, however, I knew the prospect wasn’t plausible. Sometimes, like now, that realization cut deep.

After Henry studied the page a moment, he returned the pen to the can, picked up the application, and handed it to me.

“The school year ends soon.” Henry, unlike many high school kids, was looking me straight in the eye and wasn’t relying on his father to fill in any blanks or prompt him. I was impressed. “I can take the test today, tomorrow, or after school next week.”

I read down his application. I don’t use a standard form, because the ones I’d found online didn’t tell me anything I wanted to know about my applicants. My form has the usual name, address, and contact information, but it also asks about extracurricular activities, interests, and passions. A lot of kids stopped at the word “passions,” and some even asked what I meant.

Henry had had no problem answering the questions. He wrote that he was a game player, both electronic and nonelectronic. He was a serious reader, listing The Silmarillion as the last book he’d truly enjoyed. Some boys can’t remember a book they’ve read, much less the last one they really got into. Also unlike most of the boys who applied, Henry hadn’t listed any sports, either as a participant or a fan.

“You don’t like sports?” I tried not to ask it too gruffly, but both Darlings’ faces scrunched up.

“Is that a problem?” Christopher evidently wasn’t worried about being too gruff.

“No. I follow a few teams. So I try to make sure rivalries and loyalties won’t become a point of contention here in the store.” Some people have remarked that mildness could be my middle name. I’ve worked hard at keeping my cool, so I don’t usually flare up. I try to surround myself with people who don’t either. The world around me got really ugly when I was angry.

“Dad. I’m the one applying, so let me answer.”

Christopher appeared properly chastised and a little amused as he nodded for his son to take over. He winked at me as if to ask “Isn’t my kid great?”

I smiled back. Another tiny secret moment shared. It was broken by Henry squaring his shoulders and answering me.

“It’s not that I’m against sports. But see, I’m not built like an athlete. Most of the time, what I like to do is make things or read more than do physical activity. So sports aren’t high on my interest list. But I would like to know who your favorite teams and players are, uh, Frank.”

This time Christopher and I smiled at the same time. The boy’s ability to act like an adult tickled both of us. I admired Henry for wanting to handle this interview by himself. Sure, I could feel him relying on his dad’s presence. Christopher oozed strength and support, and his rock-solid backing assured Henry he was there whenever the teen needed him. It also said Christopher would fight to hold back unless he felt he absolutely needed to jump in.

I took out my pocket watch. I thought I had another unassembled test in the back room. If Henry passed—and I thought he would with flying colors—I could get him squared away with all the official paperwork and hired to start working a few hours next weekend while I interviewed a couple of the other candidates.

I don’t know why I was pushing Henry through the hoops, except that I was eager to find out more about him and work with him. I got the feeling the hours he was in the store would pass more quickly than they did now. Just as they flew by when his dad roamed the aisles.

“Are you free this afternoon at two?” As I asked, Henry’s eyes lit up and he turned to his dad.

I could feel their excitement as it rolled off of them and hit me in the chest. I smiled as I absorbed their shared joy.

When Christopher looked at me, a weird jolt of recognition hit me, like spying a loved one in a crowded room. I felt like I had reached out and found a matching half. I dropped my eyes, feeling a sudden weight of longing. Before it could consume me, I reminded myself that I don’t believe in magic or miracles or soul mates.

When I blinked, he was back to being newcomer Christopher Darling, here with his son, who was applying for a job. No woo-woo, no aura, no pulsating lights. Both he and Henry were staring like I’d suddenly started yodeling Madonna songs. I gave a mental shake of my head and righted myself on the tracks of life.

With the point of a pencil I plucked from the soup can, I ran down my daybook and stopped at two o’clock. Then I looked up at Henry, who hadn’t answered my question.

“Yes, I’m free at two. Is there anything I need to bring with me?” The boy’s response helped shelve the odd moment.

I wrote his name in my book, then explained about social security and parental permission. I took out the form for the latter and had his dad complete it.

“I’ll see you at two.” I stuck my hand out, and an exuberant Henry shook it.

As they turned and I started to close my daybook, intending to go back and find the pieces of the test project, who should walk in but Emil? My morning went straight downhill.