Michael Welch

    I remember standing beside him in our driveway, he in his unbelted terrycloth robe and sagging Fruit of the Looms, crouched slightly with gritted teeth, waving like hell as the last of my jock crew pulled away for the green pastures of college. He looked certifiable there, my Dad did, crouched like a spider, his wiry frame glistening with the series of tissue-thin scars he'd gotten from being near-electrocuted by a third rail as a kid. Actually, if I put myself fully back there, he was more likely pumping his fist, taunting that final bud to "Come on back-take on the Ol' Geezer one last time." Deep down, I think he was eager to be rid of my friends, relieved that I had put off college for a year so he, in his new retirement, could put in some quality time with his only son, bequeath me with his version of higher ed.

    My bud's station wagon tipped the crest of the hill, for a moment defying gravity, and as it did I was surprised by the wave of anxiety that washed over me. We were suddenly alone-just me and him. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, at the time, my mother and sister felt pretty irrelevant.

    "So, what are you going to do?" he asked me.

    I told him that maybe he should go ahead down to the beach to throw sticks for the dogs without me. I may have just been practicing boundaries. After all, it had only been a couple weeks since, in a drunken rage, he had all but run a few of my friends from the house, accusing them of being "bourgeois slobs." What did he think, we were suddenly bosom buddies?
    Dad grinned and said, "You schmuck. I don't mean now, I mean with your life!"
    "What-I'm supposed to figure it out right now?"
    "You've had nineteen years."

    To his credit, Dad had been the only one amongst family, friends, teachers, etc., to react positively to the idea of a year off between high school and college. Gap Year wasn't a term yet. Back in those days you weren't seen as resourceful, but a slacker who didn't yet know he was slipping off the grid. But my dad was a revolutionary—undoubtedly the only card-carrying Communist on Long Island—either far ahead of, or way behind the times. Even more notably, he managed to remain relatively free of contradiction to his ideals. He'd made decent money running a successful travel agency that specialized in educational tours to the People's Republic of China following Nixon's trip and normalization. The Lincoln Continental he'd just bought himself was already caked with the dogs' proletarian beach mud. When I had broached the idea of the year off, his reaction was to offer me a dollar over minimum wage to submerge myself in the major works of Engels, Mao, Tolstoy, Brecht, and of course, "Uncle Karl." He had not taken keenly to news of the job I had taken as a bar boy at US Blues, a popular restaurant and dance club in nearby Roslyn.

    "Yes, nineteen," I told him. "Grown up enough to have a shift tonight. After that I'll be cleaning up the place, swinging a fucking mop. But don't worry, if anything life-directional comes to me I'll be sure to jot it down."

    "Fine," he said, with a wry grin. "Let me go get you a pad that will fit in your pocket at the gin mill."

    Of course, I had my own reasons for taking the year off, and taking the job at Blues particularly, but the main one would only have brought sarcasm from my dad, harsh ribbing from my friends, melodramatic concern from my mom. I wanted a year to catch up. For years—since I was three—I'd been in and out of school and recurrently on steroids due to a chronic kidney condition, a successful regimen that had also drastically slowed my pubescence. I was eighteen but looked fifteen at best, an embarrassing dilemma that followed me wherever I went, made it difficult to get into bars even when I was legal eighteen, and left the girls who flocked to my behemoth, self-assured buddies like moths to Bug Zappers to presume I was someone's precocious kid brother with great fake ID.

    Most of my friends had by then been sexually active for years, carried rubbers with them as casually as keys. To me a packet of Trojans was about as exotic as a harem of belly dancers. But, for me, such self-deprecation carried none of the humor of the standard coming-of-age film: I was deeply ashamed of my situation, deathly worried that in college it would only get worse. That I'd be left to find friends amongst the guys who stayed back at the dorm on weekends, forcing laughs at Three Stooges reruns. In other words: on my own.

    Ironically, to be left on my own, somewhat apart, was what I wanted most from my plan for a year off. To work at a dance club might have been a risky proposition, but I'd factored in that the club catered to an older crowd, people in their 20's and 30's, amongst whom I could move without regard, or as an enigma. And I wanted a job that would provide me with some late-night excitement, fodder for stories that would measure up to those of my buddies' when they returned for Thanksgiving with mad tales of campus orgies.

    At Blues, I could make good money while I sprouted hair. If someone thought I was fifteen, I would be free to say I was fifteen without risk of being overheard by friends. Who knew, I might even be seduced by a kinky older woman drawn to my innocence!

    Anyway, to put it mildly, none of this was anything I could ever discuss with anyone, particularly Dad. Our jocularity and mutual needling skimmed a surface beneath which his drunken outbursts simmered and my disdain solidified. There, in the driveway, about the notepad, he added, "I'm not joking-I had your mother buy you four. In terms of schnuckling awareness, don't underestimate the power of writing things down to study them for contradiction."

    Dad believed above all else in writing things down—letters on economic strategy he addressed directly to Deng Xio Peng, treatises with titles like "Marxism for Teenagers" which one glorious day would be in every high school kid's backpack, letters set outside my mother's bedroom door about their marriage problems.

    "Yo—Dad," I said coolly. "Pardon me if I can't quite visualize pausing amidst sweaty bodies to scratch down theories on life."
    "That's okay-first light is the best time to write anyway, even if you're just getting home when the sane world gets up."
    "Dad, for thirty years you spent first light in a Long Island Railroad smoking car amongst a bunch of brokers."
    "Yes," he said. "In the den of thieves. Ideal place for observation."

* * *

    But first light wasn't going to find me writing anytime soon, and not merely because I wouldn't have anyway. Through a friend of a friend, I was soon offered a second job: two weeks in Long Island City moving turbines on rollers from one warehouse to another with a promise of $15 an hour and no supervision, a gig that I thought I could handle even if it did mean burning the candle from both ends (I'd get home from cleaning up Blues at 6:45, be picked up for the drive into Long Island City at 7, then dropped off again to catch a few hours sleep before going back to Blues).

    It wasn't just the money that intrigued me about the new job, but this promise of "no supervision"—easy money—and the prospect of hanging out with a new group of guys. That first morning, intent on making a decent splash, I cunningly loaded a heavy-duty garbage bag with ice and about thirty Heinekens, left Blues with it slung over my shoulder. I got home, placed it clankily down next to the mailbox, and waited.

    A van pulled up right on time, but the guy driving wasn't quite who I expected. The job may have been without supervision, but evidently the drive wasn't. The guys in the backseat, and the one in the passenger's, looked cool enough—but the older one driving, the one in suit and hat with the examining eyes, not so cool. He stared at the sprawling bag at my feet. I did too. "Hey, Mike. I'm Mr. Stratford. What do you have there, your lunch?"

    I smiled obediently, surprised that he knew my name. It crossed my mind to treat the bag as if it were garbage-but why would I have been straddling it? Carefully as I could, yet trying to make it appear light, I lifted the bag, but it clanged like an amplified instrument. I climbed into the rear of the car and maneuvered the huge thing between my feet, only to see that it was leaking, a growing puddle set to stream beneath the driver's seat. I spent the rest of the trip with my heel pressed down upon the point of puncture, desperately hoping that Mr. Stratford was distracted.

    The balance of the day, thankfully, went more smoothly. The work was indeed unsupervised, the crew nicely laid back (even a bit subdued), the rolling of the bulky turbines, what with good strategizing and the ease of the Heinekens, no problem, even a bit gripping. At lunchtime, in search of a deli for heroes, I left with Sido—just "Sido"—a rough-looking dude who'd drunk the most that morning and insisted on spraying the beers with a Freon fire extinguisher whenever they warmed in the slightest. Within about thirty seconds, he spotted a corner bar named The Hockey Puck and suggested a quick draft. My first thought, as always, was-what if the bartender studies my driver's license for five minutes? But, not wanting to let Sido down, I reluctantly agreed.

    As it turned out, I wasn't doing the borough of Queens justice-clearly, no one had been proofed in the borough since prohibition was lifted. We set ourselves on barstools in the dim, slanted bar, and Sido nodded at a cold cut spread in the corner beneath a sign that read "Smorgasbored—$4." Then he elbowed me and tipped his nose at a woman in a bikini coming out of a rear door. The stripper, or dancer, or hooker, or whatever, was quite a bit older, with hard won wrinkles and a tiredness to her eyes, bright red hair that didn't quite fit. We looked on as she ducked behind the bar and made her way to a small stage in the blacked-out front window that I hadn't even noticed. I had only just begun to feel comfortable there at the bar, in my flannel shirt, forearms tee-peed over a ninety-cent draft, but I found myself newly self-conscious.

    The woman pressed a button on an undersized cassette deck on the floor, and "Call Me," by Blondie, began to play. She started into motion, rocking her hips with minimum exertion as she stared absently toward the rear of the bar. She had swollen ankles and most everything sagged, except her breasts. Sido noticed this too. "Damn-check out the bounce of that rubber," he said. I thought I knew what he meant, but wasn't positive. I stared another minute then told him I'd return to the warehouse to tell the other guys where we were.

    About two minutes later, I returned alone. The same song was playing; either I had been quick, or the cassette was recorded entirely of the same song. The dancer had disappeared, and Sido too. Then I spotted them at a table in the corner. Sido had one of the woman's bared breasts in his palm, as if weighing it.
    I stood there awkwardly, caught between returning to my stool, walking to the "Smorgasbored" table, and going over to join Sido and his new friend.
    Sido looked up and saw me, called out, "C'mon over, Brother, have a touch."
    I bought some time, pointed at the food table, and said I'd be over in a second. As I heaped green potato salad and worn-out ham onto my paper plate, I prepared myself to look casual.
    I brought Sido a plate too, set down the plates, and sat there with my hands in my lap, trying to ignore the breasts at the table. "How are you?" I said to the woman.
    "Well, Sweet Pea. Look at you," she said, with an interest that lasted a few seconds before it drifted off.
    "C'mon, go ahead," Sido said again. "It's okay, right, Gladys?"
    Gladys shrugged and adjusted herself ever so slightly toward me, her eyes lingering elsewhere. I reached out and cupped her breast the exact same way Sido had, but more quickly. It was incredibly firm, more like fleshy material around something, softball-sized and almost as hard. Gladys was bored, and when Sido asked, "You ready?" she merely shrugged and led him back toward the door from which she'd first come.

    They weren't gone long. Long enough to exceed our lunch break, but really, in the grand scheme of things, not long. When we re-entered the factory, the rest of the guys seemed mildly irritated at us, but sloughed it off as we returned to work. It was only later, when Mr. Stratford dropped us off in the reverse order, handed me $120 dollars in cash, and said—"Mike, that'll be it, alright?" that I realized Bobby, the guy in the passenger seat, was Bobby Stratford. Sido, I figured, was about to be "paid" too.

    As the van pulled away, I stood in the spot where the bag of Heinekens had been that morning. I didn't realize it until I approached my front door, but I was fairly drunk. My mother was sitting alone in the living room, two coffee mugs beside her, staring beyond the sliding glass doors into the quiet back yard. I didn't want to talk just then-I needed sleep-so I merely lobbed a comment her way.
    "You drinking double-fisted there Ma? Should I worry?"
    "Judy was here. She just left."
    "Judy-as in baby-sitter Judy?"
    "And just back from Peace Corps Judy. She says Hi."
    "Wow. What are you two, like, friends?"
    "Would that be so hard to believe?" she asked.

    My mother, with her prim haircut and bike machine and addiction to "Upstairs, Downstairs" just didn't seem a proper fit for the interest of a hot young woman just back from saving the world. "Actually, yeah," I said, then wondered if I had hurt her feelings. I was too tired too linger, though. I made my way downstairs, set the alarm for my shift in three hours, and collapsed onto the bed.

* * *

    Unlike at the factory, I developed some consistency at Blues, a more legitimate, if transitional new crew. There was Max, seemingly brain-dead, all braids and shades and disturbingly skinny legs in the cutoffs he insisted on wearing year round; also the business genius behind the entire multi-million dollar operation. There was Joe, co-owner and Harley rider, who, my third week, after I'd broken some racked glasses and he discerned that I'd been drinking, had vice-gripped my forearm, glared into my eyes, and said, "You remind me of me—I'll fire your ass in a second!" There was Terry, who ran the restaurant, who looked exactly like the Wicked Witch of the East, but was as sweet and motherly as they came. There was bouncer Jake, a short, wide black dude who had been a college football star until he blew out a knee, and now mopped the place with a 50 lb. weight slid down the handle. There was Suzie, gorgeous barmaid deluxe, who before her squadrons of suitors—I, her willing pawn—liked to plant deep, loose-mouthed kisses upon my lips for every bucket of ice.

    There was always an hour or so, around eight, just before the crowd came, when the core group of us would finish our mad preparations, breath a sigh of relief, and relax around the bar. One night, Terry brought a scrapbook, photos from the previous year's Halloween party. They had all been there, which gave the club a familial air, and made me touched to be included. In fact, as they began to page through the book and reminisce, as the only who had not been there, the stories quickly became directed toward me—explanations of costumes, chaotic moments, and general merriment that made Halloween seem like the event of the year.

"Hey, we should be something this year," Suzie said to me. "Whenever you bring up a keg, we can do some little show. I was thinking, a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and a reprobate Tom Landry."
    "Who'd be who?" mumbled Jake, who sat down bar reading the paper.
    Everyone laughed.
    Not to be outdone, Suzie pinched her own chin with preternatural thoughtfulness, said, "Hey, why not?"
    I looked on as Suzie came around to the front of the bar, spun me on my seat, and pressed her tight-jeaned hips directly between my knees. Staring alternately into my eyes and at my cheek, her breath grazing my lips, she said, "God, your skin is so smooth. I'll bring my make-up. You'll be hot."
    More laughs—again, mostly at my expense. Now it was me who was going to be in the hot pants. I rolled with it as best I could, went manly. "How tragic," I said. "Last year, Cat Woman in four-inch spiked heels and sparkling black body suit, this year, chubby coach in suit and tie."
    "Oh, don't you worry, I'll manage to do something with myself."

    Gradually, as a crowd began to filter in, we dispersed to our separate duties. It was a slowish night, which meant it wasn't the end of the world when Terry pulled me aside, told me that Jimmy the dishwasher was sick, and that I had to cover for him. When someone was sick, there was no extra pay in it for whoever had to cover for them, which meant the club actually made money on the deal.

    By the time the bar finally closed up that night, I was damp with steam from the dishwasher, gritty from washing down tables, and bored from a relatively light night. Jake and I could have cleaned up the place quicker than usual, but we decided to do the opposite, to take care of the details we'd for weeks been ignoring. We scrubbed down the floor mats behind the bar, hand cleaned corners where a mop didn't get, even vacuumed the upstairs DJ booth. By the time we sat down at the aluminum counter in the kitchen for our usual cold cut sandwiches, it was light outside.

    Usually, when I got home, Dad was still asleep and (in typical opposing direction) I'd slip into bed minutes before he woke up. This morning, since I was late, he was already at the kitchen table, well down the front page of the NY Times. I glanced at the paper and said, "Hmm... Mother Teresa just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Bet you're going to say she's merely social worker, not a real revolutionary."

    That morning, he didn't take the bait, merely grunted. He appeared to have aged in a couple months, and I wondered if he was depressed, his inability to relax and casually connect with people finally taking its toll. I couldn't worry too much about it. I had enough on my mind.

    Dad raised his reading glasses to study me. Whatever he thought about Blues, I believe he had begrudgingly come to respect my work ethic, and the 12-hour shifts—often six days a week—which I never missed. Yet something about his stare remained elusive; I had a hard time fathoming what went on in there. He began to say something, but the phone rang, breaking our concentration.

    I reached for the receiver then pulled the spiraling chord across the counter. Before I could say hello, a voice hit the air like a tinny air raid warning. "Hey, Norvy—Thanksgiving, Bro! Our first reunion! Turkey Bowl. Play in the mud." The voice was so loud that I had to hold the phone from my ear. At first I had a hard time distinguishing the drunken voice.

    "Ejac...? It's friggin' eight in the morning. Why are you calling now?" Eric Johnson—to me, Ejac, for his proclivity with women—had gotten a full scholarship to Duke as quarterback, a bad bet considering how strenuously he partied. I had to hide an embarrassed smile, not for his being drunk so early (or late), but for, over this virtual speaker phone, calling me Norvy, short for Norval, my father's given name, a name so unusual that my friends had tagged me with it, a nickname I doubted my father even knew about.

    As I spoke on the phone, Dad put down the paper and held up two talking hands to indicate we were chatting like teen girls.

    By the time I finally hung up the phone, my exhaustion had kicked back in, and rather than argue with Dad, I went off to bed. It was a compacted sleep, full of imagery and tossing. I still hadn't adjusted to sleeping days, and usually rose by noon, dragged from sleep by the pound and rattle of my father's manual typewriter, an irritant that I'd come to believe was intentional. Noon represented only 4-5 hours sleep for me, but to him it was still outrageous.

    That morning I rolled over and groggily sensed an odd presence. Bleary-eyed, I glanced around the room, and there, slumped in an armchair, calmly leafing through a magazine, was Foods. Foods was a good friend—a huge, solemn-seeming lineman who, being a year younger than the rest of us, was the lone one of our bunch (other than me) to be "left behind." Certainly he was a good enough bud to come over unannounced when he was clipping school and make himself at home, but he was not the type of guy I felt compelled to wake up to entertain. I must have drifted off again, because the next time I looked over he had magically switched chairs and magazines.
    "You hungry?" I asked him.
    Foods shrugged, then pushed to his feet as I stepped into my loosened high tops and pulled on a robe. When I opened the door, my father's typing grew louder, he was really hammering away that morning. We avoided him, headed up to the kitchen, where I got some eggs going. We brought our full plates out to the living room, turned on the TV and settled on a cartoon.
    "You have practice later?" I asked him.
    "Nope," said Foods, which basically could have meant anything.
    In a bucket chair, Foods was splayed like a bunch of old flowers drooping from a vase. He didn't hear the typing pause and my father come up the stairs. Neither did I.
    "You schmucks," announced Dad, the moment he appeared at the top of the stairs. "This time of day—watching the boob tube?"
    I prepared myself for the usual to and fro, and to buffer Foods, who, being so quiet, had always been terrified of my father. Then I smelled the gin and saw that Dad had some real momentum going.
    "I bought it—I'll junk this TV!" Dad shouted, as he unsuccessfully tried to wrestle the huge console toward the sliding glass door and into oblivion.
    I kept my calm. "Dad, simmer down, you're going to sprain something."

    Having no familiarity with such a situation, Foods sat bone straight in his chair, longing to have chosen something less intense this morning, like preparing for full pad scrimmage.

    Dad budged the TV console about a half inch, then gave up, spun toward Foods, and with burning hatred in his voice, shouted, "You—Out!"

    Foods was already on the move. He headed for the front door with such speed that Dad, in pursuit, managed only to catch his belt and be pulled along. When Foods stopped to yank open to front door, Dad crashed into his back. Once the door was open, Dad gave him a final, symbolic heave.
    Dad turned back from the doorway, brushing his hands together.
    "You're such an asshole," I told him. I grabbed his cars keys from the counter, dangled them in front of him, then headed off to give Foods a ride.

    I pulled away, head still spinning, relieved at least to leave the situation behind. But like a bad horror movie that just wouldn't end, my father came streaking across the lawn one last time, trying to cut me off. He might have caught me, but I sped up, and as I did, lowered the window. We parted in seeming slow motion, each with our middle fingers cocked.
    When I looked in the rearview mirror, he was framed there, posed on one knee, like a postcard of a heroic statue. Then I glanced up and saw Judy, standing on her lawn, rake in hand, beside a small pile of leaves. She looked back at me, stunned.

* * *

    I stayed away for a few weeks. Not from home, but out of range of Dad. I still used his car to get to and from work, but found that if I got home before dawn, forced myself to sleep for a full eight or nine hours, then left through my window to arrive early to Blues for my allotted meal, I not only avoided him but had virtually no expenses. When I asked for it, Terry even gave me the late afternoon café shift in addition to my regular one, which meant I was basically at Blues from 3pm to 5am, a schedule that maintained itself right up to Halloween.

    Given the circumstances at home, the prospect of dressing up seemed both silly, and a welcome departure. Suzie asked me to meet her downstairs between my shifts, where we'd have some privacy. She had taken care of everything-bought the outfits, brought her make-up tray, even found a pair of largish platforms at Goodwill that she thought I could handle, balance-wise.
    "No way," I told her, pointing at the shoes. "Do what you want with me. But those things will kill me on the stairs."
    Suzie brought two stools together, sat me down on one, then placed her knees between mine as she adjusted herself onto the other. "So what, then?" she asked, her face oddly expressionless as she leaned in to study my eyes.
    "These. My hightops."
    "Fuddy," she said.

    The sensation of her face, so close to mine, was overwhelming. I'd made out with girls before, but always with closed eyes except for peeks. Certainly I'd never had a full-fledged woman of this caliber so close, gazing at me, alone. I could feel my eyes darting around. I also felt myself getting excited, scanned the room for an inanimate object to focus on, saw a stack of chairs in the corner. Patiently, with her thumb and forefinger, she guided my chin back and peered at me even more deeply until a coquettish smile appeared.

    For a suspended moment I was entranced, sure that the naughty glance was an invitation to—to what? To possibly suggest that we go out sometime? To lean forward and kiss her? But I did no more than blush, and when she looked back at me with embarrassment, I realized I may have mis-measured—that her absorption might only have been with what she was creating. Whatever the spell, in my nervousness, I shattered it, seemingly out of nowhere blurted, "I've barely been home lately. My dad, he's been going apeshit. Ran my buddy from the house and nearly took a swing at me. Almost makes me regret not taking off to college."

    Obviously, this was a mistake. I'd been using self-pity to engage friends' girlfriends for so many years, the technique had shot off on its own. Suzie pulled back and her eyes sharpened as if I'd summoned her for advice.

"College boy, huh?" she said. Then, with less than full interest, "I don't know. I guess fathers'll do that kind of thing, Hon." Eyeliner brush raised, she nodded at my outfit folded on the chair. "Go ahead, put it on, let me see the whole to-do."

    I let the other issues go, snapped myself into action, raised the skimpy white shorts in one hand, the blue blouse, bra, and stockings in the other. I didn't know if she expected me to head to the bathroom or change right there in front of her, but having adequately desexualized everything else, I decided to grab the situation with whatever gusto I had left.

    Right there, I stripped down to my underwear. I pulled on the stockings, which felt cool and tight around my legs. Then I boosted up the shorts and stepped back into my unlaced sneakers.

    "Not bad," Suzie said, after she'd helped me with the bra and tied off the blouse at my chest. "Not bad at all." Then she took me by the hand and pulled. "Let's go upstairs to debut you."

    Around the bar, the usual crew was gathered—Max, Terry, Joe, Jake—savvy veterans all, basking in the calm before the storm. Jake was a pirate, Joe, a Hell's Angel (which may or may not have been a costume), Terry-I lie not-the Wicked Witch of the East. They might not have paid me much mind if Suzie hadn't announced me and spread her hands. They looked up and stared, their eyes lingering on me.
    "Hey, Joe," Max said. "Another waitress for you to bang."
    Terry said, "Oh, my god, have you seen yourself?"
    The two women smiled at each other knowingly and Suzie finally handed me her compact mirror. It was the magnified type, which that as I bent it toward me, my reflected eyes bounced wildly in the frame before they settled and stared back at me, shocked. "Let me go to the bathroom," I said.
    Everybody laughed.
    "Remember to pee pee sitting down," Joe called out, behind me.
    "Wipe from the front," educated Terry.

    In the bathroom, I stared into the mirror with seriousness. My hair was pinned back in barrettes. My eyes were deep and dark with purple mascara looming around them. My cheekbones were heightened, accentuated with rouge. I blinked back as a stranger. Most confusing of all was that Suzie had been right—in a glam rock sort of way, I did look really hot.

    Suzie knocked gently on the door. "Sorry, kiddo," she said. "But we're down two kegs, I need highball glasses, a ton of ice... Joe's getting antsy."

    When I stepped from the bathroom, a crowd had indeed begun to stream in-something about door prizes for the first fifty people in costume. Amidst warlocks and vixens, Will and Graces, Madonnas, and random Sado-Masochists, I threw myself at the tasks at hand—brought up four cases of Heineken, tapped a few kegs, pulled liquor cases, tossed ice into the coolers.

    As always on busy nights, there soon came an almost magical moment when the crowd truly pounced, within a matter of minutes seemed to double, then triple. Costumed guests suddenly surrounded the bar and its three bartenders two-deep, as if for a popular zoo exhibit. I had everything well stocked, no problem, but I began to sweat to keep up. Glasses was the main thing: grabbing racks of used from where the waitresses piled them next to the bar, pushing through the crowd with them grasped overhead, drips flying, then returning from the dishwasher with glistening new. As it was supposed to, Halloween was bringing out edgy sides to people, and as I began to sweat I received puckers and catcalls, even a few harmless pats on the ass that, amidst my exertion, left me sashaying. At one point, huffing past the pool table on the way to the kitchen, an ogling trio of women waved me over. "We were just wondering what you are," one of them said.
"Dallas Cowboys cheerleader," I reported with confidence.
They smiled amongst themselves mischievously in a way that I liked, as if readying to say something provocative. "No... girl or guy?" the same one said.

    I felt my cheeks flush, then I hid this with a grimace. I don't even remember what I said, only that I pivoted toward the kitchen angrily, shaken at the idea that others too might think I was truly a girl. The whole incident stole me from my sashaying mood and put me into a crappy one, got me pushing through the crowd impatiently, more self-conscious even than when I was held outside bars by bouncers searching for a glitch in my ID.

    By then, the main floor of Blues was a zoo, dance music thumping, creatures shouldered-in, security doing their best to herd people in from the sidewalk. The jaws of the night had taken hold. With my cases and racks and buckets, I tossed my weight around and accepted regular shots of Cuervo from Suzie. At one point I caught a glimpse of myself in the bar's overhead mirror. Sweat had caused my make-up to run. I looked like an angry Alice Cooper—a sight that reassured me.

    By the time security finally began to clear the place after last call, I wouldn't say I was drunk drunk, but a strange, entitled, tantrum-like frustration had taken hold of me. I wanted to get on with clean-up, or some such thing. When I bumped into a lingering guest and didn't turn to apologize, a hand gripped my arm from behind and spun me. It was George. "Go home," he said.
    "But this is clean-up time now—my time," I told him.
    "Home!" he said.

    I stormed downstairs, threw on jeans and a sweatshirt, marched out to the Lincoln, climbed in and tried to gather myself. The fifteen-minute drive to my town was along a dark, winding road, but I managed pretty well. My thoughts were careening. I didn't want to go home and bounce off the walls, so I cruised past the beach parking lot, a local drinking spot, hoping to spot a familiar car. Nothing.

    With nowhere else to go, I drove in the direction of home, but pulled over at a wide grassy hill at the crest of my street, parked, and sat staring at the twinkling lights down along the distant shore.

    It was strange to be sitting there along my street in the middle of the night, the street along which, not too long ago, I'd had a paper route and lawn mowing jobs. So much had changed, other things not. I squeezed the steering wheel and wished I had grabbed a Heineken on my way out of the club. With frustration, I lurched from the car and into the night—to walk.

    In her backyard, in Judy's backyard, pale and looming in the darkness like a tremendous skeleton, was a tree that I'd somehow almost forgotten about. As kids, we used to teeter-totter on its wide lower branches, that paralleled the ground like basking arms, the longest of which reached almost to Judy's second floor bedroom.

    It was an idiot's plan, the middle-of-the-night kind that you read about in the newspaper, I knew this even as I made my way to the trunk of the tree and began to climb, then edged my way out along the branch as it bobbed gently, high above the leafy ground. Judy's darkened window, as I approached it, reflected the moonlit tree.

    I don't know what stopped me, whether it was the simple realization that I wouldn't see into her room no matter how close I got; it dawned on me how terrified she might be if she happened to look out; or if I finally grasped my own precariousness—in terms of calls to cop, scandal, plain old falling.

    I started to shimmy backwards, which was a lot more difficult than shimmying out.
    I hadn't heard the window open, but there she was-Judy. Same jumbled curly hair, strong shoulders, patient expression that I remembered from when she got five bucks an hour to deal with my sister and me. She rubbed her eyes, tried to smile, whispered, "What the hell are you doing?"
    "I'm sorry... it's stupid."
    "What's that on your face?"
    I'd forgotten all about the make-up. "Sorry," I said again.
    "It's okay. Get the ladder. But be quiet-my father."

    Numbed, I made my way down and found the ladder at the side of the garage, raised it to her window with huge care. I don't know what was going through my mind. Something in the territory of, Wow-is this really happening? Can I handle this? Wait-what does she think is happening?
    By the time I reached her sill, Judy had disappeared again into the darkness of her room. As my eyes adjusted, I could just make her out, seated on the bed in a large white t-shirt that hung off a shoulder. I climbed into the room, went over and sat next to her on the bed.
    "This is so funny," she said.
    With a defensiveness that surprised me, I asked, "What's so funny?"
    She waited then reached for a tissue, wet it in a glass of water on the nightstand, dabbed gently on my cheeks. "Whatever this is," she said.

    I felt her thigh pressed against mine. I felt my hand tentatively move to touch it. But instead, the self-pity technique shot off on its own again. "I almost got fired from my job," I told her.
    Judy remained quiet. Then she turned and looked at me, eyes measuring and curious, sizing me up. "I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm a molester and lesbo," she mumbled, more to herself.     "We're going to have to be quiet," she repeated, in a different, more secretive tone this time.
    "Of course," I told her.

    With two fingers to my elbow, she urged me to my knees and faced me. She lifted my shirt over my head, then smiled as she removed my bra. We snuck beneath the covers where it was warm as a womb, her smooth legs folding around my thigh, her breasts cushioning our chests. To this day, I remember every move (most all of them hers), and with never-ending craving play out what might have been had it all not come to such an immediate, shooting end.

    We lay on our backs beside each other as her darkened room gradually regained right angles. "It's okay," she promised me. "Really, I'm flattered." She giggled. "We'll just wait a few minutes, while you recharge."

    I appreciated the sentiment, but somehow, it only made me feel more ashamed; here she had been, willing to take me into her bed, and I had reciprocated by living up to a stereotype: the inept kid with no ability to satisfy a woman.
    Judy laid her chin on my chest, and in a gentle voice said, "Ironic, hmm?"
    But, in my present state, I really didn't want to discuss how "weird" it was that we had wound up together. "It just happened," I told her. "Nothing ironic about it. There I was, dangling outside your window, and you just did the kind thing."
    "No... I meant about your dad."

    I remembered the last time I had seen her, she standing there in her driveway next to her rake, the look of shock. "Yeah-our little performance. And the first time you and I lay eyes on each other in years, it winds up in this."
    "But that he would think...you were gay. When clearly, you're at least..."

    Her voice trailed off. At least to me it did. The words made so little sense that at first I could only sit up and scan her face to see if she was joking.

    Judy sat up too and stared back at me, puzzled at first, then with some concern.
    "You know-why he chased away your friend."
    I laughed, but really it was more of an audible cringe. All I could manage was,
    "What are you talking about? How would you even know this?"
    "Your mother. We talk. But I assumed you knew."
    "My mother," I repeated. The situation seemed to be slipping even further from comprehension, then an anger started to rise. "So-she thinks this too? ...You're all talking about this? And what could make him think that?" My mind clogged as it was hit with a vast puzzle that for all I knew reached back for years.
    "Well, you never mentioned girlfriends. And, I guess, that morning he didn't hear any sound coming from your room."
    "Oh, God." It was only getting worse. "Because I was fucking asleep! Alone!" I told her. I pictured his bottle of gin. Pictured his irate face as he appeared at the top of the stairs and saw Foods, drooped in the chair as if spent.
    "Michael, please. Keep your voice down. My father," Judy reminded me again. "I don't quite see what the huge deal is." She waved at the bed. "Doesn't this make it sort of funny?"
    The big deal. The question caught me off guard, halted me. "Just..." Suddenly I didn't want to sound homophobic; I simply didn't want to be one. "That this would be his idea of involvement. That he could think he knows anything about me!"
    "Please, Michael... you're yelling," she whispered firmly.

    But I had already hopped from the bed, was pulling on my clothes, paused at my bra and shorts. "Hold onto these for me, alright?" I stopped. "Do I leave the way I came?"
    Judy nodded. "Ladder beside the garage. Give me a kiss. And can you keep my name out of it? Your mom would never forgive me."

It was light outside when I carefully backed my way from Judy's window and climbed down the ladder. The ladder went gently against the garage. I jogged across the street and entered my house only a little later than the usual time.

* * *

    Today, the pockets of memory that linger with most energy in my mind, and my heart, are not the worst ones-the violent ones to come, the prolonged estrangements, his dying alone—but the ones at the margin, the ones that might have gone differently. When I entered the kitchen where my father was seated over his newspaper, he looked up at me, and for a moment, with the heavy thickness of his reading glasses, his eyes appeared great green lakes filled with an innocent confusion. We hadn't spoken in weeks, so the fact that I'd come in at all, I think, startled him. I stood over him, almost drawn in by this second of vulnerability. But I was too adrenalized. Gleeful, almost, at the sense of ambush.

    "You think I'm fucking GAY? That's why you were pounding away on the typewriter so hard? That's why you hit the gin and chased away Foods?"
    "Michael," said Dad, "good to see you."
    Behind me, my mother appeared. She'd probably been nervously awaiting this "talk" for weeks, maybe years.
    "Mom, and you were in on this, too? Without telling me?"
    "Well," Mom said, with sadness, and a plainness to her voice. "Of course, we thought that you already knew, and were just biding your time to tell us, or to send us a clear sign, which we thought you were."
    I turned back to Dad, and maddened again when I saw that with a wry grin he had returned to his paper. "Well—I didn't know. There was nothing to know! So tell me, who do your think was doing who?"
    "Oh Michael!" my mother protested. Then faintly, unable to help herself, she added,     "and it's to whom."
    "Fine, Ma. Let's make sure to use King's English here."
    My mother went silent for a long time, though it may have only been ten or fifteen seconds. "We love you very much, Michael. Either way. He does."
    "Who? Him? The one there reading the paper?"

    Dad raised his head above the paper with a teethy grin, the kind following a stubbed toe, and as if Mom was needlessly prolonging the discussion, said, "Well, great. Cased closed. Let's move on. Though I'm wondering about the eyes..."
    "Oh, shit. This is all too preposterous. Halloween costume!" I shouted. I went to the sink to further wash around my eyes, and as cold water splashed my face, I heard my sister Natalie's disembodied voice float down from the upstairs bathroom where she was trying to prepare for a normal day of high school. "Preposterous—yes—the way you two are secretly bonding!"
Dad prepared to say something, but I beat him to it. "Ahh, fuck it, I'm outta here. This isn't how things are supposed to be."

* * *

    Outside, I broke into a jog, passed the Lincoln parked by the hill that I'd forgotten all about. I returned it to the driveway. I walked down to the beach where I finally called Foods on a payphone, hoping that he was again clipping school, saving himself for football practice. He was. I asked him if he could get his hands on a car, but he said he doubted it. A half hour later, he appeared in the lot, on foot, carrying two six-packs of Schmidts like small suitcases.

    We sat on a rock on the beach, looking out over the calm water. Also, at the grinning face of Booker T. Long story-but a year earlier my friends and I, with nothing to do, had been driving around in one of Long Island's wealthy sections, drinking and doing figure 8's on lawns when we'd spotted an old-fashioned black lawn jockey at the crest of a long driveway. We'd driven right up, and with full view of the na´ve, self-satisfied family inside watching TV, silently heaved the statue onto the tailgate of the station wagon-the thing must have weighed 500lbs. We brought him down to the beach and shouldered him deeply out into the water where we placed him upon a rock and whitewashed him with spray paint. Too heavy for the City to remove, he'd become a local icon, his face an easel for make-up, his narrow body and raised lantern a rack for jocks and panties, and eventually various college scarves and caps. Even then, I could imagine him one day becoming an object of sentimentality, a repository of deeper meaning.

    As the beers slowly disappeared, Foods and I talked aimlessly, the way young people do, his football season, highlights from Halloween at Blues, even a bit about my night with Judy, a version milked mostly for laughs.

    The beach we were at was the young people's beach: Pavillion. There were actually two in town, separated by a long inlet. And at one point, at the far one, there against the blank sky, dragging a huge root toward the water, dogs leaping around him in wild approval, I spotted the tiny, resolute form of my dad.
    Or, maybe I saw him, maybe I didn't.

    This was his time—mornings, the eternal, glorified space of deepest thought. Maybe, unable to sit there at his typewriter, just like me he had unconsciously decided on the ocean to offer up a burden of regret.

    Foods brought me back from my distraction, though at first I didn't hear what he said. He was such a big lug, but with the voice of a shy introvert. On top of that, he sometimes chose to eliminate verbs and prepositions.     "What?" I asked him.     "I said—only a few weeks. Reunion. Turkey Bowl. Mud."