The people in rossford part two of chapter one
“What about me?”
Fenn, on the bar stool, looked up and said, “What about you Todd?”
In the kitchen that was now Nell’s, Todd had been stretched out back then, swinging from the lentil, the black line of hair down from his navel and to his shorts exposed. He wore and tank top that read Saint Barbara’s Basketball, and he hadn’t shaved in days.
“What about you taking a chance on me? That Tom isn’t worth crying about anyway.”
“Firstly,” Fenn said, lifting a slightly drunken finger and putting the drink down as the storm door opened and Adele and Nell came in for hamburger buns, “I am not crying over anyone. Trust me.”
Adele raised an eyebrow, and then left. Nell grabbed the relish and Fenn waited for her to depart before turning around and saying, “And secondly, I make a point to never tap someone’s ass if there was a point in time that I wiped it.”
“Ouch, Fenn, that’s harsh,” Todd came down from the door post and approached him. “I mean I just think you like me a little, and I already told you I like you a lot.”
“See, I don’t know where the fuck you came up with that. I don’t know when you decided that I was… what? Your dream man?”
“We don’t have to dream, Fenn.”
“Stop that. And stop using that… voice.”
“Is it sexy?”
“It’s stupid. You’re—”
“I’m not stupid.”
“No, but you are a child.”
“And I…” Fenn began, “am… not.”
“I love older men.”
“Hold the fuck on, I’m not that much older.”
“But you keep saying you are.”
“I just…” Fenn started over again. “I just think it’s not a great idea. I think—”
“Hold on,” Todd said.
And then suddenly, Fenn’s face was in Todd’s large hands, and the boy, Todd had always been a boy to him, had pressed his wet mouth to Fenn’s. His tongue touched Fenn’s and for the first time in a long time of prickly resistance, Fenn Houghten did something like melt.
When Todd pulled away, Fenn resumed: “…Think… that… You are…”
“Whaddo you say?” Todd say.
“I still say no.”
Todd shrugged. It wasn’t a real shrug. It was a high school shrug, like I don’t care, when really you care all too much. Fenn wanted to call him out for that, to say, “See, that’s why we can’t have anything.”
Why, for this brief second, in the aftermath of Todd’s kiss, did having something seem a little believable?
“Todd,” he said as Todd was walking away.
Todd turned around.
“What I should have said is not now. Whatever is later, not now.”
Todd came back and approached him.
“It has nothing to do with you. Or almost nothing,” said Fenn. “I don’t want a boyfriend like Tom.”
“I’m, not like Tom.”
“I didn’t mean that. I meant, a serious one. Someone who was… a soulmate and shit. And I just don’t see how we wouldn’t be that.”
“It could be light. It could just be fucking.”
“Okay, no it couldn’t,” Fenn said. “Cause that’s not us. I mean, it’s you and it’s me, but together…” Fenn shook his head. “That’s how you know soemthing’s real. I mean with you and me even just fucking wouldn’t be just fucking. You’re in love with me.”
“And you’re not in love with me? Just a little?”
Fenn took a breath. He touched Todd’s cheek.
“I love you,” he said. “And not just a little. And for the time being I’m not ready for that, so go fuck some dumbass and then come back to me in a year. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You think I’m the devil, don’t you?”
“I don’t think you’re anything at all.”
“Oh, touché, touché!” Brian Babcock murmured. He was away from the rest of the partygoers, in a clean white shirt, rolled up at the sleeves to reveal the dark hair going up and down his arms. He had on black round sunglasses, which Todd mistrusted.
“I don’t even know why you’re here.”
Brian shrugged. “You know what? Neither do I. Tom brought me. That was a mistake.”
“You’re damn right it was. Why would he show up with the guy he was fucking—?”
“I’m not fucking Tom,” Brian shook his head with mild irritation. “I’m not fucking anyone.”
“Well… neither am I.”
Brian laughed and slid off the banister.
“Wanna talk about it?”
Brian slipped off his glasses and put them in his pocket.
“About how I’m here and you’re here and we’re both here because we don’t fit in… In there.”
“I fit in just fine.”
“Maybe,” Brian shrugged. “But you don’t think you do. You… You’ve got shit. Inside of you?”
“Uh,” Brian said. “I know I do, and you do. But, does everyone? No. Or at least not so far as I know. I don’t know a lot of people who have a hard time looking at themselves in the morning. I don’t know a lot of people who hate who they are. That’s generally my department.”
“I don’t… hate who I am.”
“But you wish you were someone else. Sometimes? Right? Someone with less baggage?”
“I guess,” Todd said.
“I’m not asking you to talk about it,” Brian told him. “I’m just asking if, like, you wanna walk or something?”
Todd nodded, and then climbed over the rail, and they set down the street.
“I didn’t ask him to do it, you know, but I didn’t tell him not to.”
“You were a kid,” Brian said.
“I was a teenager.”
“When it ended. And teenagers are kids. What the fuck could you do?”
“I go to horrid man after horrid man thinking that this dick’ll fuck me so hard it’ll get all the bad stuff out of me.” Todd added in a small voice. “Or get the part of me that liked the bad stuff out of me.”
“Fenn’s not that man?”
“I’m just saying,” Brian said, “I know how you feel about him. I don’t know if anyone else knows,” he said at the surprised look in Todd’s eyes. “But I see it. I think there are two sorts of guys you need. The love of your life, and the fix it guy, the one who sort of… preps you for the love of your life, or does what the love of your life can’t do.”
Todd looked at him.
“I’m just saying,” Brian said again, “you wanna be with a guy who isn’t horrid. I mean, I’m not terrific, but I’m not… what do you mean by horrid?”
“I mean I know I keep on ending up with people like… that first guy.”
“You’re really not going to elaborate on that are you?”
“Not right now,” Todd said.
“I’m tired of being with… scary men, men who are not men. Men who… would prey on a kid if they could. Men who’d rape you if they could. Low lives.”
“Has anyone ever made love to you?”
Todd turned his head away, sharply.
“Has anyone ever made love to you?” Todd said back.
“No, not really,” Brian admitted. “But… we could make love. If you wanted to.”
There was no seduction, and no begging. It was just a statement.
“You just said you knew about Fenn?” Todd said. “Do you… do you get a pleasure in taking stuff from him?”
“I never took anything from Fenn,” Brian said. “I tried. I failed. I knew Tom didn’t care about me, and when Fenn left him, Fenn was all that was on his mind. Fenn IS all that is on his mind. And you, you’re in love with him right now. But he’s not going to have you right now, is he? And he’s not going to make love to you all night, is he? Not now.”
Todd said nothing.
“But I’m here,” Brian said. “I’m here, and I’m willing, and I get you, and I… this’ll sound strange, but I want to do something good.”
“You want to pity fuck me?”
“No, cause I don’t feel sorry for you. I just get you. And I think you get me better than you think and… call it fucking or whatever, but loving is something people need. To pretend it isn’t is just bullshit, and if we can offer it to each other we should. I want to offer it to you. I want to sleep with you, Todd. All right?”
Todd’s mouth was filled with saliva, and the blood rushed to his groin. He was dizzy with need and desire and Brian wasn’t begging or lying or being suave. He smelled no perfume. He smelled Brian, the sweat in his shirt, his breath, not bad, but strong. Brian very real and flesh and blood, his long hand placed lightly on Todd’s, the first beautiful man who’d ever offered himself, the first true and beautiful gentleness.
Todd caressed Brian’s hand and then their hands folded firmly together, and Todd Meradan said:
“I can change the sheets.”
“That’s not necessary,” Todd said.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” Brian explained. “The house should be clean for you. This bed should be.”
“It’s all…” Todd began as Brian went briskly into his bedroom.
“Right,” the other syllable hung.
Todd followed Brian. By now, in the lowlit bedroom, he was pulling the sheets away, furiously. He had a roll of sheets, and he placed it down. Todd opened the closet door and seeing it was the linen closet, handed Brian sheets.
“We don’t have to remake the bed,” Brian told him. “We can just… lay down new sheets.”
Todd nodded, and helped Brian to do this.
Brian’s mouth was wet and gentle on his own. Todd always thought it would be hard, or demanding. His cheeks were bristly even though he’s shaved and Todd’s arms went to Brian’s shoulders, down his back, into his hair, across his face. They lurched toward the bed, and then away and then in a moment Brian was pulling up Todd’s tank top and running his hands over the hair of his chest. Todd was unfastening, with difficulty, Brian’s belt, and then Brian laughed gently, and helped him with it, and in a few moments he was pulling down those briefs, and in the deep brown gold light of afternoon they beheld each other before Todd pulled him to the bed.
Their bodies moved together, trading top to bottom, kissing up and down. Todd took Brian in his mouth for a long time, and Brian’s head went back, his fingernails clutching the covers, and then Brian’s perfect body was over him in the early darkness, and Todd’s hands were going up and down it’s smoothness.
“I want to fuck you now,” Brian said.
And at the edge of the bed he did. It had been so long, Todd was shocked by the entry, and then it just felt… right. It just felt good to be filled with Brian and feel Brian’s hands pushing on his shoulders, pushing on the bed around him. It felt good to reach around and pull Brian’s into him, pressing on the firmness of his ass. It felt good to moan, to cry out with the joy of it, pulling him in, running his hands up and down him, hearing the rhythm of Brian slapping into him, slapping quicker, quicker, murmuring with a triumph, bowing so that Todd’s hands were in his hair.
“Uh God… uh, God… uh…”
It was dark when Brian came that second time and lay on the bed, his chest rising and falling, Todd beside him.
“I needed that,” Brian said. “I needed you inside me.”
They were quiet a long time. Outside a car passed by.
“You in a hurry?” said Todd.
“Not at all,” Brian told him. “In fact, you could stay. Would you like to stay?”
Todd thought about it. The weight of Brian beside him in the bed felt so good, The way he felt inside, when he squeezed himself and felt Brian there, and remembered Brian taking him in, riding his chest, was still with him. And Fenn saying, “Find someone to fuck…”
Well, Fenn had said find some dumbass to fuck, actually.
It felt so good here, now.
“Yes,” Todd said, pressing his body close to Brian’s. “Yes, I would.”
Brian Babcock observed his face in the mirror. It was a handsome enough face. That was the problem with it. It was not, say, a hot face, or a noble face, or a face that lit up with joy and captivated people. It was not in any way a striking face. It was a normal face, and right now, an unshaven face. A ball cap was crammed over his head. It was a sad looking face, impossible to make cheerful. And in the low light of the lamp by the bureau in the little hotel room, he tried and failed to make it look a little cheerful.
But, now, that was the problem too. It wasn’t cheerful. Not even a little bit. Nor had it ever been. An hour or so ago, his cell phone had buzzed him into consciousness, the credit card people, conscientious, yes, but annoying.
“We have you checked in a Day’s Inn on Calumet Road.”
“No,” Brian said, upset, “I’m at the Holliday Inn on Kentland.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man over the phone said. “Yes, that’s right. You have a good night, Mr. Babcock.”
“Yes,” said Brian, feeling a little disturbed, a trifle annoyed. “Thank you.”
He ran a hand over his jaw and said, “I am Brian Babcock.”
He hated the sound of his voice, the accentless-ness of it, the tight stick up the assness of it, the very gayness of it. He said it again, “I am Brian Babcock.” This time slower, over and over again, slower and slower, forcing himself to listen to himself.
When he was tired of this, Brian sighed and collapsed on the bed, folding his hands over his stomach. What a burden existence was. Not that he wanted to kill himself, not just yet. And who would miss him? But what if he could just blink out? For a bit. Now, there was an idea. Better than sleeping, sleeping was the illusion you weren’t there, that’s why depressed people liked it so much. What if, when it just got too much, you could pop out for a bit and them exist again when you were ready?
Of course, now, not existing, I wouldn’t be able to make a decision, now would I? No. Better to… simply… set an alarm before I pop out. Yes, some sort of alarm here, in the real world that was always, always unmercifully going on, could call you back after eight hours. Or days. Ten days. Or years for the truly tired.
“And how much better than death.”
It would be like a timeshare. Existing, existing for about, ah… twenty year stretches and then popping out, popping out to let another generation have some fun, and then popping back in. Eventually you were bound to meet everyone again, everyone you’d lost.
“Because...” Brian reflected out loud, “we would overlap.”
It seemed, momentarily, such a good idea, that Brian decided if he focused all of his efforts on it he could make it so, and make everything else that had happened around him… not so.
“If,” Brian began, running a long finger along his jaw, “I’d snuffed out at twenty I would be coming back in about five years. And I wouldn’t have done any of the things I’ve done.” He cackled to himself.
I’d still be a virgin bound for the priesthood. I’d still think I was straight!
There were, of course, other things that would not have happened, but these were not funny. They were painful, and he didn’t want to look at them. Not just now.
There was a tap at the door.
Who could that be? No one he knew. He was outside of his own hometown, and no one knew he’d come back. There was another knock. Let them keep knocking. Will yourself to sit still. They’ll go sooner or later.
This time the knock was harder and Brian frowned and then heard his name.
“Open up, Bri! I know you’re in there.”
Brian got up as if it were the voice of God, which it might as well have been for all Brian’s power to identify it. He opened it.
“Thank God,” Todd walked in, shutting the door behind him and collapsing in the chair, legs wide apart.
Brian looked at him, blinking in misbelief.
“You look like shit,” Todd said. Then, “So do I, I guess. But… you. Wow.”
“What are you doing here, Todd?” Brian said again, again hating the sound of his voice.
Todd, whose voice was light and lose laughed and said, “I’m here to bring you home!”
“WHAT THE HELL is going on over here?” Layla said when she walked into the house.
“Nothing,” her uncle said, “and mind your manners. Aren’t you supposed to be at some dinner at Dena’s house?”
“I already went. It was good. I was tired.”
“Are you still mad at her?”
“I just told you, Fenn,” Layla said. “I got tired. Besides, Will was making speeches and toasts, and going on about, ‘To friendship! To friendship!’ And I just heard about this dinner an hour before it happened—Barb?”
“Layla, honey how are you?”
“Is there a party going on here?”
“A bit of one,” said Barb. “Why don’t you pull up a chair and get a drumstick.”
Layla nodded and said, “You staying, Claire?”
“For the night. I wish I’d been at that dinner.”
“It was really just a bunch of us trying to be forgiving,” Layla said. Then, because she was Layla, she moved past Paul and said, “I do know you, I just can’t place your face.”
“I’m Noah Riley.”
“Actually, I don’t really know Paul, either,” Layla admitted. “Isn’t it funny how you see folks all the time, but you don’t know them.”
“Noah used to work with me,” Paul said.
“You do porn too—ouch!” she said when Fenn kicked her.
“And I thought you said you didn’t really know people,” Paul murmured.
Layla shrugged as she picked a biscuit out of the chicken bucket. “Knowing what you do is not knowing who you are.”
“Thank you!” Claire said. “Now if only we could tell Kirk that.”
“Who the hell is Kirk? And by the way, where is Todd?”
“Todd went to go search for Brian.”
“Brian? Brian Babcock?”
“Um hum,” Fenn nodded.
“Whaddo you mean go search for him?”
“He sort of… ran away,” Claire said.
Paul looked very uncomfortable, and Claire leaned in and whispered to Layla, “I’ll tell you everything. Later. I promise.”
Layla, who knew when to shut up, nodded her head and said, “Good chicken. Greasy enough, but not over greasy.”
“Fenn, do you have pop?”
“In the fridge,” Fenn said, biting on a chicken breast. “Todd got it before he left.”
Layla nodded and the kitchen door swung shut behind her.
“I’m so nervous,” Paul said.
“Does it matter? This whole day! I’m so sick. Everything that’s been happening. I’m just waiting for something better to happen. Or something worse. I don’t know.”
“I got so sick today,” Noah said.
“I know,” Fenn remarked. “None of us can use the upstairs bathroom now.”
“That gun in my mouth,” Noah said. “That was the worse. The inside of me just melted. That’s why I’ve been sick the whole afternoon. Any coolness I ever tried to have just went out the window then.”
“I think,” Barb said, wiping her fingers off on a napkin, “this is the sort of day that a good night’s sleep will make a hell of a lot better.”
“Amen!” Claire said, and the kitchen door swung open and Layla came back out with a grape soda.
“Now…” Layla said, “I know that you all say nothing’s going on…?”
“Yes?” Fenn looked up at his niece.
“But if nothing’s going on—”
“How come everyone’s acting so funny?” Paul interrupted.
“No,” Layla said at length. “I was going to say; How come there’s a dead body in the basement?’”
“You drove across three states to find me?”
“You know the credit card company?”
“What? Did they give you my whereabouts? That’s gotta be illegal—”
“No,” Todd shook his head. “I was the credit card company. You gave me your whereabouts.”
Brian stared at him, incredulous, then said, “Why on…earth?”
“Because everyone wants you back.”
“Everyone,” Brian said, “does not want me back.”
Todd considered this, then said, “Well, that’s true enough. But I was worried, and so was Fenn—”
“Yes. So he sent me. More or less. I mean, it was my idea, but he would have been disappointed in me if I hadn’t seen it through.”
Brian turned away and looked out of what would have been the window, but was a shut curtain.
“I can’t go back,” he said, at last.
“Whaddo you mean, why not? I can’t go back after what I did.”
“Then are you going to your family?”
“I can’t do that either.”
“I don’t know!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know… all right? I was just figuring that out when you showed up, Todd.”
Todd nodded his head and continued to sit down.
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Yes,” Brian said tightly.
A moment later he smelled smoke and turned around to see Todd had lit a cigarette and was exhaling.
“Well, if you’re not going back home, and you’re not going into town, then I guess it’s only one thing for me to do,” Todd said.
“My, you are rude,” Todd told him. “That’s why you don’t have friends. No.”
Todd smiled: “Stay with you until you decide.”
“Okay, so how did you stumble on a dead body on your way to get a pop?”
“How was there a dead body for me to stumble on my way to get a pop?”
“I asked first,” Fenn said.
“Well, I said, is there a pop? And you said in the fridge. At home Mom calls the refrigerator in the kitchen the frigidaire and the fridge in the basement the fridge. So naturally I went to the basement. It’s a common mistake.”
Fenn looked at his niece, incredulous, and then said, “No, it isn’t!”
“And, anyway, Fenn, I think it’s you who has some explaining to do for me. Cause I’m your poor niece, who you should be protecting from all the shit of this world, and I’m already traumatized enough. And then I find a body, covered in…. a mess.”
“It’s quicklime,” Barb supplied. “And by the way, I gotta go.” She rose up from the table, putting her purse over her shoulder. “Thanks for the great meal.”
Fenn replied, “Thanks for… saving out lives.”
“Well, now you have to explain,” Layla said.
“A killer was after me,” Noah said. “Because he thought I stole, we stole, about half a million dollars.”
“And so… you killed him.”
“No,” Noah said, “there was a gun fight and Lee killed him.”
“Cousin Lee?” Layla turned to her uncle.
“He has a gun?” Then, “Of course he has a gun! And why did this man think you all stole half a million dollars?”
Fenn looked at Paul. Paul looked at Noah, and then Noah looked back at Fenn.
“Uh…” said Fenn, scratching his ear rapidly, “because we kinda sorta… did.”
Layla stared blankly at her uncle.
“We didn’t so much steal it as find it,” Fenn continued. “It would have been confiscated by the police anyway, so we decided it should be confiscated by us. And it turned out to belong to this drug dealer who was making a drug deal at the party where… well, it’s a very long story.”
“Tell me too,” Claire said.
“It’s the party where me and Paul sort of joined up with Fenn. And Todd,” Noah explained. “But it’s all really complicated. More complicated than I know how to get into right now.”
“You know not to tell this to your mother,” Fenn said to his niece. “Or anyone.”
“I know that,” Layla snapped. “But I want the whole story.”
“And you’ll get it, niece,” Fenn said. “But not at this moment. All you need to know is this guy saw Noah at the party and so he was sure Noah had taken the money.”
“And now he’s dead,” said Noah.
“And now he’s dead.” Layla repeated.
The chicken leg was forgotten in her hand. She said, “And what if there were other people. Like…. What if he had friends?”
“We’re in luck there,” Lee said. “He didn’t have any friends, and from what I get, they’d be glad to see him go.”
Layla shook her head.
After awhile she said, “You know what the problem is with this town? It’s too much going on! Why can’t I move to someplace a little less exciting?”
“Like East Carmel?” Claire said.
“Like Chicago,” Layla declared, flopping down in her chair.