Hitch-Hiker
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

 

I'm driving back home from a late summer visit to some cousins, a trip I try to make a couple of times a year. I always enjoy my visit, but the four-hour drive is usually boring. Because of that, I'm usually on the look for a hitchhiker. Not many kids try to hitch rides these days because they've either found some way to get a car or because very few people will pick up a hitch-hiking kid any more. Too scared of getting robbed or worse. I don't pick up many, and the few I do I look over carefully. A teacher develops a sixth sense about the young.

I'll stop in the next town, as I usually do, for something to drink. The town being about mid way my trip. It's then I spot a kid on the side of the highway, his thumb outstretched. I slow some to get a better look at him. His jeans and shirt look clean, though they've seen better days. They also show wet spots from his sweating; it's in the mid 90's outside. The sight that puts my foot on the brake is the wood peg that replaces his right leg.

When I stop, he comes up to my car with a smile. I hit the button to unlock the door. He opens it and leans in. "Going to Ashton?"

"Through there. Get in."

He opens the door and sits on the edge of the seat while he unstraps his peg, then swings around in the seat and closes the door. "Thanks for stopping. It's hot out there. Nice car."

I wonder why he would say that, because I drive a three year old Buick Century. It's big enough for my needs and small enough to park easily in the short spaces in our town. "It serves my purposes."

"Hope I can get a car someday. Ain't many folks will give a guy a ride now-a-days. If I'm lucky, maybe I can catch a ride back home after I get my new peg."

"That why you're going to Ashton?"

He nods. "Unh hunh. Man there makes them. Hard to find anybody knows how any more." He points down to the tape wrapped around it near the end. "This one done split on me, so I had to quit work. I hope I can get my job back, cause I need some more money for clothes and the rent."

"Don't you live at home?"

"Yeah, but my old man's drunk most of the time, so it's up to me and my brother."

I look at his thin small boned frame and sharp face. Cleaned up with decent clothes and a good haircut he'd be a nice looking kid. A shame he doesn't have a better chance at life.

"What kind of work you do?"

"Been working in a store 'til tobacco comes off. That pays fair. My brother's in the army. He sends money every month, but if I don't get the check before the old man, he uses it to buy liquor. Wish I could make it on my own."

"You'd leave home? What about your mother?"

"She run off after the old man started drinkin' so much. Ain't heard from her since."

He leans back in the seat and closes his eyes, so I don't ask anymore questions, until I slow at the town limits of Center Hill. A few blocks along, I pull into the gas station, my habitual stop for a drink. He opens his eyes when I stop.

"Would you like some thing to drink?"

"Don't guess I do. Gonna take all my money for my peg. I hope I've saved enough. Things keep going up."

"I'm buying. What'll it be?"

"Pepsi's okay."

I get two of the twelve-ounce size that comes in plastic bottles. I hand him one and flip out the cup holder in the center armrest.

"This is sure good. Thanks."

"You're welcome. It's good to have somebody to talk to."

"You travel a lot?"

"Not much, and only in summer. I'm a teacher. I was visiting relatives in Parkton." I put my drink in the holder and drive off.

"Can I ask you somethin'?"

"Of course."

"How come you keep lookin' at my leg?"

I was hoping he hadn't noticed the scrutiny I'd been giving his peg-leg. Though the wood is dark with age and grime, and badly gouged in places from hard use, I find it fascinating, because it's the first one I've been able to look at close up. I've always wanted one myself so I could pretend, but never knew where to get one. Leg amps like this kid are a big turn-on for me.

"Yours is the first peg-leg I've seen up close. It's been years since I saw anyone using one."

"Oh. I only seen one other one, and that was an old man getting' one when I got mine."

"How long have you had it?"

"Had this one 'bout three years. Done growed some since I got it. I tried nailin' a piece to the end to make it longer. That's how come it split."

"How long have you used one?"

"Got my leg cut off when I was 'bout seven. My first grade teacher got me my first one when I started school. Course they didn't cost much then. She was a good woman."

"You look very nice on it."

He smiles. "You think so?"

"Yes. Do you ever use crutches?"

He shakes his head. "Not since I been workin', 'less my knee gets sore like it does sometimes. Can't do no work then."

"What do you do for fun?"

He smiles. "Ain't got no time for fun, 'cept on Sunday. That's when I study and get a little rest."

"How old are you?"

"Almost seventeen."

I think back at most of the kids his age I've taught and wonder how well they would cope with the life this kid's had, deciding none of them would do as well and be as cheerful. I'm so attracted to him, I wish there was something I could do to make his life easier.

When I stop for the light in the center of Ashton, he says, "I really 'preciate the ride. You can let me out just the other side of town. I can walk from there. It ain't that far."

"Would you mind if I came with you?"

"Why you want to do that?"

"I'd like to see a new peg-leg, and perhaps how he makes them."

He shrugs. "Don't make no never mind to me. I ain't sure this one's gonna hold together much longer, so it'd help if you want to take me to his shop."

When the kid tells me to turn off the highway on a dirt road, I begin to understand. It's two miles before he tells me to stop in front of a small weathered building. He straps his peg back on and starts toward the door with me beside him. A good thing, too, because suddenly his peg-leg splits in half vertically. He would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed his arm.

He gives me a chagrinned look. "Thanks for catching me. Guess that peg's done for now."

I support him while he unstraps it and lets the two pieces fall to the ground, then help him as he hops inside the shop.

An elderly man looks up from his workbench, then smiles. "You back fer another, Tommy?"

"Yes, sir. That old one fell apart just now. I hope you got one fixed."

"Got two or three made up, but I ain't had no call fer one. Got some new leather fer makin' the straps. Set in that there chair 'til I make 'em."

He has three peg-legs laying on a rack above his bench. He takes the smallest one down and wipes the dust from it with a rag, then sets it aside and pulls a roll of leather from a box. I see several complete sets of harness for horses hanging from pegs in the wall, so I assume they're his main business.

"Where's the one busted on you?" He asks Tommy.

"Outside."

When the man has retrieved the broken peg, he pulls the straps from it and looks at them. "You made these here?"

The kid nods. "Old ones busted, so I made 'em out of an old harness."

"They 'bout the right length?"

"A mite short, but they worked okay, 'less my leg swole."

"I'll make these longer." He sets to work cutting the leather, then attaches the buckles and fixes the straps to the peg-leg. He brings it over. "Stand on it so's I ken get the holes punched right."

I help Tommy up and support him until his knee is firmly in place on top of the peg-leg. He smiles. "This sure feels good. The top done split on my old one and the paddin' come out."

"Spect that was a mite hard on your knee. I put better leather on this un."

He takes the straps back to his workbench and uses a punch to cut the holes. After he's attached the straps to the peg, he asks, "You want me to put a band 'round the bottom so it won't split?"

"Guess you better. This one's gotta last me for a while."

"Uh, oh. 'Spect I better fix you one of them heavier ones, then. You oughta get two of 'em." He holds out the slender one he's been working on. "I could put a rubber tip on this one here and you could keep it nice lookin' fer school and use other fer work."

The kid shakes his head. "Just hope I got enough to pay you for one."

"Don't figure I'll ever sell them other two. Make you a good deal."

I've been too embarrassed to ask him about one for myself, but this is a perfect opening and my only chance. "What if I bought one?"

He and the kid both look at me in surprise. "Don't look like you need one, but iffen you want it, I'll do right by you and the boy here."

"Fine. Finish his, then fit one to me." I walk over and pick one up. It isn't as heavy as I had thought it would be. "What kind of wood you use?"

"Ash. It be strong and not too heavy." He gives a raspy chuckle. "Plenty of it 'round here. That's how come the town's named Ashton. Used to be so much of it in the woods they started up an axe handle making plant here. I worked there fer years. After it shut down, I started making harnesses and a peg-leg now and then. Ain't much call fer neither now-a-days, but I like to keep busy. The boy here's 'bout the only one still wantin' a peg-leg."

"I might be able to get a few customers for you, if you're interested." I'll post his business on a website a lot of pretenders and amputees use.

"Now that's nice o' you. I 'preciate it."

He finishes up the boy's peg except for the metal band around the bottom, then has me stand with my right knee on top of the peg-leg I was holding. He measures the length so he can cut it. I tell him I want to use a rubber tip, so he takes a bit more off. "Ain't got no tips, but you ken get 'em to the hardware store. Git the big kind goes on chair legs." He measures my leg for the straps, and sets to work. I like the feel of it when I try it on. With the tip, the length will be right.

I look at the kid who's been watching me closely. "Show me how to walk correctly."

"Sure." He stand and walks smoothly across the shop and back. "You just gotta remember to swing it out and around. If you try to take a straight step you're gonna fall."

My first few steps are awkward, but it's a fantastic feeling. I look at the boy and think of what he said as we were riding, pondering how I can make my wishes could come completely true. I push my thoughts aside and ask the old man, "How much?"

"Git fifty bucks fer one now, but since you done got two, make it forty-five each."

I see the boy frown, then his eyes moisten. "Ain't got but thirty-four dollars. Didn't think it'd cost so much."

"Guess I could come down to forty fer you since you done got 'em from me afore this. Wish I could sell you the other one. Let all three go fer forty each."

"Fix the other one for Tommy with a rubber tip. He needs both."

"You crazy, mister. I can't even pay for one."

"Let me worry about that; you need them. If I can buy one for myself when I don't need it, I can certainly get you a second one to keep nice."

"Ain't no call for you to do that. You don't owe me nothin'. You don't even know me."

"I know you need it. That's enough." I pull out my billfold and give the old man six twenties. "Go ahead and fix the boy up."

He gives me a toothless grin. "Yes, sir. You got a good deal. Gimmie that there peg, boy, so's I can get this other one right."

He finishes the third peg-leg swiftly, then adds an heavy metal band around the bottom, then cuts a tiny bit from the end of the first peg-leg he fixed for the boy. "Here you go, Tommy. This one fer show cause it's a mite smaller. That other one's fer work. You put some of that urethane on it, an' it'll be right good lookin'. Wear well, too."

I thank him, and Tommy and I walk back to my car carrying our new peg-legs. The kid looks proud of his. We lay them on the back seat and I get in, waiting for the kid to remove the larger one he's using.

"I sure gotta thank you, mister," he says as I drive off. "If I didn't need it so bad, I wouldn't of let you make up the difference. Now you done bought me two. I don't know how, but I'll find some way to pay you back. If you'll give me your address, I'll send you what I can all along 'til it's paid for."

I stop the car a few yards from the highway, and look at him. "You really want to pay me?"

He looks at me quizzically. "Sure I do."

"You have a job or any reason to go back home?"

"What you getting' at? I don't care if I don't go back home, but I gotta have some place to stay and try to get a job. Can't pay you less I do."

"My name's Hank Ferris, Tommy. Would you like to come home with me for the rest of the summer? I live on a small farm just outside of town. I rent out the land under cultivation, but I can use some help with the yard and around the house. The pay won't be much, but you can live with me and do things like cut the grass and do some repairs if they're needed. I doubt it will be half as hard as the kind of work you'll find."

"You gotta be kiddin'. How you know I won't steal from you and run off?"

"I can tell from the way you've acted and the things you've said. You strike me as a good honest young man I'd enjoy having around, and you seem interested in getting what education you can and improving yourself. I admire that. It's your decision."

He looks at me thoughtfully for a long moment. "You queer?"

"Yes, but I haven't had sex with anyone since my best friend moved away last year. I won't touch you in any way." I intend to keep this promise thought it's going to be hard for me to resist, having this nice looking peg-legged young man around the house.

From his expression I expect him to jump out of the car and leave me, but his sober expression at last breaks into a slight smile. "Guess I'll give it a try, but I ain't got none of my stuff."

"Is there anything important you need? If so, I'll take you home to get it."

"Can't see no need. My clothes ain't much. Ain't got nothin' else."

"Good. We'll stop in town and get you a few things until you decide if you want to stay. If not, then I'll bring you home."

It's dark when we reach the lane that goes to my house, but I continue on to the shopping plaza and stop at K-Mart. Half an hour later Tommy has three pair of new jeans and a nice pair of slacks, some knit shirts, and underwear. We pick up a few toiletries, a pair of deck shoes for him, and tips for our peg-legs, then head for home. I stop at a neighbor's house to pick up my collie he's been kind enough to take care of. I open the rear door and he jumps in, not trying to get in the front seat as he usually does. He pushes his muzzle between the seats and sniffs Tommy over. I'm delighted to see Tommy smile and stroke Mutt's head. "Nice dog."

"I'm glad he seems to like you. He isn't usually friendly with strangers."

My house is a typical old farmhouse, but I keep it in good repair and had it modernized before I moved in when I first started teaching. I do most of the needed repairs during the summer, when I'm not working. When I pull up next to the house and Tommy reaches for his peg-leg, Mutt begins to bark at him.

"What's the matter?" Tommy asks me.

"It's your peg-leg. When we get inside and he sees it in the light, he'll be okay. I got him from the animal shelter, and they told me the man who owned him before used to hit him with a piece of wood. He barks at me when I'm getting firewood. Once he knows you aren't going to hit him, he'll stop."

Tommy leans down to pet Mutt, but he cringes away.

"Here, Mutt!" I call. He runs to me and jumps up, licking my face. I play with him for a moment before we go in.

Tommy stops in the door of the living room when I switch on the lights. "Oh, man, this is nice."

It's comfortable and I like it, but it's a far cry from being beautiful. Nothing like the home of a fairly rich childhood friend of mine. "It's just home. Come on upstairs and I'll show you your room. I'll fix us something to eat while you get a shower."

I show him the bath after he's dropped his new clothes on his bed, then go down to the kitchen.

When Tommy comes down, I'd swear he's strutting a little on his new peg. With his new clothes and his hair combed back, he's a very attractive young man. It's hard to restrain myself from hugging him. "Feel better?"

His grin is wide. "Feel great, Mr. Ferris. It's wonderful to have a shower with hot water. Don't never get one, less it's at school."

"Sit. Dinners' ready." I serve his plate generously and place it before him, then fix my own. "Call me Hank."

He shakes his head. "Ain't no way."

"Why?"

"You're older'n me an' a teacher. Ain't proper."

"We're not in school, and I'm not that much older than you. I'm twenty-six."

He eats ravenously. When his plate is clean, he pushes it aside. "That was sure good."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it." I start to pick up our plates and carry them to the sink to wash, but he beats me to it.

"I can wash dishes. Won't take but a minute."

"Thanks." I leave him to get a pair of crutches I'd gotten right after my former lover and I moved here. He encouraged me to use them, saying he thought them sexy.

"What's them for?" Tommy asks when I lean them against the wall.

"For you. Soon as you've finished the dishes, I'm going to take our peg-legs down to the basement and put urethane on them to protect the wood. It will have to dry overnight, before I can give them a second coat."

I have a urethane stain left over from doing the floors of my house that I'm going to use on mine. I do it first so Tommy can see how it looks. "I like that," he says when I'm done.

"I wanted you to see it. You want yours left natural or like mine?"

"Like yours. Dark like that, people won't notice it so much, and it won't show dirt."

"Okay. One favor. When they're done, please use the one with the rubber tip on it in the house so it won't scratch the floors. Your other one is fine outside."

"I'll try to remember." He takes off the one he's wearing and hands it to me, propping on the crutches under his arms.

I stop him as we're about to go upstairs, and roll his jeans leg up just past his knee. The way the short nub below always points back from his bent knee fascinates me. I can't resist given it a little rub.

"Why'd you do that?"

"You look better with the jeans leg rolled up. Won't be flopping around in your way."

"But you can see my leg."

"It's nice to look at."

Tommy shakes his head. "Kind of funny knowing you like to look at it."

"I like looking at all of you. You're a good looking young man."

After breakfast the next morning, we give our peg-legs a light sanding and I give them a second coat of urethane. We change into clean clothes and I take Tommy to my barber for a proper haircut. He looks great when the barber has finished, but he gives me a hard time when I take him to my dentist to have his teeth checked. Despite the lack of attention, they are solid, needing only a cleaning. His smile is dazzling when the hygienist is done.

Back home, I make him stand in front of a full-length mirror to see himself. He's so good looking I'm not surprised to see him preen a little.

"Wish my brother could see me."

"You think a lot of him, don't you?"

"Sure do. He used to keep the old man from beatin' on me when he was drunk. He was gonna try to find someway so I could live with him, but they sent him some place in Germany. I sure miss him. We had fun together."

He looks so sad, I put my arm around his shoulders. "Don't give up. It may work out for you when he comes home."

"I hope."

We spend the evening with me catching up on the newspapers while he watches TV until time to go to bed.

The sound of the shower awakens me the next morning. Tommy passes me in the hall. I can't remember seeing a more appealing sight than he presents in the nude. He doesn't appear embarrassed by my looking at him.

"Sorry, if I woke you. I sure love that shower."

"It's okay. Didn't you have one at home?"

"Don't have no bathroom, ner runnin' water."

It never dawned on me that anyone lived in such primitive conditions this day and time. No wonder he seems to delight in playing with the faucets when he washes the dishes, or fills Mutt's water bowl. Mutt has followed him around like a puppy since I let Tommy feed him last night.

After breakfast, we go down to the basement for our peg-legs. Tommy puts the tip on his and takes a few steps, his face braking into a broad smile. "Oh, man, this feels so good. Looks pretty, too. Why don't you put yours on?"

I hadn't intended to try it while Tommy's here. I'm shy about my pretending and I don't want him to think I'm making fun of him. But as long as he's asked, I slip it on and try a few steps under his critical gaze.

He finally nods. "Would look good if your leg and foot weren't stickin' out back. How's it feel?"

"It's certainly different."

"Cause you ain't used to it. 'Spect I'd feel funny if I got my leg back sudden like. Now I can walk, what'cha want me to do today?"

"The grass needs cutting. Can you drive a riding mower?"

"Ain't never tried."

I take off my peg-leg. "Go put on your old jeans and working peg and let's go. I'll do the tight stuff, then show you how."

After I've mown along the edge of the shrubs in front of the house and finished the ditch bank, I stop for him to take over. It's not until he's on the machine and I point out the clutch/brake combination that I realize it's on the right side. I shake my head. "Don't think this is going to work."

He grins. "Yeah, it will." He swings his left foot over and shifts to a comfortable position on the seat, then puts the mower in gear and drives slowly across the grass. It takes him a couple of rounds to get used to it, then he speeds up. Seeing how well he's doing, I leave him at it and start pulling some weeds that have sprung up among the shrubs.

With pleasant fantasies about the boy filling my head as I work, I'm unaware of time until I hear the mower stop. Tommy comes up. "Got it all done. That was fun." He wipes the sweat from his face. "What's next?"

"A shower for both of us, then some dinner. It's getting hot again, so I'm not doing anything else today, except some wash. After you shower, bring your dirty clothes down and I'll put 'em in the machine with mine. And remember to change your peg-leg."

When we've dressed, we take our clothes down to the cellar and I show him how to use the machine and dryer. He seems to delight in learning all the things I've simply taken for granted. After we've eaten, he and Mutt go for a walk while I settle down to begin reading a book I've been trying to get to. When I hear him laughing, I glance out of the window to see him throwing a stick for Mutt to retrieve, a game Mutt never tires of. It's good to see the kid enjoying himself.

By the time a week has passed, Tommy has become sure of his surroundings and fits into my daily life as if he'd always been here. I feel myself growing attached to this nice boy, dreading the time he will leave for home and school. He doesn't ask for anything, but has stopped protesting when I buy him things I know he needs. His delight with the small personal cassette player I bought him is worth every penny.

I'm furious with Mutt when he comes bounding up to me one afternoon. I can tell from the smell he's found a manure pile somewhere and taken a roll in it. "Damn it, dog, where've you been now?"

I change into a pair of cut-offs and drag out an old washtub from the tool room in back of the garage. I get a pot of hot water from the kitchen, pour it in the tub, then fill it the rest of the way with the garden hose. Mutt loves to make a game of this. He starts barking and prancing around while I'm trying to wet him. He turns and runs past me. I'm trying to squirt him with the hose, when I hear a yell. Tommy's just come around the corner of the house and I've soaked him good. All he's wearing is a pair of old jeans he's cut off short. He looks at me in shock.

"What'cha do that for?"

When I can control my laughter, I say, "I'm sorry, Tommy, I was trying to wet Mutt. He needs a bath."

Tommy grins. "I'll help ya." He places two fingers in his mouth and lets out a piercing whistle. Mutt comes running up to him.

"Jesus, Mutt! You stink!" Tommy puts an arm around Mutt's neck and holds him. "Wet 'im down, Hank."

"But I'll wet you."

"Hell, you done, done that. Don't make no difference now."

Once Mutt's wet, it's no problem to get him in the tub. Tommy takes off his peg-leg and hands it to me so he can kneel beside the tub. I hand him the dog shampoo and brush, and he begins to scrub Mutt thoroughly. I'm usually swearing at Mutt by this time, but Tommy's having the time of his life, if his expression is any measure of his feelings.

I help him rinse Mutt down, then hand Tommy a couple of old towels to dry him with. When he's done, he asks, "You got one of them things to dry your hair with?"

"I haven't used it since I was in college and wore my hair long, but I think it's in the cabinet under the basin in the bathroom."

"I'm too wet. Will you get it?"

"If you're planning to use it on Mutt, forget it. He hates the noise."

"Bet I can do it."

I find it and an extension cord which I plug in and hand it to Tommy. I'm amazed when Mutt stands perfectly still while Tommy brushes his long fur, using the blower-drier carefully. When Tommy has finished, Mutt looks even better than he did the one time I took him to a professional groomer.

Tommy shakes a finger in Mutt's face. "You stay clean, dog. You hear me?" Mutt licks Tommy's face before bounding off.

"How the hell did you manage that?" I ask, as I help him up and steady him until he's gotten his peg-leg back on.

He grins. "Best job I ever had. Worked for a woman had a pet grooming place." His grin vanishes. "I like dogs, but it didn't last long."

"What happened?"

"She wanted me to work all day, but I had school. Might of worked that out, but one day I was washing a stupid little poodle and she jumped out the tub and ran out the gate I forgot to shut. Car got 'er." He grimaces. "Fastest I ever got kicked out of a job."

"I'm sorry. I know you didn't do it intentionally."

"Naa, but I don't have no use for them little dogs. Mutt's the kind I like."

"He likes you, too. I can never get him to take a bath as easily as you did."

I pick up one of the towels and wipe his peg-leg down. "See how easy it is with a urethane coating? That's why I put it on your pegs. Best you go dry off the rest of you."

"Yeah. Need a shower."

It's when I get a large envelope from the school that I realize time is drawing near. I can't put it off any longer, though my heart is about to break. "Tommy, I need to talk to you." I tell him after we've eaten dinner, and I've poured us both a cup of coffee.

"What's up?"

"I've loved having you here, but school starts in two weeks. I guess it's time for me to take you back home."

He looks astounded. "I gotta go back home?"

"You have to go to school, babe."

Tears start to roll down his cheeks. "Don't you like me no more?"

I get up and put my arm around him. "You mean a lot to me, Tommy, and I'd love to have you stay, but you have a home and a father."

"He don't even know I'm gone. Please let me stay with you, Hank. Ain't there no way I can go to school here?"

"I can't see how. You're under age, and I'm not a fit guardian for you."

He wipes his tears. "How come? I ain't never had it so good before, an' you been good to me."

"You know I'm gay, Tommy. If the school ever found out and knew you were living with me, I'd never find another teaching position. No way you can continue to live with me at your age."

"Ain't there no way? I don't wanna go home." I've never seen such a beseeching expression.

"I suppose there's one way. If your father gave me written permission to have you live here, we could get your school records transferred."

He gives me a tiny smile. "If you'll take me, I can get him to do it."

"Are you sure?"

"You write out what you need. All I gotta do is give him a bottle of booze. He'll sign anything."

I know I'm risking everything, but I've come to love this kid too much to let him go so easily. "Okay, Tommy. We'll have to go tomorrow, because I've got meetings coming up and we have to get your records."

He's crying when he jumps up and hugs me. "I love you, Hank. I wish you was my dad."

I wish I could say our trip was pleasant, but it wasn't. Tommy gets progressively more nervous the closer we get. His father isn't home when we get there. The small weathered house looks as if it might self-destruct at any moment. Broken window panes are stuffed with wadded up newspaper, there are broken boards in the floor, and I can see daylight through several holes in the roof. No electricity, nor running water, just as he told me. The odor is unbelievable. No wonder he thinks my place is a palace.

Tommy gets a few things from an old dresser in the corner of what I gather was his room and drops them in a paper bag, then roots around in a pile of papers on the table, dropping several unopened envelopes in the bag. He finally looks at me. "Stinks in here. Let's go sit in your car 'till the old man gets back."

I'm glad to be out in fresh air, even though it's hot. I start the motor to cool us off. "Let me talk to the old man," Tommy says, "'cause he ain't gonna talk to you."

"All right."

About forty-five minutes later, a motion in the rear view mirror attracts my attention. "That him?" I ask Tommy, pointing toward the grizzled figure in ragged overalls staggering up road.

"Yeah. Drunk as a skunk like usual." He opens the door and puts his peg on, then waits until his father is along side. "Hi, pa."

His father stops, almost falling. "Who you?"

I'm a little surprised he doesn't recognize his son. Though I doubt he's ever seen Tommy so well dressed, the peg-leg should have been enough.

"Tommy."

His father draws back his arm to hit him, but Tommy grabs his arm. "You ain't hittin' me no more."

"Sorr' lil shit. Done run off. Weren' worth nuffin wid one leg. Go 'way an' le' me be." He draws back a foot and tries to kick Tommy, but falls.

Tommy looks at him in disgust, not trying to help him up. "Be happy to, but you gotta sign a paper so's I can go to school."

"Ain' doin' nuffin."

Tommy gives me a crafty grin as he reaches in the car, then holds up a two liter bottle of the cheapest whisky I could buy. "Want this?"

He instantly has his father's complete attention. "Brung whiskey?" He asks unbelievingly. "Goo' boy." He reaches for it.

Tommy pulls it back, and takes the permission I'd typed, placing it on the hood of my car. "Put your name on the line and you can have it."

His father's eyes never leave the bottle as he staggers over. Tommy hands him a ball-point and puts his finger on the line I placed on the bottom of the form.

"Wha's it say?"

"That I can live with Hank and go to school where he teaches."

"Unnh." He takes the pen and scrawls his name.

Tommy smiles and hands him the bottle of whisky. As his father staggers off, wrestling with the cap on the bottle, Tommy takes off his peg and settles in his seat. "Let's get out of here."

"Are you sure you have everything you want?"

"Yeah. Let's go home."

Tommy has a big grin when I turn into the lane. Almost before I stop the car, he's got the door open and his peg on. Mutt prances back and forth barking until Tommy has his arms wrapped around Mutt's neck. He changes to the nice peg-leg inside the kitchen door, then hugs me. "Thanks for bringing me home, Hank."

I hug him back. "I'm happy you're here, babe."

Once I show the principal the permission form, getting Tommy's records transferred is a snap. His test scores are good, and he settles in happily. A few kids are curious about his peg-leg, but he answers them without hesitation and soon has a couple of friends in class. He makes me proud when he goes out of his way to make friends with an extremely shy new student whose left arm is off near the shoulder. He and Jerry soon spend every afternoon after school by walking to a small store near the campus for a Pepsi, then studying together until I can leave.

His first grade report so delights me I ask him what he would like. He wants a steak, something I can't cook fit to eat, so I take him to a steakhouse for dinner. When we walk in, I hear someone call, "Tommy." It's Jerry at a table with his parents. We go over, and I'm introduced to his parents who are lavish in their praise of Tommy's friendship with Jerry, and comment to me on how much Jerry tells them he enjoys my English class. They ask us to sit with them, since the table will seat six. Tommy sits next to Jerry, and immediately engages in banter, while his parents talk with me. When the waiter brings our dinners, Tommy unobtrusively pulls Jerry's plate over and cuts the steak for him, then pushes the plate back without a word. I see Jerry wink at him.

"You handled that well." I tell him when we're outside.

Tommy shrugs. "Nothin'. I do it for him most every day in the lunchroom. None of the other kids will help him."

I'd like to hug him for it, but I sense he thinks it nothing more than normal.

A few weeks later, the school has a half-day on Friday. Basketball is a big thing in our small school, so after lunch there will be a pep rally, then the team and many of the students and parents will take off for the game in a town about forty miles away. I'm not interested in going and neither is Tommy, so I put a stack of test papers in my briefcase and we go home. It's a glorious Indian summer day. Tommy and Mutt set off on one of their rambles, leaving me to grade the tests.

I've graded a set of papers, and go for a cup of coffee before starting the next set. I happen to glance out of the window to see a brawny man in an army uniform walking up my lane. He has an olive-drab duffle bag thrown across his shoulder. I go to the door and wait while he climbs the steps.

He drops his bag to the porch and asks brusquely, "My brother here?"

I expect a bit more courtesy than this from a stranger. "That depends on who your brother is."

"Tommy Smithson."

I recall seeing one or two letters Tommy's mailed to an APO. This guy appears to be about my age, and I can see a slight family resemblance now. "He's not here at the moment."

"When's he gonna be back?"

"Whenever he wants, but he'll be back in time for dinner. You may come in and wait, if you like."

He frowns. "You gotta be Hank. Tommy told me you brung him home with ya."

"He's a fine young man."

He starts to open the screen door, but turns at the sound of Mutt's barking. Tommy and Mutt are coming up the lane. Tommy sees him and breaks into his awkward run. "Jake!" He yells, bounding up the steps and into his brother's outstretched arms. "Oh, Jake, it's good to see you. What you doing here? You gonna stay this time?"

Jake's hugging Tommy and ruffling his hair. "Shut up, Mutt." I say to still his excited yelps.

Jake finally pulls away and puts his hands on Tommy's shoulders, with a broad smile that transforms his craggy face. "I just come to see how you was gettin' on. I got fifteen days, then I gotta go back to Germany." He pulls Tommy to the swing on one end of the porch and sits beside him, an arm draped around Tommy's shoulders.

I can see the adoration in Tommy's eyes as he runs a finger along the three stripes on his brother's sleeve. "You done made sergeant!"

"Sure did. How come you left home?"

"You go there, yet?"

"Naa. Come to see how you was doin' first." He points to me. "He treatin' you good?"

Tommy squeezes his brother's hand. "You wouldn't believe. Hank's one of my teachers, an' I'm making good grades in school. I got friends," he reaches down to pet Mutt, "an' a dog, an' everything." He pats his peg-leg. "Look at this. Ain't it pretty? He got me two of 'em. I love Hank."

Jake's face flushes. "You puttin' out fer 'it?"

Tommy grabs his arm. "It ain't like that. Hank ain't never touched me that way."

Jake impales me with his look. "What you getting' out of it, then?"

"The satisfaction of seeing a fine young man have a chance at life."

Jake shakes his head. "Gotta be more 'an that. You queer, ain't you?"

Dear God, what has Tommy told him? I try to collect my thoughts. "Yes, but Tommy's too young. It was lonely before he came, and he's very helpful in a lot of ways. I enjoy having him here."

"That right, Tommy?"

"Hank's the kind of daddy I wish we'd had. He's good to me, Jake. I been hopin', but he won't."

"You ain't changed your feelin's?"

"Naa. We gonna do it tonight?"

Jake smiles and tousles Tommy's hair. "Iffen you want."

Tommy hugs him again. "I do, Jake. I've missed you."

It suddenly dawns on me. No wonder Tommy's been letting me see him nude and trying to flirt with me. He's gay. It becomes obvious to me now, that before Jake left home Tommy sought what comfort he could find with him. The poor love-starved kid.

Tommy looks up at me. "Can Jake stay here, Hank? He can sleep with me."

How can I deny him? "Of course. Put his things in your room, and I'll start dinner."

Before I can move, Jake gets up and comes over to me with his hand outstretched. "I gotta thank you for bein' a better man than I thought you was. I thought Tommy was tellin' me things to keep me from worryin' 'bout 'im, but he won't never tell me no lie to my face." He gives me a searching look. "You don't want 'im cause of his leg?"

"That has nothing to do with it. He's a very appealing young man, but I would never touch anyone under age. Do you know what the consequences would be?"

Jake grins. "Yeah. Couple o' queers in my unit got busted. They in a brig 'til they get thrown out with dishonorables." His grin vanishes. "I know Tommy's queer, an' he's took a likin' to you. All I want's for 'im to be happy. We sure didn't have no kind o' life at home."

"I want him to be happy, too, Jake, but I won't touch him while he's under age."

Jake grins. "He'll be eighteen next month."

"I'm sixteen, Jake." Tommy says.

"Bull shit. Little as you is, you might fool everybody else, but I know you was a year late goin' to school cause the old man wouldn't get you no crutches, and then you done got put back cause you missed so much the year mom run off."

"Don't tell nobody else, Jake."

"I won't. Told Hank to ease his mind, cause he's good to you. Show me where to stow my gear."

They go to bed early. I suppose it's because they know I'm gay, but they are not quiet together. I hear their moans of pleasure for quite a while.

I don't get a chance to say much to Jake during the weekend, for they stick close together and are lost in conversation in a private language of their own for the rest of the weekend. I do overhear Jake telling Tommy about Germany. Only in the late afternoon when they have a beer with me does Jake converse with me in a rational way. Sunday afternoon, he mentions the deteriorating condition of the roof on my house. I tell him that I've bought new composition shingles, but haven't yet gotten around to calling a contractor to put them on. He shrugs and tells me not to wait too long, because they won't bond properly if the temperature drops.

At breakfast Monday morning, he asks if I mind if he stays here and reads or something while Tommy and I are at school. I'm a little uneasy at leaving a stranger in my house, but a look at Tommy settles it. "Make yourself at home. There should be enough in the fridge for you to fix some lunch."

Since I have a teacher's meeting after school, Tommy rides the school bus home. It's after five when I drive down my lane. I almost hit a tree before I can stop, because my attention is riveted on my roof. The shingles on the front of the house have been stripped away and dropped to the ground. Jake and Tommy are busily nailing down heavy roofing paper over which the new shingles will go. I go inside and change, then begin gathering up the old shingles and paper. It's dusk when I go in to start dinner. I hear Jake and Tommy come in, then the shower running. They come down to the kitchen just as I'm about to call them.

"My god, Jake! Why are you and Tommy doing this? I was going to get a contractor."

Jake smiles. "Got the time an' I know how to do it right. You been good to Tommy, an' I want him under a good roof come winter. You, too. If you ken get a truck from somewheres, I'll haul them old shingles off."

"I'll try to rent one tomorrow. But you don't have to do this, you're supposed to be on leave."

"Don' do a damn thing on base but stand duty. I'm a MP. Good to do some honest work; I was gettin' soft."

"No way you're soft with the build you've got." Without his shirt, he looks as if he works out every day.

"Ain't gonna get soft if I ken help it. 'Sides, won't hurt the kid here none to do a little work." He grins at Tommy. "This easy livin's getting' to 'im."

Tommy punches him on the arm. Jake looks at me and winks. "You see a fly land on my arm?"

Tommy punches him with a blow that would have knocked me out. "Fly, my ass."

Jake pulls him up in a tight hug. "That's more like it, but still kinda puny." He feels Tommy's arm, and frowns. "I thought there used to be a little muscle here, but guess it done gone south." He swats Tommy on the behind. "Yep, sure did. I think I just felt it."

Tommy swats him back, then grins. "An' I jus' found where your brains went, Sergeant. Surprised they still work with you sittin' on 'em all day."

It's good to watch their horseplay, knowing his brother has been the only pleasure Tommy's had in life. "Okay, guys. Eat."

By the time Tommy and I get home from school on Friday, Jake has finished the new roof. To me it looks perfect. All that remains is for me to drive Jake into town to pick up the truck I was finally able to rent. With the three of us working, the yard is clean and the old shingles and trash hauled to a dump a couple of miles from my house by the time darkness becomes complete.

Early Saturday morning we return the truck to the rental agency, then Jake and Tommy take off to see their father. Jake said he'd take the truck, but I don't want to pay for the mileage they'll put on it. I've watched the care with which he drove the truck, so I tell him to take my car. Without Tommy around, I'm quickly aware of how much he has come to mean to me. Even Mutt spends most of the day curled up at my feet.

They are back much earlier than I expected. Jake has a sober look on his face, when he hands me the keys. "Anything wrong?" I ask.

"Naa. Drunk as usual. Didn't even know me. We bought him a lot of canned stuff so's he'll have somethin' to eat. He'd of bought liquor if I'd give him any money." He looks at me earnestly. "Sure am glad you brung Tommy here. I didn't know it had got so bad. Now I can go back without no worries 'bout 'im."

"I'm glad you feel that way, Jake. You're welcome here any time."

"I wouldn't of come this time, 'cept I was worried 'bout Tommy."

The week passes almost before I know it. I let Tommy and Jake do as they will. From what Jake told me when Tommy wasn't close enough to hear, it will be a year or more before he returns. I'm saddened for Tommy's sake. He adores Jake. Saturday morning, Jake comes to the table in uniform. Tommy trails in behind him with a sad expression.

After we've eaten, Jake says, "If you'll drive me to the bus station, I can get to Pope air base. They got a flight goin' to Germany tonight I can git a ride on."

"Go put some good clothes on, Tommy. We'll take you, Jake. It's only about four hours, and you'll never get there in time on a bus. There are only two a day through here now."

"I'll hitch it. Some folks'll still give a man in uniform a ride."

"Nonsense. I want Tommy to have as much time with you as possible."

They sit in the back seat, Jake's arm around Tommy the entire way. I'm surprised when the guard lets me drive on base, after looking at Jake's papers. Jake arranges his place on the flight which leaves that evening, then we drive into Fayetteville for lunch. As soon as we've eaten, Jake asks me to drive him back to the base. When he gets out of the car, I hand him a cheque for his work on my roof. It's more than I can comfortably afford at the moment, which is why I hadn't called a contractor, but he deserves it and more. He looks at the cheque and hands it back to me.

"I know you mean well, but use it to open a bank account for Tommy, and let me know so's I can change my allotment over to him. Old man ain't gonna do nothin' but drink the money up, and Tommy needs educatin' if he's gonna make somethin' of hisself, like I want. He ain't got much chance elsewise with one leg."

"Are you sure?"

"I got enuff for what I want. Take care of 'im for me." He says gruffly.

"You know I'll do that, Jake. Don't wait too long to come back to see us."

He doesn't answer, but pulls Tommy to him in a tight hug. "You behave an' study hard, an' don't give Hank no grief. You hear me, boy?"

I see Tommy nod.

"Okay, then. Y'all go on home now. Write me once't in a while, you hear?"

"Yeah, Jake. I love you, man."

"I love you, too, little brother. Go on, now." Jake walks briskly away to hide the tears I saw forming in his eyes.

Tommy turns to me wiping his eyes. I put my arm around him. "Let's go home, son."

By time for us to go to bed, he's clearly tired, but his smile never wavers. I've just gotten in bed when he comes into my room and slips under the sheet beside me.

"You care if I sleep with you? I miss Jake."

I put my arm around him and pull him closer. "If this is what you want."

"Yeah." He snuggles closer to me. "I'm glad you brung me here, Hank."

I grasp his hand. "I'm glad, too. You're a beautiful guy, Tommy."

"Rub my leg again. It felt good when you did it before."

I toss the sheet back and he turns so that his stump is easy for me to reach. I rub it gently, while he purrs with pleasure. When he pulls it away and stretches out beside me again, I pull the sheet up. He so surprises me with a hug, that I find myself stroking his back before I realize it.

"That feels so good. I like the way you touch me." He whispers.

I jerk my hand away. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that."

"Don't be." He leans over and kisses me on the lips. "I love you, Hank. I always got more lovin' from Jake than I ever got from a girl, and I like it a whole lot better. Love me, Hank."

Inhibitions vanish and he's instantly in my arms. This is a night my dreams all come true.

The End

Posted: 06/25/10