It was the sound of his phone that invaded Richie's sleep the following morning. Even though he had the ringer volume at its lowest setting, the incessant electronic warble pierced into his sleep like a sharp knife. When he was awake enough to identify the sound, he scrambled to untangle himself from his covers and answer it before the machine could. Midway through the fourth ring he finally located the talk button, pushing it just in time.
"Hello," he mumbled, still no where near fully awake.
"Hey, Guppy," said Kyle. "What took you so long to answer? Were you outside or somethin?"
"Um, no, man. I was still asleep. What time is it, anyway?" asked Richie as he tried to shake off what remained of a restless sleep.
"It's almost eleven, dude. What the hell are you still in bed for?"
"No shit?" he asked as he tried to focus in on his alarm clock. "Oh, man, I can't believe it's so late. What up?"
"I just wanted to call you and tell you the good news. I had a talk with my dad last night and he liked the idea for a street sign."
"Street sign?" asked Richie as he continued his struggle to wake up. "What street sign?"
"The one for Jake's Road, bro. Remember?"
"Oh yeah, course I remember," said Richie as the last pieces of consciousness fell into place. "Cool. So when ya gonna put it up?"
"Not sure yet. Course, we gotta get the sign made first, but once that's done I think my dad wants to go up with me to put it in."
"No shit?!" said Richie, fully awake now. "That's great, bro. Sounds to me like he wants to spend some quality time with his son."
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it? We had a pretty good talk last night, too... a couple of hours worth, at least."
"Cool! How long has it been since you did that? What did ya talk about?"
"Oh, man, it's been years since we did anything like that. Mostly I just filled him in on what we did at the cabin last week. Thing is, he was interested and actually listened, so that's gotta be good. Hell, just getting him to sit down with me was like really huge."
"Oh, man, that is so cool. I'm happy for ya, bro."
"Thanks, Rich. So, what have you got planned for the day?"
"Well, if I'd gotten my ass up when I wanted to, I'd probably be almost done cutting the grass by now. Plus I'm sure my mom has a list of things for me to do just waiting for me on the kitchen table. My original plan was to have everything done by noon so I could go over to TJ's, but now that plan don't look so good. What about you?"
"I'm gonna see if I can't get a sign made somewhere."
"Why don't ya check with the city and see where they get 'em from?"
"That's what my dad said, but I think I'll check out this kid I know on the hockey team, first. He's into metal work and he's always lookin to make some extra money. Know who I'm talkin about? His name's Tom Owens. I think you met him at my party last winter."
"The name doesn't ring a bell," said Richie as he tried to recall one out of the many kids he'd met that night.
"He's got a brother - I think his name is Terry - who's your age. Lindy knows him. He's in one of his classes."
"Oh yeah, I remember his brother, but I don't remember him."
"Well, Tom does a lot of custom car-body work in his dad's garage. Makes some good money doin it, too. Anyway, I thought I'd at least check with him, first. He'd be able to give it that custom look, ya know?"
"Cool," said Richie. "I can't wait to see it. Right now I better get my ass up and get to work. Why don't you call me later tonight?"
"I'll do that. Oh, and have fun over at TJ's."
"I will... if I ever get there, that is," said Richie, smiling at the thought. "See ya."
"See ya," said Kyle before the line went dead.
After returning the phone to its cradle, Richie laid back on his bed and gazed thoughtfully out the window. As much as he tried, he couldn't put a face to the name of Tom Owens. He had no trouble recalling his brother, Terry, since he was the first person he'd met that night, but he kept coming up blank when he tried to remember Tom. Finally giving up, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
Yawning, he stretched his arms and legs in an effort to wake up the rest of his body while hoping that his less than restful sleep wouldn't affect him during the rest of the day. He knew what it was that kept him tossing and turning for most of the night, and he was pretty sure he'd face more of the same until he finally came out to his family. Glancing at the clock, he did his best to focus on his immediate tasks and brightened a bit when he thought about going over to TJ's.
Stumbling halfheartedly into the bathroom, he relieved himself, washed his face and brushed his teeth. Feeling much better now that he was totally awake, he pulled on a clean T-shirt and a fresh pair of cargo shorts before heading downstairs to face the day.
When he entered the kitchen he was surprised when he didn't see a lengthy list of chores waiting for him on the table. So surprised, in fact, that he checked the front of the fridge, the kitchen counter, and even the floor under the table. Finding nothing from his mother anywhere, he smiled when he thought that even though he was getting a late start he could easily get the grass cut in time to go over to TJ's. After pouring himself a large glass of OJ, he pulled the wrapping from a breakfast bar he found in the cupboard. This 'quickie' breakfast was not the norm for him, but due to his lateness at starting the day, he didn't want to waste any more time.
When he was finished, he stepped into his sneakers, pulled an old Vikings ball cap over his head, then made his way to the garage. Even though he didn't need any confirmation that it was hot, he glanced at the large-faced outdoor thermometer mounted next to the kitchen window as he passed. With his father's warning about the heat of the day surfacing from his memory, he saw the large red pointer hovering over the ninety-two degree mark. As hot as it was at the lake last week, it was refreshing compared to what he felt now. With the high humidity and very little wind to cool him, he was already beginning to sweat by the time he had the garage door open.
Pulling the John Deere lawnmower that was surely older than he was to the front of the garage, Richie topped off the gas tank. As old as it was, the lawnmower was well taken care of and mechanically maintained by his dad or his brother, and never failed to perform. These thoughts found their way to the front of Richie's mind when it took two pulls to start it instead of the usual one.
As he began to push the mower, robotically crisscrossing the back yard in his customary pattern, he once again mulled over some possible scenarios for his coming-out announcement. About fifteen minutes into his task, he sensed that the mower wasn't running as smoothly it should. He became even more concerned when he was about three-quarters finished and he had to go over some spots more than once - something he'd never had to do before. Two passes later, and right in the middle of the longest growth, he was startled by the sound of the blade hitting something much more solid than the grass it was designed to cut. So solid, in fact, that it instantly killed the motor. Catching a glimpse of the object as it was propelled from under the mower's deck toward the back of the house, Richie was sure it was an egg-shaped rock - a red and white speckled one that looked exactly like the magic skipper.
'What the hell?' he asked himself as he stared in the direction that the projectile had gone. 'No fucking way!' he thought as he moved to search for the mysterious object. He knew it couldn't possibly be the magic skipper because it was up in his room, sitting safely next to the tickets on his night-stand where he'd left it the previous night. None the less, if the rock that Lindy had given him had a twin, or even a close facsimile, he definitely wanted to find it. After a few minutes of kicking around in the tall grass without success, he decided to continue with his grass cutting while keeping his eyes peeled for the rock. If he didn't see it during that time, he'd surely be able to find it easily enough once the grass was cut.
Returning to the John Deere, he wiped the sweat from his forehead onto the front of his T-shirt, then gave the starter rope a hefty pull. When it didn't start, or even turn over, he repeated the process three or four more times with just as much success. At that point, hot and miserable with other troubling thoughts on his mind, he literally screamed out his frustration as he kicked the front wheel.
"Son of a fucking bitch!"
"Easy, son," came a familiar voice from the direction of Lindy's house. "The only thing I know of that starts by kicking it is a motorcycle." The voice belonged to Lindy's dad.
Looking up with surprise to see him in the middle of the day, Richie watched as he made his way across the neighbor's yard. "Mr. L.! I, um, didn't see you there. Sorry about the language, but this thing just crapped out on me."
"So I see. What seems to be the problem?"
"I don't know. I ran into a rock a minute ago, and that's what killed it, but now it won't start."
"Well, then, let's take a look."
Kneeling down next to the mower, Frank Lindstrom lifted one side to check out the condition of the blade. "Well, whatever it is that you hit, it didn't do any damage." After setting it back on the ground, he added, "Let's see if we can't figure out what's keeping it from starting."
After removing the cover from the air filter to reveal it was clogged with grass clippings, he looked up at Richie with a knowing smile on his face. "There's your problem, Richie. Course, you don't need me to point that out. Frankly, I'm surprised that you didn't check this before resorting to foot therapy."
"Yeah, you're right, I should have. I guess I got a lot on my mind right now and kind of lost it. Thanks, Mr. L. Maybe I can rinse it off enough to finish the grass."
"Yeah, you could try that, but I'd like to suggest a better idea - like replacing it with a new one. Look, I was just about to head over to Home Depot to pick up some plumbing supplies to fix a leak at the shop - only reason I stopped at home first was to pick up my checkbook. Why don't you ride along with me and get yourself a new filter? Matter of fact, you might as well pick up a new spark plug while we're there, just to make sure you won't have any more problems. What d'ya say?"
"That would be great, Mr. L., cept the only money I have is the fifty dollar bill you guys gave me last night."
"Nah, you hang onto that. I'll pay for the stuff, then hit your old man up for it later. It'll be fun to give him a hard time for not maintaining his mower like he should."
"Thanks, Mr. L., I'd really appreciate it."
"No problem, son. Let me grab my checkbook and I'll meet you at the car."
While Lindy's dad went into his house for his checkbook, Richie waited patiently for him by the car. With droplets of sweat running down his chest and into the waistband of his boxers, he squinted up at the cloudless sky wishing he were back enjoying the relative coolness of Gull Lake. When Lindy's dad joined him a few minutes later, he was visibly relieved to feel the cold blast of air that came from the car's air-conditioning.
As soon as they pulled out of the driveway, Frank turned and asked, "You hungry, Richie?"
Richie wasn't consciously aware of it until the question was asked, but the breakfast bar he'd eaten earlier was only a memory now, and he was starved.
"Yeah, a little, I guess."
"What d'ya say we hit McDonald's for some lunch before we go to Home Depot? My treat."
"Sure, Mr. L. That'd be great."
During the few minutes it took them to drive to McDonald's, Richie was uncharacteristically quiet, a condition that wasn't lost on his best friend's dad.
"What's on your mind, Richie? You seem awful quiet."
"Aw, it's nothin, Mr. L. I didn't sleep too good last night, that's all."
"You feel alright? You're not coming down with something, are you?" asked Frank with fatherly concern.
"Nah," said Richie. "I'm fine."
Driving the rest of the way in silence, Frank Lindstrom began to wonder if whatever Richie had on his mind might be of a serious nature. He'd known Richie and his family for more than ten years, most of Richie's life, and he'd become to think of Richie as his own son. So, like any caring parent, he became concerned whenever something about him didn't seem quite right. He was still pondering this when they entered the restaurant.
As was the norm for the lunch hour, McDonald's was packed and the lines were six customers deep at every register. Waiting in silence for their turn to order, Frank worried about Richie while Richie continued to wrestle with thoughts about his coming-out. Both of their thoughts were interrupted when they heard a voice boom out from behind them.
Since there were only two people who ever called him by that name, Richie knew who it was even before he turned his head in that direction.
"Hey, Kyle! What up?" he asked as he watched Kyle stuff a handful of empty cups and burger wrappers into the trash can next to one of the doors.
When Kyle began to weave his way through the crowd to join him, Richie noticed two things. The first being that he was not alone. Following close behind was another boy that Richie recognized from Kyle's party, and finally remembered to be Tom Owens. The second thing was that both boys' clothes were covered with grease stains and splotches of unidentifiable black dust.
When they were close enough, Richie asked, "Dude, what you guys been doin, working as chimney sweeps or somethin?"
"Nah," said Kyle as he looked down at his dirty T-shirt. "I've been helping Tom with one of his projects." Then, stepping aside to let Tom in closer, he added, "You remember Tom Owens, don't ya?"
"Sure. Hey, Tom," said Richie with a smile as he reached out to bump knuckles with Kyle's companion. In order to make the introductions complete, Richie said, "Kyle, you've met Lindy's dad before, right?"
"You bet," said Kyle as he gave Frank Lindstrom a firm handshake. "Nice to see you again, sir."
Once the introductions were out of the way, Richie continued with idle conversation as they moved closer to the front of the line. "So what kind of project are you guys workin on? You look like Jake's Road after a hard rain."
"I've been helping him with some final prep work on a car he's getting ready to paint."
While Kyle went on to explain in more detail what he and his teammate were involved in, Tom, understandably feeling like a fifth wheel, patiently hung back from the others while he scoped out the rest of the crowd. As much as Richie tried to stay focused on what Kyle was saying, he found himself glancing over to look at Tom. As a member of Kyle's hockey team, he had a build similar to Kyle's, though he lacked his teen model appearance. Surprising himself, he felt a twinge of jealousy when he wondered what else Kyle and Tom were involved in. Shaking off these feelings, he quickly returned his full attention to what his friend was saying.
"Anyway," said Kyle, finishing up, "as soon as we finish with the fine sanding, we're gonna round up some material for the Jake's Road sign. So, what're you guys up to?"
"Aw, the mower crapped out on me this morning," said Richie as they moved closer to the counter. "So we're on our way to Home Depot for a new air filter."
"Cool," said Kyle as he glanced around to find his companion. "Well, we better get goin. I'll call ya later, Rich. Nice to meet you again, Mr. Lindstrom."
"Nice to see you, too, Kyle," said Lindy's dad.
Richie watched intently as Kyle and Tom left the restaurant, and continued to watch them until they disappeared into the parking lot. Turning back to the business at hand, he was slightly embarrassed to find that he was holding up the line as the kid behind the counter waited patiently to take his order.
Quickly finding a small, recently vacated table at the back of the restaurant, Frank and Richie sat down to eat their lunch. Their meal-time conversation, however, was practically nonexistent. With all that was on Richie's mind, he only spoke when Frank asked him a question, and even then his answers were limited to the bare essentials. The more he observed Richie's mood, the more concerned Frank became. When Richie continued his troubling silence after leaving the restaurant, he felt he could no longer keep silent.
"How long have we known each other?"
As occupied as Richie was with his thoughts, this strange question got his full attention. "Um, I don't know. Like forever, I guess. Like ten or eleven years, at least. Why?"
"You're right. I've known you and your family since you were barely out of diapers... and during that time, I've come to think of you as a third son. What I'm trying to say, Richie, is that I know you well enough to know when something's bothering you... and from what I've seen today, you have something pretty big on your mind.
"Now I'm not trying to pry or anything, cause it's really none of my business, but I just want you to know that if there's anything I can do to help I'd be more than happy to give it a shot."
"Thanks, Mr. L. I appreciate the offer, but it's no big deal, really. I'll figure it out."
"Suite yourself. Just remember that if you change your mind, I'm not very far away. Sometimes when a boy your age has problems it helps to get the opinion of an adult... and depending on what it is, it's sometimes easier to talk to someone older who's not a member of your family. OK?"
"Sure. Thanks. I'll remember that."
"Good boy," said Mr. Lindstrom as he gave Richie's knee a reassuring squeeze.
As they pulled into the massive parking lot in front of the Home Depot, Richie thought about Frank's proposal. On the surface he made a lot of sense - getting advice from an adult could be helpful. The only problem he had with talking to Lindy's dad, however, was that it wouldn't be much different from talking to his own. Although that wouldn't matter for just about any other problem, he felt that in this case he just wouldn't feel comfortable enough. During their walk from the car to the store's entrance, he didn't discount Frank's offer completely, but like most decisions he faced, he needed some time to think it over.
"OK," said Frank after they entered the welcomed coolness of the huge building-supplies store. "Why don't you go look for a filter and spark plug in the lawn and garden section while I go to plumbing supplies... then I'll meet you at the checkout."
"Sounds like a plan, Mr. L."
With that, they parted ways. Casually strolling down the lawn and garden aisle, Richie soon found himself in front of a section that was well stocked with lawnmower maintenance supplies. Just as he was beginning to wonder if he'd ever be able to find the particular parts he needed, a familiar voice caught his attention.
When he turned, he saw Kevin approaching. Noticing the bright orange Home Depot work-shirt that he was wearing, Richie smiled and said, "Hey, Pumpkin Dude, cool shirt. What up?"
"Aw nothin. Just doin what they pay me for... keeping our customers happy and satisfied. What can I do for you today, sir."
"Well, for starters you can help me find a spark plug and an air filter for my dad's John Deere lawn mower. How the hell's a guy supposed to know which of these is the right one?"
"Well, it would help if ya had the model number, but I'm guessing that's too much to hope for."
"Yeah, shit. Sorry. Lindy's dad drove me over here and I forgot to get it before we left. Kinda like how the rest of my day's been goin," said Richie with frustration.
"Hey, cheer up, bro. Most of the people who come in here don't have a clue to what they're lookin for. That's why I'm here, dude... to make your shopping experience at Home Depot a pleasurable one," said Kevin, sounding much like a commercial.
"Then pleasure me, hockey player," said Richie, his spirits lifting. "All I know for sure is it's green and yellow and older than I am."
"What size is the motor?" When Richie looked at him with that 'I have no clue' expression, Kevin tried again. "OK, is it self-propelled or the push type?"
"Cool." Reaching toward the top of the peg-board display filled with hundreds of shrink-wrapped packages, Kevin pulled down one that contained both a spark plug and an air filter. "Here, this oughta get ya goin again. I'm pretty sure it's the right one, but you can check the model number against the ones on the back when ya get home. If I'm wrong, which I doubt, just bring it back and exchange it."
Looking at the parts through the clear plastic wrap, Richie said, "Whoa, dude, how the hell did you do that? The air filter looks exactly like the old one."
"Hey, what can I say, Rich. We at Home Depot know our shit."
"I guess so," said an impressed Richie. "Well this satisfied customer better get goin. Lindy's dad is after some plumbing stuff and I gotta meet him up front. Thanks, man."
"No prob, Rich. See ya."
When both boys turned to move off in opposite directions, a thought popped into Richie's mind. Turning back to Kevin, he asked, "Say, Kevin?"
"You know who Tom Owens is, right?"
"Sure. Me and Jake play hockey with him. Even had him in a couple of my classes last year. Why?"
"Um, it's nothin really, but do you know if he's gay?"
"Tom?! I don't think so. I mean, I've like seen him dating several different chicks before, but I guess that don't mean anything. Why? I didn't even know you knew him."
"I don't... well, not really," said Richie as he looked down at the floor. "I mean, I met him at Kyle's party last winter, but I don't really know him. I was just curious cause I saw him with Kyle at Mickey D's today."
"Ah, me thinks me sees the green jealousy monster sitting on the Guppy's shoulder. Huh? Am I right?" asked Kevin as he cocked his head, trying to establish eye contact.
"No!" said Richie, snapping his head up to look Kevin in the eyes, his action and the sharpness of his reply betraying his true feelings. Realizing this when he saw the grin on Kevin's face, he looked sheepishly at the floor again. "Yeah, you're right," he said in a quiet voice. Looking up again, he went on. "That's like pretty fucked up, ain't it, Kevin. Like I have any right to be jealous."
"Oh yeah, that's really fucked up, dude." When Kevin saw how truly troubled Richie looked, he went on. "Look, Rich, you're gonna have to sort this out in your head, man, and the sooner you do it, the better. You want my advice? Get over it!"
"You're right," said Richie after a thoughtful pause. "I'm not sure..."
Richie's final thought was cut off in mid-sentence when Frank Lindstrom approached them from the front of the store.
"Ah, there you are. Did you find what you needed?"
"Mr. L.! Um, yeah, I think so. Thanks to the experience and expertise of this friendly and courteous Home Depot employee, here. You two know each other, don't you?"
"Yeah, sure. We've met a couple of times," said Kevin as he shook Frank's hand, blushing slightly from Richie's praise. "How are you, Mr. Lindstrom?"
"I'm well, Kevin, thanks. So, how do you think you guys'll do in the state tournament this year?"
"Oh, it's a lock, sir. We only lost two seniors to graduation last spring, so you can pretty much look for us to be playing in the finals at the X this year."
"That's terrific. I'll plan on it." Then, turning his attention to Richie, he said, "Well, kiddo, if you have what you need then we better get going. I still have a lot of work to do at the shop today."
"Yes sir, I'm all set."
After saying a quick goodbye to Kevin, they breezed through the checkout line and headed home. When they pulled up in front of Richie's driveway, Mr. Lindstrom turned to his passenger.
"I don't think you'll have any more trouble once you change out those parts, Richie. Just tell your dad that I'll hit him up for the money, later."
When Richie didn't answer him, but continued to stare out the passenger window, he spoke again. "Richie?"
Before he could say anything else, Richie turned to him with a single, two word sentence. "I'm gay!"
Surprising himself by the way he'd blurted it out, that he'd even said anything at all, Richie quickly looked at the floor between his feet. Not only did he surprise himself by saying it, but the tone of his voice when he did had him feeling embarrassed. It wasn't as if he'd yelled out the news, but he had spoken with much more force than he would have liked. Now, as he stared at the floor waiting for his best friend's dad to respond, his mind was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, despite his unintended bravado, he was relieved that he'd finally gotten it off his chest - that he'd finally told someone else, and that this time it was an adult for whom he held a great deal of respect and trust. On the other hand, he was terrified of the reaction he might get. Staring at the floor for what seemed to be a very long time, he couldn't bring himself to look his best friend's dad in the eye. The silence was almost unbearable.
"So, that's what's been bothering you so much lately?" asked Frank in a voice that was soft, yet neither patronizing nor critical. "That you're sexually attracted to other boys?"
Richie had no idea what to expect in the way of a response, but surprising him again, what he heard was both a relief and an encouragement. Through his announcement and Frank Lindstrom's thoughtfulness and understanding, they had opened a dialogue between them - a huge hurdle in itself. Looking up to meet Frank's eyes, he now felt as comfortable as he would if they were talking about sports or some other equally mundane subject.
"No, sir, not at all. I've known about my feelings for six or seven months, now. At first it was hard, but I've done a lot of research on it so I know what I am, now, and I've accepted it."
"Good for you, son. In doing that, you've already cleared the biggest hurdle you'll ever come across. Usually, the hardest thing for gays in dealing with their feelings isn't what others will think of them, but what they think of themselves. Since you've already accomplished that, the rest is all downhill."
"Oh, man, I wish I could agree with you Mr. L. The thing is, I haven't told my parents yet. Actually, I haven't told hardly anybody. Other than you and Lindy..."
After saying this, Richie's words froze in his throat. He suddenly worried that telling Lindy's dad that he'd already told his best friend was, somehow, a bad move. He wasn't sure why, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd prematurely spilled the beans, so to speak. His fears were quickly put to rest when Frank smiled at him while giving his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"That's OK, Richie. Kenny's your best friend, so I'm not at all surprised that you told him. That's what best friends are for - to help us through troubling times." When Richie didn't answer immediately, Frank went on. "Look, it's hot and I don't see any point in burning up gas to stay cool, so why don't you come inside with me so we can talk some more."
"I really appreciate the offer Mr. L., but you have work to do at the shop and I don't wanna take up your time."
"Oh, forget about the shop, Richie. There's nothing going on there that can't wait. This is important for you and I want to help if I can. So what d'ya say? I think there's a cold Pepsi in the fridge at my house."
"Well, since you put it that way, sure... I'd like that," said Richie, feeling completely at ease. "A Pepsi sounds good, and I could sure use some advice right about now."
"Good boy," said Frank as began to ease his car two houses down the street and into his driveway.
Once they were inside, Mr. Lindstrom pulled a can of Pepsi from the fridge for Richie and some iced-tea for himself while Richie sat down at the kitchen table. Joining him, Frank reopened their discussion.
"So, Richie..." At that point, his words trailed off as if he'd lost track of his thoughts. A moment later he spoke again. "Does anybody but us and your parents ever call you Richie anymore?"
"No, sir," said Richie with a smile. "But that's OK, I don't mind."
"Course you don't. But even if you did, you wouldn't say so, would you? Tell the truth, I think you outgrew Richie a long time ago, so how bout I call you Rich from now on."
"That's fine, sir, either way is good."
"OK, then, Rich. Now, again I'm guessing, but are you troubled about telling your parents that you're gay?"
"Yes, sir, I am. The reason I haven't told them yet is I wanted to make sure I felt good about it first. I wanted to make sure that what I felt for other guys was for real and not just some phase I was going through."
"And now that you've done that, are you worried that they won't accept it?"
"No, sir, not exactly. I think they'll be OK with it... you know, like they won't hate me for it or anything. What I'm worried about is that they'll somehow look at me different... that once I tell them, they'll think I'm a different person than they thought I was."
"I see." There was a slight pause while Frank gathered his thoughts. When he continued, he did so with the conviction of someone who knew, perhaps from experience, what he was talking about. "You know that your parents love you, don't you, Rich?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"Good, because they do, and with all their hearts. And their love for you has nothing to do with your sexual preferences, whatsoever. They love you for who you are, not for who you're attracted to... and they will go right on loving you just as much once you've told them... and that, young man, you can bet on."
A few moments of silence passed while Richie thought this over. What Frank was telling him pretty much echoed what Kevin and the rest of his friends had told him, but hearing it from Lindy's dad gave more credibility to it. It also made it sound like a true no-brainer - so much so that Richie felt a little bad for ever thinking anything else. Before he could respond, however, Frank spoke again.
"You're young, Rich - hell, as much as you may disagree sometimes, you're still just a kid. And as such, you have your whole life - your entire future - ahead of you. But right now, here today, as young as you are, you are faced with a very important grown-up decision - one that will, in effect, determine what the rest of your life will be like. Now I don't want to scare you, or preach to you, because I know this has been very difficult for you. But if you make the wrong choice now, if you don't tell them soon, you will be doing yourself a huge disservice, and one you may well regret for a very long time to come. If you don't tell them, you'll be embarking on a life based on lies and deception. The only reason I'm telling you this is because I care about you, Rich, and I know you, and I know you don't want to live like that. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
"Yes, sir, I do. I've thought about that stuff a lot and that's exactly why I want to tell them as soon as possible. My problem is I haven't..."
"Been able to find the balls to do it, yet?" interrupted Frank.
Surprised to hear such language coming from his best friend's dad, Richie couldn't stop himself from chuckling.
"Yes, sir, that's it, exactly."
"Uh huh. That's not at all surprising, Rich. Anytime we're faced with uncertainty as to the outcome of our actions, it's not unusual for us to rather not risk upsetting the apple cart. But if you believe what I've been telling you, then you'll know that won't happen. Which brings me to something else that may be of help to you. When you tell them, whatever you do, don't misinterpret their initial reaction."
This statement got Richie's full attention, and a look of worry clouded his face.
Seeing this look, Frank went on to explain. "The first thing you're going to see when you tell them, is surprise. This is a natural reaction, Rich, and it's important that you don't mistake it for anything other than what it is. Perhaps it's because of how we're brought up in society that we have preconceived ideas of how our children are going to grow up. Sometimes these ideas are so ingrained in us that we don't even think about any alternatives. In other words, Rich, I doubt seriously if your parents have ever even thought about yours or your brother's sexuality. It's just not something we parents ever consider. So, the surprise is going to come, not so much from the fact that you're gay, but from the fact that they never considered it before. Understand?"
After a brief moment while Frank's words sank in, Richie said, "Whoa, I never thought about it like that before. Thanks, Mr. L. If what you say is true, if you hadn't told me that, I probably would have misunderstood."
"Good, now along those same lines, think about this. Once the initial shock wears off - and I say again, not that your gay but that they never considered it before - they may feel guilty about it."
"Guilty?! Why would they feel guilty? It's not their fault... it's nobody's fault... there is no..."
Seeing that Richie was becoming emotional, now, Frank reached across the table to squeeze his arm as he once again interrupted him. "Easy, Rich. You're forgetting what I said before, and misinterpreting again. They may feel guilty that they didn't know, or at least never considered the possibility before, not because you're gay. It all comes back to preconceived ideas. As hetero parents, we know all about the birds and the bees. We like to feel that we're pretty well prepared to give advice on the ups and downs of our children's relationships. But unless we've had some reason to consider a gay relationship, we're totally clueless. That's where they may feel guilty. They may feel that they've failed you as parents because they were unprepared to help you with your specific relationship issues. See what I'm saying? It's real tough for a parent to find out that they don't have the all answers for their children."
Again, Richie had to take a moment to think. It didn't take him long, though, and when he answered, his understanding and appreciation was evident.
"Yes, sir, I do, and I so appreciate you telling me about it. I mean, it all makes perfect sense to me, now. But if you hadn't told me, I would've never been able to figure it out, myself - so if there's anything else you can think of that I should know, I sure like to hear it."
"As long as you go in knowing that they love you, and that they will continue to love you, once they get past their surprise and feelings of guilt, the rest should go pretty smooth. Now they're going to have loads of questions for you, and each time you answer one, they'll have a new one. So it's important that they understand and are confident that you've accepted the fact that you're gay - that you're comfortable with who you are. This is when you and your folks do a sort of role reversal - now you have to become the teacher and they the students. Make them feel at ease with their ignorance and help them to learn. Before you know it, it'll all be over. Now don't get me wrong, because this may not happen all at once. You might have to give them time to deal with some of this by themselves. Just keep in mind that there may well be questions and concerns coming from them for days, or even weeks after you first tell them. Your safety and well-being, of course, will be at the top of the list. But, as long as you're patient and understanding, it'll all work out just fine."
There were a few long moments while Frank waited patiently for Richie, and Richie thought over all he'd been told.
"Can I ask you something, Mr. L.?"
"That's what we're here for, Rich. Ask away."
"Well, I got a couple of questions, really. See, I've been thinking about coming out to you and the rest of your family, too. Now Lindy told me that he was sure that you and Mrs. L. would be OK, but he wasn't so sure that Brad knew enough about it to understand. Like most of what he knows is from rumors and playground talk. Lindy thought that maybe I should wait till he had a chance to talk to him, first. You know, to make sure he had the facts straight. I guess I was wondering what you thought about that."
"Ah, I see. He may be right, Rich. I'll tell you what. If you want, I'd be happy to tell Alice about it first, then between the two of us we can sit Brad down to make sure he knows what's real and what isn't. It's all up to you, of course, but I'd be happy to do that if you think it'll help."
"Oh, man, would you? That would be like such a relief for me cause I really wasn't looking forward to going through all of this twice."
"Sure, son, not a problem. Do you know when, exactly, you're planning to tell your family?"
"No, not exactly, but I'll do it as soon as I find the right time. And I mean it, too," he added, more for his own benefit than for Lindy's dad. "I'm not going to put it off any longer than I have to."
"Good, then as soon as you do, let me know. After you give me the go-ahead, then I'll handle things from this end. Now I have a question for you. Did you have Kenny on a recon mission of sorts on Sunday?"
Blushing a little, Richie said, "Um, yes, sir, I guess I did. When we were at the lake and I told him I wanted to come out to you, he sorta volunteered to see if he couldn't find out how you might take it. You know, to give me sort of a heads-up on what your reaction would be."
"Ah, I wondered why he seemed to have such a sudden interest in gays. Now it makes perfect sense." After glancing up at the clock, Frank turned to Richie and said, "Gosh, it's almost five o'clock... and seeing as how I've been gone from the shop since lunch, I better get back there before your brother and Kenny start calling the hospitals looking for me."
"I'm sorry I took up your whole afternoon, Mr. L., but I'm so glad we had this talk. It's really helped me, big time."
"Then it was time well spent, Rich. Just remember, if ever you have any more questions, you know where to find me."
When they stood to go their separate ways, Richie hesitated as a final thought came to his mind. Dropping his empty can into the bag of recyclables, he turned to his best friend's dad, the look on his face showing he had a question, but wasn't sure if he should ask it.
Recognizing this, frank said, "Something else on your mind, Rich?"
"Well, sir, I have one more question. You don't have to answer it if you don't want to, and I'll understand if you don't, but you seem to know an awful lot about this. You know, all this stuff about coming-out. I mean, it's like you've been through this before or something. Do you know someone else who's come out to their parents?"
Frank hesitated only briefly before he answered. "Yes I do, Rich. But I hope you'll understand that I'm not at liberty to give you any more details, at least not right now. Maybe, some time down the road I can tell you about it, but not now. It's kind of like the situation you're in. I want to help as much as I can, but the coming-out to anyone is totally his decision just as it is yours. In other words, I wouldn't out him to anyone any more than I would you. OK?"
"Yes, sir. I totally understand," said Riche as he reached out to shake Frank's hand. "Thanks, Mr. L. I can't begin to tell you how much this talk has helped me."
Taking Richie's offered hand, rather than shake it, Frank Lindstrom pulled him into a loving hug. "Anytime, son, anytime at all." When they stepped apart, both Frank's and Richie's eyes were glistening. "Now scoot. You've got the grass to finish and I have to get back to the shop before they put my picture on the side of a milk carton."
Returning to his stalled lawnmower, Richie felt the energy of renewed self-confidence. From the most unlikely of sources, he'd found what he needed to move ahead. After quickly verifying that Kevin had, indeed, given him the right parts, he went to the garage to round up the few tools he would need to make his repairs. Minutes later, working methodically to replace the spark plug and air filter, he found himself actually thanking the John Deere for breaking down when it did.
This, of course, reminded him of the rock that he was sure he'd run into. Not only did it look like the magic skipper, an impossibility to be sure, but he couldn't remember ever running into any rocks in the back yard over all the years he'd been cutting the grass. So puzzled over it was he that he had to examine the blade himself for any damage. The first thing he noticed when he lifted the edge of the deck was that his brother had recently sharpened it. So recently, in fact, that the cutting edges were still shiny from the grinding. Closer inspection revealed no nicks or dings of any kind, a fact that served only to add to his puzzlement. If he'd hit a rock the size of the one he was positive he saw, it would surely have left, at the very least, a small nick in the blade. Shaking his head, he finished his repairs, then returned the tools to the garage.
With a single pull of the starter-cord, the John Deere instantly roared to life and continued to run as good as it ever had. Thirty minutes later, with no more set-backs to slow him down, he was finished with both back and front yards and had the mower back in the garage. Tired and thirsty, he was headed for the house and something cool to drink when he thought again about the rock. Determined to prove to himself that he wasn't suffering from heatstroke, or losing his mind, he walked slowly along the back of the house, carefully kicking away the grass clippings as he went in search of the illusive object. Finding nothing, he was about to give up when he heard the familiar voice of his best friend calling to him from the driveway two houses away.
"Yo, Rich, whatcha lookin for, dude?"
Moving to meet Lindy at the corner of the house, he smiled when he saw how dirty and greasy he looked.
"Hey, grease monkey, what up?" asked Riche as they went through their slap-tap greeting.
"Nothin. Just gettin home from a day of heat torture. What did ya lose?"
"Oh, man, I'm not sure I lost anything, anymore. Just some weird shit's been goin on, is all. I'm not even sure you'd believe me if I told you."
"Well, I'm heading for the shower. You can tell me all about your trip to the Twilight Zone after supper."
"Sounds like a plan, bro. Give me a call later, would ya. You are not gonna believe what's happened to me today."
"I can't wait," said Lindy as he began to retrace his steps. "Later, dude."
Just then, Richie's brother, Carl, pulled into the driveway followed closely by his mother. Crossing the lawn, Richie waited for them by the door.
"Hey, sport," said his brother as he approached, looking every bit as slimy with sweat and grease as Lindy did.
"Hey, big bro. Looks like you had another fun day at the shop," said Richie with good-natured sarcasm.
"Hi, you two," said his mom as she joined them. "I see you got the grass cut, Richie. Your father will be happy to see that."
"Hey, Mom. Yeah, I did... finally," said Richie as he gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "What's for supper?"
"What's for supper?! Don't I at least get a 'nice to see you' or a 'how was your day' before I have to worry about feeding you?"
"Sorry," said Richie as they filed into the kitchen. When Carl moved on through, obviously intent on taking a shower, Richie stepped up to his mother to give her a hug from behind.
"Nice to see you, Mom. So, how was your day, and what's for supper?"
Turning to give Richie that 'you're on thin ice' look, any anger she may have harbored at his remark melted away when she saw that he was only kidding.
"Since I haven't been able to do the weekly grocery shopping yet, and since your father is running a little late, I thought we'd just order a pizza tonight. How's that sound?"
"Cool," said Richie as he stepped away from his hug. "Pizza's good."
"Good, then while we're waiting for your dad to get home, why don't you check the phone messages while I go change my clothes? It's probably for you, anyway."
Noticing the blinking red light on the answering machine, Richie exclaimed, "Oh shit, you're right, it's probably from TJ."
"Oh, sorry, Mom."
"You should be. You know I don't like to hear that kind of talk."
"Yes, ma'am, sorry," said Richie, feeling properly admonished.
Seeing the look on his mother's face as she left the kitchen, he felt fortunate that all he'd gotten was a tongue lashing. Punching the play button, he listened to the only message on the machine while he retrieved a can of Pepsi from the fridge.
"Rich, dude, where are ya, man? I've been saving you a place by the pool all afternoon. Call me."
After tapping the delete button, he took his Pepsi and headed for his room.
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