“Matty!  I didn’t know you were back in town!”

        The young man turned and acknowledged the older man… “Oh, hi Mr. Sampson… yeah, I got back a few days ago. Nice to see you again…”

        The lean 24 -year -old extended his hand and the burly older man grabbed it and shook it vigorously.

          “Christ! You’re looking… GREAT!  I mean, look at you… not an ounce of fat on you… tanned, ready for war… Christ, kid!  Are you going to play any tournaments up here while you’re around?”

             Matty winced… The man had always had an abrasive manner about him, but he had learned long ago to give an older guy his ‘due’, so he just smiled and answered politely.

         “Well sir, I haven’t really decided… I may play up in New Hampshire  if I get into the qualifier…”

              “No shit?  The Volvo? Christ! That’s the big time! Man, you’re really moving on up! Christ… Hey, do you think you might come over to the annual club get- together?  You’ll be the guest of honor, when everyone finds out you’re in town!”

                 Matty groaned inside… About the last thing he wanted was all the questions and pestering of the old tennis club crowd. Somehow, he had to figure out a strategic retreat… But, it wasn’t going to be easy…

                “Come on! It’ll be great! All the guys will be so happy to see you! Maybe you’ll honor us and even play a little in the doubles competition… I can be your partner!! Man, that would be great! The guys wouldn’t know what the hell to make of that!! “

                  “Uh… I…”

            “Just say yes!” the excited man demanded. “I’ll make sure you get all the food you can eat…We’re having a huge barbeque!! And,  all the beer you can drink… you MUST have started to drink by now…”

                    “No, I don’t drink, sir…”

               “Oh, hey, that’s not important! Listen, I’ll tell all the guys that you can’t play the whole tournament, just a few sets… It’s nothing formal anyways! It’ll be such a thrill for everyone! A real pro, playing at our club picnic!”

                 Somehow, it had all gotten completely out of control, like a runaway train. Matty reddened and searched his mind for a good excuse, but the man wouldn’t hear of it. Then, the final sweetener…

                        “Promise me Matty… It’ll mean SO much to me… And, I’ll even make sure that Ralphy comes along! Hell, I know you guys don’t have that much in common anymore… I mean, he never achieved anything decent, you know, but I’m sure he’d like to see you! You guys used to be best pals!”

                         “Uh… I’m sure he’s doing fine, sir. He was always a real smart guy… Uh, I might…”

                    “Good!! Then it’s settled! Man! I can’t wait!  Oh, the whole thing starts at 10 A.M. on sunday… Hey, bring DJ along! He’s probably better than most of the old guys by now, eh? ” He laughed sarcastically… “I’ll bet he can run the piss outta Stan and the bunch! I hear you’ve got him fine-tuned for the junior circuit!”

                           “Yeah, he’s been playing well, sir” came the dejected reply.

                          “GREAT! Well, see you in a few days then!” The dark haired man slapped the tall lad on the back and strutted away to spread the word.

                            Matty sighed and looked around the quiet supermarket. He felt like a train had run him over and then backed up and done it again for good measure! He kicked himself mentally… If only he hadn’t come here today! Damn…. He turned and walked towards the area where the milk was sold, still deep in thought. Mr. Sampson… Lord, it HAD been a while… Tw0  years or so. And Ralphy… Geezz! Matty thought back… Heck, it had to be 12 years ago that they met… He had completely lost track of the kid… Kid. Wow, he must be 24 now… Ralphy. Poor Ralphy. 1966… Yup!  He remembered now. They were just 12 years old. It was fall… A nice day. Must have been October, 1966… 


               “Hey M!!”  The dark- haired boy smiled and motioned briskly… He lowered his voice as he crawled further out on the ledge. “Hurry up! You’re missing all the action!”

             Matty shrugged nervously and whispered , “Ralphy, I don’t know about this. We really shouldn’t be spying on them…”

                   The 12 year old scowled and replied, “Heck, if they didn’t want us to see, they should have stayed home! ‘Sides, this is fun! How many times you seen a guy screw his girlfriend anyways?”

                  Matty crawled out on the rocky summit next to the prone boy. “Don’t talk so loud! They’ll hear you, and then we’ll really be in trouble!”

                    “Hear us? I doubt it… Look at ’em. They’re kind of busy… OOO!  Look!”

                    “What?”

                     “Look!  You didn’t see that? I saw his dick for a second… I think he fell out..”

                   “Gross!  I’m outta here! We’re gonna get caught, and I REALLY don’t need to see this… it’s none of our business, I don’t care WHAT you say!” With that, Matty crawled backwards between the scrub bushes behind the boys until  he was out of sight and then he stood up and made his way down the hill.

                     “Hey! Wait up!” the dark-haired boy yelled.

                  “SHHH!!!  What’s wrong with you? Do you think they’re deaf? Come on, let’s get out of here before we get arrested for being peeping Toms…”

                      “Peeping Toms? What does THAT mean?”

                    “I don’t know… guys that spy on other guys or something… Let’s just get out of here…It’s getting dark anyways. I gotta get home. It must be almost dinnertime…”

                     “OK… OK !  Geezz… It’s not every day you get a chance like that! Besides, it’s not time for dinner yet! At least not at MY house…”

                   “Whatta ya mean? It’s almost 5:30 Ralphy… By the time you get back, it’ll be 5:45, at least. Won’t your dad get kind of mad if you’re not home on time?”  Matty winced at his choice of words… He had tried not to cross into this territory…

                      Ralphy looked at him and then down at the ground, and angrily kicked at a loose rock… “What difference does it make? Whether I’m back in time or not, he’s still gonna…” His voice trailed off and he kicked at another rock, this time even harder.

                      Matty glanced at him and then looked away. For the past week, since they had started to hang out, they had tiptoed around all of this… But, Matty had witnessed something on the very first day that startled and upset him, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. An angry father, unfazed by his presence even though they had never met, dragging his son through the back door at their home and beating him as Matty trembled in the back yard. He had never heard a father beat his son, and didn’t know what to do, but he stayed there, hoping that his presence might deter the man in some way, even if it was one less thumping blow on the scared 12 year old.


                “Ralphy… Do you want me to come back with you? I mean… maybe your dad… well, maybe he won’t get so mad if I’m there.”

                     The dark- haired lad  shuffled his feet in the loose shale and then suddenly perked up. “Hey! I got an idea! Why don’t you come over and we can stay in my tent tonight!… The one I showed you in the back yard- We’ll have a blast! I got some sleeping bags that are real warm… They’re supposed to keep you warm even if it gets real cold!”

                         “Real cold?”

                         “Yeah!” the excited boy burbled. “I got them for Boy Scout stuff only…”

                          “Only?”

                          “Well, it doesn’t matter, really…” He looked down again. “It’s just that my dad doesn’t want me to be in the scouts anymore, since he had that argument with Mr. Engles…”

                      “Oh… Well, I don’t know, Ralphy… I’d have to ask my mom and it’s getting kind of late…”

                            “Well, ask her! Tomorrow’s saturday, so we don’t have school! I’ll tell you what– I’ll go with you and ask and then we can head over to my place!  Pleeeease, Matty!!”

                             Matty had a sick feeling in his stomach, but the pleading look on Ralphy’s face was too much to bear. “Well,  OK…. Only if my mom says it’s OK, and I gotta warn you- she’s not usually too happy when I drop this stuff on her at the last minute…”

                              The 12- year- 0ld Ralphy was jubilant at the possibilities and jumped onto the blond boy’s back playfully, hugging him so tight that Matty feigned breathlessness, gagging dramatically while both boys laughed.

                             “OK, OK, get off you maniac! If this is going to work, we’d better get going. It’s not getting earlier you know!”

                             So, the two youngsters made their way through the woods and fields until they found the path to the little red Cape, and soon Matty was standing on the porch outside the kitchen door with his young friend, trying to explain the plan to his skeptical mother. Behind her, the family was scurrying about, getting ready for the evening meal… Young DJ gurgled from his high chair seat, reaching his hands excitedly to his oldest brother once he heard his voice…

                             A plan was decided on, in the growing chaos of the hungry family, and soon Matty’s mom was on the phone, firmly insisting that Ralphy stay for dinner and then be driven back to the other side of town to prolong the adventure if the dark- haired boy’s father was ‘so inclined’.

                             Ralphy stood there with Matty, beaming away and reveling in the persuasiveness of his friend’s mom, whispering to the boy as the conversation progressed… “Man, she’s good! Nobody talks to my dad like that, usually… especially not a woman!”

                             Matty glanced at the boy and shrugged… This was nothing new. Being the mom of a family of 7 kids was easy compared to this! Things happened at a rapid pace, and if decisions weren’t made and implemented, someone usually got left behind or run over, so moving foward was an important skill…

                             It was finally agreed. Magically, according to Ralphy. The boys would have dinner and then be driven by Matty’s dad, back to Ralphy’s house to spend the night, camping in the back yard. It happened efficiently and quickly, and soon, the two boys were sitting side by side at the picnic- style table as the meatloaf , mashed potatoes and green beans filled their plates and a laughing DJ grabbed at his nearby brother, bursting into uncontrollable laughter, each time the 12 -year- old boy tickled him in retaliation.

                             Ralphy was mesmerized at first, at the constant chaos and the vibrant interaction of the large family but soon joined in and was smiling ear to ear, and reaching around the tall blond boy and joining him in the back and forth with the year -old DJ…  He devoured his food with the action swirling about him and had a second and then a smaller third serving from the large ceramic  platter in the center of the table where the vegetable sprinkled meatloaf dwindled under the constant attack of little hands and the broken metal spatula that was the serving implement ‘de jour’. One that Matty’s mom had refused to throw away since  she still found it useful…

                           It was nearly 7 o’clock before the boys had finished their meals, including a special dessert that Matty’s mom somehow threw together at the last minute, in honor of the unexpected guest- warm, tapioca pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. The lovely scent lingered in the small kitchen as the boys escaped the cleanup with Matty’s grateful dad and made their way to the far end of town, where the little ranch that Ralphy called home was located…

                           Both dads spent a few minutes meeting each other and Matty was startled to see how happy the burly man appeared to be. It was a complete departure from their first encounter and he was very relieved that it was so…


                      The sleepover was less eventful also, as both boys worked through a secret stash of candy that Ralphy had acquired with his paper route money, and then, lots of wrestling and horror stories until the nearby Coleman lantern took a shot with an errant kick… It was clear that the light was not built for that kind of abuse and both boys felt fortunate to have been spared a nasty burn. They turned in, and continued to giggle and needle each other till the wee hours of the morning when sheer exhaustion took its toll and they were overtaken by the ‘sandman’…

                           As the sun rose over the sleepy town, the two young boys slept cuddled together in the green pup tent… somewhere during the chilly night, the warmth of a buddy’s body had pushed aside any qualms of boy- to -boy contact, and the two youngsters crossed that innocent line and almost by necessity, spent the last and coldest hours of the night close together …

                     Matty awoke first and found himself held captive by the warm arms of his newest friend. Instinctively, he started to extricate himself from the awkward situation but then he stopped and pulled the boy’s arms tighter. It was a lovely feeling- the warmth and tenderness of the body to body contact… The shallow breathing in the hollow of his neck and the soap- flavored scent of the young boy’s hair. It was a de facto acceptance that the slender blond boy had yearned for since he had deciphered the facts of his feelings and even tho he lusted for much more, this was a step in the direction that he imagined whenever he dreamed about certain boys like Bobby or even Ted, a slightly built boy  who intrigued Matty in a confusing and different way.

                   So, he laid there, trying to understand and enjoying the intimacy that was willingly given. Even at this innocent level, it was precious and fulfilling in a way… It lasted for perhaps another half hour, until Matty tenderly jostled the young boy’s hair, awakening him.

                     Ralphy opened his eyes slowly and brushed the sleep from them with the back of his hand and then yawned loudly. He looked tentatively into his friend’s eyes and then smiled… But, just as suddenly, he blushed and stretching his arms, used the movement to separate himself from the intimate position. Matty returned his tender look, but the moment had passed and the two boys were soon straddling the fallen tree on the property line, relieving themselves as the steam rose from the urine- soaked leaves and their giggles reverberated through the quiet, fog- shrouded scape.

                  The kitchen in the small ranch was dark as the two ravenous boys scoured the refrigerator and cabinets for food, finally settling for the last helpings from a large box of Captain Crunch cereal. Ralphy apologized, his face red from  embarrassment… ” Geezz, Matty. I’m sorry this is all we got to eat here. I guess my dad didn’t get the chance to go to the grocery store. It makes me feel real creepy, after we had such a huge meal at your house.”

                           “Ahh… It’s no big deal, Ralphy. I wasn’t all that hungry anyways,” Matty lied, “‘Sides, we don’t get to eat Captain Crunch in my house, except a few times a year– my mom has this thing about not keeping sugared cereal in the house. So, this is like a real feast!”

                          The dark- haired boy grinned broadly at that, and seemed quite relieved, so the two boys continued to chow down on the crunchy confections as the sun rose and washed the eastern side of the tan- colored house. Matty grinned back at Ralphy, trying not to look at the line of empty beer cans on the countertop. There were a LOT of them, and the blond haired boy felt a growing urgency to finish eating and get out of the darkened room and leave the house before anything changed.

                             Ralphy seemed equally nervous, glancing occasionally down the dark hallway towards the master bedroom. Right on cue, he finished the last of his breakfast, tilting the ceramic bowl up to his mouth and slurping the residual puddle of gold- tinted milk from the bottom… He grinned at Matty and burped as the 2 boys giggled quietly, sharing an unspoken understanding that keeping their joy private was the best way on this saturday morning.

                       It was only 7:30 as the 12 year- old boys quietly left the aluminum- sided  house and walked, side by side down the sleepy, dead- end street. As they talked, the dark- haired boy suddenly steered his new friend down a little path that started only a few feet from the asphalt road, in the underbrush. Matty stumbled a bit, laughing, as his friend guided him from behind, turning his shoulders this way and that, until they were both staggering…

                           “Hey!! What’re you trying to do? I feel like I’m your prisoner!”, the slim boy giggled.

“You ARE my  prisoner! Now, turn right! No, I mean left!” Ralphy was having a blast with the newly invented premise, and Matty played along with the impromptu scenario, as this was the way their ‘games’ evolved– deep from the fertile imaginations of their 12 year- old minds. It was this edginess that made Ralphy attractive to the slender boy. He had spent the past week, going from one ‘game’ to another, and fell asleep at night, intrigued with the possibilities of the morrow, in ways that he hadn’t dreamed in a long time… Perhaps for years, when a little boy in the woods captured his imagination in a similar way. A boy from Tennessee…

                     Soon, the two boys were jumping over fallen branches on the outskirts of an area of wetlands and pushing through a thorny bramble that grabbed at their corduroys, leaving burrs on their socks in uncomfortable areas.

                          “Cripes! Got another one,” lamented Matty as he hopped along, struggling to remove a burr from between his sneaker and his lower ankle. “Where are we going anyways?”

                     “Not much further,” grunted the shorter boy as he tugged at the bottom of his burr- covered sweater. “Sides, it’s the only area with these. After we cross the creek, we’ll…”

                      “Creek?” interrupted the tall boy, “Hey, I don’t want to be hanging out in a swamp today… not with my best sneakers on… I only have the one pair.”

                          “Naw… Don’t worry. We’re not going to go into the swamp, just across Piper Brook. Then, we’ll cut across a small hill and then the tracks…”

                               “Then what?”

                               “Then you’ll see,” teased the dark haired boy.

                             He was right about one thing – the swamp was beyond, at least the swamp proper, but the area around the brook was almost like a mangrove area that Matty had seen in a book on Florida… There were exposed roots on the trees all around the deep stream and the area was devoid of plants but covered in a fine brown silt that apparently was deposited when the stream last retreated from flood stage. It made for a strange atmosphere as the two boys wove their way through the low- hanging branches leaving their footprints in the virgin mud that was marked only by the tiny and scattered footprints of the marsh- dwelling creatures that the tall boy was so familiar with. Muskrats, opposums and raccoons, and an occasional larger creature that Matty tracked to the edge of the stream. Most likely a fox by the way the tracks headed off in an almost straight line, one footprint nearly in line with the one behind…

                         This had always been the kind of thing that fascinated the tall, 12 year-old boy. The mystery of the invisible denizens of the marsh and forest, that left the youngster craving for a glimpse, and imagining a time when all of this was new and a frontier. A time that the boy yearned for when the mark of a man was made in the ways he survived against all adversity and was judged by his resiliency and not by the person he loved. He had long dreamed about living in such a free and open way and had lulled himself to sleep at night with a smile on his lips and the words softly falling onto his pillow…

                             Someday…. someday….

Continued in part 2…

 

      

               

            




                    

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