November, 1976

         Matty fidgeted and rolled over on the large bed. He gradually fought the remnants of sleep and the vivid dream mercifully faded as he opened his eyes to the strange surroundings.

          It was unsettling at first, and he felt the anxiety  return, only this time it was more topical. The dimly lit room gave him a start. It was  medium -sized,  with a vaulted wood ceiling that made it seem more spacious. To his left side were two doors. One was slightly ajar and the young man could make out a wall- hung sink only a few feet away. The other door was closed but had a push plate mounted vertically on it… The kind one would see on a swinging door instead of a knob. Matty rubbed the sleep from his eyes as it all came back to him. It was a kitchen door.

            He was home. At least what had become his new home in this fantastical land that he had travelled so far to explore. Here he would begin his new life without the overriding fear of detection, in a place he had heard was a haven for young men who might want to live an ‘alternative lifestyle’.

             Now, that was a strange concept in itself, because as far as he knew, he never had a particular ‘lifestyle’. Not one of his own, really. So, he looked foward to exploring the potential of that odd combination of words, but it made him feel both excited and anxious at the same time. He had always felt quite ‘normal’, so the idea of living ‘alternately’ made him think of the very strange pictures that he had seen in various magazines lately. He shuddered… Those pictures depicted adult men dressed like women. Some in the most bizarre clothes- dresses covered with sequins, those same guys wearing bleached- blonde wigs, of all things! Something the 21- year- old boy found revolting…

              He yearned to know that he and Bobby had not been an aberration. That the love they had lived was not ‘alternative’, because it had always felt natural.

               He whispered the words that had been on his lips as he awoke. Words that the policeman  had  whispered to him  on that horrible, dark night.  “It’s gonna be OK…”

               It was nine o’clock as the naked boy struggled to his feet, and left the relative comfort of the king- sized waterbed. Already, he could feel the heat building as the morning sun beat against the closed blinds on the large windows to his right. It was going to be a hot one, he thought. Just like the landlord had suggested. He glanced at the idle air conditioner and toyed with the idea of testing it out… But, he resisted, knowing that once it became a habit, he would ‘need’ it every day and that could get expensive.

               He had secured an economical rent, with the aid of a parish priest, and he wanted to keep it that way as long as possible. There were savings at his disposal, but without wages, or a secure job to pay the rent, those savings could easily vanish if he wasn’t careful.

                But at least, one obstacle had been defeated, and Matty felt good about that! He had planned for the worst- perhaps living in a motel room or a rooming house for a while, but the visit to St. Andrews had provided him with the opportunity to meditate and in a serendipitous occurrence, he had met a very kind priest who had directed him to a parish bulletin board and the day old listing for the apartment that was now his new home. It was almost as tho someone was watching over him… He smiled.

                 The tall boy  yawned again, and stepped into the BVD’s that he had left on the bedside chair. He always slept naked, something that Bobby had found useful and very entertaining, but for Matty was the result of recurring dreams that had started at an early age. He often awoke feeling suffocated. Strangled. Struggling with the bunched up pajamas or underwear, until it became impossible for him to sleep. So, he found tranquility in his own skin, and even tho the dreams didn’t vanish completely, he could more easily resolve a bad nightmare if he wasn’t fighting the clutching hands of the Others…

                  He never explained that to anyone save one person, who he had trusted with his most personal feelings.

                   Now, those feelings were his alone, once more.

                   After a trip to the nearby bathroom, Matty’s first thought was of food. The past four days had been a torment for the boy who was accustomed to regular meals and plenty to eat. But, the sandwiches and the snacks that he had stocked the Firebird 400 with on his departure, had lasted only a short while, and the meager replacements were made up mostly of confections and sugar -laced sustenance from various Seven Elevens that were as ubiquitous as Mickey D’s in this part of the world. Some things could be counted on to create the stomach- turning diet that most young men took for granted. Matty tho, had grown disgusted with the easy- to- come- by junk food that so many of his contemporaries consumed. He lusted after something solid. A roasted chicken perhaps. Maybe even a ribeye steak. Mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob. Ice cream with bananas and whipped cream for dessert.

                      His mouth watered at the thought, but his reality, until he learned the ‘ropes’ around his new home, was that he had a small bunch of bananas, a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of cotton- white bread of dubious, Seven Eleven quality, in his almost empty cupboards. The kitchen came complete with a toaster oven, so the possibilities were slightly more interesting…

                  It took only a few minutes for the hungry boy to concoct one of his childhood favorites- peanut butter and banana sandwiches on toasted bread!  The hot toast melted the peanut butter into a liquid- like nectar that looked wonderful and smelled even better… Matty started with two, but ended up eating four, along with two large glasses of odd- tasting Florida water. Cold milk would have been a delight, but there was none on that first morning.

                 He stood up and burped loudly, rubbing his full belly and walked to the sink to wash the small dish and glass he had used. As the water rushed over the soapy plate, Matty glanced out the kitchen window and the sandy scape. His sleek car was parked to the right, partially obscured by a lone palmetto palm. The yard around it looked sun baked. Tufts of grass and weeds grew through the white sand that dominated the yard. Near the road, a large clump of flowers bloomed, surrounded by yucca plants and other foliage. Some looked very exotic, and later, the boy learned that the tall ones in the center were called ‘birds of paradise’… Very appropriate. They were very striking!

            Suddenly, the sound of an opening door shattered the tranquility of the boy’s new abode! Brilliant light streamed across the combination bedroom and living room as the front door of the little apartment flew open. In walked a pudgy and sweaty uniformed man, carrying a bulging mail sack .

              For a moment, Matty was speechless. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen clad only in his white briefs, with the dish towel he had used to dry the breakfast plate, draped over his right shoulder. As startled as he was, he was equally miffed. Who was this man who thought it appropriate to come into his new home without as much as a ‘by your leave’?

            The boy looked at the man, who was surveying him as tho he was on display in a store window! “What the… What do you want?”

             The man laughed. “Relax, son. I’m your mailman. Figured I’d introduce myself so you knew who I was. This has been my neighborhood for 15 years…”

             Matty interrupted him angrily. “I don’t care how long you’ve worked for the Post Office or what you ate for breakfast! Did I ask you to come in? Get the hell out of here! This is my home! Get out!”

              The rotund man reddened a bit and lifted his hand in a gesture as tho he could calm the agitated boy. “Everybody knows me… I figured…”

           “Are you deaf or what? Get the fuck out of my home, and stay the fuck out! If I wanted every Tom, Dick, or Harry to come in whenever he fuckin’ pleases, I’d put a sign outside my door and move the hell out of here! Now get out …” He walked towards the man, pointing the way out.

             Mouth agape, the clueless mailman backed his way out the front door as Matty pushed it closed forcefully, shaking his head in dismay. His heart was pounding as he got dressed in his tennis shorts and shirt. Once he was dressed he checked the lock on the front door and realized that he hadn’t released the bolt the way he meant to the night before. Still, the nerve of the man to walk into a stranger’s home as though he owned it… It would be days before he could get that incident out of his mind!

November, 1965

          It had been a feisty scrimmage for the young basketball players on that frosty Saturday morning.  Eleven- year- old Matty zipped his tan colored jacket as Franky playfully shoved him from behind.

          “Come on Matty! If we hurry, we can sneak into the teachers’ lounge and get the hot chocolate before anyone misses us!”

           The blond boy rolled his eyes and finished zipping up. As much as he wanted some hot chocolate, the teachers’ lounge was out of bounds, even if this was a Saturday and the boys had the school to themselves.

             “Franky… First of all, you know we’re not supposed to go in there. Ever. And, even if noone would ever see us, you can’t get in. They keep the door locked! So, the coffee machine is locked in there. No way to get at it…”

               “Uh… NOT exactly true, Mighty Mouse…”

                 Matty rolled his eyes again. Franky was hung up on cartoons and had assigned all of his mates a name . To his dismay, Matty had acquired the ‘Mighty Mouse’ moniker… This, to him, was a misnomer. If he had to get a name, he would much prefer Superman, or better still, the ‘Lone Ranger’. It was radically better to be named after a Western hero! Everyone knew that! Except Franky…

                   The boy continued… “See, I know how to get into the office.”

                    “Huh? The office? So?”

                     “Don’t you want to know how?” Matty glanced at the ginger topped boy. Apparently, he was wrecking the whole caper with his indifference. Franky was chomping at the bit to spill his guts!”

                     “Yeah… OK. How can you get into a locked office, and what does that have to do with the teachers’ lounge where the coffee and hot chocolate machine is?”

                      Franky’s eyes narrowed.  He leaned close to the lanky blond boy and cupping his hand over his mouth, whispered into Matty’s ear. “There’s a window in the office that Mr. Flood hasn’t fixed yet… The lock is still broken. I checked before practice. I can push the window open and we can climb through. It’s easy… Once we get into the office, there’s the other door to the teachers’ lounge. It’s right in there, and I don’t think they lock it, because they lock the office door, so…”

                      “Oh…. I don’t know, Franky. That sounds like we’re breaking in. We could get arrested for that! I don’t know…”

                      Franky groaned… “Oh, come on Mighty Mouse, I can taste the hot chocolate already! We’re not breaking in! We’re just climbing in… And, we’ll pay for the hot chocolate! So, we’re not stealing anything! I got my 15 cents ready… See?” The boy held out his dirt- smudged right hand and showed Matty the corroded coins.

                      “Good grief! Where did you get those coins? In the storm drain?” Matty laughed. “You can’t even see the date on the dime! It’ll probably get stuck if you put it in a machine!”

                  “How’d you know?” Franky retorted. “I saw the dime in the drain at recess last Thursday and I kept it secret. Today, I brought my bubble gum and used our special way to get the dime out through the grate. It worked great!” he chuckled as he blew a rather large, pink bubble as if to emphasize the point.

                    Matty shuddered. “You mean you stuck the gum to a stick, and then stuck the stick thru the grille and stuck the gum to the coin and pulled it out?”

                    “Yup!” the proud boy replied.

                     “Franky…”

                       “Yeah?”

                        “Is that gum you’re chomping on the same gum…”

                        Franky beamed, nodding his head. “YUP! I only used it once… no sense wasting it! It still tastes like Bazooka! Well, it’s a little gritty… maybe it got a little sand stuck to it or something…” His voice trailed off as he squinted his eyes, struggling to define the unusual taste of the sticky mass in his mouth.

                       Matty grimaced and rolled his eyes. “Franky!”

                       “Yeah?”

                        The slender boy groaned and shook his head. “Never mind…”

                       The caper became a grand bargain that Saturday. Matty resisted the urge for hot chocolate but reluctantly agreed to stand guard outside the open window in case the school janitor made an appearance. Franky had promised to quickly buy his hot chocolate once he got to the machine, and then to hand it thru the window and make his escape before anyone was the wiser. He assured the tall boy that nothing but nothing would delay him. There was to be one focus- a cup of hot chocolate. One. Matty had decided that to taste the nectar would be tantamount to involvement in a crime. The whole idea upset him and he had tried to distract Franky from his quest, but had failed. So now, as his stomach churned with the butterflies of guilt, he followed the excited boy to the south side of the building, and the large clump of rhododendrons that grew against the brick facade of the school. They inadvertently provided cover to the young miscreants and the blond 11 year old boy was grateful for that!

                     The large shrubs were dense and shielded the boys from the nearby road and the sparse, Saturday traffic. There was a worn path of sorts behind the evergreen boughs, due to the penchant of pubescent boys for neat passages and ‘secret’ hideaways. To wit, a place where teachers could not or would not follow the young boys. Soon, the boys were standing before the hidden window like devious mice, seeking entrance through an unmonitored hole in the superstructure.

                    Matty was now whispering, rather frantically, for his young teammate to complete the mission. It did not escape his attention that on the ground in front of the window was a paint- encrusted tool. A putty knife. The young apprentice was well versed in the identification of such things, having been exposed to them so much over the years. Both his father and uncle were carpenters, and he had used that very type of blade in his chores quite recently, to scrape at the loose putty around some south- facing windows on the little red cape in which he lived all of his life. It had been a way to participate in the maintenance of the home and to spend ‘quality’ time with his dad, who seemed resigned to the job, and more interested in finishing than teaching.

                    At any rate, both boys noticed the putty knife, but did not tie its appearance to anything important at that moment. The mission at hand had distracted them, and like furtive young mice, they nibbled at the cheese, blissfully unaware that the trap jaws were hovering and ready to spring.

                     The ‘snap’, as it were, occurred at a most inopportune moment, as Franky was halfway through the hopper window, and being assisted by his reluctant accomplice,  who was essentially shoving him the rest of the way through the narrow hopper head first. The  boy’s pants were not cooperating, as a front pocket had somehow hooked itself on part of the mechanism that allowed the window to tilt outwards… Had it not been for that hinged device, Franky would have already been in the lounge, trying to jam the coins into the nearby machine that he clutched so dearly in his right hand. But, no sooner had he finally taken Matty’s whispered advice and deposited the coins on the polished linoleum floor to try to unhook his pocket, the door to the office swung open and a ruddy faced and green uniformed man appeared.

                      Mr. Flood was a quiet and compassionate man who Matty respected. As the school janitor, he worked tirelessly to keep the building spotless and to repair the devastating effects of the wear created by elementary aged boys. Some who envisioned themselves as athletes, and used lavatory doors as hinged amusement park rides. Boys who learned by accident. Whose apologies might have rung hollow to most adult men faced with fixing their ‘mistakes’. Mr Flood though, took it all in stride, mostly with a smile on his face. Amazingly.

                     On that Saturday morning, Matty found himself suddenly praying for a similar level of understanding. It was too late to change what he and Franky had done. Heck, Franky was stuck, halfway through the metal framed window, his upper body inverted with his hands touching the floor and his rump jammed in the too- small opening. Two sheepish boys ‘in flagrante’. If Mr. Flood had ever seen this act before, he didn’t let on. Instead, he seemed to ignore the chaos and quietly placed the toolbox that he carried on a nearby table and walked slowly out of the room! The clicking latch on the heavy door startled Matty out of his state of shock and he desperately tugged at his buddy’s pants in an attempt to salvage things. It was as though they had been invisible!  He had no idea what it all meant, but Franky now seemed to be of the same mind, abandoning the hard- earned coins as he frantically attempted to reverse his direction to extricate himself from the trap.

                      It had become a learning experience on many levels, as Matty yanked on the now squealing boy’s pants legs, oblivious to his temporary discomfort. There was only one goal now- extrication and escape. Franky seemed on board, but was of little use, as Matty braced his right foot against the brick wall and tugged as hard as he could.

                       There was a tearing sound, followed by a yelp as Matty lost his grip and balance and catapulted backwards, into the dense branches of the obstructive bush, landing askew and getting raked on his neck at the same time. He lay there in the middle of the tangled mess as Franky squealed his distress. As he pushed the surrounding branches apart and struggled to his feet, he was faced with a unseemly sight. Franky had been pantsed. Mostly. Not only were his pants now nearly halfway down his thighs, but his underwear had followed suit, and sagged part way down his pale buttocks that were quivering and clenching as the frantic boy tried to reach behind him in a futile attempt to cover himself.

                        On another day, it would have been funny. In fact, both boys eventually found the humor in what had happened, but only after the fact. At this point, Matty was as unamused as was Franky. The tall boy got to his feet and tried to help the trapped boy to reclaim some level of modesty, but it was difficult. The underwear was trapped by the boy’s weight and the pants, now torn along the right side, were in danger of making things even worse.

                         Things had cascaded out of control, and there was a feeling of desperation now. Matty was strong, but he had little room to help the trapped boy. And, as tall as he was for an 11 -year- old boy, he was not tall enough or strong enough to lift Franky clear of the window opening to free him. It was about the time that he had settled on a new plan, to crouch under the boy so that Franky could use him as a platform of sorts, that the situation began to resolve itself. The bushes rustled to the right of the boys and a stone- faced janitor appeared.

                         To this day, I remember his face. Stoic and unamused. Stern. He spoke not a word at first, but stood there looking at me and at what must have been an amusing sight. Franky was still struggling, unaware of his presence… I remember Mr. Flood’s look of disappointment, more than anything else, as he shook his head sadly and gently guided my thin frame to Franky’s left side. Out of the way. Then, he lifted the youngster by his upper thighs and tilted him foward until he could unhook his pocket from the metal detent and with a tired grunt, he pulled the embarrassed boy from the metal trap.

                           Franky was red- faced and teary- eyed, as I recall. Silent, like his accomplice. Waiting for the inevitable tongue- lashing that never came.

                            Instead, Mr. Flood led the way to his office where he used safety pins to bind the tears in my teammates pants and sent us on our way without a single question. I suppose it was his disappointment that I remember most, and the following Monday in school, when Franky found the corroded dime as well as the nickel, sitting inside the cubby in his tilt- top desk. I’ll never forget the look on his face. His mouth agape. His wide eyes. His disbelief.

                            I learned more about life and teaching in those short fall days, than just about any other time in my life…

                            I’ve  loved that man ever since…

tman

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