Nickels and Dimes

 

Nickels and Dimes by Cole Parker

 




 

 


Can people change for the better?
Can they grow after reaching their teen years, and beyond?
Is it harder for a teenager or an adult?


 

A job, his father thought, watching unobserved.  The boy desperately needs a job.

Chip Cameron was drifting in the pool, supported by an inflatable float, wondering what the summer would bring.  His formal name was Russell; he was only called that, however, when his dad made a mistake and forgot he was now supposed to use his son’s nickname.  At 15, the world was a smorgasbord spread before him, just as the upcoming summer was.  He wasn’t thinking of the world, however—just the summer.

There would be parties and trips to the beach; maybe his dad would find time for a vacation somewhere—some soccer for sure—probably a couple of ball games, either the Yankees or Mets, and certainly a movie or three.  Time in the pool was a given, and he needed to work on the old Jag his dad had bought for him after a lot of wheedling about wanting to play around restoring a car.  The Jag was just sitting in their garage now, had been for a while, and he probably should get to work on it.  He saw the looks his dad threw at him whenever he walked through the garage.  Threw at him and at the tarp-covered Jag.

He sighed and batted at a dragonfly that was attracted to the water and was buzzing too close.  Working on the Jag had sounded like more fun than it apparently would be.  The thing smelled funky inside, and he knew he’d have to pull out the seats and carpeting first, and there was barely room inside to get down and find the nuts and bolts that held everything together.  The work involved would really be work.  Not fun.  Work.

Chip wasn’t really opposed to work.  It was just something he’d never really had to do much of.  His dad was affluent.  They lived in a mansion, a several-million-dollar home in New York City.  Because his mom had died when he was young, his dad had a live-in couple, the Sordoffs, who took care of the house and did the cooking and all, which meant Chip hadn’t had to even pick up his room; it was all done for him.

He’d been raised by his dad, which was fine by him, except for the fact that his dad hadn’t always been there for him when he’d have liked him to be.  His dad was the CEO of a giant corporation.  The job required a lot of the man’s time and energy—too much, really.  There was the traveling to domestic and international locations, endless meetings, entertaining, late nights.  His father’s time wasn’t his own.  Raising a son took time, too.  Chip knew his dad meant well and that he adored his son, but reality meant there were only so many hours in a day and week and year.  The fact that the man spent as many of them as he could with Chip was apparent to the boy, but Chip missed him when he wasn’t there, when he missed a soccer match, missed an open house at school, even a birthday party—never the birthday itself—and he knew his dad felt the same sorrow he did when the absences grew; it would have been better for them both if he could have spent more time with his son.

While Chip was floating in the pool, Richard Cameron was watching him from an upstairs window.  Just seeing Chip paddle around the pool, not a care in the world, caused a broad smile to emerge.

As he watched, he reflected on the same thing his son was thinking about.  He knew he hadn’t neglected Chip.  And the boy had grown to be an almost-man in ways that he admired.  Chip was a good kid who listened, which his dad appreciated.  He was smart, did well in school, played on the school’s varsity soccer team as a freshman, had a busload of friends.  Richard loved and admired his son, just as he knew Chip loved him.

It was a Saturday morning, the first Saturday since school had let out for the summer.  Richard watched and eventually frowned.  Chip was happy, and he liked that.  But when Richard was 15, he was already working.  He’d had two jobs actually: a paper route in the morning and a job as a pump boy in the afternoons—back when kids actually pumped gas and checked oil and filled tires at the gas stations around town. 

Chip had never had a job, and it didn’t seem to Richard that he had much motivation.  He needed that, needed to be more aggressive in setting and reaching goals—tough ones, ones that could be uncomfortable.  It was a lesson he’d learned when working as a teenager; it had helped mold him into the go-getter he’d been in college and afterwards.  He’d learned to see and take advantage of opportunities.  He’d learned how to work with all sorts of people, how to stand up for himself without offending anyone, how to go after what was available without unnecessarily stepping on toes, how to make opportunities out of things others didn’t see.  He’d learned things that weren’t taught in school.

Much as he adored his son, he didn’t see much drive in Chip, not the kind that would carry him to his full potential as a man.  He was still a boy, still naïve.  It was a charming naivete, certainly, but it was time for the boy to move past that.  It was time for him to test his mettle in the real word and to learn the people skills that would smooth his way with the adults he’d need to please going forward.  He needed to know how to act, how to hold himself, how to present himself to the world when out in it, how to react with dignity and aplomb to the problems that were sure to arise, how to actually set those tough goals for himself.

Chip definitely needed the challenge and experience of a real job, with real world interactions.  And Richard had a good idea how to achieve that.

Sam watched the boy carrying a heavily loaded tray to the table, a folding tray stand in one hand, the tray balanced above his shoulder on the other.  He smiled.  It had taken some time—less than for many waiter trainees but still some time—to get the boy to this stage, but the boy had been eager and paid attention to him and his experienced staff.  So many kids these days were mostly into themselves.  They paid no attention at all to the ones trying to help them.  This boy, Chip, wasn’t like that at all.  He was polite, eager to learn, and he had something of the appeal of a young puppy.  And because of all that, coworkers were eager to help him.

Chip had started as a dishwasher and been quite slow at that.  But Sam had been patient.  His patience was due to how hard the boy was trying but also because he really liked the boy and because he was doing a favor for the boy’s father, taking him on.  Sam and Richard went way back. 

The boy had been unlike so many kids starting on the bottom rung of the ladder.  He’d been cheerful and enthusiastic about learning the job, and he hadn’t seemed to mind the drudgery it involved.  He’d worked hard, and even though at the beginning Sam had needed to stay late a few nights because the boy was particular about doing everything right, Sam couldn’t fault him for that.

What he could do was show him how to pick up his pace without sacrificing the quality of his work, and the boy had caught on fast, listening and taking helpful advice to heart.

So after two weeks of washing dishes and getting along with the guys in the kitchen—even learning some elementary Spanish—Sam had promoted him.  Sam and Chip’s father both agreed Chip needed a job where he’d interact with the public.  The next step up from dishwasher would and did put him in contact with the public.  Chip had become a busboy.

Sam had asked John, his best busboy, to show him the ropes.  Like all jobs, bussing looked so easy when someone who was good at was doing it, but there was much more to it than what met the casual eye.  Chip had again been slow off the mark.  Wiping down a table after clearing it, wiping down the booth cushions, running the carpet sweeper under the booth or tables, resetting the tabletops—all that could be done swiftly.  Needed to be done swiftly, especially when patrons were waiting for the tables.  A slow busboy was a soon-unemployed busboy.

Sam had bitten his lower lip, swallowed his impatience, and been rewarded with a new and decent busboy in a short time.  One thing he noticed that wasn’t all that usual: the customers liked Chip.  Chip had been taught, like all busboys, not to speak to the customers unless they spoke to him first, other than to ask if he could clear an empty plate or refill a water glass.  But somehow, some internal chemistry or something about his appearance seemed to make customers find the kid engaging, and they would speak to him.  Chip was modest and polite and answered affably, and he was soon a favorite of regular customers.  He had a way of remembering who they were and something about them.  They all liked that.

It wasn’t long before Chip was training to be a waiter.  He learned that job as quickly as he’d learned the other jobs in the restaurant.  He was smart, something he’d inherited from his dad, and catching on was easy for him, especially as the experienced waiters took him under their wing.  They liked the kid, as did everyone he met.

Sam was going to be sorry to see him go.  A kid like that was good for the restaurant.  He knew he’d found a real asset when regulars started asking to be seated at the tables the boy was working.

Chip had made an unusually quick climb up the restaurant ladder through hard work, paying attention and his natural affinity for people.

Sam’s problem was that the summer was about over.  He was pretty sure Chip wouldn’t want to stay when school reopened.  He’d hate to lose him.  He’d become a happy fixture at the restaurant in the short few months he’d been there.  He’d become an asset.

Richard Cameron had a decision to make.  Up till now, Chip had been going to private schools in New York City.  His high school was great academically, but it was not as prestigious as some of the boarding schools up north.  Richard had been planning to talk Chip into leaving home starting this academic year, going to a boarding school like Phillips Exeter Academy, Deerfield Academy, Putney School—some school that had a name and a history and a list of elite alumni.  He expected Chip to flourish there and eventually wind up in an Ivy League college.  Like he had.

The problem, though, was Richard loved what he’d seen during the summer.  The boy had taken to the job Richard had found for him like the proverbial duck to water.  In doing so, Chip’s attitude seemed to have changed. He’d welcomed the responsibility, liked the work and being treated like an adult.  He’d been early to work all summer long and spoke enthusiastically to Richard about the job, the people he was working with and even his customers.

Richard liked the new and now-motivated Chip, the energetic Chip, and he didn’t want the boy to fall back into his more lackadaisical ways.  If he was off at a school in Massachusetts or Connecticut or wherever, who could predict how he’d behave, what his motivations might be?

So Richard was wondering which would be best for the boy: remain at his current private school and live at home—and by doing so be able to continue part time at the restaurant—or be shipped off to a school that would certainly prepare him for his eventual entry into an Ivy League college?

Then an incident occurred that almost made up Richard’s mind for him, and eventually did, but for reasons he didn’t even want to admit to himself.

Sam smiled, watching Chip, who looked to him like an old hand now.  It was only his second week of working as a waiter, and to Sam, who’d watched a lot of waiters become accustomed to the job, the boy seemed to love what he was doing.  Sam saw how he was taking advantage of the opportunity he now had to speak freely with the customers.  Perhaps because he was such a gregarious boy, being able to converse with the customers added an element of joy to the job, and Sam saw that joy affected how the boy performed.  The customers saw it too, he knew.

For the most part, the customers were delighted with the personable young man.  Yes, he was exceptionally young, but he was also professional in the way he did his job.  There was a twinkle in his eye and bounce in his step and an air that showed his happiness doing what he was doing.  The customers related to that, Sam knew.

The fact he was more than just ordinarily handsome helped too.  Sam tried when he could to put attractive employees in front of the customers.  Chip was certainly that.  He had longish blond hair that was combed back and always looked neat; although it tended to fly around a bit when he moved quickly, it would then settle back into place as he slowed down.  His features were regular and attractive: widely spaced, deep-blue eyes that caught and reflected the light, a short, straight nose, full lips which almost always wore a smile.  He sported a gentle tan on his fair and unblemished skin, won from the time he spent in his pool.  He was slender but not skinny, tall but not sky-scraperish.  His uniform—a brilliant white shirt, long-sleeved and pleated, black trousers with a sharp crease running down each leg, bow tie and his highly polished black-leather shoes—fit him like a glove, accentuating his strong and lithe teen body.

Customers responded to the presence of handsome, confident and polite young people.  That was Chip to a T.

Sam watched as Chip set his tray stand down, let it unfold itself, then set the tray on it, bending his knees to do so, keeping his back straight and the tray level.  He spoke to the man and teen sitting in the booth, then took the salads and soup from the tray and set them in front of the customers.  Sam was watching carefully because he knew these customers.  That is, he knew the man.  He assumed the teenager was his son.  The man . . . well, the man was a difficult customer.  Sam had seated him at Chip’s table because it was the only open table available.  The man could be a problem and in fact most often was, and Chip was new.  Sam was fairly certain Chip’s innate charm would have no effect at all on this man.

Sam moved so he could see Chip’s face as he spoke to the man.  He knew what expression the man would have.  He wanted to see how the encounter would affect Chip.

The man looked at the salad that had been set next to his bowl of soup and frowned.  Chip saw that frown.

“Is everything all right, sir?” 

“No, it isn’t.  I ordered bleu-cheese dressing.  This looks like a vinaigrette of some kind—or perhaps even Italian.  You should be more attentive when people order.  Take it back.  Bleu cheese.  Can you remember that?”

Chip smiled.  “Certainly, sir.”  Then he turned to look at the boy sitting across from the man.  “Is your order correct, sir?”

The boy, who appeared to be about Chip’s age, smiled.  Chip caught his breath.  Before him was a boy with thick, black, shiny hair, dark eyes that were flashing at him, and a somewhat cocky smile showing a hint of even white teeth.  The boy was absolutely gorgeous, and that quick smile had caused Chip’s heart to jump.

“Perfect,” the boy said, meeting Chip’s eyes.  There was a slight pause while the boy’s eyes took in Chip, and then he said, “Everything is perfect,” with a very small emphasis on ‘everything.’

Chip picked up the man’s salad plate and said, “I’m so sorry, sir, that I messed up the order.  I’ll be right back with the correct one.”

Chip passed Sam on the way to the kitchen.  “Did he order bleu cheese?” Sam asked in a whisper.

“No, sir.  He said Italian.  But as you’ve said: Rule Number One, in caps and underlined twice: don’t argue with or correct the customer.”

Sam chuckled and touched Chip’s arm.  “He does this sort of thing a lot.  I think he has a need to show everyone he’s the boss and how important he is.”

Chip nodded and continued on to get another salad.  He returned to the table with it and set it down along with a small pitcher of dressing.

“What’s this?” the man asked.

“I brought the dressing on the side, sir.  I wasn’t sure how much you’d want, and this way I knew you’d have neither too much nor too little.  I’d be happy to add it now for you, or would you like to do it yourself?”

Chip’s voice was very even, not obsequious, not deferential, certainly not condescending or confrontational.  His tone was just natural, conversational and confident.

The man looked at him hard, trying to discover any attitude at all.  He’d have liked to have seen some distress, seen the boy worried about his putative mistake.  There was no sign of that.  The boy didn’t seem even slightly put off by what had happened.  This somehow made the man feel he was being diminished by the boy’s confidence and that the salad being brought undressed was somehow a rebuke—as if the boy was expecting him to complain the salad was over- or under-dressed and would send it back.  This was only a kid, and yet, the man felt he had been outplayed.  He began an inner seething, a common occurrence for him.

Chip smiled, waiting to be asked to add the dressing.

The man cleared his throat, then turned to his son, ignoring Chip’s question, and asked if he’d found a job for the summer yet.  In doing so, he turned slightly away from Chip, arrogantly dismissing him with his body language.  Chip nodded slightly, said nothing, turned and walked away.

Sam was still watching and, as Chip passed, murmured, “Watch him.  He’ll try to say you screwed up the entrée next, then want to speak to me.  Try to get him to acknowledge the order without pushing him.  The most inconsequential thing that he can see as a slight, he’ll go through the roof.”

“No problem,” Chip said, smiling.  “This is just another challenge, another learning experience.  By the way, does he always do this: order salad and soup before ordering the entrée?  I’ve never seen that happen before?” 

Sam chuckled.  “I think he likes being unique.”

“Well,” Chip replied, “I’ll make this work.”  Then, parodying the movie disclaimer, said with a chuckle, “No waiters will be injured in the serving of this dinner.”

Chip waited till the two diners had finished their soups, then approached the table.  “Hello, again.  Was the soup acceptable?  Would you like to order your entrée now?”  He spoke very pleasantly.

The boy was watching the man carefully—staring at him would be more accurate.  The man looked up at him briefly, then focused elsewhere.  When he spoke, it was gruffly.  “I’ll have the filet, medium, and a sizeable portion of the scalloped potatoes.  You people always skimp on the potatoes.  Make sure there are enough on the plate.  Carrots—and cook them this time.  I don’t like half-cooked carrots; al dente is for pasta.”

“Certainly, sir.  And you, sir?”  He looked at the boy and saw he was being grinned at.  The boy ordered, and then Chip turned back to the man.  “Just so I won’t screw this up like I did with the salad, please let me check I got your order right: a medium filet, copious scalloped potatoes and thoroughly cooked carrots.  Did I get it right?”  

The man almost growled.  “I already ordered.  I’m not going to do it again.  If you can’t remember, you shouldn’t be in this job.  I don’t think you’re capable of it.”

Chip gave him a dazzling smile.  “All right, I’ll put in the order I just repeated.  Would you like anything else while you’re waiting?  A cocktail?  Perhaps a bottle or glass of wine?”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned to the boy.  “Maybe another Coke—or ice tea?”

The boy was interrupted by the man.  “Yes,” he said, his voice raised.  “Bring me a Balvenie Doublewood 17 single malt, neat.  That means no water, no ice.  Can you remember that?”

“It would be my pleasure, but I’m sorry I can’t bring you that.”  Chip managed to look uncomfortable, like he was sad to disappoint the man and was about to continue when the man interrupted, roaring at him.

“What?  I know they have that scotch.  I’ve had it here before.  What the hell’s wrong with you?  I’m finished with you.  Get the manager over here.  Now!  This is certainly a job you’re not fit to have; you might start packing your things.  My guess is you’re through here.”

“Immediately, sir,” said Chip, trying to look disconsolate but not entirely succeeding.  

Sam came to the table and, amidst the man’s incantations, managed to explain to him that state law prohibited waiters under 21 from serving alcohol and that his waiter had been trying to tell him he’d have the drink delivered by someone permitted to do so.  In the meantime, their order was being prepared, and why yes, here came his drink. 

An older waiter set the liquor on the table in front of the man, gave him a small bow, and left.  As did Sam.

The remainder of the meal went without incident till the end—except for the frostiness the man showed to Chip.  While waiting for the desserts to be served, the man’s cellphone rang, he answered, then stood up and walked away from the table to take the call.  That meant only the boy was there when Chip appeared with the desserts.  Chip set the man’s tiramisu down first, then the sundae in front of the boy.  When he looked up, the boy was again staring at him. 

Chip stared back, and they both held each other’s eyes for several seconds.  Then the boy said, “You’re staring at me.”

Chip grinned.  “So were you.  And you started it.”

The boy laughed.  “And is that any way to speak to a customer?”

Chip laughed as well.  “Feels good to be able to.”

“Sorry about my father.  He’s always that way in restaurants.  Shops, too.  Most anywhere.  I can’t correct him or say anything at all.  Man, have I ever learned that well!  So I just sit and watch how the people he goes after respond.  You’ve done way better than most.  Way, way.”

“What’s your name?” Chip asked.

“Gray,” the boy said, and smiled.  The smile caused Chip’s heart to make another lurch.  “Graydon, actually.  Graydon Starling.  I go by Gray.  What’s yours?”

“Chip Cameron.  I go to Plymouth Academy.  You?”

“Borton.  We play you guys in sports!”

“You on any teams?  I play soccer.”

“I do too!  I’ll be on varsity this year.  Defense.  A couple of seniors graduated.  I’m excited.  You?”

“Varsity last year.”  Chip blushed.  “It wasn’t that I was all that good.  They just needed a body.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet!” Gray scoffed.  “You guys had a great team.  Sure whipped our ass last year.  Oh, wait a sec.  Were you—” he paused, thinking.  “Yeah, I remember now.  You scored that goal!  I can still see it.  You’re a forward.  You deked our keeper, and when he dove to block where he thought you’d be kicking the ball, you just sort of flicked it into the net just up over him.  Made him look silly.”

“That’s my signature move.”  Chip chuckled, trying to cover the blush that had arisen again.  “It’s where I got my name.  A couple of years ago, I did it just as you said. Just chipped the ball over a diving keeper, and my teammates began calling me Chip.  It stuck.”

Just then, the man returned to the table.  He sat down, and Chip left after winking at Gray out of the man’s sight.

Then came the check, which the man dropped his credit card on without giving Chip a glance.  Chip took it up to the front, then brought back the man’s card and the slip for him to sign.  He walked away after leaving the bill.  Charles signed, then stood to leave, his son sliding out of the booth as well.

Chip happened by as they were leaving and picked up the signed sales slip, looked at it, then hurried to the front, catching the two at the door. 

“Mr. Starling,” he said, and the man stopped and turned around.

“Mr. Starling, here’s your tip back.  You must need it more than I do.”  As he spoke he was reaching out, and Mr. Starling’s hand came up rather automatically.  Chip dropped two dimes and a nickel into it before turning and walking away.

Mr. Starling snarled and threw the coins at Chip.  They bounced off his back, and Mr. Starling stormed back to voice his complaints to Sam once again.  Gray waited outside.  Chip disappeared into the bowels of the restaurant, not to appear again while the Starling twosome was still present.

“Do you know how beautiful you are?”

“Well, yes, to be honest.  Yes I do.”  Chip giggled, showing that he was joking.  Then he said, “But quite a bit less beautiful than you are.”

Gray had called the restaurant and wheedled Sam into giving him Chip’s phone number.  He’d called, and they’d spoken on the phone.  The call had lasted over an hour, and then the next day it was the same.  This was their first private meeting—in a city park, alone on a park bench.

“Does your dad know you’re gay?” Gray asked.

“Oh, yeah, I told him a few years ago.  I’ve read some boys don’t know for sure till they’re older.  I knew when I was nine.  But dad and I are really close.  I don’t hide anything from him.  He helped me accept myself.  I guess your dad doesn’t know about you?”

“Are you kidding?”  Gray shook his head as he spoke.  “He’d kill me, then have a heart attack and die himself.  This gives me grave responsibilities, you know.  I need to keep quiet in order to keep two people alive.  That’s a lot of weight for a teenager.”

He laughed, but Chip only smiled.  “It has to be hard,” he said. 

“Not really.  I spend very little time with him.  Mom knows and helps me keep it a secret.  Dad’s difficult.  Well, you saw.  He’s very competitive, very concerned about his status and how people see him, and career-wise, he’s almost maniacally focused on reaching the top rung of the corporate ladder.  That’s about the only thing he focuses on, all he really cares about.  He does have a character flaw.  He really believes he’s better than anyone else.  He looks down on everyone.  But he’s smart, too.  He’s done well in his career, advanced all the way to an assistant-CFO position.  That stands for Chief Financial Officer.  It isn’t enough.  He wants to be a CFO and eventually a CEO.  Heaven help the employees of whatever company he’s with if he gets that title.  Heaven help the employees in the finance department when he gets the CFO job.”

He stopped, and Chip picked up the conversation from him.  “That’s what my dad is, a CEO.  He still has time for me, though not a lot; but he makes sure he has some.  He could eat out every night with business people, company directors, acquisition specialists and such, but at least three nights a week we eat together.  Usually at home.  We talk about everything.  He’s the reason I got that waiter job.  And that’s been great.  I’ve learned a lot this summer.  And I met my boyfriend because of my job.”

“You did?  Who is he?”  Gray couldn’t keep the shock and disappointment out of his voice.

“You, idiot!”

“We’re boyfriends?”

“Of course.  You told me on the phone you’d never had one, just like me.  Well, now neither of us can say that any longer.”  Then, to Gray’s surprise, Chip leaned over and kissed him. Not a peck, either, but a kiss that held for several seconds and included a tongue across Gray’s lips.

“Oh, God,” said Gray, gasping for breath even though the kiss hadn’t lasted that long, and then looked down at his tented shorts.

Chip laughed.  “Me too,” he said.  “Isn’t it great?”

School was back in session, and Chip was still working a couple of nights a week for Sam.  Richard loved Chip’s new direction and liked that with school, soccer and the job, Chip had learned to effectively balance the time he had, a skill that would be of great value once his son was off to college.

Chip was starting on the soccer team, and the second game of the season was against Borton.  The two boys could only find a little time together on the weekends, and because of Chip’s job, not much even then.  But they did have phones and kept in contact every day.  There’d been lots of friendly trash talk going into the match.  Now, they were playing the game.

Near the end, with Plymouth Academy up 3 to 1, Chip was bringing the ball down the right side, running clean after taking a pass from midfield.  There was only one man and the keeper to beat.  Gray was backpedaling, staying between Chip and the goal.  Chip saw who the defender was and smiled.

He kept crossing the ball from one foot to the other as he approached.  Gray positioned himself as well as he could, cutting off as much goal as possible.  Chip closed on him.  Gray stood firm.  At the last moment, Chip faked right, then chipped the ball softly up and over Gray as he had shifted his weight to the side Chip had faked to.  Chip cut to go around him and retrieve the ball.

Gray was beaten and he knew it.  He also knew he wasn’t about to let Chip score on him.  No way.  So he did the only thing he could.  He opened his arms and made a perfect football tackle on Chip, taking him down on the grass, sprawling on top of him.

They didn’t immediately get up.  In their helter-skelter collapse onto the field, somehow Chip’s arm had been trapped between them, and his hand had ended up underneath and against Gray’s groin.  Chip took advantage and found his target and gently squeezed.

Gray felt himself getting hard and was too embarrassed to rise, and Chip, well, Chip was laughing so hard he couldn’t find the strength to push Gray away.  Besides, he liked the feel of the boy lying on him.

It didn’t take long before members of both teams had rushed to gather around them.  His teammates hauled Gray off, and he used the crowd to hide his quickly diminishing tent.  Chip’s buddies looked and sounded like they wanted to murder Gray, but Chip intervened, and very quickly it was all settled down, with a penalty kick awarded to Chip.

When the game was over and members of both teams were chatting, Chip and Gray managed to separate themselves a bit from the milling boys.  “Told you that you wouldn't be able to get around me,” Gray announced, grinning.

“You were right.  I was completely unable to beat you.  Of course, we did score on my kick, but you were red-carded by then.”  He laughed, and Gray did, too.  Gray so wanted to wrap an arm around Chip’s shoulders.  Chip had a dirt smear down the left side of his face, his hair was a mess, his knees were grass stained, his shirt pulled from his shorts, and Gray thought he’d never seen anyone so handsome in all his life.

“So you like this boy?”

“More than I’ve ever liked anyone.  This must be what love feels like.  I think about him all the time, want to be with him.  When I see something interesting, my first thought is wishing I could share it with Gray.  When we talk, we can talk about anything.  Nothing has to be held back.  I just feel so right with him.”

“Have you had any sex yet?”

Chip grinned.  “Nothing much.  We haven’t known each other very long.  Kissing, hand-holding, feeling each other a little through our clothes.  The kissing is unbelievable.  I can’t even describe how it makes me feel.”

“You look like you’re in love.  You’re almost glowing.”  Richard took a sip of his wine.  “And his father doesn’t know he’s gay?  Really?  It’s kind of hard to hide at your age if you’re close to your son at all.”

“His dad really doesn’t know him.  Hasn’t spent any time with him since he was little.  His mother knows and protects him from his dad.  I know, it’s sad.  Especially for me, knowing how we are.”

Richard smiled at him.  “Not everyone is as close as we are, Chip; you certainly know that.  You said you met this boy at the restaurant, that his dad was the one whom you returned the tip to.  He was the one who threw it back at you?”

“Yep.  Maybe that’s another reason to keep the fact he now has a boyfriend from his father.  If the guy knew that boyfriend was me, well . . . I can imagine fireworks!”

“He hasn’t come back to the restaurant, I guess?”

Chip shook his head.  “At least not while I’ve been there.”

  “His loss,” Richard said.  “Sam runs a great restaurant—high-end cooking and service but below-high-end  prices.  It’s why he’s so full most nights.”  He took a final sip of his wine and put the glass down.  “I’ve got to get back to it, Chip.  Sorry.”

“That’s okay.  I understand.  You still working on that merger?

“Yeah, but it’s more of a buyout than a merger.  But like these things always are, it’s complex and takes a lot of planning in advance so it goes as smoothly as it can when the deal is completed.  So, good night, and I won’t be here for breakfast or dinner tomorrow.  Flying out to Omaha to visit one of their plants.  Always good to physically see what you’re told about, even though we had an independent assessment made.  You’ve heard about the pig in the poke, I’m sure.”

“You’re not buying a pig farm, are you?”  Chip grinned, and Richard laughed.  

“Sure am.  I figure that’s your next job: pig farmer.  You can start as the slops boy.”

Richard Cameron was in his office, his feet on his desk, his eyes gazing out his 45th floor window.  He wasn’t conscious of what he was gazing at.  His mind was fully engaged with his thoughts.

Chip was high on the list of what was passing through his mind.  Chip had continued at Plymouth Academy this year, and Richard was thinking that leaving him there was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.  As a CEO, he’d made many, many decisions.  Some had turned out great; the majority had, or he wouldn’t be sitting where he was.  But maybe his best one was keeping Chip where he was.  The restaurant job had worked splendidly.  And what it had led to was almost as good.

Chip had a boyfriend!  Richard saw how happy that made him and the new energy he had.  Chip had always been a confident boy but seemed even more so now—and more outgoing, too.  Richard hadn’t met the boy yet, only knew his name.  But he’d meet him soon; Chip was bringing him to the house for lunch on Saturday.

Then Richard’s thoughts returned to the upcoming buyout.  These things always were time-consuming and involved great detail work and planning.  But as CEO, he needed to grow the company, expand its operational base and build and ensure its profitability.  The current buyout would be part of that.  The company they were buying had a good reputation in its industry and had been quite profitable.  But they’d changed ownership a few years earlier, and the new management had made the mistake of adding many administrative jobs, making the decision-making slow and cumbersome and the payroll top-heavy.  A financial analysis Richard had commissioned had showed that by returning to the sparer structure the company had in place before the new management had come on board, the profitability could be restored and even improved because Richard’s current administrative staff could handle most of the extra work with only a few new hires.

This of course would necessitate letting go a large number of administrative employees from the company being bought.  Richard didn’t like doing that, but they were the reason the company was failing and looking to be sold.  It was easy to see that one way or another—through a buyout or the company going under—those jobs would be lost.  It saddened Richard, but that was how business worked.  He would look at the people getting the ax, and he thought that probably a few of them could be kept, but only a few.  Only the ones who had the proper skills and were needed once the acquisition was complete would be asked to stay.

Chip was trying to calm Gray’s nerves.  “He’ll like you!  Believe me.  And he doesn’t care anything about either of us being gay.  He even asked the other night if we were having sex, and by his tone of voice it was obvious it was simple curiosity.  He didn’t care if we were.”

“Really?  He asked that?  I can’t imagine my father asking that unless he was standing over me with a folded up belt in his hand.”

“Gray!  Did he ever whip you?”  Chip was appalled at the thought.

“No, but his shouting at me these last few years has been almost as bad.  If my mother hadn’t been there and stopped it and then comforted me, I don’t know how I could have had any confidence at all.  Most anything I did he criticized.  Mom made me realize it was him, not me, who was wrong.  Pretty soon she just kept him away from me altogether, which wasn’t that hard because he was working all the time.”

“Yeah, my dad does a lot of that too, as I’ve told you.  Work, I mean, not yelling at me.  But even though he works a lot, he’s here, too, and here often enough.  I’d be lost without him.  You’ll like him, too.  And he’ll like you.  You’ll see.”

The two of them had met at a place for breakfast near where Chip’s mansion was located.  Chip had known Gray was going to be nervous.  This gave them a chance to talk before going to the house.  Gray did look better now, and having finished their breakfast, Chip paid the bill, letting Gray handle the tip.

Gray gulped when he saw the mansion.  It and its extensive grounds took up a quarter of a city block.  Chip saw Gray’s expression and laughed.  “It’s just a house where I live.  The neat thing is we have a pool.  It’s great in the summer.  I can skinny dip in it!  I just tell Mrs. Sordoff I’m going to be swimming and she stays away from the windows on that side of the house.”

“You trust her?”

“Of course.  She’s been a fill-in for the mother I don’t remember.  And if she did look, so what?  She’d never say because she wouldn’t want to embarrass me, so I’d never know.”

Gray looked at him, then smiled.  “Are you trying to seduce me into joining you in the pool without a suit?”

Chip laughed.  “Well, maybe.”

The meeting with Chip’s dad went as Chip had expected it would.  Richard seemed almost a little shocked when he first saw Gray but quickly hid that behind a warm smile.  Chip thought about that and realized what caused his dad’s reaction was how handsome Gray was.  He had the entire package of teen-movie-star good looks, and anyone could be disconcerted coming onto that unaware.  Chip had seen that same look from others when seeing Gray for the first time.

Richard was warm and welcoming and quickly put Gray at ease.  None of the usual parental questions that make a kid feel like he was five years old came Gray’s way, and the boy found his nervousness fading away almost immediately due to Richard’s cordial and accepting manner.

They spoke for a few minutes, and then Richard excused himself, saying there was too much to do with his current project and too little time to do it in, but what surprised Gray was he didn’t just rush off without even a word, which was something his own father would have done had he been presented with Gray’s first girlfriend.  His father wouldn’t have spent any time at all getting to know her, not like Richard had with him.  But then the thought of his father doing that was silly to consider; his father would have objected to anyone Gray brought home and criticized him for it, perhaps even in front of the person.

Chip showed Gray around the house and grounds, introducing him to Mr. and Mrs. Sordoff as his friend.  As they were leaving the kitchen and Gray’s back was turned, Chip saw Mrs. Sordoff raising her eyebrows questioningly at him.  Chip winked at her and gave a barely perceivable nod.  Mrs. Sordoff smiled.

Chip saved his bedroom for last.  It was really a suite with bedroom, study, bathroom and walk-in closet.  It didn’t take long before they were both on Chip’s king-sized bed together.  It became their heaviest make-out session yet, leaving them both panting and wanting more when, on the intercom, Mrs. Sordoff called them for lunch.  They put their shirts back on and trooped down to the kitchen.

The next week was a hectic one for Richard.  Details of the buyout were being finalized, hours and hours were spent with the lawyers of both firms, and hundreds of details were resolved.  One of the myriad tasks was deciding who would be retained from the workforce of the newly purchased company.  Most would be let go.

Richard had been involved in the discussions of what new jobs would be added and had asked his personnel team to review the resumes of the potential applicants.  Department heads would do the interviewing and make the hiring decisions, except for top administration positions.  He himself would decide upon those.

There would be a need for a new logistics VP, and that job would be filled either from the inside or with someone from the company being purchased, and if it was from inside, that would create a job opening, and someone from the new addition could fill it.   The IT department would be needing several people, and one was to be second in command; Richard wanted to be involved with that hire. 

The most important position to fill was a new CFO.  The man who’d worked for Richard for years in that capacity was retiring.  There was no one currently working in Finance experienced enough to move up to the CFO slot, but there was a possible candidate from the company being purchased.  Not their CFO; he’d seen the writing on the wall and found a new job a month ago.  But his senior assistant seemed to have the qualifications for the top spot.  His resume showed a quick rise through the ranks and had detailed references about the many successes he’d had.

What Richard found most interesting was that this man had authored a memo to his boss about their top-heavy administrative structure, a memo that mirrored what Richard had learned from the analysis he’d commissioned.

  Unfortunately, the man’s file also had a few remarks about his personality.  Words like ‘aloof’ and ‘imperious’ and even ‘unlikable’ had been used.  Special inner-company evaluations of him requested by upper management of the man’s underlings showed he indeed wasn’t much liked by them, although they all said he knew his stuff and couldn’t be faulted for his financial abilities and acumen.

Richard felt his top administrators were a family of sorts.  He didn’t want dissension or animosity in that group.  He did not want to bring in someone who’d ruffle the feathers of those already there.  Opposing cliques within top management could easily spell doom for a company, and even if it didn’t rise to that level, cliques did contaminate the workplace with distrust and a malaise that was hard to ameliorate.

Hiring this man was a tough decision, and Richard wasn’t going to make it on the basis of a file full of papers.  He was looking forward to his interview with the man.

There was something else, of course.  Richard was aware that Mr. Starling was the father of his son’s boyfriend.  The personnel file listed the man’s wife and son, and how many people with his last name had a son named Graydon?  And a reputation of being difficult and unpleasant?  No, there was no doubt this was the man whom his son had served at Sam’s restaurant, the one who’d been surly and obnoxious and then showed his arrogance by undertipping.  This presented Richard with a complication he didn’t like: hire the man and he might be making life more difficult and less pleasant on a daily basis for him and his team; don’t hire him and the man could easily take a job in another city, depriving his son of a boy he was falling in love with.

That really couldn’t be the deciding factor, though the thought of Chip having his heart broken and going through an extended period of moping wasn’t to be disregarded lightly.  Richard had to decide on Starling based on what he thought of him from his interview.  If the man wasn’t employable, then Chip would have to deal with the fallout of that, whatever it may be.  Chip was 15.  He would and could get over it if the non-hiring of Mr. Starling was the ultimate cause of the end of his relationship with Gray.  He’d have to.

Richard read through the file a second time, then gave the matter some serious consideration.  After that, he called Chip and arranged a meeting with him and Gray.  That was followed by a meeting with Gray’s mom added in.  These meetings were done without the knowledge of Charles Starling.

“Mr. Starling.  Welcome.  Please have a seat.”

Charles glanced at the office after he’d shaken hands with Mr. Cameron and was heading for the chair he’d been offered.  It was an opulent office, spacious and comfortable.  Yet for some reason it looked like a serious workspace, not a room of leisure.  Charles vaguely wondered what the cause of that was, but he wasn’t a man to be distracted by such idle thoughts and put this one out of his mind.  He needed to concentrate on getting the measure of this man and to impress him.  After all, his plan was to replace him as head of this company within a few years.  The first step was to get in the door.  No reason that shouldn’t be relatively easy.

Charles was led to a couch and three upholstered chairs and was offered one of the chairs.  Richard moved the other chair that had been at right angles to Charles’s so the two could be more directly facing each other when they spoke.

“I’ve read your resume, Mr. Starling.  Very impressive.  There’s no question about your qualifications.  Not only do your accomplishments speak for themselves, everyone I’ve spoken to speaks highly of your abilities in the financial arena.  I think in that area, you’d be a fine addition to our staff in the CFO position.”

Charles smiled, but he’d expected this sort of greeting.  He did have a record he was proud of.

Richard continued.  “May I call you Charles?  I’m not sure how management worked in the other companies where you’ve worked, but top management here is very informal.  We’re friends as well as colleagues, and everyone is on a first-name basis.  I expect you to call me Richard.”

Charles nodded.  Though he preferred the respect offered by being called Mr. Starling and always sir by those under him, he was prepared to make that sacrifice for the position.  Only with the top men, of course.  The people under him certainly wouldn’t be granted that intimacy.  How could he expect them to toe the line if they weren’t required to show a certain degree of obeisance?

Richard continued.  “As this is a promotion for you—you’ve never performed in this capacity before—the offer would be that you’d be working on a probationary status for the first six months.  Should you show yourself as capable of doing all aspects of the job in that time, the probationary label will be removed.  Is this acceptable?”

Acceptable?  NO!  That absolutely wasn’t acceptable!  Charles looked hard into Richard’s eyes.  The man was smiling, but his eyes weren’t.  His eyes were reading Charles.  It was quite obvious the smile was simply an affectation.

Charles swallowed.  He wanted this job, wanted it badly.  But the indignity of being on probation?  Could he live with it?  And should he simply accept it without a fight?  Should he stand up for himself?  Would doing so risk the interview suddenly being over, risk that he’d be jobless?

Wouldn’t it show his weakness if he simply rolled over and showed his stomach?  This was too much, really.  Charles could feel his temper beginning to simmer.

However, while it was a fact that Charles was accustomed to having his way, it was with employees he outranked and peripheral people in his life like clerks in stores and waiters in restaurants.  He wasn’t accustomed to standing up to his equals.  He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but at heart he was a bully. 

Still, he had an immense sense of pride.  And this stung him mightily.  What should he do?  The man’s eyes were fixed on his, and he was waiting for an answer!

Charles cleared his throat.  “I wasn’t expecting the offer to be on a prove-yourself sort of basis.  I think my past record has been enough to show I’m capable of the job.”  Whew.  That felt good and shouldn’t upset this man.  It was a reasonable statement.

Richard didn’t reply, however, and Charles suddenly felt sweat under the collar of his shirt.  Whether it was from the tension of the interview or the temper he felt rising, Charles felt he was being impaled by Richard’s eyes looking at him steadily, and the tension didn’t abate.  Then Charles saw the man’s posture ease just slightly.

“It isn’t that I don’t think you’re capable of doing the job.  I wouldn’t be offering it to you if that were the case.  The reason for the caution I feel, and why I’m discussing with you, is something beyond your job performance.  I’m sure you can understand that I want someone in the CFO position who also fits with the company’s culture, its way of doing business, someone who fits well into the management family we have developed.  And frankly, I don’t know if you’ll be able to do that.  So rather than take that chance willy-nilly, I’m providing myself an escape clause.”

Charles couldn’t believe it.  The man thought there was something about him, something other than job performance, that might make him unsuitable?  What was it?  Nothing specific had been mentioned.

“Could you explain yourself?”  Charles’s voice was harder than it had been before.  He was having to keep a clamp on his rising temper.  He knew he had a problem with his temper, but hadn’t thought it would be a concern at this meeting.

Richard was still staring at him.  His eyes seemed relentless.  When he spoke, his voice had lost much of the friendliness it had held when they’d begun.  “The question I have for you is this: how badly do you want this job?  That’s what we’ll spend the next few minutes discussing.  I’ve read your resume, and I’ve read your personnel records gathered from the company you used to work for, the one we now own.  It speaks glowingly of your performance in all areas except one.  That one was mentioned several times by several people you worked with.  Do you know what that one is?”

Charles could feel himself going on the defensive.  It was a position he hated, and one that almost always brought out the temper he was now very aware was near bursting forth.  Should he answer this question, this pejorative question?  Was he supposed to guess at what others thought was wrong with him?  There wasn’t anything wrong with him or how he’d done his job!  Quite obviously this man thought there was something; if Charles didn’t respond, would he not show a lack of understanding of himself?  Damn, he hated this.  He didn’t deserve it!

Those eyes simply kept staring.  He had to either answer or get up and leave. 

He thought about that and about the question asked just prior: how much did he want this job?  The answer to that was, he wanted it more than anything.  But should he crawl, drop to his knees to get it?  No job was worth that, was it? 

Well, maybe this wasn’t that bad.  Maybe whatever the problem Mr. Cameron was addressing was something small, something easily brushed off.  To get over this decided hump, however, he needed to answer this question and do so in a confident, comfortable way.  Not show either his temper or his pride.

“I guess perhaps there may have been some comments about my being a stern taskmaster.  I had a few, only very few, discussions with the head of HR about trying to get people to like me.  I didn’t think it necessary to do that. The job’s the important thing.  Getting the job done, running a tight ship with those under me, is more important than how they react to me.  Personality issues aren’t a problem, haven’t been and won’t be.”

Those eyes.  Didn’t the man ever blink?  Now, thankfully, Richard finally lowered them for a moment.  He also sat back in his chair, thinking, apparently.  Maybe weighing Charles’s answer.  Charles complimented himself for stating the truth, not backing away from it.  He didn’t like the fact that Richard wasn’t smiling, however.

Then Richard leaned forward to speak.  “Personality may not have been important where you’ve worked in the past, but it is certainly an issue for a top member of my administrative staff.  For instance, as an example of just one of many areas where personality can enter into our working environment: some of the people who’d be under your direction at this company are gay.  That’s not a problem, never has been here, but it could turn into one for you based on your personality and beliefs.  What’s your attitude towards gays?”

Lie.  Charles knew he had to lie.  If Richard had known there were gays working in his company and had permitted it, that more than implied—it proved—that Richard was accepting and comfortable with those people.  That meant Charles couldn’t reveal his own disgust with them.  The problem was, Charles wasn’t a good liar.  He reddened when he did, partly because he’d been put in a position of having to lie, and that spurred his temper.

But maybe he could sugarcoat his answer.  He sat back in his chair and assumed a look of innocence.

“The truth is, I’ve had no contact with any gay people.  So my response has to be more philosophical than practical.  My answer is, there’s no reason at all I couldn’t work with them.” 

Richard was studying him, but what could the man see?  Certainly nothing that would give away this minor falsehood.  He didn’t feel his neck or face warming.  Surely he’d gotten away with his remark.

Richard too sat back, but his face didn’t soften, nor did his eyes.  There was a pause before he spoke, and the silence did nothing to reassure Charles.

Then Richard spoke.  “This is what I meant by finding out how badly you want this position.  Because the answer you gave me, saying how you have little interest in the feelings of those under you, should end this interview.  I should stand up, shake your hand and tell you I’m sorry but this isn’t the company for you.  Or, to be more brazen, you’re not the man for this company.  But I’m not going to do that.  I’m willing to go the extra mile for you.  How willing are you to go the extra mile for the job?  How badly do you truly want it?”

Charles just stared at him.  He had no idea how to answer that. 

Richard nodded.  “You need to know what I’m talking about.  You won’t like it.  I expect you to get up and leave while I’m talking.  You’re not used to the things I’m going to say.  But if you want this job, you’ll listen to them.  Then you’ll get up and leave, and I’ll have given you 48 hours to make a decision.  I have no idea what that decision will be.

“Please don’t interrupt me when I speak now.  You can say what you want when I’m done or simply walk out while I’m speaking.  I half expect you to do that.  I don’t know how badly you want this job—walking away from it will show me.”

Richard stopped and took a deep breath, then resettled himself in his chair before continuing.  “I’ve read your file.  I’ve spoken to people you’ve worked with, people who know you.  I have a pretty good feel for who you are.  You’re a driven man, wanting to reach the top of your career.  But you’re also a cold, insensitive man with little regard for others.  For their feelings.  For their humanity.  That sort of person has no place in my company.  We work together as a harmonious team here.  We make many decisions by talking them through, listening to each other.  I doubt you ever really listen to anyone.  You believe you’re smarter than anyone else, and that somehow makes you feel more deserving than they are.  Your feeling of superiority is something you wear as a shield but something you make obvious to all you come in contact with.”

Charles couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  By now, his face was bright red, and it was all he could do to control himself.

Richard was going on, watching Charles as he spoke.  “I can’t have someone on my staff who feels he’s smarter than anyone else.  I can’t have someone who can’t even control his own temper.  Look at you!  You’re ready to explode!  What I’ve heard is you do that frequently.  You’d have good and bad days here.  We all do.  But we never blow up at each other.  We have too much respect for our fellow employees here.  I doubt you have much respect for anyone at all.”

He stopped, but held up his hand to let Charles know he wasn’t through.  He took a moment, watching Charles, then continued.

In a less abrasive voice, he said, “All right, enough of that.  I’m sure you’re thinking, if he feels this way about me, why hasn’t he ended the interview?  Why is he still talking to me?  The answer to that is simple and goes back to my original question: how much do you want this job?  Because, believe it or not, that job is still there, waiting for you.  Your capabilities you’ve shown in your work have earned you that.  But—and it’s a very significant but—there are conditions.  I think there’s a less-than-50/50 chance you can meet them, but I think with your abilities, if you try, you can accomplish almost anything, and I feel you’re worth the effort.  You can certainly handle the CFO job.  But can you change your personality?  Can you change your attitude?  Can you change your core values?  More succinctly, just can you change?  That, I don’t know.  Nor do I know if you’re willing to try.”

Richard paused long enough that Charles had to lift his eyes to meet Richard’s.  Then he continued.  “That’s the big thing you have to decide.  You have to realize you have some character issues that need addressing—fixing, actually.  That will be difficult for you to do, but if you don’t accept that fact, you won’t be able to make the adjustments necessary.  So I’m going to leave it there.  I’m going to offer you the job, contingent on your coming to me within the next 48 hours and telling me you realize you do have some personal shortcomings and are willing to work on them.  I will tell you this: I’ll work with you.  I have a plan that might help you transition from the person you are now to the one you need to be to work here.  We’ll only discuss that, however, after you’ve accepted the fact you have to change and committed yourself to doing so.”

Richard stood up.  He didn’t offer to shake hands.  He simply stood and looked at Charles.

Charles was also quickly on his feet.  His face was still red, but not to the extent it had been before.  He was a smart man and knew when the ball had landed in his court.  It was lying at his feet.  The decision of whether to lean over and pick it up was solely his now.

The fact was, he wanted the job.  He’d been striving for a CFO position for years.  Now it was in his grasp.  How much humiliation was he willing to take to get it, though?  How much playacting would it take?  That was the question.

Without another word, he turned on his heel and left the office.    

Chip found his dad was much quieter than usual that night.  His dad sometimes had tough days at work, and there were times he wasn’t very voluble when he came home.  Chip had learned his moods.  Sometimes it was good to let him muse without interruption.  Sometimes he welcomed being brought out of his trance.

“Dad, you look like it’s been a really tough day,” Chip said at dinner, thinking he should at least try to help diffuse the clouds.  “Problems with the buyout?  I thought that was going well.”

Richard shook himself, then gave Chip a wan smile.  “Really tough?  Yeah.  I had to lower the boom on Gray’s dad, and I really don’t like doing that.  Of course, I don’t like how he’s treated his fellow employees or his family, either, and this talk needed to happen if he’s going to have the job as my CFO.  We’ll have to wait for a decision on that; he’ll have to learn empathy, and I don’t know if he’s capable of it.  Some people aren’t.  But I’m going to give him a chance.”

Richard stopped and grimaced.  “Still, speaking to anyone as I spoke to him . . . I don’t like doing that.  That doesn’t come easily for me.”

Chip nodded, then got up, came over and hugged his dad.  “You did the right thing.  We’ll all find out how successful he is.  I guess it’s up to him now.”

Charles arrived home in a foul mood.  He slammed his briefcase on the entryway table and stormed into the living room.  He found his wife and son sitting there.  She was reading a book; he was doing something with his phone.  Probably texting someone.  Wasting time as usual.

“What are you doing?” he said, speaking sharply, scornfully actually, as he so frequently did when addressing his son.

Gray looked up.  “Welcome home, Father.”

Charles glared at him.  “I asked you a question.  I’m going to take that phone away from you.  All you ever do is look at it.  Here, give it to me.”

He started across the room.  Gray stood up, his face reddening but unreadable.  He slipped his phone into his back pocket.

Charles reached the boy and stuck out his hand.  “Give it to me.”  This time his voice was a shout.  Charles’s face was bright red.  His other hand was clenched in a fist.

Gray looked at his mother.  She was watching the exchange.  Now she spoke.  “Charles, sit down.  We have something to discuss.”

“In a moment.  I want that phone first, and I’ll have it.  One way or another.”

“Charles, if you try to take it, I’ll call the police.”

Charles quickly turned his head to look at her.  What he saw was her still sitting where she’d been, but instead of a book in her hand, she was now holding her own phone.

Charles stared at her, and his rage grew.  But she forestalled him.

“Charles,” she said calmly, “you can be as angry as you want, but right now, you need to listen to me.  I’ve had enough of your blustering, your rages, your treatment of Gray, your indifference to me and my feelings.  You were different back when we were first married.  But it wasn’t long before you allowed your ambition to consume you, and you changed.  You’re no longer the man I married.  The question is, can you find that long-abandoned man again?  Or do you even want to?”

Charles couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  From his own wife?  And this following right behind the meeting he’d just had where he’d been treated like something stuck to the bottom of his shoe?  Feeling shaken, he turned away and saw the nearest chair, the one Gray had been sitting in, and he took the step needed and sank down into it.

“Charles, things are going to change here, one way or another.  I’ve had it, and Gray has, too.  Neither of us is willing to be part of your life when the only thing that matters to you is your job, your position in whatever company you’re working for, and your own pride.  We’ve talked about it.  We’ve come to a decision.

“We’re willing to have you as a husband and father, but only if he is the man you used to be.  I want that, and so does your son.  Both of us are tired of your attitude, your temper, your feelings of superiority.   Neither of us is willing to put up with it any longer.  So, if you want motivation to try to change, there it is.  Choose to remain the shallow man you’ve become and we won’t be part of your life.  We’re sick of it.” 

She reached over to the table next to her chair and picked up an envelope that was lying there. 

“These are divorce papers.  They haven’t been filed yet.  I had them drawn up, but I didn’t want to sign them till having this discussion with you.   Whether I sign and file them is entirely up to you.  Change your attitude, get rid of your superiority, lose the temper, be willing to spend time with your son and me—quality time—and those papers will disappear.  Until that time, you will move out.  We won’t put up with this version of you any longer.  Frankly, I don’t think you can change.  You’d have to admit you need to, and I doubt you can.  I don’t think you’re aware of who you are now and don’t see the flaws.  Everyone you deal with does, but you don’t.  It’s up to you.  Stay like you are now and I’ll file for the divorce.  In the meantime, I’ve packed your things.  They’re in the bedroom.  Either pick them up and take them, or find a place and send for them.”

Charles started to stammer, and his wife held up her hand.  If he’d been clearheaded enough, he might have remembered Richard Cameron doing the same thing not long before.

“I have something further to say that will come as a shock and probably feel like a betrayal, but you need to know.  I spoke to Mr. Cameron.  He wanted to know some things, and I was happy to oblige.  The reason for that was, he wanted to give you a chance to be part of his firm, but not if you remained the man you now are.  We talked.  Gray was with us.  Mr. Cameron is willing to go to great lengths for you to fit in there.  He thinks it unlikely you can change, but he wants to give you the opportunity and will try to help.  The question we all have is whether you will take advantage of the gift that’s being laid in front of you.”

That was when Gray chose to talk.  “Father, this is the perfect time to tell you.  I’m tired of dancing on eggshells around you.  I’m gay.  Live with it.  Or don’t.”

Charles stood up and walked out. 

“You told him?”

“Yep.  Told him he had to deal.  Said, ‘I’m gay; live with it!’”

“Wow.  Did you then duck and cover?”  Chip said it as a joke; Gray had told him earlier that his father had never hit him.  But he’d also said that the man had a raging temper.

“No.  I just looked him in the eye.  He looked back, but I think he was a bit punch drunk by then.  Your dad had knocked him onto the ropes, and Mom had finished with a one-two punch to the chin, and he was already wobbly when I snuck my sucker punch in.  He simply turned around and left.”

“So how do you feel?”

“I’m okay.  Relieved, really.  I don’t have to put up with him criticizing everything I do any longer.  There isn’t any tension in the house now.  I don’t worry in the evening that any minute he’ll come through the door.”

The boys were in the swimming pool.  Chip had finally convinced him to come in with him.  They were naked, and Gray tended to stay near the pool wall closest to the house where his nether parts couldn’t be seen.  They’d swum laps and then played a little.  Now they were holding onto the pool edge, next to each other, standing where only their heads and shoulders were out of the water.

Chip asked, “You want something to drink?  There’s a cooler on the deck with some pop in it.”

Gray nodded.  “Yeah, a Pepsi would be great.  You going to get it?”

Chip looked back at him.  “Of course I am.  Uh . . . oh, I get it.  You want me to get it so you can watch me walking over there and back in the nude.  Perv!”

Rather than reply, Gray attacked.  Chip was facing the side of the pool, ready to spring out, and Gray got right behind him, pinning him to the wall with his body.

Chip could feel Gray’s arousal against his butt.  He wriggled a little, rubbing himself against Gray’s protrusion.

“Ohhh!” Gray breathed, surprise in his voice.

Chip smiled and began wriggling more persistently.

The ohhhs became more intense.

Charles had been knocked off balance by the punches he’d received, body blows from Mr. Cameron, then from his wife, and finally from Gray.  He checked into a hotel, a $500 a night one, but that was who he was.  He felt like he belonged at the top of the heap, and he lived that way, justifying his behavior by telling himself one day soon his salary would compensate.   This of course meant he was currently in debt.  His assistant to the CFO job, while a small step from being a CFO, didn’t pay half as much as that job did.

His current job.  Well, that was another problem.  Termination notices and severance pay had been sent by his company to all employees except those being offered positions by the purchasing company, Richard’s company.  Those employees, it was assumed, would be hired and continue working without a gap in employment.  Accordingly, there was no need for severance pay.

What this meant, as Charles hadn’t accepted the offer he’d been given, Charles currently was unemployed and had received no severance from his company.

He wasn’t without resources, however.  The first thing he did when in his hotel room was to place a call to a headhunter his firm had used, a man he’d spoken to occasionally in the past.  He told him his company had been bought out, and that with the transaction, through no fault of his own, he was now seeking employment, and that he was looking to move up to a CFO post.  He asked the man to arrange some interviews for him.  As Charles only had two days to find if something was available, he asked the headhunter to set the interviews up ASAP.

The next day, the headhunter called Charles.  “I’m so sorry, Mr. Starling.  I’ve researched the market.  There are very few companies advertising for a CFO.  A couple of people I spoke to suggested that that position is almost always filled from within, with people who’ve worked up to the post by going through the ranks in their companies and so are people who already know the company and its financial intricacies inside and out.”

He paused to see if Charles had anything to add and was met with silence.  He took a deep breath and continued.  “You won’t like the rest of it, I’m afraid.  I’ve been in this job a long time and have quite a few contacts, people I’ve found jobs for who’ve then moved up in their companies.  Two of them are CEOs, and I talked to them and some others I deal with.  I was told that the best way to become a CFO, even if you’re already well qualified, would be to hire in as a lower-level employee in the finance department of whatever company you’re interested in and work your way up.  I’m truly sorry I can’t help you any further if the only job you’re interested in is a CFO position, Mr. Starling.”

Charles asked, “You said ‘very few’ CFO positions were being posted.  What about those that are?”

After a moment of silence, the headhunter said, “I called them.  Please understand, I’m telling you this just so you’ll know the ground you’re treading here.  I get no pleasure in saying this.  When I mentioned your name, the people hiring for those positions lost interest.  I don’t know why, but I’ve seen this before.  Somehow, your name has gotten around.  People have been talking, and CFOs and CEOs belong to a small club.  Again, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to be of further help.”

Charles was disappointed, but not entirely surprised.  He knew how companies worked.  Yes, CFO’s were usually promoted from the ranks.  It had been the path he’d been on.  He was upset about the blackballing that might be happening, of course.  He couldn’t understand that.  It made no sense to him.

He shook it off and tried another approach.  He found a phone number on the internet and called a man who’d been working under him a while back and had found a new job at a competing company; the man had the job title he’d had: Assistant CFO.

“Bob,” he said when the man answered, “Charles Starling here.  I heard you’d found a position.  Congratulations.  On not only the job, but the promotion.  Well done.”

“Thank you, Mr. Starling.  And the reason for this call?”

Well, that sounded a bit frosty, but Charles barged on.  He was sure he was misinterpreting the man’s tone of voice.  After all, Bob had been his underling for a few years; the man owed him.  The only reason he now had the job he did was the training he’d had from one Charles Starling. 

“I was just wondering if there were any other high-level openings where you are now or if you’d heard of any when you were looking for yourself?”

“For you?”

“Well, yes.  I’m just exploring the market and thought I might ask around with people I knew.”

There was emptiness on the line for several seconds.  Then, “Mr. Starling, I’m very surprised you’d call me looking for help.  I looked for help from you for years and got criticism, rebukes, an overload of work and barely cost-of-living increases.  I cannot remember a single word of praise or support in all that time.”

Charles’s temper flared.  How could he!  That son of bitch.  If they were in the same room, he’d throttle him!

The man was still talking.  “I wouldn't ever work under you again, and I would hope we’re never in the same company again.  Even if we did have an opening, I’d never recommend you for it.  Please don’t ever call me again.”

That was followed by a click as the man disconnected.  Charles was left red in the face, seething, and with no one to take his anger out on.  

Feeling a growing desperation now, Charles spent the next day on the internet, doing his own job search.  There were many accounting positions open—far, far fewer in corporate finance.  Those open jobs were ones he’d done years ago and had no interest in doing again.  He was better than that!

He dined that evening at a Manhattan restaurant to lift his spirits.  He had several cocktails prior to and two glasses of wine with.  The check for more than $100 came, and he paid with his credit card.  The waiter brought it back and said it had been declined.  Charles did have another card, but it didn’t have much more liquidity than the one which had been rejected.  That was when he realized the rent on the family’s apartment was due in another week.  He didn’t have the funds for it!  In fact, paying his hotel bill might be a problem.

In his hotel room the next day, he stayed in bed deep into the morning.  His problems kept running on a loop through his head; he mindlessly kept looking for a solution and not finding one.  His mood grew darker and darker.  His problems kept churning.

He had no job.  No income.  He was being blackballed in the job market.  Debts up the wazoo.  Thrown out of his home.  Rent payment due.  No family.  A gay son.  A failing marriage.   No way to put any of it right.  No way at all.

There was a way, of course.  A thoroughly undesirable way, but a way.  There was Mr. Cameron’s offer.  His humiliating, debasing offer.

There also appeared to be no other choice.  He wasn’t even sure the offer would remain open.  What if Mr. Cameron heard about and listened to the blackballs?

Just before 48 hours had passed since he’d last been in Richard’s office, Charles returned.  He’d had two days to think, and the thoughts hadn’t been good ones.  There was no question in his mind that he deserved the CFO job, and that he could do well in it.  He’d never cared whether the people around him liked him, and it was easy to push that thought aside; he’d gotten as far he had without caring what they felt.  It didn’t affect him one way or the other, and he’d never given it a thought—until now.

So he ignored the remarks about his personality entirely.  What he mulled over was how he was going to make Richard believe he’d changed.  He would change.  He’d change into a more devious person, hiding his personal thoughts and opinions more than he had in the past.  Maybe he could smile more.

He did realize that he may have misjudged Richard.  The man seemed more clever than expected, and more powerful, too.  He’d have to be at the top of his game to fool him.  But once he had the job, had his office, had sharpened up the staff working for him, was producing for the company, all that other crap Richard had thrown at him would be forgotten.

So it was that he entered Richard’s office with a smile on his face and a sheepish look in his eye.  Well, as sheepish as he could manufacture.  He was used to looking at the world through imperious and often contemptuous eyes; sheepish was a challenge.

Richard got up from his desk and shook hands with him.  This time, he had Charles sit in front of his desk, and he returned to his own chair behind it.

“What have you decided?” Richard asked in a pleasant voice.

“I’ve decided to take the job as offered.  I do recognize I’ve been a bit overbearing at times and promise to work on it.  I think by the time my probationary period is over, you’ll be very pleased with your decision to hire me.”

Richard leaned back and smiled.  “I’m happy to hear that.   I was half expecting to see you come in here railing at me for talking to your family, but I guess you realized that with as important a hire as this is, due diligence on my part is crucial.  Gathering information from all places available is necessary so I can be as well-informed as possible.  And I want you to know, I had nothing to do with her decision on the divorce proceedings; in fact, I talked her out of going through with it until our little experiment here is finished.  She would like to see the man she married reemerge.  She would like to remain married, but only to him.  However, that’s not the issue before us now.  Do you know what that is?”

Charles smiled.  “Well, I’d assume it’s finding me an office, introducing me to my new staff, and then setting out some projects that need attention . . . .”

As Charles spoke, Richard was smiling, but shaking his head.  Charles trailed off, perplexed.

Richard sat forward.  “You appear to think the issues I spoke to you about at our first meeting were trivial.  I thought I’d made myself clear: you have problems that must be addressed and corrected before you begin.  Frankly, I don’t believe you’ve paid much attention to that.  And I don’t think you will unless coerced into doing so.  Isn’t that right?”

Charles felt his mouth drop open, his surprise was so great, and he quickly shut it.  He simply stared at Richard, unsure how to proceed.  One thing he couldn’t do was answer that question.

“That’s what I thought,” Richard continued, as though Charles had answered in the affirmative.  “What I need is for you to work hard to change your attitude, change your way of looking at people, and I want proof positive that you’ve done that and have changed.  And I know how to get that proof.  You don’t have to do it my way; any way you can effect change is fine.  But change you must.  You won’t like it my way, but I think it would give you the best chance of seeing your problems for what they are and fixing them.

“If you don’t do something, if you don’t make the effort, if I don’t see a changed man in front of me in six months, we can forget all about all of this, and I can go through these resumes—” he nodded at a pile of papers lying on his desk “—and find someone more suitable for the job.  I also have a bright young man in house who’s creative and brilliant whom I may take a chance on.  He’s young, he’s inexperienced, but has promise.  Should I take a chance on him?”

He stopped and Charles knew he was supposed to respond.  He thought for a moment, then asked, “What is it you want me to do?”

The smile on Richard’s face told him it was the response the man was looking for.

“All right.  We’ve come to it.  I wasn’t at all sanguine we would get this far.  Okay, here’s the deal.  Your problem is your feelings of superiority, that you’re smarter, more capable, simply better than the rest of us.  And that due to that, you’re deserving of respect, admiration, and entitlements.  You lack empathy and sensitivity and have little concern for others or their feelings.  And when you don’t get what you expect and feel you deserve, your temper flares.

“That’s where we’re starting.  It’ll be a monumental task to fix all that, but I think you do have strength in you to do it if you really want to.  Right now, I don’t think you want to.  I don’t think you feel any of that matters.  It does.  It matters to your wife, your son, and has to matter to you if you want to get and keep this job.”

Richard stopped and gazed into Charles’s eyes for a moment.  Then he continued.  “Just the fact I’ve read off a list of negatives and you aren’t bothered by them tells me I’m right.  You haven’t given a passing thought to changing.  Well, you will when you begin the six-month program I have in mind for you.  It’ll go like this.”

Richard had given a lot of thought to how he might be able to get Charles to see the light.  He realized that going to the lengths he was for Charles to remake himself into someone he could work with as his CFO was as much for Chip’s benefit as his own.  He couldn’t imagine doing this for any other potential hire at his company, no matter the position.

He laid out his plan for Charles, and Charles sat stoically, listening.  He would be paid the CFO salary that they’d discussed, to become effective at the beginning of next week.  But half the money would be put in a trust for him; the other half would go to his wife for her and Gray’s support.  Charles would take a job that Richard would find for him.  Charles would live off the wage coming from that job.  He was to learn on that job how to deal with people.  Learn humility.  Learn humanity.  Learn that everyone is due respect, and that everyone has a spark in them that makes them superior in some way to others.  Learn that people don’t gloat about that or let it affect their character.

Charles would be living like most New Yorkers did: hand to mouth, menial wages, high living costs, trying to get extra hours to extend his paycheck and make ends meet.  His physical life would certainly change; the hope was that his attitudes would change as well. 

The first night they slept in bed together, both were shy.  They both took it for granted they would sleep naked, but actually doing so took some courage.

They undressed slowly, each watching the other, not wanting to be the first to get everything off.  They’d both seen each other when swimming and walking into and out of the changing room.  They’d not showered together, however.  They were working toward intimacy at a very measured pace.  What had happened in the pool had lowered some barriers, but not all.  A lifetime of modesty isn’t discarded casually.

When both were down to only their underwear and it was apparent both were in the same state of excitement, Chip laughed and said, “Ready, set, go,” and dropped his boxers.  Gray was right behind him.  They both looked.  They both blushed.  Then Chip stepped over and hugged Gray, their erections nestling together against their stomachs. 

Chip sighed.  “This feels so right,” he voiced softly into Gray’s ear.

Gray giggled.  “You breath is tickling my ear.”

Chip let go of him and pulled back the covers on his bed.  “Let’s see what else I can tickle,” he murmured seductively.

Three months passed.  Charles had survived it, barely.  He had never suffered so many indignities in his life.  Everything was different now.  Just the way people looked at him had changed.

Only the fact that he had a high-paying, prestigious job awaiting him kept him going.  There’d been times when even that lure hadn’t seemed enough.  But every time he thought about abandoning this fool’s errand he was on and finding some sort of job, he realized what he’d be giving up.  A family, a great job, a way of life.  Every time, he gritted his teeth and decided to stick this out.

He was living in a one-room apartment among others with low-paying jobs.  There were families in the building, and the thought of that made him shudder.  How could anyone bring up kids living like this?  But it annoyed him, too.  He could hear babies crying through the thin walls.  And smell the strange foods being cooked.  Yes, people from Mexico, India, Central America and an African country were his neighbors.

He found it odd that they all smiled at him.  None of them seemed awed by him.  Of course, there was nothing at all awesome about him now.  In the past he may have entertained the thought that just his own personal aura shed some sort of light that made people realize he was special.  He didn’t have that misconception any longer.  His neighbors, almost none of whom had even finished high school, saw him as an equal.  And they were comfortable with him.

Work was another great indignity.  He was working at Sam’s restaurant.  Richard had gotten him a job there.  A job as a dishwasher!  Well, he’d started in that position.  The first three weeks it was always a struggle to come to work, to know he’d be handling other people’s dirty plates and glasses and silverware.  Gradually, he’d come to understand there was nothing humiliating about it.  It was a job.  He watched the other dishwasher working.  He was a man from Honduras who spoke somewhat fractured English and fluent Spanish.  He was cheerful.  That was one of the things that surprised Charles.  But the man was also very concerned about the job.  When Charles had started, he’d paid little attention to how he performed his tasks.  Then Mateo had stopped him when he was doing a trivial task, putting silverware in the slot in the dishwasher rack.

“No, no, amigo,” he’d said, smiling.  “Sort.  Take too long to unload your way.  All handles down.  See?  Need wash top ends best.  Want very clean for customers.  Also make unload easier.”

Mateo had taken all the silverware Charles had dropped into the slots and rearranged it.  He felt no revulsion handing the parts of the silverware that had been in people’s mouths.  “Muy better,” he’d said, and smiled as he walked off.

What got to Charles was that Mateo cared about what he was doing.  It was a menial job that anyone could do, but he cared about it.  He cared about his place in the restaurant.  He had no concept that the job was beneath him or that he was demeaned by doing it.  Dishwashing!

The other thing that got to him was, Mateo was happy.  He himself certainly wasn’t happy.

He’d been watching the staff at Sam’s and he’d seen that Mateo wasn’t the only happy one.  This was much different from what occurred in any office setting he was accustomed to.  There, men and women in business clothing went about their jobs seriously, industriously, with sober faces and few smiles.  Here, the staff was much different.  There was more bustle here, certainly; there was stress at both places, but the stress here actually seemed to be motivating, and the staff didn’t seem to mind it.  There was more chatter here, too.  And abundant smiles.  Waiters and busboys and other front-of-the-restaurant people would tease each other, amid lots of laughing.  Everyone seemed happy!  He’d never seen outright happiness in the offices in which he’d worked.

Happiness.  Thinking about it, that had never been a goal of his.  It hadn’t entered his mind.  He’d always been striving to move up the ladder, to look better than anyone else; his accomplishments had given him contentment and pride; happiness, though, no; none of his accomplishments had brought the happiness he could see and feel in this restaurant. 

Happiness had little to do with the world he lived in.  That wasn’t true at Sam’s where it seemed like everyone enjoyed what they were doing.  Even the most menial jobs were performed by happy people.

Did he want to be happy?  What a strange thought!  But he was immersed in a sea of happy workers, and, well, it felt good.  Comforting, in a way.  It even brought up memories of long ago, back when he’d been young and starting out with a new job and young wife.  Very strange indeed.

Without Charles living at home, Chip was now able to spend some time at Gray’s, which was also possible because Chip had finally given up his job at the restaurant.  He was sorry to leave, and Sam was sorry to see him leave, but soccer and studying for his upcoming exams didn’t really leave him time to have a job at night as well, even if only a few nights a week.

Gray’s mother took a shine to Chip right off, and the two were now at the point of joshing with each other.  Gray watched, delighted to see the two interacting and sad that this sort of thing could never happen with his father.  He realized this was how life was supposed to be.  Why couldn’t his father see that?

Gray’s mother got invited to Chip’s house for dinner occasionally.  She and Richard seemed very compatible to Gray.  He thought about how different his life would have been if they’d been his parents.  He might even have been as confident as Chip was.

Chip.  Yeah, he had no doubts there.  It wasn’t puppy love Gray was feeling.  He was into Chip to the max.  This wasn’t teenage experimentation, a fling, a short-term, heady, get-your-rocks-off engagement.  This was the real thing.  Chip felt that too.  He’d said so.

If his father moved back home, if his mother didn’t file for divorce, it would make no difference.  He was with Chip, and he would be, and that was that.  The two of them had discussed it, and Gray would move into Chip’s house if it became necessary.  They hadn’t approached Richard with that decision yet, but they would if it came to that.

When Charles eventually rose to the exalted position of busboy, it was even worse for him.  At least when he was washing dishes, very few people saw him.  Now, the public could see him clearing dirty plates and glasses from tables, wiping them down—wiping the seats down, for crying out loud.  Picking up used napkins.

Sam had to speak to him.  He called him into his tiny office.  He owned the restaurant—a popular, elegant one—yet his office was small and stuffed with boxes of everything imaginable, from candles to condiment bottles, olives to oregano, wine glasses to winter squashes.  The place looked ridiculous to Charles for a man in Sam’s position, but Sam didn’t mind it at all.  He saw how Charles reacted to it and said, “If it were spacious, I might be tempted to spend time here, and there’s too much I need to do in the restaurant, not here hidden away.  Out there, I can see everything.  And I love it.

“What I see with you is someone unhappy bussing tables.  If this job humiliates you, then you don’t understand a very important thing.  It’s simple: no job is demeaning.  A job is a job.  If you put your heart into doing the best you can at whatever it is you’re doing, instead of being drudgery, it becomes an opportunity to show yourself and others your capabilities.  To be proud of your work.  And do you know what comes with that?  Happiness.  You’re not necessarily doing something you love doing, but you’re doing something to the limits of your ability, trying to be exceptional, and meeting that challenge brings happiness.

“You, Charles, do not look like a happy man to me.  I see it in your attitude.  You wear that like a cloak.  And you need to fix it.  Approach bussing like a challenge.  Be the best busboy I have.  Make your tables perfect, the floors under them immaculate, the tablecloths set just so, the place settings perfect.  Care about what you do, do it the best you can, and you’ll stop feeling this is all beneath you.  Try it, changing the way you’re approaching this. 

“To make it easier on you, I’m going to have John work with you.  He’s the best I have, probably because he treats bussing tables like Ernie Banks treated a baseball game.  Ernie loved it and was over-the-top enthusiastic about playing it.  Maybe some of John can rub off on you.”

Charles wasn’t a happy man, and after a couple more nights of feeling ashamed when diners saw him running a carpet sweeper under a table, he’d told himself this had to stop.  He either had to quit this job, give up his CFO hopes at Richard’s company, give up his wife and son, or . . .

Perhaps this was a simpler solution.  Work with John; maybe things could be different.  Sam had thought that might help.  So, why not? 

He felt startled by the thought: he really had nothing to lose!

John was a revelation.  The man was in his early thirties.  He wasn’t bad looking, and the way he dressed and carried himself improved his looks to the point of his being handsome.  All the busboys dressed the same way, sporting dark trousers, dark shoes, a dark-maroon dress shirt with the restaurant’s logo on it and a black vest.  John wore that same outfit, but his shirt was ironed, his trousers pleated with a sharp crease in front; his shoes were leather instead of the usual black sneakers or canvas ones the others wore, and they were highly polished.  His grooming was also immaculate.  In short, he dressed like a professional, and he carried himself that way, too. 

He also performed his job precisely, getting his tables cleared and set perfectly and in about half the time it took for the other busboys to do the same thing.  He was proud of the job he did, and it showed.

John was happy to take Charles under his wing.  He was several years younger than Charles, yet his professionalism and personality made that a matter of no consequence at all. 

Charles was taken by the man’s personality and took instruction from him without what would have been his previous rebellion at being trained by a man who had no college and worked at what Charles felt was a menial job.  John didn’t treat it as menial.  To him, it was as good as any job there was.  That attitude made him oblivious to criticism, and that made him difficult to look down on.

They began taking their breaks together and got to know one another.  Charles’s shock occurred when John mentioned his boyfriend, soon to become his husband.

“You’re gay?”

“Yep.  Proud of it.  No reason not to be.  God made me this way, just as He made you like you are.  Can’t be ashamed of what God produced.  That would be disrespectful, wouldn’t it?”

Then John chuckled.  “I never did understand why the fact some men and women are gay is so troublesome to some people.  It doesn’t affect straight people, any more than them being straight affects us.  Gay marriage is just the same.  How does it hurt straight people?  Why they get upset says more about them and their values than it does us.”

“But, but . . .”  Charles tapered off, not sure what to say.  He liked John, John was helping him, and he didn’t want to offend him.  He heard what John had said, also, and had to admit it made sense.  So why did he dislike gays, find them disgusting?  It occurred to him he’d never met a gay person.  Well, his son had said he was gay, but he didn’t believe it.  How could he be?  He was just a normal boy.  So his own prejudice had to come from something else.

He realized that his father had been very bigoted about gays.  About blacks, too.  Even women.  And he remembered he’d promised himself he’d never be like his father.  Man, that had been years and years ago!  He’d forgotten all about that.

He still felt squeamish, though, thinking of gays having sex.  Ugh!

Well, wasn’t this an opportunity?  He couldn’t forget what Gray had said.  He’d pushed that from his mind since then.  But if he was going to try to get back with his wife and rejoin the family, was accepting Gray going to be part of it?  Of course it was!  And wasn’t this an opportunity to maybe talk out some of his feelings about being gay?

It made good sense that if, as John had said, being gay was simply what some people were, Charles had no reason to hate it.  It was just something that was.  So, maybe the issue was really what he felt when imagining them having sex.

“John, my son recently came out to me.  I haven’t spoken to him since, but not because of that.  Because of other things.  However, I’m hoping to be able to speak to him soon.  When I do, how can I not feel awful, imagining him having sex with a boy?  It just seems so, so, so unnatural.”

John gave him a sympathetic look.  “Must have come as a shock.  How old is he?”

“Fifteen.”

“Ah.  The middle-teen years are when many boys are coming out now.  Sooner than they used to.  Society and their peers are more accepting now.  Well, good for him.  He doesn’t want to hide who he is.  He wants to be free.  Like everyone does.

“But that isn’t very responsive to your question.  Let’s see.  Perhaps this will make sense.  Sex is a primal force for humans, but the acts themselves, no matter the people or genders involved, can look awkward and silly.  If you ever look at porn with no feelings of eroticism, just look at what the two people are doing, yeah, unnatural would be the word.  Some of the things they do could even be called disgusting.  But in the right context, a loving and erotic one, a passionate one, they’re as natural as breathing.

“There’s something else that might make you feel better.  At 15, he’ll just be beginning his journey into the mysteries of sex.  He probably doesn’t have a boyfriend, but even if he does, they most likely are just in the early stages of finding out what they like.  Couples don’t start right in with intercourse, usually.  In fact, the gay community is just as diverse in its sexual appetites as the straight one.  Some straight couples enjoy anal intercourse, but some don’t.  Same with gays.  Both gay and straight couples can find full sexual contentment without that.  So, if you want to imagine your son having sex, which I would hope would be a very rare thing after your first initial thoughts, you might avoid that in your imaginings, and that might make you more comfortable.” 

Charles thought about that conversation, and that led to thinking more about John, a man whom he’d have thought far beneath him, one deserving his contempt.  How wrong he’d been.

The next night, his first alone as a busboy since he’d been with John, he started work dressed as smartly as he could, mimicking John’s apparel, and he attacked his job with a vengeance.  He worked much harder than he had before and tried to make each table he bussed the proudest looking in the restaurant.  He kept doing things as John had done them, all the while thinking how he could he do them better, and he realized there were things he could try, making sure he didn’t sacrifice competence.  It became a pleasant task: figure out how to do things better and faster—how to save time, yet achieve better performance at the same time.  He was amazed at what he discovered.

His bussing became a friendly competition with John’s.  They both enjoyed the challenge.

After a few nights of this, Sam stopped him as he was leaving.  “How do you feel, Charles?” he asked, wearing a smile Charles hadn’t seen before.

Charles started to speak, started to just brush the question off with a few inconsequential words, then stopped.  How did he feel?  He realized, thinking about it, he felt good.  Much better than usual.

Sam’s smile broadened.  “I see.  You listened.  I’m very pleased with what I’ve been seeing.  Keep it up.  Good job, Charles!”

“Another game?” Richard asked.  They were playing Hearts, the four of them.  Chip had won the last game.  Richard had told him it was because he’d gotten the best hands, and Chip had said it was because he hadn’t had two martinis before dinner and then wine with it.  Mrs. Starling watched the two—loving how they were together, digging at each other with humor—their love apparent, and she regretted how this was lacking in her family.

She watched as Chip said no, it was late and he was tired and going up.  She watched as Gray’s eyes changed from normal to suddenly bright and lively.  He was sleeping over tonight.  The boys had taken to doing that.

She had no doubts that sex was involved.  They were healthy teens, and she’d read enough to know that sex was part of their life if they were lucky enough to find someone to share it.  But she couldn’t see the harm in it.  Gray was happier than she’d ever seen him.  He was doing better in school.  He was less reserved than he’d been.  Perhaps not having a father around who criticized everything he did was part of that, but his relationship with Chip had to be the main reason.  If having sex was part of that, it was not something to be discouraged.

The boys went upstairs with a bounce in their steps and a gleam in their eyes.  Being tired obviously had been an excuse, or at least the thought of what was to come next had reawakened both of them.  She smiled, remembering how she’d felt at that age.  And she was suddenly shocked to discover she was missing her husband as he’d been way back then.

The two adults said goodnight to the boys, and after spending more time chatting, Richard called a taxi for her.

Charles no longer hated his job.  He was looking for ways to accomplish more and was enjoying the challenge.  And surprisingly, he was enjoying the work itself.  To be the best he could be at it, he had to use his smarts, of which he had plenty.  Using them in an entirely different way than he had before was actually fun.

He was delighted when Sam promoted him to waiter and was now doing his best at that job.  The extra money from tips helped, and to his great surprise, he was finding interacting with the customers fascinating.  He wasn’t seeing them as lesser beings, as people beneath him.  They were customers.

At times he slipped.  He was human, and humans are anything but consistent.  One night, he found himself in a bad mood and became impatient with a particularly obstinate customer.  Without realizing it, his aloofness and imperious snottiness suddenly peeked out from what had become his normal tranquility.  Sam, always on the floor somewhere, seeing everything, spotted this.  He called him aside.

“Charles, you were doing so well as a busboy.  You were doing so well as a waiter.  But, here you go again.  You’re not honoring your job, not doing your best at it, the way you are tonight.  You just allowed your ego to get involved again.  You can’t do that!  I promoted you thinking you were past such childish displays of temper.”

Charles looked at Sam and then dropped his eyes.  He realized the man was right.  And he felt something.  Something he’d never felt before and so couldn’t put a name on.  But he knew he’d been wrong.

He looked up at Sam.  “You’re right.  I’ll do better.”

Sam smiled.  “You’ll be shocked at what it’ll mean in the tips you’re getting,” he said, patting Charles on the shoulder, “if you continue the improvement you’ve been making.  This was just a slip.  I know that.”  Then he walked off.

And Charles, to his delight, found it was true.  He got better at speaking to the customers as politely and cordially as possible; he learned the menu and could suggest things when asked; his promptness improved; he saw the result of honesty, of not faking his emotions.  And his tips rose accordingly.

Most surprising to him was—seeing the customers as people, showing them some respect—how they responded with friendliness.  And he realized they weren’t stupid, as he’d thought they all were, and how enjoyable it was to talk them.  Upon which rung of society’s ladder they stood was something he found himself no longer considering.

And the tips were a huge change.  At first he’d been getting tips which amounted to about 10% of the check, sometimes even less.  Suddenly he was getting about twice that much and sometimes even more.  It was an incredible difference when he was barely scraping by on his salary alone.

 One busy night—though at Sam’s, almost every night was busy—a single man was seated at Charles’s table.  Charles approached him and said with his now habitually pleasant voice, “Good evening, sir?  Would you like something from the bar to begin?”

The man looked up at him.  Charles saw an older man, probably in his 60s, well-dressed in an expensive business suit complete with vest and a Macclesfield tie.  His gray hair was well-groomed, and he sat with an impressive posture.

But his face.  The man looked bitter.  His eyes, looking up at Charles, were unfriendly at best, malevolent at worst.  He said, “Yes, a Hayman’s 1850 Reserve martini, very dry, very cold, up, with a twist.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll see if the bartender has that.  I’ve never had it requested before.”  In fact, Charles had never heard of it.

“He should.  It’s one of the finest gins in the world.  What kind of place is this?  I was told it was an upper-end Italian restaurant.”  

Charles avoided the argument that could easily ensue if he defended the restaurant.  He’d learned not to be baited by customers, among the many other subtleties of human interaction that a waiter had to master.

Instead, he simply ignored the question and said, “Let me check, sir,” and scurried off.

The bartender hadn’t heard of it, either, and told Charles that they didn’t stock gins that were rarely called for.  But assuming it was a premium gin, he told Charles he had both Blackfriar’s and Beefeater 24.

Charles returned to the table and passed on the bad news.  “I’m sorry, but we don’t have Hayman’s.  The bartender suggested Blackfriar’s or Beefeater 24 as possibilities.  Both are top-shelf gins.”

The customer wrinkled his nose and said, “Pah.”  He snorted again, then said, “You won’t see me in here again.  I guess I needn’t pay attention to the man who recommended this place.  Disappointing.  I’ll skip the martini.  Give me the menu.”

This posed a problem for Charles.  He’d handed the man a menu when he was taking his drink order.  He didn’t have another at hand.  He shouldn’t tell the man that; who could predict how he’d respond?  What to do?  The man was staring at him.

Charles leaned over the table slightly and picked up the menu and handed it to the man.  The man’s face reddened.  His eyes darkened.  He quite obviously felt he’d been shown up.  And he didn’t like it.

“Shall I give you a couple of minutes?” Charles asked deferentially.

“No.  Wait there.  I’ll decide.”

It was an extensive menu, and Charles had other tables to tend to.  Standing still while the man read through the menu might take five minutes or more.  Charles simply could not wait that long. 

“I’m sorry, sir, but I have orders coming out of the kitchen and I must serve them while they’re hot.  I’m sure you understand.  I beg your patience.  I’ll be back in a very few moments.”

“No!  I said wait here, I’m in a hurry.  What kind of waiter are you if you can’t wait for my order?”  So saying, the man looked back at his menu.  It was several pages long, and he hadn’t turned the first page yet.

“Sorry,” said Charles, and without waiting for a further rebuke, left the table.

By this time food for two of his tables was waiting, and he hurried to get it to both of them.  Hurried without appearing to.  Good waiters don’t let customers see them rushing; he’d been told that time and again.

By the time he returned to the table of his impatient customer, the man was seething.  “Where have you been?  I’d decided just when you left.  You’ve kept me sitting here doing nothing for seven minutes.  I timed you.  No drink, no order.  This is ridiculous.”  This was said in a hostile voice and in a rising temper.

“I’m so sorry, sir.  I had other customers.  But I’m ready for your order now, and I will see the kitchen gets on it immediately.”

“I’m not even sure I want to stay.  You’ve been incredibly rude and dismissive.  But I’m hungry and will make the best of it.  Is there anything remotely good here?”

Charles wanted to say something about the man already having decided but bit his tongue.  Instead, he listed several options.  Everything the restaurant served was delicious, so Charles simply recommended one meat, one seafood, one pasta and one vegetarian meal.

“No, none of that sounds good.  Your tastes are rather plebeian, aren’t they?  Just bring me a veal chop, medium-well and covered with sautéed mushrooms in a cabernet-sauvignon-and-dry-marsala sauce, creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin.  You can handle that, can’t you?”

Charles could certainly write it down.  Whether the chef could produce it was an entirely different matter.  He’d have to see.  But rather than tell the customer that, he merely asked, “Would you like to see the wine list, sir?”

“No, I’m not ordering wine to increase your tip.  I’m annoyed with everything here so far.  I’ll simply drink water.  Make sure you keep my glass full.  I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but you’re a pretty poor excuse for a waiter, and if I don’t, you won’t.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Charles, and backed away before turning and heading for the kitchen.

It occurred to him while walking that he wasn’t angry.  That surprised and pleased him.  His temper was one of the things he’d been instructed to fix.  Before, a man like this would have raised his temperature and his temper to boiling.  Now, he was more concerned with trying to please this man—the challenge of it would probably be impossible in any event—but that was his aim, and his own feelings didn’t come into play.

The chef threw up his hands when he saw the order.  Yes, he could make all those things, even if none were on the menu, but the potatoes would take 45 minutes at least just to cook.  The restaurant was busy, and they really didn’t have time to go off-menu while filling all the other orders coming in.  What was needed was for Charles to go back out and tell the creep to stick to the menu, or perhaps even better, to stick it up his ass.

Charles didn’t want to piss off the chef.  Having a good rapport with him made life much easier.  First, though, he asked the chef if he could make the chop and mushrooms and sauce, and the chef said he’d do that, but the rest of the meal needed to come from the menu.

Charles returned to the table and passed along the chef’s request—that’s what Charles called it, a request—to the customer. 

This brought another volley of abuse, but in due course a meal was ordered with sides of pasta shells dressed in olive oil and sautéed and grilled mixed vegetables substituting from the original order.

The man complained at how long the meal took to arrive, said the chop was overcooked but that he wasn’t going to wait while another one was prepared, and said it was probably Charles’s fault anyway, that he’d probably screwed up the order even though the word ‘medium’ was pretty hard to mishear.  

The man also bitched about his zabaglione at the end of the meal, saying it was missing the cognac.  Charles had the distinct impression that if it had been made with cognac—he knew there were two versions of it—that would have been criticized as well.

When Charles brought the check, the customer paid it with cash, then sneered at him as he snapped two extra nickels on the table, each making a sharp crack, each accenting the man’s discontent.  “That’s your tip.  It’s a little high for the service I received, but a man needs to be rewarded for his work.  Your work wasn’t even worth a nickel, but I’ll give you two, doubling what you deserve, out of sheer generosity.”  The man stood, and as a final derisive barb said, “Learn how to wait tables; maybe you’ll earn more.”  He stood up and brushed past Charles.

Watching the man leave, Charles simply stood where he was, his mind racing.  He’d been doing his best, trying to serve that customer.  He’d been putting all of himself into it, despite the crotchety and unpleasant man.  He’d been doing a great job, and the man had been ungrateful and irritable.  Charles was very proud of how he’d handled him.  And yet he’d been stiffed!  There’d been no recognition at all of Charles’s efforts.  He’d been belittled and scoffed at.  What Charles felt he should have done was chased after him and thrown his nickels in his face!

Which was when he remembered what he’d done in this same restaurant when he’d been a customer.  And how the waiter had responded.  That boy, for he’d been only that, had been doing a great job as well.  Pouring himself into trying to please Charles.  And Charles should have recognized it then, but he was only thinking of himself, closed off to everyone else.  So he hadn’t seen what the young waiter was doing, how much of himself he was giving to Charles.  No, Charles hadn’t noticed.  Instead, he’d been as boorish as his customer tonight had been.

Charles was hit by the bright light of understanding.  What Charles felt was something he’d never felt before.  Well, yes he had, he just hadn’t known what it was.  It was what he’d felt when Sam had called him out for being supercilious with a customer.  It had been an entirely new emotion.  Now he felt it again, even more strongly.  He felt ashamed of himself for how he’d been with the young waiter.

What he remembered only later that night, in his small room, rehashing what had happened, was that as upset as he’d been with the entire incident, he hadn’t flown into a rage.  The temper he’d had before seemed to have vanished.  He thought maybe he knew why: he wasn’t thinking of himself so much anymore and excluding the existence of the people around him.  He wasn’t thinking of a wounded pride.  As such, he wasn’t taking personal affronts the way he used to, no longer letting every little thing he could conjure into the sting of an insult.  He wasn’t protecting that pride any longer.  It didn’t seem to matter as much now. 

For the first time, looking at himself, he was really aware that he had indeed been changing.

Charles continued working as a waiter for another month.  He found the longer he did it, the better he liked it, liked the atmosphere in the restaurant, liked the other staff members.  All during the month, he kept assimilating the recognition he’d had that had come with the shame he’d felt, and that helped as he continued to build a new attitude and vision.

The six-month period he’d been given was coming to an end.  Near the end of that time, he phoned his wife and asked her out to dinner.  She accepted.  He took her to a taco emporium, a fast food place with all the glamour of a hot dog stand; it was all he could afford, and he realized he felt no shame at all in that, didn’t even feel the place was below his dignity.  They talked, and when they left each other, it had been agreed that they’d meet again.  She’d seen the difference in Charles.  Saw how he treated the people in the restaurant.  Listened to what he had to say, and the way he said it.  He’d been polite to the person taking their order!  If anyone could tell when he was different, it was she.

They ate together several times and spent a day together once visiting the MOMA.  Eventually, Charles asked if he could move back home.  Mrs. Starling said that would be fine, except he had to pass one more test.  He had to speak to Gray and get his approval.

“You’re going to talk to him?”

“Yeah.  Mom set it up.”

“Is she going to be there?”

“I’ve thought about that.  This will be the first time we’ve even seen each other since I came out to him.  The way I did it, it was kinda a challenge.  He might be furious with me, even after all this time.”

“So you’ll have your mom there?

“I’ve decided not to.  If he’s only pretending to have mellowed out, he’d certainly be able to continue the pretense if she were there.  But if we’re alone, he’ll have a harder time not blowing up.  I want to see if he will.  This way, if he doesn’t, it’ll mean more.”

“You’ll be safe won’t you?  I won’t let you do it otherwise!”

Gray saw and heard Chip’s concern, and it warmed his heart.  Then he defused those concerns with humor.  “Huh?  Since when are you the king of me?” he said in a joshing tone of voice.  “You can’t tell me what to do or not.  You can’t make me do anything!”

They rolled around on the bed after that, laughing and panting.  Chip proved once and for all there was something he could make Gray do, something that left him breathless.

Charles was nervous.  He’d be meeting his son in a few minutes.  He’d spent a lot of time thinking about Gray in the past few days.  If he was ashamed over how he’d acted in the past, he was most ashamed of how he’d treated his son.  What must the boy think of him?  The boy was 15 now, almost a man.  Could Charles repair the harm he’d done? 

 The boy had said he wanted to meet in a coffee shop.  Not at home.  Charles understood.  If Gray was unhappy with the meeting, at a coffee shop he could get up and walk out.  Walking out of his home would leave Charles inside and him out.  Not a situation Gray wanted to be in.  So he’d been smart enough to make the meeting somewhere other than where he lived.

Of course, it was also a public venue.  That meant Gray was safe if Charles blew up.  Charles realized that Gray would have no idea if the man still had the temper that had been part and parcel of how he’d treated Gray for most of the boy’s life. 

Charles entered the shop at the appointed time.  Gray was already there, sitting in a window booth, a cup of coffee in front of him.  When did Gray begin drinking coffee?  Charles had no idea.

Charles approached the table.  Gray remained seated, looking at him with no expression at all.  Even his eyes were unreadable.

Charles stood, watching him, then a wan smile formed on his lips.  “Could I get a hug?” he asked, trying not to sound plaintive.

Gray’s brow wrinkled.  “You?  You want a hug?”

“Not what you remember, huh?”  Charles then did something even more startling.  He asked Gray if he could sit down.

Shocked, Gray nodded, and Charles slid into the booth across from Gray.  “I’ve changed.  You and Mom wanted me to.  So did my new boss.  To be very honest, which I’m going to try to be from now on, I didn’t want to change.  Didn’t think I had any reason to.  But these last few months have been a long and hard lesson for me.  I’ve learned many things.  One of them is I’ve made terrible mistakes with you.  You should have been the most important, the most precious thing in my life, and you weren’t.  I was entirely focused on my job.  If anything, you were an annoyance because you were a distraction.  So I pushed you away—verbally and psychologically—to reduce the distraction.”

He stopped when the waitress came.  He ordered a cup of coffee and looked at Gray and his cup questioningly.  Gray shook his head, and the waitress left.

Charles didn’t speak for a moment, just looking at the boy.  He looked different from how Charles remembered him.  Older, somehow.  More altogether, more mature.  He also looked almost exactly as he himself had looked when he’d been 15.

Gray obviously wasn’t going to say anything, so Charles continued.  “As much as you’ll allow it, I’ll try to do better and make up for some of the damage I’ve done.  I don’t expect you to trust me.  I haven’t earned that.  But I’m hoping, hoping with all my heart, that you’ll let me come home.  Your mom says I can if you permit it.  So I’m asking you for that.”

Before Gray could speak, he rushed on.  “If you want to put conditions on it, if you want me to do anything to prove I’ve changed, just name it.  Maybe I can turn your hate around.  I’m going to try to.”

Gray still didn’t say anything, and the tension in Charles rose.  Would the boy just sit there and then suddenly leave, having nothing to say at all?  That was probably what Charles deserved, but he hoped that wouldn't happen.

The waitress brought his coffee, but he left it untouched on the table in front of him.  He kept his eyes on the boy.

Gray had listened and watched.  His father’s body language, his facial expressions, even his tone of voice, were all different from what they’d been.  He wasn’t carrying himself like he felt he should be bowed to, and he sounded genuine.  Could he really have changed that much?

Finally, Gray spoke.  “I don’t really hate you.  There were times I did, but not now.  But I’ve grown up.  I’ll never be your little boy again.  Any relationship we have now will be different from what we had before.  What I expect from you is the same respect you expect from me.  Maybe, over time, I’ll learn to love you again, though I have no reason to now.  But I will give Mom my okay for you to come back.  I’d never know if you’ve really changed or not unless you came home.  I might like having a father, a real father, a supportive and loving father, in the house.  But for me to accept that that’s who you are now, that’s something that will take some time.  It’s difficult to trust someone who’s acted the way you have—someone who’s shown me no love at all and only criticism for as long as I can remember.”

Charles bowed his head and said a brief thank you, not to Gray so much as to the world in general.  Then he raised his head and said it to Gray.  Gray could see tears in his eyes.  Well, who knows, he thought.  Maybe . . .

Sam stopped Charles as he was leaving at the end of his shift the next night.  “Richard Cameron left me a message.  He’d like to speak to you if you have time tomorrow.  He said drop by anytime.”

Richard was behind his desk when his secretary showed Charles in the following morning.  Richard stood up, came forward and shook Charles’s hand, then directed him to the chairs where they’d sat at their first meeting.

“I’ve been hearing great things about you, from Sam, from your wife, and even your son.”

Charles reacted to that.  “Gray?  You spoke to him?”

Richard laughed.   “Remember?  Due diligence?  I don’t like to make decisions, important ones, without as much knowledge as possible.  And who’ll be making critical decisions about the financial affairs of this company is one of the most important decisions I can make.

“From everyone I speak to, I get glowing reports.  Frankly, I’m stunned.  I really didn’t think you could change in a meaningful way.  But you have.  Can you tell me what happened, where the enlightenment came from?  I was pretty sure when you left this office the last time you saw no reason to change.”

Charles thought a moment.  “It wasn’t one thing.  It was a number of them.  But I realized I wasn’t happy, and realized that I was lacking emotional contact with other people.  So I worked on that, because I saw what other people had seen was wrong with me.  And being a waiter really helped because it made me focus on serving people, and to do that well, I had to understand them.  It made me develop empathy, and with that came a full realization of just what a bastard I’d been.  I never want to be that way again.”

Richard smiled at him.  “Well, the job is now yours.  If I see any signs of regression, I’ll speak to you about it, but I doubt that’ll happen.  Knowing you’re sensitive to the people who’ll be working with you is what I needed.  As far as I’m concerned, you can start tomorrow.  We need you.  People in your area of the business have been scraping by without a leader for long enough.”

Charles shook his head.  “No, I can’t do that.”

“What, report tomorrow?  I thought you’d be eager to get started.”

“No.  I am eager.  But I can’t desert Sam without proper notice so he’ll have time to replace me.”

Richard laughed.  “I think we’ve created a monster!  Well, not a monster.  A fully-functioning human being.”

When the discussion was through and Richard was showing him out, he said, “I’d like to have you and your family over to my house for dinner soon.  Perhaps this Friday night if you can arrange that with Sam?”

“Sunday would be better, if that isn’t imposing,” Charles said.  “Friday and Saturday are our busiest nights.”

“Sunday it is.”  He gave Charles the address and told him that seven would be a good time.

Gray wore a dark-blue sports jacket with his school’s crest on it, a dark-blue rep tie, a light-blue dress shirt and light-tan khakis with a sharp crease in them.  His leather cordovan shoes had been polished to a high gloss.  His black hair was brushed so it shined and was cut short and combed into a style not usual for teen boys but one that made him look more handsome than ever. 

Chip looked at him from the cracked-open den door while everyone was greeting each other.  He’d enter soon but now was enjoying just staring at his boyfriend.  He’d never seen him looking so sexy. 

Richard was being the perfect host, getting them settled, taking drink requests, telling them his son would be joining them in a moment, then returning to the kitchen to start the housekeeper, Mrs. Sordoff, on preparing the drinks.  Then he returned to the living room and sat with his guests. 

Chip slipped out of the den through its rear door, passed through the back corridor and into the kitchen.

A moment later he appeared holding the drinks on a tray.  He served Mrs. Starling first, then came to Charles.

“Your drink, sir.  A Balvenie Doublewood 17 single malt.  An excellent scotch, I’ve heard.  I’m too young to partake, myself.  Oh, by the way, I’m Chip Cameron.  Pleased to meet you.”

Charles did a double-take.  It all came back to him.  This boy whom he’d felt had been rude and disrespectful to him.  He felt a prick of anger, a remnant from the past, but only that.  His memory was clear, and he well remembered how he’d behaved.  He remembered the tip he’d given him: two dimes and a nickel.

Chip was standing in front of him, smiling, his face open and guileless.  Then, to Charles’s surprise, Gray came over and took the tray from Chip, handed it to Richard, then said, “Dad, I told you I was gay.  Chip is my boyfriend.”  He reached out and took Chip’s hand in his.

Charles stood, facing the two boys who were looking at him, uncertain half-smiles on their faces.  They were making a silent comment, asking a silent question.  It was up to Charles to speak.

All sorts of thoughts were running through his mind.  But there was one predominant one, and he needed to say it before the silence grew grim.  But rather than just speak, he saw the irony in the situation and couldn’t help himself.  He laughed.

“You two make an astonishingly attractive couple!” he said when he could.  “Chip, you sure know how to make an entrance!  Look, I want to apologize for how I acted that night.  You behaved more maturely than I did!  I’ve learned better.  I’m quite ashamed of how I treated you.  And, about the two of you?  Together?”

He paused.  The boys didn’t move, simply stood waiting.

“I’ve seen how happy Gray is now.  You’re probably part or even most of the reason for that, Chip.  So as well as apologizing, I want to thank you, too.  It’s going to be a pleasure getting to know you better.”  Then his gaze drifted to his son.  “Both of you.”

Richard settled back in his chair.  He glanced at Mrs. Starling, and she at him.  Their smiles said any and everything that needed to be said.

Charles’s new office wasn’t the size of Richard’s.  It wasn’t even half that size.  And it wasn’t on the 45th floor; it was two floors lower.  The 44th floor held the offices of the Sales VP and the Sales Directors of the various divisions of the corporation.  Accounting, Tax and Finance were all on the 43rd floor.

Charles did have the largest office on that floor.  It said something about who he now was that he hadn’t noticed that fact. 

Charles desk wasn’t huge and wasn’t meant to impress visitors.  It was the appropriate size for doing the paperwork he’d be handling.  It had a computer on a credenza behind it and a comfortable, executive-style, medium-high-backed leather chair that he’d quickly become accustomed to.

His desk was clear of everything, a space ready to be filled as he saw fit.  This was his first day.  He’d been given a week to reattach himself to his family.  Richard had offered longer, but Charles was eager to get back into the fray. 

He was simply looking at the office at the moment.  He was carrying a small box of things to arrange in his desk, things like a stapler, some paper clips, a box of ballpoint pens—the usual supplies he need.

There were two other items in his box, two picture frames.  He took them out of the box and set them on his desk, both facing him.  He spent some time moving them here and there, getting them positioned just right.  Setting them so they’d catch his eye whenever he glanced up.

One was a picture he’d had taken only a few days before.  It showed his wife, Gray and himself, all in casual wear, standing on the deck of a restaurant on Long Island’s south shore.  All were smiling, Gray looking slightly self-conscious, very much a young teen. 

The other frame held two dimes and three nickels.  They meant something to him; they meant a great deal.  It had to do with his past, and with humility, and with resurrection.  They would sit on his desk and watch over him as he took his first steps forward into the rest of his life.


The End

 

 

As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.



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This story is Copyright © 2017 by Cole Parker. The original image is Under the Terms of the Creative Commons License CC0 by pixabay.com #425272. They cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey's World web site has written permission to publish this story. No other rights are granted.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

This story may contain occasional references to minors who are or may be gay. If it were a movie, it would be rated PG (in a more enlightened time it would be rated G). If reading this type of material is illegal where you live, or if you are too young to read this type of material based on the laws where you live, or if your parents don't want you to read this type of material, or if you find this type of material morally or otherwise objectionable, or if you don’t want to be here, close your browser now. The author neither condones nor advocates the violation of any laws. If you want to be here, but aren’t supposed to be here, be careful and don't get caught!