Two male clothing mannekins

The Errand Boy


Cole Parker

Some people aren’t college material. Like me. I was scholastically challenged. I wasn’t fond of reading; even comic books gave me a pain—and textbooks? Think headaches! Like many young people, however, I was a mix of inconsistencies. I didn’t like the structure of schools, the routines, the regimentation, the cliques and especially the everlasting need to study.

Studying in school was always a trial for me, and I’d done as little of it as I could get away with. The inconsistency in that regard was that I didn’t hate all of it. I was intrigued by the English language. I’d seen that important people tended to talk and use words that set them apart, and when I was as young as eight, I began looking up words that were new to me, and I’d never lost that habit. So, while I was a less-than-average student—far-less, to be honest—and while I hated school, I wasn’t against learning per se and had a vocabulary that surprised people.

People are like that; they will surprise you. I recognize that, I expect it, and it’s why I’m so comfortable with all classes of people. I make friends easily and quickly; I enjoy mixing with people. But that has nothing to do with what I was talking about: school. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t do well in that environment. As a result, I was near the bottom of my class in my junior year of high school, and I concluded that this wasn’t for me and there wasn’t much reason to stay the course.

Okay, this sounds very much like I’m describing a loser. Not at all! Some people are gifted with book intelligence, and that’s fine. The world needs all kinds to keep spinning on its axis. It needs the smart Ivy Leaguers. It also needs the variety of personalities and aptitudes the rest of us have. I’m one of the many who doesn’t have a clue what that Kant guy espoused; I can’t name even one of the theorems Newton devised, or . . .  well, you get the idea. I did get by, though. Many people get along fine with what are usually defined as street smarts. That’s who I am, bad with books, good with people, and I hope that’s enough for me to get along in life.

People with street smarts have learned how to survive and maybe even prosper using their innate intelligence and making use of what they’ve learned about people just from paying attention when they’re out and about. They have a feeling for human nature. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and maybe not even been aware of the practical truths they’ve learned while doing so. But they were indeed learning, and if it occurred through osmosis, so what? They learned. And those who were smart figured out how to put what they learned to use.

Of course, there are those who don’t care for book-learning but do have some smarts and have learned by watching and interacting, and on top of that, those with street smarts who’ve had a head start in life. I have to admit to being one of those.

My great-grandfather was a hard, hard worker when he was young, and he had the determination to become someone. He did, too, by doing that hard work and, like me, being someone who paid attention and did what he needed to do to get along. He had many jobs after dropping out of school at 16. Back then, the economy was terrible, and many kids did what he did: dropped out through necessity and tried to make a nickel to help their families.

One of the jobs he got was as an errand boy in a department store. As isn’t so much the case today in the 1980s, most of the shopping in cities back then occurred downtown, and there were a few big department stores located there. The hub of shopping was in the center of the city. There are some shopping centers being built now farther from city centers. The newspapers are calling this phenomenon of cities expanding outwards ‘urban sprawl’; they’ve named these new shopping places ‘malls’. Thankfully, this is only just beginning to occur in our city. Shopping here is still concentrated downtown.

Great-grandfather started as an errand boy, doing whatever any of the staff needed doing. That meant he was all over the store, in all sections of it, and he kept his eyes and ears open and his mouth mostly shut. After a year of doing errands—running around passing messages and helping out with vacancies and solving problems—he knew how the store ran, the ins and outs of it, probably better than most of the higher-up staff there did.

Move on to five years later, and he was a manager, and five years after that, he was vice-president of operations. He was 27 years old. My granddad was still a year away from being conceived.

When he was 35, great-granddad bought the store. He shut it down for two months, modernized the layout, fired a few incompetents, replaced them with internal promotions and new hires of go-getters like he’d been and, lastly, renamed the place: Mason’s. That was his name, Boyce Mason. It is my name, too. Well, not the Boyce part. My given name is Anthony, which was my mother’s maiden name. No one called me that, however; since I was little, people have called me Tony.

My dad was really smart; brilliant, I thought. He was the college type. He got into a good school and then went for a graduate degree in business and had his MBA two years later. He did this because he was planning to take over Mason’s when his dad, who’d taken over from my great-grandfather, retired. And that’s what he did.

Where is this all leading? Well, I said way back near the beginning that some people have a head start in life. That was me. I wasn’t the college type, but I didn’t object to hard work, and I had learned something about human nature. All along, I’d known I could work in some capacity at Mason’s, so I never worried about a job. I never really worried about anything. I was a happy-go-lucky, somewhat smart-mouthed, full-of-life, confident kid. I figured I was more like my great-granddad than my father. I’d work hard and, maybe someday, I could become a big cheese at Mason’s. My dad wouldn’t live forever, and after grieving his loss, I hoped to be ready to take over.

I’m 19 now. Been out of school for two years. I left when I was 17, tired of the scholastic grind and wanting to get started living outside the restraints of the municipal school system. My dad wasn’t happy with that but not surprised. He was well aware of the report cards I’d brought home for him to sign year after year. He’d tut-tutted a little but hadn’t given me a hard time over them. When I was still pretty young, he realized I was no scholar, but also that I had a lot of innate cleverness and was socially adept enough that I could probably get by, and that there was a place for all sorts of people in the store.

Okay, that’s background. Now comes the why I’m writing this. It’s because I plan to keep a record of how things have been going since I began at Mason’s. It’ll be brief because I’ve only been on the job for two years now, but they’ve been educational, interesting years, and I want to record some of what I’ve seen, especially some highlights, before I forget too much. I hope to have a son some day, and he might not be college material, either. He might find some value in learning what it was like for me to get started in the business world without even a high-school diploma.

“You can hang your clothes in here,” Mr. Mathews said. It was my first day at Mason’s, and he was my boss. He was something or other in the Personnel Department. As I’d be working all over the store, doing what was needed for anyone who needed it done, it made sense that I’d be under the thumb of someone who had an executive position, even if it was a minor one. The only thorn in this rosebush was that Mr. Mathews, who told me that was how I was to address him, was about 25 and looked younger. He’d only been working at Mason’s for about eight months. Eight months ago was when he’d graduated from Skidmore with a Master’s of Business Administration degree.

I looked at him curiously. “Isn’t that an all-girls school?”

He looked down at me—he was an inch taller than I was and made sure I realized that—and said, “It became coed in 1971, which was before I enrolled there.” The way he said it and the look on his face suggested to me that this wasn’t a topic to pursue. But being me and something of a smartass, I winked at him and rejoined, “Well, it’s now 1980, and getting a college degree and then a graduate degree would take six or seven years. I don’t know how long you’ve worked here, but that timing’s suspicious. You were right on the cusp.” Then I laughed to make it clear I was taking this all as a joke, just twitting him a bit.

I said nothing at all after that, just looked at him. Mostly I smiled at people as often as I could, but smiling right then might seem like I was insulting him, or at least challenging him, so I restrained myself. Unfortunately, a repressed smile can often end up appearing to be a smirk, and he must have interpreted it that way.

“I’m not gay!” he’d said emphatically. Huh? I’d never given that a thought and hadn’t been suggesting it. His denial was suspect, way too defensive, and out of the blue. So, it made me think it very likely he was gay. I was, too, but wasn’t admitting it any more than he was. I will say that I didn’t find him the least bit attractive. But what his pronouncement suggested was something that was good to know.

I was very good at reading people. That fell into the category of street smarts. Yet I’d missed his gayness. Maybe that was because of all the things I didn’t like about him right from the get-go, even if the get-go was only about an hour earlier.

He was showing me the employees’ break area, the changing room, the showers and my locker. “Some employees use these facilities; some don’t.” I took a quick glance into the shower room, then accompanied him back to the break area. “That door,” he said, pointing at a closed door leading off the break-room area, “is for the women’s lockers and showers.”

“Oh, they’re not communal showers. Damn!” I joked.

He glared at me. I could see we weren’t going to be bosom buddies. “If you’re ever caught in there, it’s immediate dismissal,” he stated in an icy, authoritative voice.

“You don’t have much of a sense of humor, huh?” I asked with that smile I’d been repressing erupting.

He didn’t answer. Nor stop glaring. He turned on his heel and marched out. I had to hurry to stay with him.

He took me back to his office. Well, he called it his office. It was a cubicle, and there was hardly room for his extra chair. My granddad had always used the expression ‘not enough room to swing a cat’, but that was long before political correctness and animal rights became an issue. I certainly wouldn’t say that now.

Anyway, we sat down, and he explained my duties.

“You’ll report to me at the beginning and end of work every day. I’ll have either a list for you or verbal orders. When you finish an assignment, you’re to return here for your next one.” He went on to tell me what my hours were, my break times, the dress code, how to speak to the staff and customers, that sort of thing. “Do you have any questions?” he finally asked, his expression telling me he didn’t expect I would.

“Yes, sure. If I’m on my way back here after doing what you’ve assigned and one of the clerks asks for help with something, should I turn them down or help them?”

I could see he wasn’t ready for that, and he didn’t like not having an answer on the tip of his tongue. “I can just play it by ear,” I said, and before he could come up with his own answer, I had another question. “If you’ve given me an assignment and someone above you in the company hierarchy asks me to do something else first, what should I do?”

He didn’t look happy. I guess you’re not supposed to put your boss on the hot seat, and I could have worded those questions in a way where I wasn’t doing that, could have made them much more deferential, or better still just not have asked them. I didn’t need his answer. I knew that whatever answer he gave me, I’d still play each situation by ear. But I thought it might do him a world of good to feel a little less smug for a short time. Maybe made those around him feel better, too.

If anyone is getting the impression that I might be a bit too self-confident, well, I guess I do have to plead guilty to that. But you can be excused when you’re working for a pissant who’s smug and self-righteous and you’re the boss’s son. He didn’t know I was the boss’s son, of course. No one knew other than my dad and his right-hand man. I wouldn’t get to learn what I needed to learn if people knew. I’d be treated much differently. I wanted to do this on my own initiative.

I’d used a phony name on the job application the Personnel Department had given me, the name of Tony Whitacre. I’d used an ID I’d paid $25 for, buying it from the brother of a friend of mine who was in that business. I hadn’t figured out how to cash my paychecks yet with this name, but with my dad behind me, I was sure that wasn’t anything to worry about. Maybe he’d just give me cash for the check and then tear it up.

I could tell Mr. Mathews wasn’t happy with me or my attitude, but he was up against it because his boss, the VP of Personnel, was the one who’d approved my application. He had hired me and told Mr. Mathews he knew my father and he knew me a little and thought I’d be a good employee. Otherwise, if Mr. Mathews had been in charge of the hiring decision, if I’d been another sucker just off the streets, I’d never have got the job working at Mason’s after that first meeting had gone down. But I was still there, and Mr. Mathews gave me an hour to walk around, learn the store’s layout and then come back for my first assignments.

I already knew my way around. I’d been in the store many times before. It was typical of department stores in large cities. The building was downtown, five stories high, each story about a half-acre of space filled with merchandise. The expression is ‘everything but the kitchen sink’, but we sold those, too, on the fourth floor with other plumbing, electrical and building maintenance supplies.

I used the time to look at the customer-service staff, the ones working behind the counters. I recognized some of them, some who’d been there a long time, but there was a lot of turnover in those jobs, and many of them were new. New or old, none of them knew me, which was how I wanted it.

Over the next few weeks, I got to know all the employees and the store layout intimately. I’d carry things from one place to another; relieve people on their restroom, lunch and work breaks, work on window and in-store displays, and straighten areas in all departments where customers had left things in a disordered jumble.

More and more, as time passed, I began doing things on my own, finding places I could be of help, and not reporting back to Mr. Mathews for long stretches. He didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t find that much for me to do as he spent most of his time in his cubicle and so didn’t know what was happening out on the floor. He only had assignments for me when someone had told them they needed some sort of assistance.

But working on my own was great. I got to know the people employed there and how things were done. I discovered people’s natures this way. Most everyone had dodges and foibles. Everyone shirked to some degree and had ways of hiding it. The vast majority of these were of no consequence.

With careful and unnoticed observation, I did find some petty theft. I did find some over-the-top idleness. There were employees who worked hard, were great with the customers, went the extra mile. And there were ones who didn’t. I didn’t do anything about any of this. My job was to learn, to observe, to get the inside dope on the store’s operation. To do that, I had to be accepted as just another body, putting in the hours, making money on a job like everyone else.

Errand boy was the perfect spot for that. I was free to be anywhere I wanted. If a women’s clothing clerk was spending an inordinate amount of time in the housewares department, for example, that would be suspicious. I myself was never suspicious because I didn’t have any permanent responsibilities. I was a free agent. And no one resented me because, as a newly hired errand boy, it was assumed I was making less money than anyone else. I didn’t know whether I was or not!

There were a couple of instances I should record as notable of my errand-boy beginnings.

A few months into the job, when I was very comfortable doing what I was doing and the workers around me were comfortable with my being there, something happened in the shoe department that was off-the-wall.

I’d been called on several times to assist there because we had a full-time man and a trainee to serve customers and one man behind the scenes, and occasionally they were faced with more customers than they could handle promptly. That’s when I was called to pitch in and help. I’d done that several times and soon considered myself an expert. I knew the stock, and I knew how to work with customers.

You really get to know people when you have a staff job working with customers. Somehow, the customers get the feeling that you’re a menial employee and they’re in a superior position. That difference in position seems enhanced in the shoe department. You’re working on a low stool or on your knees, and they’re sitting above you. You’re working with their feet and their shoes, automatically putting you at a subordinate level. Some customers take advantage of this.

The first time something like that happened with me was with a young lady, probably in her late twenties. She was dressed well and had a superior air about her. She pointed to two pairs of shoes she wanted to try, and I led her to a fitting chair, had her sit, and squatted in front of her. I needed to measure her feet.

I had the device we used for measuring women’s feet and needed to remove one of her shoes to get the measurement. The two low stools we had were being used by the two other staffers, so I was on my haunches when I removed her shoe. That was when she opened her legs.

She was wearing a skirt with nothing under it, and when she opened her legs, everything was visible. I’d only seen that part of the female anatomy in pictures and videos and not much of either as I didn’t swing that way. I sure saw it right then, up close and way too personal. I looked and then raised my eyes to hers. She had a smile on her face and had completely lost the haughty countenance she’d worn earlier. What I saw was hunger and desire.

What was I to do? Comment on what I’d seen? Be blasé and ignore it? I must say, it’s rare for me to lose my composure, but I was at a loss and didn’t know how to react. Nothing in school or on the streets had prepared me for this. Maybe if they had finishing schools for boys, they’d be told the propriety for when a lady flashes her vagina at them.

But I had to react. So, I did what came naturally to me, being who I was, the consummate smartass. “Very nice,” I said, “small and neat.” And I grinned, trying for lasciviousness but having no idea if I achieved it. She was looking at me and seemed confused. I guess she wasn’t sure if ‘small and neat’ was a compliment or a slur.

“Your feet,” I explained. “Nicest I’ve seen today.”

I was pretty sure that ignoring her coquetry wasn’t what she wanted. But, what? Was I supposed to run my hand up her leg? Handle the goods? Then comment?

We were trained to please the customers. That was hardwired into us. By the same token, we’re not supposed to invite lawsuits against the store.

I was caught and didn’t know what to do next! I absolutely didn’t want to offend or demean her. But I also didn’t want to disgrace myself or show any lack of composure. So, what I did was, I stood up, said, “Pity I have so many other customers to serve right now; so many more exciting and enjoyable things that I could be doing. Ah, well. I’ll get you the shoes you’re interested in.”

I went into the back where all the stock was kept. This was the Shoe Department manager’s realm. We sales staff on the floor would tell him which shoes we needed, and he’d get them from the stocked shelves. He was insistent that that was how it worked. He’d explained to me that if we came into the stock area, we’d misplace things and he’d never know what had been taken, and it would be a nightmare situation trying to keep track of everything.

But I was almost still a bit stunned from my recent exposure to what I’d just seen and the implications of what the customer wanted of me and my confusion about how to respond to it. The manager wasn’t in sight, probably busy supplying the needs of the other two fitters, and so I just walked back into the shelves area to get the shoes the woman wanted to try on.

On the way, I passed the manager, who said, “Hey, you’re not to be back here.” He was upset seeing me in his area, but he was justified; I was where he’d said he didn’t want me.

“Be gone in a second,” I said, and grabbed the two boxes I needed. I noted in passing that he was doing something with a pair of sneakers. Nothing unusual about that. After a customer had tried on a pair of shoes, the fitter often didn’t put the tissue paper back in the box the way it was supposed to be, and the manager would check and rearrange it when they brought the boxes back. Mason’s was a high-end store. Things were supposed to be proper when presented to a customer. Improperly wrapped shoes gave the appearance of having been tried on before, and we didn’t want our shoes to give that impression.

I went back out with my two boxes, still a bit shaken by the woman and now with the shoe manager being pissed at me. I didn’t like that. I was accustomed to pissing people off, people who deserved it, but with humor and not when I didn’t intend to.

I noticed that the other two fitters were working with elderly men, fitting them with leather wingtips. I squatted in front of the woman again and when she opened her legs, managed not to look up. I couldn’t help it, though; in the end, I did look up after putting the second pair on her feet. “Very attractive,” I said and winked at her. “Wish I were two years older and legal.” The ‘attractive’ comment had to be ambiguous, I thought, and the ‘legal’ comment was to make her think. Think primarily about not reporting me for insolence.

She may have misunderstood—or not. She bought both pairs and touched my arm while I was ringing her up. She gave me a card with her address on it before leaving. Maybe the illegal bit had flown right over her head. Or maybe she didn’t care.

I didn’t say anything more to the shoe department manager. But I didn’t forget what I’d seen. I thought about it and talked to my dad about it, and he had a couple of discreet cameras installed. It turned out that the manager was taking expensive sneakers, ones that sold for over $100, out of their boxes and replacing them with cheap knockoffs which cost him $15, then selling the real things and pocketing at least $60 each time. I thought Dad would just fire him. Instead, he had him prosecuted as an example to other employees.

That was one example to cite during my errand-boy time. Another was one I found more exhilarating.

I nominally worked for Mr. Mathews. In fact, though, while I did still report to him in the morning, I stopped doing it at night early on, and he never said anything about that. He’d never had anything for me at day’s end, and I think he was glad I didn’t show up to be told that.

But in the mornings, he’d assign me to departments where there’d be a staff shortage. That wasn’t all that often, and it annoyed him that he had nothing to give me. So, he substituted with a job no one liked. I think he did it because he didn’t like me. The feeling was mutual. On those occasions, he’d assign me to the unloading docks.

Our merchandise came in trucks which had to be unloaded. It was heavy work, but we had a crew of men, large men who were well paid by industry standards and who didn’t need me slowing them down. Very occasionally, I could fill in for an absent worker, but even then, the guys there could handle the extra work better without my help, which was marginal at best. I wasn’t a big, strong guy. I stood four inches below six feet tall and weighed under 150.

What I’d do was go to the dock when Mr. Mathews assigned me there, ask the receiving boss if I was needed, and he’d laugh and say no, and I’d laugh, too, like we had an understanding. Then I’d be free to be in the store for the rest of the day to find places where I could be of service. But the fact Mr. Mathews would assign me there did rankle. We weren’t friends, nor would we ever be.

And then I found a way to be rid of the nuisance that he was. But it was his fault, really. He stepped over the line. I was there to catch him at it.

Dad had a policy in place at Mason’s that was assiduously followed. It was that there’d always be young people training in the store. He told me that it was good for the kids—he called them all kids, but they ranged in age from 16 to 22—to learn about being part of the working world. It would encourage the young ones to be more serious about school and maybe go to college when they’d never given that a thought before; it would help their self-esteem to find they could operate effectively in a paid job; it would provide for expanding our hiring base in the future, and, to a degree, it would be self-serving as it would enhance our future customer base. When these kids were adult shoppers, they’d likely still feel some kinship with Mason’s and be comfortable shopping there.

So, we always had young people working in the store, running errands like I did and helping out in various departments, learning the ins and outs so as to be able to answer questions and advise customers about such varied things as sports equipment and sportswear, kitchen appliances, the technical aspects of various entertainment devices, and the differences in watering needs of philodendrons and dieffenbachias.

We had all those departments and many more, and staff members often had to be knowledgeable about the things in those areas if they were to help customers.

These trainees had all sorts of personalities, just as one would expect. I made friends with many of them. The older ones tended to be a bit harder to get to know. They were usually more serious, more conscientious about doing a good job and so less available to talk to. I’d always had an affinity for younger boys, and I carried that trait into my Mason’s employment.

There was one boy, a recent hire named Russell Grant, whom I spent a lot of time looking at. You know what I mean? The I-can’t-take-my-eyes-off-him type. He’d enter a room where I was, and my eyes would find him of their own volition. He had reddish-brown hair, sort of auburn with the brown dominating the red, and he wore it longer than the store policy advocated, but it was always brushed and combed and looked very neat. The store’s policy wasn’t rigidly enforced, especially for the trainees, so he got away with it. He was tall and skinny, and even though he was 17, he looked and acted more like he was three years younger than that. His skin was creamy white and blemish-free—skin more likely to be found on a 13-year-old; he looked like he’d never shaved in his life.

All that was attractive, but what really got me was that he had a worried look in his eyes and a way of carrying himself with his shoulders pulled in and quick movements of his head as though expecting an attack from any quarter at any moment. He responded softly and rarely met your eyes when you spoke to him. He answered in as few words as possible without being rude. Despite his diffidence, I really liked his looks because, under all that wariness, he was beautiful, and I’d been taken by male beauty since I was small. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been mistreated at some point, perhaps repeatedly, and he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t happen again. I wanted to get to know him, to find out why he was as he was.

I made it a point to talk to him whenever I could—and I did so at least once a day. After two weeks, he didn’t seem quite so nervous around me and even met my eyes now and then. His were a gorgeous blue. He blushed easily, and they darkened when he did.

He asked me to call him Rusty.

He was working directly under Mr. Mathews. We had several trainees, and there were several people at Mr. Mathews’ level working in Personnel, so not everyone was assigned to just one man. Rusty was unfortunate in that Mr. Mathews was the type who delighted in subjugating those under him. He’d been unsuccessful with me, but Rusty was a different case; he was easily intimidated.

Rusty didn’t tell me about how he was being treated by our immediate boss even when I asked. He’d skirt the subject. He only spoke to me when I started any conversation, but the only things he’d say were pleasant and nice, and he was never negative. Maybe that’s why he avoided talking about Mr. Mathews.

Anyway, that word I just used perfectly described him: nice. He was simply nice. I wanted to get to know him better. Maybe partly because no one is just nice. I wanted to learn about the ‘what else’ he had. I did find him very attractive. I knew Mr. Mathews was giving him trouble, though. I saw Rusty wince and shrink into himself even more whenever he saw Mr. Mathews coming.

So, Rusty’s current assignment was learning the ropes working in the jewelry department. We sold women’s and men’s watches, bracelets, necklaces, rings, pins and doodads and whatnots of all sorts. Well-made, high-quality leather goods as well, like wallets and handbags. The valuable stuff was on display in locked cases; the less-valuable stuff was still under glass but easily brought out and shown to customers. Rusty was learning the merchandise and just lately had been promoted to being allowed to service customers with the less-expensive things. A full-time, experienced salesperson, Mrs. Rodriguez, had the key to the locked cases and was responsible for the valuables in them.

I was wandering the store that day, making sure I was never in Mr. Mathews’ line of sight as was my habit, hobnobbing and helping out where I could. I wandered into the jewelry area, wanting my daily fix of Rusty, his shy smile, his anxious timorousness.

He wasn’t there.

Mrs. Rodriguez, the department manager, was behind the counter and not occupied with a customer at the moment, so I approached her.

“Hi, Tony,” she said with her customary smile. Everyone liked and respected Mrs. Rodriguez. She was one of our senior employees and one of the most outgoing.

“Hey, Mrs. R. I don’t see Rusty. He’s not sick or something, is he?”

Mrs. Rodriguez gave me a penetrating, questioning look, and I suddenly wondered if I was being too obvious. I didn’t want it known or rumored that anything was going on between Rusty and me. Which, of course, there wasn’t, but still . . . I didn’t want her to know I had any interest in other guys.

Then her look softened. “Oh, we had a little trouble here a few minutes ago. He was involved.”

“Huh? What happened?”

“I was showing a gentleman watches, and he wanted to know the differences between the Rolex, the Piaget and the Patek Phillippe. We only carry the Rolex, and I was telling him that and about why the Rolex was so honored. At the same time, a man was looking at some women’s jewelry, and Rusty was helping him. The customer was kind of loud and bossy. We have a policy in the store—you’ve certainly been told—that only one item at a time is to be set out for a customer to look at. From the little I could hear, the man was insisting to see three items together so he could compare them. I glanced over, and Rusty seemed worried, but he always does. I find it an endearing quality! But he was getting flustered because the man was getting loud and insistent. But my customer seemed to be getting ready to purchase the Rolex, and we don’t sell many of those. That’s where my focus was, and Rusty’s man did quiet down a bit.

“Anyway, I’m not sure what happened, but I heard Rusty’s voice suddenly rise, almost to a shriek, then I heard Mr. Mathews say something—I hadn’t heard him come into the department, but he had—and the bossy man said something and turned and walked off, and then Mr. Mathews, who had Rusty by the arm, walked off with him. That’s all I know. No one said anything to me.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I also didn’t like the idea of Mr. Mathews alone with Rusty. The boy needed protection. That was my opinion. He needed protection, and Mr. Mathews was a born bully.

Mrs. Rodriguez was saying something else, and I was so into my thoughts, I missed it. She stopped mid-sentence, which was when I realized she’d been talking.

“Sorry, Mrs. R. I was thinking about Rusty being dragged off. What did you say?”

“I said I sold the Rolex! I couldn’t even be excited about that because I was worried about Rusty. I really like that boy.”

I almost said, ‘So do I’, and had to stop myself. Instead, I said, “I’ll go see what’s going on,” and took off, hearing, “Let me know!” called out behind me.

Mr. Mathews’ office was a cubicle in a large room containing cubicles for all the members of the Personnel Department. He wasn’t there. The next obvious place would be Mr. Crandall’s office. He was the VP of Personnel. He was also the only one
at Mason’s other than my dad and me who knew who I was. He was a good friend of my dad’s, and he’d been to our house many times over the years. He’d known me much of my life. He’d agreed to keep my secret from other employees, and he had.

He had an open-door policy, and I could see him at his desk; no one else was with him. I debated with myself about including him in my search for Mr. Mathews and Rusty but decided not to stop. I turned and ran off. Trying to explain what was going on would take too much time, and finding Rusty felt very urgent.

This only left the break room to check. Different departments had breaks scheduled at different times, so the room was rarely empty. I entered and found a couple of trainees there, one from the Book Department, one who assisted in Receiving.

“Either of you seen Mr. Mathews or Russell?” I asked.

The Books boy had a mouth full of sandwich, so Receiving answered. “Yeah, both of them. They’re in there,” and he pointed to the locker room and showers.

Feeling a sudden chill, I pushed the door open. And gulped. Mr. Mathews was standing where I could see his face in profile, and the look on it was indescribable. I saw lechery, anger, desire and cruelty all mixed together. He was standing and staring at Rusty. And Rusty was naked.

Rusty also looked like he was crying. His whole body was shaking. He turned when I entered, saw me, and immediately moved his hands to cover himself. He’d had them at his sides, and I could just imagine Mr. Mathews having told him to keep them there.

Mr. Mathews turned, too, saw who it was that was disturbing his fun, and yelled, “Hey, you. Out! Now!”

“Go fuck yourself!” I yelled back. I was furious. I don’t know if I’d ever been so mad. I was a laid-back, easy-going character. Not then. Not at all. “Fuck you!” I seemed to have lost my vocabulary.

Mr. Mathews was shocked but too full of himself to be shaken. “You just talked yourself out of a job. You’re fired,” he said. His face was red by then, and he tried to stand taller. “You do not talk to your superior that way. Get your things and get out.”

I moved toward him. He was bigger than I was, but he was a bully, and I was mad. I wasn’t thinking clearly, that’s for sure. I didn’t know what had happened in that room, but I’d seen him gloating and Russell cowering, and that was enough for me. I suppose my intention was to hit him. Why else move toward him?

I didn’t hit him. I was prevented from doing so by Mr. Crandall entering the room. “Tony?” he said, “you rushed off and seemed—” He stopped midsentence because he saw Mr. Mathews and the look on his face, and then on mine. Rusty moved, trying to retreat into a corner, and Mr. Crandall saw him, too, naked and cringing in the background. He seemed to figure things out pretty rapidly. He said to me, “Tony, stand down!” As I said, he’d known me for a long time and seen my various moods.

Mr. Crandall stepped forward and grabbed my arm. I was so mad I was shaking. “Calm down, Tony,” he said, this time softly. “I’ll handle this.”

Then he turned to Rusty. “Russell, why don’t you get dressed? When you’re ready, come into my office. We three will be there waiting. Can you do that? Are you all right?”

The tears were still apparent on Rusty’s face. He hadn’t wiped them off. His hands were still covering his modesty, but he nodded to Mr. Crandall, then looked to where his clothes were piled on the floor next to where Mr. Mathews was standing.

I saw the problem and, shaking loose from Mr. Crandall, moved over to the pile, picked it up and, rather than handing it to Rusty and making him move his hands, laid it on the floor in the corner of the room, which was mostly out of sight of where the two adults were standing.

The two men were already heading to the locker- room door. “Come with us, please, Tony.”

I was undecided. I wanted to stay with Rusty for moral support, if nothing else. But I wanted to hear what Mr. Mathews would say, too, so I followed both men as I’d been asked to do.

“Why’s he here?” was the first thing I heard when I entered Mr. Crandall’s office. Mr. Crandall was moving behind his desk to get to his chair, and Mr. Mathews was already seated in one of the two that were positioned in front of the desk. “I’ve already fired him for insubordination.”

“You don’t have that authority,” said Mr. Crandall. “You’re a supervisor, an in-training supervisor at that and still learning how to manage employees, and you’re not experienced enough to be firing anyone. Department heads and higher can fire people. You can only recommend someone for dismissal. But since you’ve brought that up, why don’t you tell me why Tony should be fired? From everyone I’ve talked to, he’s been doing an exemplary job.”

“He told me to fuck myself. How could he possibly be more disrespectful than that? And then he was going to attack me. If for no other reason than that, he has to be fired.”

Mr. Crandall turned to me. “That doesn’t sound like you, Tony. What happened?”

“I’d rather we discuss the rest of this first, sir. I’d like to put my actions into context. I’d like to hear why Mr. Mathews was in the locker room alone with Russell, why Russell was naked, and why he was shaking and crying.”

Mr. Crandall turned to Mr. Mathews. “I’d like to hear about that, too. Mr. Mathews?”

“Certainly.” Mr. Mathews was one of those individuals who were very sure of themselves. I tended to have doubts about things, even if I was a smartass and had a boatload of self-confidence. People who were smug bastards got under my skin. But I tried to forget that, forget I was mad, and just listen.

Mr. Mathews sat up a little straighter. “I was walking through the store, checking out how my trainees were doing. I do this every day. I came into the Jewelry Department and found Russell engaged in a set-to with a customer. He also had broken department rules by having three different items out on the counter at the same time. I had to defuse the situation; we can’t have loud confrontations between the help and customers.”

I couldn’t help myself and shook my head, hearing that. Mr. Crandall noticed but didn’t interrupt Mr. Mathews. My problem was, I could go a week at a time never seeing Mr. Mathews in the store. There was no way he could make daily trips through without my having seen him. So, he was lying. No question.

He was continuing. “So, I approached the two, spoke consolingly to the customer who was red-faced and about to explode. I introduced myself, told him I was in Personnel, and he was dealing with a trainee who probably didn’t know what he was doing; if he was causing a problem, as I was a member of store management, I could probably help out. Then I asked him what the problem was.

“The man told me there was no problem; he’d just been discussing the merchandise with the store sales rep, and then he picked up a bracelet and a gold chain. I think he wanted to show me something about them or to look further at them himself, but we can’t let customers handle jewelry that way, not more than one item at a time. I told him to put them back down, and unfortunately that seemed to cause him to raise his voice. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Russell had picked up the third item, a ring, and put it in his pocket. The customer did set the two items down on the counter after I told him to do so again, and then he said some things to me and left in a huff. I turned to Russell then, but when I did, I saw there was now nothing on the counter. Russell had obviously sneaked all three things into his pocket.

“I demanded he empty his pockets, and that he would be fired for theft and that we’d prosecute. He sort of lost it, fell apart, you know? I took him by the arm, and he shrieked like a little girl. I brought him here. Then I asked him for all the jewelry again, and he said he didn’t have anything. So, I did what I had to do to protect the store’s merchandise. I strip-searched him.”

Mr. Crandall was silent, thinking, and after a moment asked, “And you recovered the items?”

“No, he must have managed to drop them on the way to the locker room.”

Just then, there was a soft tap on the doorframe. Russell was there, clothed and knocking.

“Come in, Russell,” Mr. Crandall said, rising to his feet. “Please join us. Bring up a chair and sit next to Tony.” He motioned to a place on the other side of me from Mr. Mathews.

As Russell moved away to get the chair, Mr. Crandall spoke to Mr. Mathews in a voice so low I didn’t think Russell could hear; I barely could, and I was right there. “Not one word out of you, or gesture, or sound, until I speak to you again. You’ll be dismissed on the spot with prejudice if you disobey.”

Mr. Mathews didn’t react at all. I expected him to shrink a little in his chair. He didn’t. I settled into mine, a warm feeling infusing my body. Maybe this was going to work out. Mr. Crandall seemed to be on Russell’s side more than on Mr. Mathews’.

When Russell was seated, Mr. Crandall said, “It may be difficult for you, Russell, but I need to know what happened. Do you think you can talk us through it?” Mr. Crandall was being very solicitous, and it appeared to me that Russell, as nervous and uncomfortable as I’d ever seen him, noticed and calmed down just a bit.

“I don’t like to talk much,” Russell said, so softly it was hard to hear him.

“I understand. But I really need you to do so now, and loudly enough so we all can hear. Please? For me? Please start with the customer you were serving in the Jewelry Department.”

He smiled, and Russell looked up just long enough to see that and then blushed. “I’ll try,” Russell said.

There was a pause as he collected himself, but then he started in.

“I was helping Mrs. Rodriguez. She’s very nice—and smart, too. I like working with her.” He stopped suddenly and looked scared again. “Is this all right? Is this what you want to hear?”

Mr. Crandall smiled broadly at him. “That’s perfect, Russell. We want to know what happened and exactly how you felt about it. You’re doing great.”

“Okay.” Russell took a deep breath and exhaled. “A customer came in and looked in the glass cases, and I came up and asked if I could help him. He said it was hard to tell by looking through the glass and could I bring the things he was interested in up onto the counter. Well, I know what the rules are, but I’d seen this man before in the store. He always seems angry. I get . . . well, I don’t do well with angry people. He told me what he wanted to look at, and none of them were very expensive, so I just made a decision. I would put all three items on the counter, but I’d watch very closely so nothing would be stolen. I even told him that I was breaking store rules, but I trusted him not to tell anyone. I . . . I thought if I acted conspiratorially with him, we’d get along better—sort of form a bond, you know? If so, there seemed more likelihood the store would get a sale that way. Uh, I know I broke a rule, and I expect I’ll get fired for it. Mr. Mathews has told me often that he should fire me, that he was doing me a huge favor by not firing me on the spot, and those times were nothing like breaking this rule.”

He stopped, probably thinking Mr. Crandall would indeed confirm he’d be letting Russell go. Instead, Mr. Crandall shook his head and said, “I wish more of our salespeople would understand when it’s in our best interests to break petty rules. You did good, Russell.”

Russell’s eyes opened wider. I wasn’t sure he believed what he was hearing, or, at least, was having a problem believing it. But I guessed it did sink in, and it did give him courage. When he continued, his voice was stronger. I’d swear there was almost some confidence in it.

“He was comparing items and asking if he could get a discount if he bought all three. He has a way of speaking that made you think he was mad, but as I say, I’ve seen him in the store before, and now that he was talking to me, I could see it was more a case of him being loud than angry. I felt more comfortable with him when I saw that. More comfortable with the situation, as well.

“Then suddenly, Mr. Mathews was there.”

He took a quick, worried glance toward Mr. Mathews. I’d anticipated that would happen and had been subtly moving my chair. Now, Russell couldn’t see Mr. Mathews at all. I was blocking his sightline. So, Russell turned back to Mr. Crandall. “Is it okay if I go on and if I say things about Mr. Mathews? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

“This isn’t about getting anyone in trouble, Russell. That’s not what we’re doing here. What we’re doing is discovering what happened today, the truth about it. Shakespeare said, ‘truth will out’. Do you know what that means?”

For once, Rusty didn’t hesitate. “Yes. It’s from The Merchant of Venice and means that eventually, some way or other, the truth of a situation will become known.”

“That’s exactly right! You’re pretty sharp, Russell. But that’s what we’re doing here: getting to the truth of what happened today. We need your help to discover that. Will you continue to help us? All I want is the truth.”

Russell nodded, tried to glance at Mr. Mathews, but again was thwarted and continued. “I thought I was getting along fine with the man. But when Mr. Mathews came over, he told the man I was new and didn’t know what I was doing, which made me feel bad. He said that I’d broken store rules and would be fired, and then he demanded the things the man was holding. The man protested; he said he hadn’t had a chance to look at them yet. But Mr. Mathews insisted. The man didn’t look happy, but he handed over the things, and Mr. Mathews slipped them into his pocket. The ring was still on the counter. I felt responsible for it. For the other things, too, but I couldn’t do anything about them. The ring, I could, so while Mr. Mathews was talking, demanding the man to hand him the two other items, I took the ring and dropped it back in the case to protect it.

“After Mr. Mathews got the chain and the bracelet from the man, they got into it a little . . . uh, had words with each other, and finally the man left in a huff, saying he’d never shop at Mason’s again. Mr. Mathews had grabbed my arm just before that. Hard. I think I screamed a little because it hurt, but then I remembered where I was and stopped. It still hurt, but I didn’t want to make any more of a scene than we already were.”

Rusty paused, and I was sure he was remembering the scene because I saw him wince and then rub his arm up by the bicep.

He pulled me through the store and into the breakroom. Two other guys were there, and I guess he didn’t want witnesses because he took me into the locker room. He asked me where the three things were! I was shocked because I knew he had two of them. I didn’t know what to say, but I wasn’t given much chance to say anything. He just kept talking, belittling me, telling me how weak and dumb I was and that I was a thief, too. He kept demanding I give him the chain and bracelet, saying if I didn’t I’d be in trouble and very sorry as he knew exactly how to handle boys like me. I tried to sputter out that I didn’t have them, and he heard that and sneered at me and said fine, if I was going to be that way, he’d have to strip-search me. But he wouldn’t do it himself; he couldn’t stand to touch me! He said he’d stand and watch. He told me to take off my clothes and hand each item to him so he could check it. He said, ‘Undress slowly.’

“I didn’t want to do it, but I admit, I get very upset—distraught, I guess—when someone’s yelling at me, and I don’t know how to tell them no. I didn’t want to undress, but he kept yelling and telling me if I didn’t do it, he’d hurt me, so, well, I did. I undressed, item by item. By the time I was naked, I was crying. He stared at my body when he had no reason to; he already had all my clothes. He made me keep my hands at my sides, and then said all kinds of ugly, demeaning things about my body. He was doing that when Tony came in.”

He took another deep breath, dropped his head, and slowly let the air out. I saw him shudder once, and then he was still. I thought I saw tears on his cheek again.

Mr. Crandall looked at him, then me, and slowly turned to Mr. Mathews. I glanced at him, too, expecting to see him sweating and fidgety. He wasn’t. He seemed to have the same smug expression that he usually wore. It was like he was entirely unaffected by what he’d just heard or by the emotions Rusty had felt when saying what he had.

“Mr. Mathews?” Mr. Crandall didn’t say any more than that. It was clear he was asking for some sort of explanation.

Mr. Mathews nodded, then said, “His word against mine. None of that was true. It happened like I told you. He made up his version. He’s a liar.”

“Not really his word against yours,” Mr. Crandall said. “Mrs. Rodriguez saw some of it. Too bad we don’t know who the customer was. He could verify the parts he was involved in. The other thing we can do is have you turn out your pockets.”

Mr. Mathews smiled. “Yes, you could ask me to do that, and I would refuse. Then, should you persist, I could sue you for defamation of character and still not empty my pockets. You’d need a warrant to search me legally, and you have nothing to justify getting one. No judge would grant one based on Russell’s lie. Just look at him. He’s a quivering bowl of cowardice. And he lies.”

I was watching Mr. Crandall and could see he was feeling frustrated. If he tried to detain and search Mr. Mathews and doing so proved he didn’t have the items, he and the store could be in a world of hurt.

I decided to try to help.

“Mr. Crandall, we can question the customer.”

He turned to me. “You know him?”

“No, not really. But I’ve seen him in the store frequently. I’m all over the store every day, and I now recognize many of the repeat customers. He’s here at least twice a week. I think he likes it here, the atmosphere and staff and all. He’s very noticeable because he’s loud. He seems angry, sometimes, but that’s just his tone of voice. I’ve greeted him a couple of times; he’s actually very nice.

“He spends a lot of time up in the Book Department and gets in friendly discussions with the department head there, Mr. Feeney. They’re both World War II nonfiction nuts. I’ve also seen him use his credit card buying books. If Mr. Feeney doesn’t know his name, and he probably does, he’d remember some of the books he’s bought. Knowing that, we could trace the card from the sales slips and get the man’s name.”

I took a quick glance at Mr. Mathews and saw some of his smugness had disappeared.

“Talking to that man would show us who was lying. Another way to check would be to call down to the Jewelry Department and ask Mrs. R if the ring is in the case. Rusty, uh, Russell, says he dropped it there, so it should still be there. If it is, that would suggest he told the truth about it, and so probably about the other things as well. As Mr. Mathews refuses to cooperate by showing us the contents of his pockets, we have reason to feel he might be hiding something, so we can hold him here until he can be searched by the police. We’d have probable cause. And we need to keep him here because as soon as he’s out of our sight, he’ll get rid of the jewelry.”

Mr. Mathews stood up. “This is nonsense. This is a kid, and he thinks he knows the law? Bullshit. You can’t keep me here against my will. No one here has the authority to do that.”

I stood up, too. I think Mr. Mathews remembered how I’d been in the locker room, because he took a step back when I did. Perhaps it was true what they said about bullies: they back down when confronted. Even though he was considerably larger than I was, he didn’t want any physical engagement with me.

I moved so I was between him and the door. “I think you’re forgetting something, Mr. Mathews. You had me sign something when I was hired on. You certainly remember what it was because you told me you’d been responsible for getting it in the new employee handbook. You said you’d even had all the current employees sign it. It’s a document stating the company has the right to search its employees without liability if they have reason to suspect theft. You told me it was a formality, that it’s almost never been used. I suppose that did give you license to search Russell. But not to strip-search him; there’s nothing in the document saying that’s permissible. But you could search him, and—” I turned away from Mr. Mathews “—Mr. Crandall, you have the right to search Mr. Mathews as well.”

Mr. Crandall stood up, too. “I’d forgotten all about that, Tony!” He turned to Mr. Mathews. “Empty your pockets onto my desk.” There was no missing the sharpness of his tone.

Mr. Mathews saw he had no choice. If he refused, Mr. Crandall could call the police, and then he’d be in worse trouble than he already was. He decided to brazen it out.

He took the chain and the bracelet out of his pocket. “I just took these to safeguard them. If I’d left them on the counter while taking Russell off for my search, someone could have walked off with them. I was going to take them back along with the ring after I’d got that from Russell.”

I spoke up before Mr. Crandall could. I was still pissed. “Or you’d forgotten you had them, I suppose. That was going to be your excuse if anyone saw you with them later.”

“Oh, no. I knew I had them. I would have returned them as soon as I had the chance.”

I smiled inwardly. I had him. “So, you knew you had them. In your pocket. Right with you when you demanded Russell give you all the jewelry and then made him strip for your viewing pleasure. I saw how you were ogling him when I walked in. You felt great power, and it was right there on your face. It never was about jewelry with you, was it? It was having power over a young boy and forcing him to undress and stand naked and submissive before you.”

I’d finally gotten to him. He’d gone pale. I guess he’d felt he could bluff his way through an accusation of theft. But pedophilia? Sexual misconduct with an under aged boy over whom he had power? He didn’t want people to know about his perverse nature. I could read that in his sickly expression.

Mr. Crandall took charge. “Sit down, Mr. Mathews. Tony, why don’t you and Russell leave us alone now. Russell, I apologize from the bottom of my heart for what this man put you through. I hope you can forgive the store, and me, and will continue to work here.”

I was already on my feet. Rusty stood up, kept his eyes focused on Mr. Crandall, avoided looking at Mr. Mathews at all, and said, “Thank you for supporting me, Mr. Crandall. Yes, I’ll be happy to continue working here. I like most of the people working here. I’ll go with Tony now.”

That was the last we saw of Mr. Mathews. Mr. Crandall didn’t have him arrested. What he’d done was minor theft and as he hadn’t left the store with the jewelry, it would be difficult to even call it a theft. The two items together cost less than $80 and so was a minor misdemeanor, not even a felony.

There was no way Russell would want to press charges and go to court over the strip-search, either. But Mr. Mathews didn’t get away entirely unscathed. He was terminated for cause and certainly would be unable to use Mason’s as a reference for another job, leaving a hole in his work history after college for him to explain to any future interviewers.

Rusty was quiet when we left Mr. Crandall’s office. It was past lunchtime, I was hungry, and while I was uncertain what Rusty’s state of mind was, I thought he might be anything from merely upset to practically manic after what he’d just been through. I didn’t want to leave him alone, even if maybe he’d have preferred that.

“How are you doing, Rusty? You’ve had a bad morning,” I said, hoping my sympathy was coming through.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Shaken up. Feeling sort of spacey, actually.”

“I’m hungry. I think we should leave the store, go to a cafe near here and get some lunch. I’ll buy. You need to sit down, try to get some distance between what you just went through and where you are now, get some stability back, and I don’t think you should be alone. How about it? Will you come with me?”

He nodded, and so we set off. His personality was so soft I felt he’d do most anything anyone asked him to do.

I’d been in this cafe before. It was a popular place around lunchtime, but it was now early afternoon and no longer crowded. We found a table isolated enough that we could talk with no one overhearing. I ordered a tuna sandwich, fries and a Coke. Rusty just looked at me. “I’m buying,” I said, misreading him.

“I’m not sure I could eat anything and keep it down.”

Damn! I kept forgetting how fragile he was. What had happened that morning hadn’t been traumatic for me; it had been for him.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to be bossy. I shouldn’t have just dragged you here. I should have asked what you wanted to do. We can leave if you want. I can cancel my order.”

“No, no, that’s alright. I’m okay just sitting here. I don’t eat much, anyway.”

I was about to blurt out, ‘Why not?’, but caught myself in time. Easy, go easy, I thought.

“Do you want to talk about this morning? Maybe it would hurt to do that, but maybe it would help relieve the demons. What do you think?”

He did think. He took his time, but finally he said, “I could talk about it. I never really get to talk to anyone. It might help. You, uh, you seem awfully nice. I don’t know why you bother with me.” Then he dropped his eyes to the table.

I waited. It took a few moments, but I waited, and he finally looked up. I stared into his eyes, locked them with mine. “Because you’re worth it. I want us to be friends. I’ve liked looking at you since you came to the store. I want to get to know you.”

“Why would you want to look at me? I’m ugly, skinny and weak. No one wants to look at me.”

“Rusty! That’s not true. In fact, it’s terribly wrong. This will probably embarrass you, but you’re beautiful! Really good-looking. In the top ten of anyone I’ve ever met. Top five. Where’d you ever get the idea you were ugly?”

“My step-father. Well, he’s not really that. They aren’t married. He’s my mother’s partner. That’s what he is, her partner. He tells me all the time how much of a loser I am.” He dropped his eyes as he was saying that.

“Rusty, look at me.” I had to wait again, but, eventually, he did look up. “You are not ugly. You are not worthless. You’re smart; what you did today at the jewelry counter was exactly the right thing to do, and you were under pressure. You have to be smart to do that, and when I’ve heard you talk, you’ve used a better-than-average vocabulary. I’m kind of a word freak myself, and I like how you speak. Did this jerk also call you anything else?”

“All the time. I’m weak, cowardly, stupid, and, and . . .” He tapered off. And I thought I knew what he was going to say. I was pretty sure. Just as I knew I couldn’t confront him with it. I had to be subtle.

“You’re none of those things. How long has he been telling you this?”

“Four years. My dad died. This guy moved in right after that. He’s never liked me.”

“Your mother lets him get away with it?”

“He’s the same with her. It didn’t take long before he had complete control over her. She drinks now. He encourages it. That was part of his getting control. She’s drunk most of the time, and he yells at both of us. He has a really fast temper, and he’s terrifying when he’s mad.”

“Why doesn’t she kick him out?”

“He says if she does, he’ll come back and kill us both. I think he means it, too. We’re both scared of him, and he likes that fear. He makes me do things just to fortify the power he has over me. He does it with her, too.”

My God! This was way above my pay grade. But it sure explained Rusty to me. I had a thought—a bad one. “Why are you working?”

“He said if I was going to live there, I had to pay for the room and food. I sign each paycheck over to him.”

I took a deep breath. “Look, Rusty. You need help. Luckily, I know where we can get some. My dad.”

“Is he a lawyer? We can’t afford a lawyer. My mom received a lot of insurance money when my dad died, but the guy—his name is Conrad Johnson—controls it now. Mom and I have no money at all.”

“No, Dad’s not a lawyer, but he can help. I will, too. I want to. Rusty, I have to tell you something. I’m gay. I want you to know that before we go any farther. If you have a problem with that and don’t want my help, it’s best to know that now.”

Okay, that was me being subtle. But I said it in a way that he wouldn’t have to say anything reciprocal. I was pretty sure that was the other thing this bastard in his house would be disparaging him for. He’d almost said it. Now, if he wanted to, he could.

Rusty paused, then asked, “If he isn’t a lawyer, how can he help?”

“He’s a bigshot in town and knows a lot of people. Believe me, he can help. Do you want that Conrad guy out of your house?”

“More than anything—for both me and my mother. But I don’t think it’ll ever happen.”

“Let’s go talk to my dad. You’ll be amazed what he can do.”

When he’d been talking, I’d been eating, so I was able to wave to the waitress and pay the check. When I’d been talking, I’d offered Rusty free access to my fries, and he hadn’t taken any. What teen has that kind of restraint? I’d needed to understand how upset he was, and that was certainly a clue. I was such a positive-thinking, looking-ahead person that it was difficult for me to get into his head and understand him and his thinking, as dark as that was.

“Where are we going?” he asked me when we were back on the sidewalk.

“Just stay with me,” I said, and headed back to Mason’s, Rusty walking next to me.

The executive offices at Mason’s were on the top floor of the building. They included my dad’s—Owner and President—and those of Mr. Crandall, the VP of Personnel, who was also Dad’s second in command; the heads of the Legal Department, Finance, Procurement; and the man in charge of Building Maintenance. Mr. Crandall had an office in that wing and also had one lower in the building in the Personnel Department, where we’d met with Mr. Mathews. Mr. Crandall wanted to be closer to the action than be sequestered upstairs.

Rusty looked at me questioningly when we reentered Mason’s but didn’t say anything. He also looked surprised when I pushed the elevator button for the fifth floor. He’d never been up there before and probably wondered what I was doing. I thought it was time to tell him.

“Rusty,” I said as we were rising, “I have something to tell you. A secret, really. Only a couple of people know this, and I want it to stay that way. It’s this: my dad actually owns Mason’s. That’s who we’re going to see now. Don’t worry about anything. He’s a really nice man; he’ll like you, and he’ll help. He’s warm and human and you’ll like him, too. Trust me.”

I couldn’t tell what Rusty thought of that surprise because he was studying his feet again. Well, looking down. His accustomed view of the world.

Dad’s secretary looked up as we entered. She wasn’t one of the ones in the know. She didn’t know me from Adam, and she’d have kept Adam out of Dad’s office if no appointment had been made. Luckily, Dad’s door was open, and he could see me from where he was sitting at his desk. He got up and came to his office door and said, “Tracy, I asked for these two to come up.” Then he stuck out an arm as if to usher us in. He closed the door behind us.

His office was what you’d expect of a top-level executive who had to meet other bigwigs. It was large and had a comfortable conversation area, a working area where his expansive desk was located; there was a credenza behind it that was where his computer lived. There was a door on one side that led to his private bathroom and a small bar with various bottles, coffee-making equipment and a small refrigerator. Thick plush carpeting covered the entire floor space, and the walls were decorated with sedate wallpaper.

“Hi, Dad,” I said. “This is Rusty.”

Rusty surprised me. He looked up, took Dad’s offered hand, shook it and said, “Hello, sir,” looking at him as he said it. Good for Rusty!

“What can I do for you guys, Tony?” my dad asked. He led us to the conversation area.

We sat down in comfortable upholstered chairs. Dad sat on the couch. He hadn’t heard anything about what had happened at the store earlier. Mr. Crandall was still dealing with that and hadn’t had a chance to brief Dad yet. I learned that with a question, and then proceeded to tell him all that had gone on that morning with Mr. Mathews.

“He was a bully, and he made life hell for Rusty in the time he was here. We’ve stopped that now. Mr. Mathews was or is being fired as we speak. But in the process, I’ve gotten to know Rusty, and I’ve learned something about his home life. That’s what we’ve come to talk to you about. Dad, Rusty needs your help.”

Then I asked Rusty to tell Dad about what it was like at home. He didn’t want to! Of course, he didn’t.

“Rusty, is it okay for me to tell him what you told me?”

Rusty didn’t want to respond, but I asked him again, telling him if Dad didn’t know, he couldn’t help. Finally, Rusty nodded and then even spoke. “It won’t matter. Nothing can be done. But it’s not important enough to bother you, sir.”

I just shook my head. Then I told Dad about Conrad, the man in Rusty’s house and what was going on there. Rusty actually was able to add a few incidents he hadn’t told me about. When the two of us were finished, Dad was as livid as I was.

“Dad,” I said, “Rusty is a very good employee here. He’s going to be a great friend for me. He’ll be even better at the store with Mr. Mathews gone. I like him a lot. I’m positive we’ll be great together, and you’ll be seeing a lot of him. He’ll do the store proud, too. He’s smart and makes good decisions; he’s just the kind of trainee you want. But, he can’t solve the problem he has at home, and I can’t, either. What can be done?”

My dad hadn’t been running the store successfully for years now without being a smart, aggressive go-getter. He got things done. He did that now. He called the company’s lawyer in, and we all talked for a while until the lawyer left to make some arrangements. Dad then called the Building Maintenance supervisor and some plans were made. Dad called my Mom, and more arrangements were made.

Rusty didn’t take part in anything that was being thrown around. He sat silently watching, but he was listening, too. And then we came to the part where he had to engage with the rest of us because he was an essential part of the plan we were making. He balked. He didn’t want to do what was being suggested. He didn’t think he could. I agreed that we were asking a lot from him, but I told him that this would be good for him, no matter how hard it would be. That he’d been hurt, badly hurt, psychologically hurt, and this would be a major step toward redemption. I told him he could do it. That I believed in him.

We all had to persuade him, and for a while I wasn’t sure we could, but he was so accustomed to not resisting when told what to do, eventually he stopped arguing, maybe just to mollify us, but it seemed to me he was at least thinking about his part in the plan and perhaps even warming to it. At the end, he accepted that this was something he should do, even if he hated the idea of it.

I saw life in his eyes, more than had been there before. I’d only seen defeat before. I saw Rusty start to feel that maybe things could get better. Maybe he could be part of it, too.

By the end of our time in Dad’s office, the workday was over. We all stood up, the others left, and it was just Dad and the two of us then. Rusty said he’d see us tomorrow.

“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “You heard those plans being made. You heard the part about coming home with us tonight. You’ve spent enough time with that monster. No more. You’re coming home with me tonight; tomorrow we’re going to settle Conrad’s hash.”

Rusty was very good at doing what he was told. He’d been doing it for years. He’d been forced into it, forced to believe that was his inevitable life. He rather quickly stopped arguing with me then, maybe because that’s what he did, but more likely because he’d been convinced this was the right thing to do. I even saw him relax a little. For Rusty, that was a major accomplishment.

“Mom, this is Rusty.”

We’d just gotten home. Dad usually worked late, but he’d given the two of us a ride home. Rusty was nervous; I could see that easily enough. He was probably nervous whenever he faced a new situation. Nervous seemed his default state. When you have zero self-confidence, how can you help but worry?

Mom was a very warm and comforting woman, and she read Rusty right off like he was an elementary-school primer. She didn’t ask him embarrassing questions. She simply welcomed him and made him feel like her home was a sanctuary for him.

We were both young men, not kids, so we didn’t stump up to my room and play video games or anything like that. I showed him around our house. Dad—well, we, I guess—were rich; there’s no other way to say it. Dad was the sole owner of a major department store and branches that in total did over a billion dollars of sales a year. Our home reflected that. When I was smaller and my friends didn’t have anything close to what I had, it embarrassed me. I didn’t feel that way now, and I was proud of what we had. So, I showed Rusty the swimming pool, the grounds, the finished basement with a playroom that included pool and ping-pong and foosball tables, an audio/visual entertainment center and all the rest.

Then we sat on the covered back patio and just talked. I offered him a beer, and he said he’d never had one. I told him he might rather have a soft drink, or even something harder, like a gin and tonic. He’d never had that before, either, but he was relaxing, and I thought, why not? He was still on edge, even relaxing, and I thought a weak drink might help his relax even more. So, I got him a Coke, but a light gin and tonic, too, and let him make his own choice.

He looked at the G-and-T a bit skeptically, but then tasted it. He smiled. Hah! Even heavy on the tonic, light on the gin, I felt it was appropriate. He’d told me his mother was now an alcoholic, that the guy had kept her half-soused from the beginning, and now she welcomed that feeling as it numbed her to her life. But it didn’t sound like there was a genetic component to her alcoholism, rather that it was an escape for her. I didn’t want him drunk, just to be able to loosen up more than he usually could.

Mom called us to dinner. She’d made comfort food: chicken pieces in gravy and homemade biscuits; two veggies; a banana, blueberry and shredded-coconut salad dressed lightly in mayonnaise; and fresh dinner rolls. She’d also made a cheesecake for dessert, one of her best recipes.

It was amazing, watching Rusty eat. He was skinny as a rail. He looked skinny with clothes on, and the brief glimpse I’d had of him with them off confirmed the case; he was indeed skinny. So, I thought it likely he wouldn’t eat much, and I wasn’t surprised when he asked for just a small helping of everything. Mom’s a genius. She figured he’d be too shy to ask for more, so instead of making him ask for more if he wanted it, she managed to place both the chicken dish and the biscuits within easy arm’s reach.

The rest was up to me. Perhaps the gin and tonic had helped because he seemed to have lost some of his reticence. When he’d finished his small amounts, I asked him to pass me the chicken dish, and as he reached out for the bowl, I said, “Oh, and help yourself before passing it. Grab a biscuit first.” It was the most natural thing in the world for him to comply; he was conditioned to do as he was told, and he had to be hungry. No lunch, tiny amounts of food for dinner, and a relaxing drink first—he had to be still hungry, and watching him, I thought it obvious that he was. In fact, I also subtly got him to have thirds, then two pieces of the cheesecake.

After eating all that, I figured he’d be tired, and he was. He looked like he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, so I suggested we make an early night of it. He looked grateful for the suggestion.

Mom was going to show him to one of our guest suites, and I shook my head at her. I’d take over now.

I took Rusty to my suite. I had a bedroom, a sitting room and a bathroom all to myself. I’d had it since I was five, which was when Dad had had the house built, so it didn’t seem at all special to me. When we were upstairs alone, I took him to the sitting room. I said, “Let’s sit and talk for a moment.”

We both sat on the couch and turned toward each other. “Rusty, has this Conrad guy you live with limited the food you get to eat?”

He dropped his eyes, and I said, “Hey! Stop that! Look at me. We’re friends, I told you I like you, and I do. So don’t be embarrassed. I know you’ve had it rough, and it’s not your fault—none of it. So be honest with me so I can get to know you. I want to know you. I have feelings for you, Rusty. You know I’m gay, and those are the kind of feelings I have. But I’m not a bit aggressive and won’t take advantage of your nature. But I do want to understand you. So, tell me why you’re skinny.”

He did raise his eyes to mine. I felt I was making progress with him.

“Yeah, he orders all our food at home from take-out places. He eats most of it, then gives what’s left to Mom and me. I don’t get breakfast and don’t have money to buy lunch at the store’s cafeteria. I couldn’t believe you had all that food on the table tonight. I made a pig of myself! I have to apologize to your mom tomorrow.”

“You do not! You made her day, seeing you eat what you did. She’ll probably have a huge breakfast for you tomorrow. She loves feeding people and doing things to help them. Just eat all you can and thank her and she’ll be happy as a lark.”

He didn’t say anything more. Just sat. Sigh. I was hoping for more reaction with him. Some more loosening. Some response to my coming out to him. You can lead a horse to water, but, if it’s not thirsty . . .  Well, maybe I’d not led him close enough. I’d hoped reminding him that I was gay would encourage him to do the same, but no. Perhaps he wasn’t responding because I’d misjudged him. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, but, if so, I had to accept that.

Maybe that was why he hadn’t responded to any of my hints when I’d tried to get more personal with him. But then I saw something else that could have been part of the problem: his head was sagging. Falling asleep after that meal and dessert and the alcohol, even though he’d had just a small amount of that. Well, one more thing and I’d get him to bed. If this didn’t loosen his tongue, nothing would.

“I can see you’re ready for bed, Rusty. You have two choices. We have a guest room, and I have a king-sized bed. You know I’m gay, but you’re safe from me if you want to share. I’d love that. I’d love it even more if you were gay, but a guy can’t have everything. Where would you like to sleep?”

There. Up to him now.

I noted that after I said that, Rusty seemed to be more awake, more than he had been moments earlier. And he looked up at me, always a good sign.

“I don’t have anything to sleep in. And I need a shower first. Oh, and I am gay. I think. I mean, I look at guys a lot and not girls. I’ve never done anything gay, though. I might not like it!” He giggled then. He was awake enough now to do that. “I just don’t know. Conrad made me think I was some sort of nasty bug for being gay even though he didn’t know that I was. If I was. But I think . . . Tony, you’d have to teach me.”

I giggled then, too. I’d thought he was gay, but knowing for sure, I couldn’t help myself. And the way he told me was oh so cute.

“You didn’t answer the question, though,” I said in a tut-tut voice, sounding disapproving. “The shower, though, we can do that. I say we, because as tired as you seem, I’m afraid you’d fall, so I need to be there to make sure you don’t come to any harm.”

He looked at me and grinned tiredly. Grinned! But he no longer looked like he’d fall asleep any second now.

“I haven’t done anything about being gay, either,” I told him as we were undressing. “We’re both noobies. We’ll teach each other.”

He was just as thin as he’d been in the locker room earlier that day, even with the enormous dinner he’d eaten. I thought he looked marvelous. I guess maybe I had a thing for skinny. I hadn’t known that, but the way he looked really turned me on. He was skin and bones with the bones prominent and the effect enhanced by a front-middle appendage that was larger than I’d have expected. Being on such a narrow frame probably emphasized its size.

“You’re beautiful,” I said, my voice a little choked up. I couldn’t help it. He was magnificent. “If that guy said any different, he was just envious of you. He sounds like a freak. You’re gorgeous.”

He shook his head in denial and blushed, too. At the same time, his eyes were devouring me. I was nothing special, nothing like he was. I had black hair that wasn’t too long and was kept tidy; Mason’s policy dictated that, and I liked the look, too. Messy hair was for youngsters, and I wasn’t one of those. I had regular features and wasn’t ugly but wasn’t poster-boy material, either. I wasn’t accustomed to anyone seeing me naked, nor to anyone looking at me the way Rusty was. It was clear that I was meeting his approval.

We walked into my bathroom, and I turned on the shower. There was no enclosure around the showerhead; it was located in one corner of the large room. The floor was tiled, and in the shower area there was a tiny cant toward in-floor drains so no water reached the rest of the room.

I washed him and he washed me and it was an awakening, almost a spiritual one, for us both. Both of us started off a little shy, but by the time we were drying off at the end, that was a thing of the past. We knew each other’s body—the entire body—very well.

It was just sensual touching, rubbing, stroking all that beautiful skin. Neither of us said anything about holding back, but we both did that. It just felt right that for the first time we were together like this, we shouldn’t go too far. We had all the time in the world to do that, and in a shower, before getting in bed, well, we could wait. Waiting was good. Anticipation was good. Even patience was good.

He didn’t say anything more about pajamas. I dried him, he dried me, and we walked back to my bedroom together. He looked at the bed when we got there, looked at me, yawned deeply and blushed again.

“Rusty,” I said, “you’ve had a long, traumatic day. What I think would be best is if we don’t finish what we started in the shower tonight. Instead, we should just go to sleep. We can do more tomorrow or some other day. No need to rush things. I want to do those things, and I know you do, too, but right now you’re beat, and what I want to do more than anything is just hold you. I don’t know why, but you fire up all my protective urges, urges I didn’t know I had until I first saw you at the store. All evening I’ve been thinking how wonderful it would be to just cuddle you while we’re falling asleep. Is that all right?”

He was standing by the bed but right in front of me. Looking at me. No more hiding of his eyes now. He said, “That would be good. Except I need to do this first.” And he wrapped his arms around me and kissed me.

Wow! He was making the first move! Rusty! All I could to was let it happen and enjoy it. It was my first boy kiss. His, too. Our bodies responded as young male bodies do, and my altruistic plan of waiting was almost abandoned, but the kiss was interrupted eventually by the strangest thing: with our lips still touching, he yawned again!

We both laughed, then got into bed. I turned off the lights and asked him to roll over so his back was to me. I spooned him, draped an arm over him to pull him in tightly against my body, and heard him sigh. Then he said in almost a whisper, “I liked you the first time I saw you, too.” I heard him yawn again right after that. He might have been asleep before he finished it.

Rusty had a huge breakfast in the morning: waffles, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and then, for a finish, a sweet roll. He didn’t drink coffee but had three cups of cocoa. I don’t know where he was putting it all. He did let out a notch on his belt afterward.

“Today’s the day,” I said when we were relaxing in the den. Dad had excused us from work that day. He was at the office, though, setting up what was his part of the plan. “You ready for this?”

Rusty nodded. Chitchat was still hard for him. He’d had to be quiet at home, gotten slapped down pretty hard if he hadn’t been, and getting back to being a typical teenager was going to take some time.

“You’re going to be able to do your part?”

He didn’t answer me right away. When he did, his old self was heavy in his voice. “I’ll try,” he said, and looked down.

Our plan was pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Yesterday, Dad’s company lawyer had called a judge he knew, one he’d worked with several times in the past, and he’d told him about the situation Rusty had at home. He’d had Rusty confirm that Conrad Johnson had said he’d kill both his mom and him if she tried to get him kicked out of the house. Also, that Conrad had forced her to turn over the proceeds of his dad’s life insurance to him. Rusty then had sworn to these facts before a notary who worked in the store’s Legal Department, and the judge had issued a restraining order against Conrad Johnson; a man was collecting the order and bringing it to us.

We would go to Rusty’s house in the morning while Johnson was still there, a policeman would accompany us and serve the restraining order, and a crew of large men from the Maintenance Department would also come to change all the locks on the doors to the house. A notice was being delivered to the bank to freeze the account in which the remaining insurance assets were kept and to announce the start of recovery proceedings. There should be well over a quarter of a million dollars at play. After Johnson had been given the restraining order paperwork, the policeman would arrest him for his threats and for extortion. The policeman was there rather than a process server to make the arrest and to ensure Conrad would behave.

We were ready to roll. Rusty’s part? Dad spoke to him when the restraining order and the policeman both showed up.

“Rusty, you’re sure you can do this? We don’t absolutely need it, but, well, we discussed this and I don’t need to rehash all that. I’m hoping doing your part will make you feel better, at least after it’s done, and it might do more than that.”

“I want to,” Rusty answered, “but he’s awfully intimidating. I won’t know if I can do it till—what’s the word they use on TV shows?—oh yeah, till it’s all going down.”

Dad nodded. “Great answer. Uh, I’ve taken another step. Not necessary, but wise, I think. I know a private detective. We’ve used him in the past for store business. I’m going to have him go along with you just to be sure you guys are safe.”

Rusty had told us Conrad got up around 8:30 every morning and then left the house for breakfast around 9. Or, at least that was what Rusty said the man had done before Rusty’d started working. Now, Rusty was out of the house before Conrad, so he couldn’t guarantee the man would be there.

There was a knock on our front door, and Dad opened it for a nondescript man not a whole lot bigger than I was. It was the detective, and I wondered why dad had hired such a nonthreatening man. However, with a policeman there, I didn’t any see the need for him, so I didn’t feel that his size would matter. He introduced himself as Don Clevers.

We drove to Rusty’s house. Rusty tried the front door and found it locked. He didn’t have a key. “Conrad has all the keys. He wouldn’t let Mom or I have one,” he said, and he sounded to me like just being at the house was having a deleterious effect on him. Conrad had had complete control of him, and the effects of that had been psychologically gutting. I’d been feeling pretty sure Rusty could play his role. Now, my confidence was weakening.

The policeman rang the doorbell.

We waited, and the policeman rang again. We again waited. The third time he rang, we finally heard footsteps. I heard the lock being turned, and then the door was opened.

I almost needed a double-take to see the man who’d opened it. Rusty had described Conrad as a large man. This guy at the door, surely Conrad, was huge, probably six-foot-ten and certainly well over 300 pounds. Probably closer to 400 than 300. He had about a three-day growth of beard and was wearing boxers and nothing else. He wasn’t fat at all, just huge and muscular, with shoulders that looked like he’d need to go through doorways sideways.

He looked at the four of us and said, “Yeah?” in a deep, scratchy voice.

The policeman looked scrawny in comparison. He sounded a bit nervous when he spoke. He was probably under thirty years of age and assigned to a process-serving detail. He’d quite evidently not been expecting a giant. I didn’t envy him his job.

“Are you Conrad Johnson?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m Officer Banford. You know this boy. We’re here on official business. Please step aside so we can enter.”

Johnson thought about it for a moment, then stepped back into the house. The four of us entered.

We stepped into the living room. It wasn’t a large room and was cluttered with dishes, take-out food cartons and beer bottles. There were five of us in the room now, and, standing as we were in the middle, it was crowded. No one sat down.

The policeman handed Johnson the paperwork he’d been given. “This is a restraining order. It says you cannot be closer than 500 yards to either Russell or his mother. Your personal things will be boxed up and provided for you. The order goes into effect as of now.”

Right then, precisely on time, the doorbell rang again. The detective was closest to it, so he opened it. Four large men walked in. They were large, they looked formidable, but they were nowhere near Conrad Johnson’s size, and they looked far less imposing in his presence.

The policeman continued. “These men are here to change the locks on the door and to box up and take from the house for your collection anything that legitimately belongs to you. Russell will point those things out to them. That’s the first order of business. Now, the second. I’m placing you under arrest in accordance with this warrant.”

Actually, the men were there not only to do as the policeman said, but also to form at least a psychological barrier between Conrad and the rest of us. Our thinking had been to minimize the chances of things getting out of hand.

The policeman handed Johnson a copy of the arrest warrant that had been signed by the judge along with the restraining order.

“Now, please put your hands behind your back so I can cuff you.”

That was Rusty’s cue. I didn’t like this part, had argued it was too risky and unnecessary even while seeing how it could help, but I’d been overruled and been part of convincing Rusty that he could do this.

Rusty had had misgivings, too, and outside the house earlier I’d thought he’d not be up to it, but this was his moment, and he came through.

“Not so tough now, are you, asshole! A big, big man, pushing around a sick woman and a 120-pound boy. You’re a bully and a coward, and you’re going to jail where you belong. When the DA gets through looking into your affairs, no doubt you’ll be living in a small cell for the next few years, maybe permanently. Some guys’ll make you their bitch. I hope I get to hear about that. I’ll laugh my head off.”

Rusty’s voice got stronger as he spoke, and by the end he was loud and sneering at Conrad. Perfect, I thought. Absolutely perfect.

Rusty had said the man had a hair-trigger temper, and when he got mad, he got violent. Both he and his mother had learned very fast not to rile him. It was one of the ways he’d dominated them. Yet riling him was exactly what Rusty was doing now. Demeaning him. Our guess had been that Conrad wouldn’t be able to take it. He was too used to being in control, and being sassed by someone he’d been subjugating? No, we thought that might be too much for him.

Johnson had been slowly, very slowly, putting his massive arms behind his back, perhaps thinking about whether he really wanted to be cuffed and maybe considering the repercussions if he didn’t. The policeman was now standing behind him with his cuffs. With the four maintenance men now crowded into the room, the detective had been forced farther in and now was standing next to me and directly behind Rusty. Rusty was facing a hostile Conrad Johnson who was rapidly losing control of himself.

“Loser!” Rusty continued. He was really getting into it now. “Asshole; fucking loser. You called me gay; you’re the one who’s about to find out what being gay is all about. You’ll be taking it up the ass every day. Maybe both ends at the same time. They’ll be calling you Connie. Sweet Connie. What a joke of a man you are!”

That did it. Johnson yanked his arms away from the policeman and turned quickly. It was amazing how fast he was with all the weight he carried. He was now looking the policeman in the face. The policeman tried to step back, but there was no room to move, and in any case, Johnson’s hands were already on him. He grabbed the cop’s shoulder, twisted him around so his back was against Johnson’s chest, put one massive arm around his throat and used his other arm and hand to strip the cop’s sidearm from him. The whole thing had taken maybe two seconds.

Once he had the gun, Johnson almost carelessly and with no apparent effort threw the man back into the group of the four maintenance men. The cop was trying to catch his breath and struggling to do so, but I felt he was lucky still to be alive. Johnson could have easily broken his neck.

I changed my focus from the cop back to Johnson and the gun he now had. It looked small in his oversized hand.

He was still facing the four large men. They all pulled back from him as much as possible, which wasn’t much. Seeing they weren’t a threat, Johnson then turned back to Rusty. “Joke of a man, huh,” he sneered and raised the gun.

Three quick shots followed. And then, to my surprise, it wasn’t Rusty but Johnson who fell. I saw two red splotches on his chest, and one on his forehead. And I saw a gun in the detective’s hand. Johnson was dead before he hit the floor.

The room was silent. I think we were all stunned by what had happened and how fast it had been. A man was now dead, and the rank odor of burnt gunpowder hung in the air. Then the detective spoke. “Self-defense,” he said, and put his pistol away.

We were in the District Attorney’s office. The group consisted of Don Clevers, the detective; me, Rusty and Dad; along with the District Attorney, who just happened to be a friend of Dad’s. I guess when you run a thriving business with many local employees and are a major tax payer in town, it’s in both your and the District Attorney’s best interests to know each other and work together on mutual issues.

“Greg,” the DA said, speaking to my father, “this has the strong odor of a setup. You’re not supposed to set people up to be killed. Unethical, immoral and illegal; you conspired to have a man killed.”

Dad smiled. “You’d have an awful job in court trying to prove that, Charles. Your main problem is, it isn’t true. We did no such thing. What we did was encourage Mr. Johnson to show his true colors. To show that his temper was as large as he was, that he had a violent disposition, that he was a threat the way a bomb is when waiting to explode, and so the reasons for the warrants were valid.”

“You had a man there with a gun, ready and waiting. That sure smacks of preparations having been made to kill Johnson.”

“Again, you’d never be able to prove intent. What you’re suggesting is supposition on your part, and no more likely than the real reason why he was there. This man—” he gestured at Mr. Clevers “—was hired to protect two teenagers whom I felt might be a target for the man’s wrath. Good thing we’d thought ahead, don’t you agree?”

The DA scowled but couldn’t hold it. He turned to me and lost the scowl and winked, which proved to me that this meeting was perfunctory. Then he transferred his gaze to Rusty before turning back to Dad.

“And what about the goading that went on? Surely that was arranged to incite Johnson so there’d be a reason to shoot him.”

“We did discuss goading him in advance,” Dad said. “But our purpose was to show the police how violent the man could be. My man had his gun with him. We did talk about how the situation should be handled if the man flew off the handle.” He turned to the detective. “Don, What was the plan?”

For a small man, the detective had a surprisingly deep voice. “We thought if he came at either of the boys, I might find it necessary to show him the gun and tell him to back off, and if that didn’t work, I’d use it to shoot him in the leg to stop him. But the room was much smaller than we’d anticipated, Johnson was much closer to Rusty than was safe, and in our planning, Johnson didn’t have a weapon. When he did, any thought of shooting for his leg evaporated. He was in the process of raising it when I shot him. He had to be stopped. That’s what I did.

“I’m more concerned with the policeman’s health. His neck was badly bruised, but his prognosis is good. The fact is, though, that he shouldn’t have tried to handcuff Johnson in the way he did. He put himself in harm’s way. I also blame the police commander who sent a young, inexperienced cop to deal with a man who had priors for assault and resisting arrest. I feel bad that the young man was hurt, but not guilty. Had he followed police procedure for arresting a violent offender, if he’d had backup, if someone with more experience had been given his assignment, he’d probably have escaped injury. And if that were true, it’s possible Johnson might be still alive, too. All that’s on the police department, not on me.”

The DA gave him a hard stare. Mr. Clevers met his eyes without blinking. The DA finally turned back to Dad.

“We interrogated your four employees,” he said. “They all confirmed your account of what happened. They all felt that if Johnson hadn’t been stopped, he probably would have killed everyone in the room as they would all have been witnesses to Rusty being shot. The policeman’s weapon was a Glock 17, so he had plenty of ammo. There were only eight people left alive for him to kill after he’d killed Rusty.”

He turned back to the detective. “I guess telling you thanks for saving those lives is appropriate. Thank you. You can go now; no charges will be filed.”

Mr. Clevers got up, but before leaving, he spoke again to the DA. “I do feel bad about the young policeman.” Rusty and I had thanked him profusely in the car taking us to see the DA after the shooting. We both knew he’d saved Rusty’s life and perhaps that of everyone in the room. We thanked him again as he was leaving. Dad left then, too, after shaking the DA’s hand.

The DA turned to me again when only Rusty and I were with him. I wasn’t intimidated by him. I actually knew and liked him. He’d come to barbecues in our back yard many times, and I’d even played badminton with him.

“Tony, tell me the truth, you guys all planned this, huh? Set the guy up, killed him, and now your friend”—he nodded at Rusty—“doesn’t have to deal with him any longer. That’s right, isn’t it?”

I looked him in the eye, hesitated for effect, and said, “I can’t answer that without legal counsel present.” Then I laughed. Eventually, the DA did, too.

No charges were entered. Johnson had a rep in that town, and I never heard anyone bemoan the fact the man was dead. Life moved on except for Johnson. We didn’t feel bad about that.

Rusty’s mom went into a rehab facility. After Johnson was killed, Rusty went into her bedroom and found her unconscious on the bed, an empty vodka bottle on the floor next to it. She’d used alcohol to numb the pain of living with a monster. It would take some time to recover from that ordeal, both physically and mentally.

In the meantime, Rusty would live with us.

When I told my mom that she didn’t need to freshen up the guest suite, that Rusty would be sharing mine with me, she lowered her head and gave me a look over the top of her glasses.

“What are you trying to tell me, Tony?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ve already guessed. And it’s the answer to the questions you’ve been asking yourself: why I never have brought a girl home to meet you or even gone on a date with one. I know you’ve suspected. I’ve noticed all those looks you’ve given me. I don’t think you mind. You’d have said something if you had. My worry is about Dad. What will he think?”

She smiled at me. “We’ve discussed it. He won’t mind. He might be hurt that you haven’t trusted him enough to tell him, but he’ll be fine with it. I’ve been pretty sure; he’s only suspected it. Tell him, Tony. Tell him today, before Rusty moves in.”

So, I did. Like it or not, Rusty was going to move into my room. And it was only fitting that I should discuss it with Dad.

I waited till he got home. He hadn’t gone to work until he received word that we were all fine and until after the DA had patted him on the back as we were leaving his office and told him not to do it again, and they’d both smiled. Both Rusty and I were given the day off, so I didn’t see him till he got home that night.

I spoke to him in the den. “Dad, I know what Mom was pretty sure of and you suspect. I spoke with her earlier. Yes, I’m gay. Rusty is too, and while it’s very early in our relationship, I already have strong feelings for him. He’s going to stay here with us till his mom can cope again, and who knows how long that’ll be. While he’s here, he’s going to stay in my suite. If you need earplugs, we have them in the Pharmacy Department and you can use your employee discount.”

Dad laughed, gave me a hug, and that was that.

Within a week, Rusty wasn’t looking down at the floor as much. Hardly at all, in fact. He also was speaking more at the table. Initially, he’d been effusive in his thanks to both my parents.

That first night, he kept sneaking quick glances at me at dinner. I thought that boded well for later.

My parents told him he was welcome to stay with us, not as long as he needed but as long as he wanted. I was hoping that would be for a very long time.

We went upstairs early. Neither of us wanted to wait. We’d both waited since puberty had raised its impish head. We both knew that in the morning, we would be unable to say that we were still waiting.

We’d already showered together the night before, so the newness of that was over and done with, and the shower wasn’t the same. Some of the first-time excitement was gone, but some of the experience we’d had could now be put to use. We’d never have that first time back, but the second time had its own claim to fame, as would the third, I was sure.

We’d done nothing in bed but snuggle before, and he’d fallen asleep almost as soon as I’d turned off the light. Now, he was wide awake, and every bit as eager as I was.

We spent quite a long time kissing, not because we were shy about going forward from there, but because it was such a new experience for us, and so very intimate. We’d had a simple, quick kiss before, but this was different. Neither of us was tired, and we both were randy. We both got hard immediately after our lips first touched and our tongues first met, and I know I forgot all about time. There was no rush at all. I felt so close to him, closer than I’d ever felt before with anyone.

We took the time to explore all that was possible when kissing, using lips and tongues and heightened emotions to the fullest. We did finally move on, and that was wonderful, too. I discovered what he liked and what he loved, and how to bring him to the edge but not over, and then how amazing it was when he did go over the top. He spent a lot of time learning the same things and more about me. I learned what made him purr and what make him wriggle and what made him scream—a muted scream because he still was Rusty. Everything was wondrous when it happened, and when we finally slept, it was deeply and fully.

Until he woke me at around three in the morning and wanted more! So, we did it all again. I felt I’d created a monster. Or he had. I was as willing and into it as he was.

After that, we slept late into the morning. No one knocked on the door. Hey, I’ve got really good parents.

Dad was at work. I called him mid-morning and asked if he wanted us to come in after lunch and work a half day. He said we should do what we liked. I told him we’d be in.

When we got there, I was told to report to Dad’s office. I left Rusty in the jewelry department with Mrs. R. She looked at the two of us, looked again and broke out into a huge grin.

“Congratulations!” she said and then hugged Rusty when he came behind the counter. How could she know?

I went up to see Dad.

“I guess,” he said, “that our tracks are uncovered, the cat’s escaped the bag, and the beans are spilled. Word gets around, and it’s all over the store that you’re not just an errand boy but my son. So, I can’t keep you in that errand-boy position any longer.”

“Why not? I love my job. I’m all over the store, helping the staff, solving problems, soothing customers. I don’t want to do anything else. Working in an office isn’t for me. I want to be out among the staff and customers. I’m not a desk person.”

“You could be out and among everyone quite successfully when no one knew who you were. Now they’ll react to you differently; they won’t ask for help, you won’t hear their problems. No, the jig’s up. I’m promoting you.”

“To what?” I asked, feeling like whatever it was, it would actually be a demotion.

Dad smiled. “You’re going to be the youngest floorwalker the store has ever had. You’ll be doing pretty much just what you’ve been doing, but at double the salary and getting more respect from everyone on our staff. Oh, you’ll also have to dress differently. Jacket and tie. Shined shoes. But you’ll still be you, and I know you’ll find a way to add panache to your looks.

“So that’s that. Done deal. Go pick out a few wardrobes. Put them on your account.” Hah! He always paid my account. But it sounded better this way. “And one last thing. When you leave tonight, check the front display window and the storefront. I asked Maintenance for some enhancements, and I want to be sure they look right. From now on, I’ve told Maintenance that they’re to report to you. You’ll know what the store needs—and sooner than I will. Oh, and your initial floor-walking assignment will be principally on the fourth floor, though it’s fine if you wander down to other floors occasionally.”

I left his office not sure what to think. Floorwalker. We had one of those for each floor. Sort of intermediaries if problems arose between staff and customers and to help even if there weren’t problems. Floorwalkers kept everything running smoothly and at a low key throughout the store. They knew how to work with people, to unruffle feathers, and to keep people happy.

I did as Dad had asked. Picked out a suitable wardrobe. Fitting my style, of course. I was not a suit-and-tie type. Maybe he knew that; he knew just about everything about me. The fourth floor had hardware, plumbing supplies, lawn-maintenance equipment—that sort of merchandise. If there was ever a floor that didn’t need its floorwalker to dress up, it was the fourth. So, I guessed we’d be playing a game, Dad and I, about how I’d dress, and I was pretty sure who’d win.

At the day’s end, I gathered Rusty and we left. I checked the front window. The display was different, but we changed it weekly, so that was no surprise. It was a display of women’s evening gowns, draped suggestively over manikins. I thought it looked good.

“Looks fine to me,” I told Rusty. “Let’s go home.”

Rusty was standing back away from the front window and looking up at the store and said, “I don’t think it was the window you were supposed to see.” Then he pointed upwards.

I looked up, and there, where the large sign had always read Mason’s, the sign now read Mason and Son.


Well, that’s the first part of this, my unborn, twinkle-in-my-eye imaginary future son. I want you to know some of my meaningful, memorable life experiences to date after I dropped out of school. I don’t know what happens next. Will Rusty be part of my life? Will he be one of your two adoring parents? Will reading this allow you full knowledge of why you have two fathers? Or will you never know him? Will someone else have taken his place, and will you discover how that transpired as I continue this log of my life?

There are so many things I don’t know. The future is always a mystery, and mine is no exception. I’ve lived a pretty charmed life so far, and I’m well aware of that. Will it continue that way? Only time will tell.

I can envision myself running Mason and Son someday, with the son being you. I have so much to learn, to experience, before I’m ready for that. I can envision Rusty as a beloved, trusted partner. Maybe the store will be Mason, Grant and Son. Or sons. Maybe you’ll have a brother. And maybe you’ll choose to skip college like I did. I didn’t even finish high school. I can’t complain too much if you feel the same way. I’ll understand. But I’ll encourage you in the early grades to succeed there and do well. I do believe most people do better in life with an education than without one. I had a lot of advantages that others don’t. I’ve been very lucky.

As for Rusty, I haven’t mentioned any of my thoughts about the future to him yet. It’s way too early in our relationship. We haven’t even had our first fight yet. Early stages, and how my life and/or our lives will eventuate is part of the mystery that only the future can reveal. I do hope that what I’m thinking comes to pass, though. I can’t imagine loving anyone else like I love Rusty. He told me he feels the same, so there’s that to feel good about.

I hope there will be several volumes of these memories for you, son. And that they all end as happily as this one does. Tomorrow starts a new chapter. For now, this is as far as I’ve gotten. Of this current chapter, this is the end.

Thanks to my editors as usual. They don't get much credit, but the stories would be a mess without them. They're really the unsung heroes of these projects.

And to Mike for continuing to host this marvelous site. It's a financial burden to keep the site funded. Please don't let Mike do this alone. Your help is greatly appreciated.

And finally, I'd be remiss not to mention you guys, the readers. Without you, there'd be no stories.

~ C

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