Jerrod recognized the voice immediately, suddenly connecting the dots to Nate’s last name from his chart, and spun to see Matt Willis standing in the doorway. He didn’t even pause, just saying, “We’re the dog therapy team assigned to visit Nathaniel.”
Matt growled, “I don’t want you two fags around my little brother.”
Before Jerrod could respond, Nate said, “Matt, cool it. Don’t be such an asshole. These guys are my friends.”
Matt was flabbergasted. “What do you mean friends. Do you know who these guys are?
The room was quiet. Kaiser has stood up at the sound of the angry voice and was facing Matt, but still standing next to Roger.
“Like I said, they’re my friends, and the dog’s name is Kaiser.”
“This guy is the fag ski racer I told you about. The other one with the blonde hair is his boyfriend. I don’t know who the third kid is, but he’s probably a cock sucker too.”
No one said anything, Nate looked at Michael and then Roger, seeing the expressions of shock and surprise on their faces. Jerrod’s back was to him, but he reached over and stroked Kaiser’s rump. “Easy boy. Good dog.”
Then he looked at Matt and said, “So, this is the gay guy that beat you in the ski race against Jesuit? Funny thing. He’s smaller than you are, so he must be pretty good.” He paused and they all saw Matt’s face redden. Then Nate went on, “Like I said, they’re my friends. They work here at the hospital to help patients.”
“What does that mean? I’m here to be with you. You’d rather have them, or what?”
“Matt, you’re always angry. The first thing you did was cuss these guys out and call them fags and all they did was try to help me feel better. Sorry, but you just bitch and moan and I feel worse after you leave.”
“Well, you thankless little bastard. I don’t need to hear this shit or waste my time with you. I’m outta’ here.” With that he turned on his heel and pulled the door closed hard.
Jerrod turned and looked at Nate and asked, “Is he always like that? With you, I mean?”
“Pretty much. He’s always pissed at something.”
“I’ve got to go talk to him.” He looked at Roger and Michael and said, “You guys stay here with Nate.”
When Jerrod got into the hall, he saw Matt’s back turning from the Ortho ward into the main corridor, and he knew we has heading for the elevators. He walked fast till he was out of Ortho, then jogged toward the elevators. He saw Matt punch the down button and shove his hands in his jean pockets to wait. He slowed and then walked up next to him and said softly, “Matt, before you go, can we talk? Just sit down and talk for a few minutes?”
Matt looked at him angrily and almost hissed, “Why? What’s the point? My little brother has already chosen you guys over me. So, it’s just another cluster fuck.”
Jerrod put his hand softly on Matt’s shoulder and said, “Matt, he didn’t choose us over you. But you put him on the spot and made him make a decision he shouldn’t have had to make. It was mainly all emotion.”
The elevator doors opened, and a nurse stepped out. “Matt, come on, let’s sit down and talk for a few.”
Matt shrugged and said, “What the hell. Nothing to lose. Where are we going?”
Jerrod pointed him at a few upholstered chairs in front of the windows that looked down the hill toward Portland. As they sat down Matt looked out the windows, and the cloud deck was just high enough that they could see the base of Mount Hood perched on the Cascades.
“Wild, huh? This time yesterday we were up there skiing and having a good time.”
“Maybe you were having a good time. I knew my little brother was down here recovering from another one of these fucking ortho procedures. This one’s worse than the last one. My Mom was at work and I had to race, so he was alone the day after surgery. That’s why I split right after the last race?”
“You left to come here, to come to the hospital?”
“Yeah, why not? He’s my little brother.”
“What about your Dad?”
“Our Dad’s dead. He got killed in an accident at work five years ago. Another totally fucked deal.”
“What do you mean ‘another’ fucked deal?”
“Our Dad gets killed, Mom has to go back to work, Nate has this fucking Perthes disease thing that just keeps getting worse and worse. Mom’s health insurance from work probably won’t pay for it all. She’s thinking about taking a second job to try and make enough money. It happens to them and I’m fine. I mean Nate’s a kid. He never did anything wrong to anyone. Why him? He was a Little League baseball star and then he gets this Perthes thing and can’t run and then can hardly walk and has to be in that fucking immobilization cast last year and it still keeps getting worse and now they’ve gotta do this hip surgery and he’s got to wear that new cast for six or eight weeks. Did you see that thing? It’s like half his body is in a cast. He’ll barely be able to do anything. Well, maybe take a piss. How’s he going to take a shit? You tell me? How? He’s going to wither into some kind of fucking stick figure inside that cast.”
He was rubbing his face in his hands, the emotion starting to pour through the anger that he’d just vented, and he finally said, “It’s so unfair. Why’d it happen to him? You tell me.” Jerrod could hear him on the edge of tears. “I’m supposed to be the tough guy, I could take it! He’s just a nice kid. Why the fuck’s it happening to him?”
“I don’t know the answer to that question, Matt, but I do know that life can seem pretty unfair sometimes, no matter who we are. My parents are well off, and I’m out here in Portland because I got busted last year for breaking and entering. I mean, me playing at being the tough guy, and getting busted. It can play both ways, is all I’m saying.”
Matt was quiet, then said, “Are you kidding me? You? Mr. Smarty-pants Nice Guy got busted for breaking and entering? That’s a crime, you know. So, what is it? You weren’t that smart, or you were lousy at being a tough guy?”
“Truth? It was both. I did a bunch of stupid shit because I was acting out, and some of it was illegal, and one was a real crime. A bunch of us got away with the small stuff so we thought we were smart and tough, and then we fucked up big time. We all got way lucky and didn’t get arrested and that’s why I ended up out here last summer for ski camp, living with my uncle.”
He paused, watching because Matt had sat up and was listening like he understood some of what Jerrod was saying
“Anyway,” he went on, “what it took me a few months to figure out, was that I wasn’t being smart or tough, I was just acting out and actually had my head so far up my ass I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
Matt continued to look out the window in silence, but slowly a smile crept onto his face. “So, you’re telling me that you just put on the appearance that you’ve got your shit together, that you’re a good student, even though you’re gay, but in fact you’re a fuck up too? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“More or less. But I’d kinda like to think that I was a fuck up last summer and I’m less of one now. It took me getting away from home and out here with my uncle and his partner who didn’t put up with any bull shit and made me get real about what I was doing.”
“What the fuck! You’re living with two gay guys?”
“Yeah, that’s the deal. My uncle is gay, so’s his partner. I’m gay, so’s Roger. So’s Eric and Kim. You’re being surrounded by gay guys, Matt. Better watch out, or we might turn you gay or something!”
Matt was quiet, then said, “What’s with the dog? If you moved here last summer, where’d you get the dog?”
“We found him on the run between ski camps. We couldn’t find his owner, so we kept him. That’s why I stayed the whole summer, so I could train him, so he wouldn’t end up in a shelter or worse.”
“Wait, you stayed the whole summer to train a dog?”
“Yeah. You’ll understand when you get to meet him, he’s only the greatest dog in Oregon.”
“Right! So, you move here to get away from the stuff you fucked up back home, you find a dog, you stay all summer to train the dog, and you’re living with two gay guys. Is that what made you gay?”
“No. I was gay. I was just in denial because my parents were kind of intolerant. So, I was denying it and angry about it and hating life and acting out. It took being with my uncle and his boyfriend, who kind of spent the whole time holding a mirror up in front of me, for me to see I was acting out and it was all pretty stupid. I just needed to be honest about myself, who I am, and stop doing dumb shit.”
Matt glanced at Jerrod, then looked back out the windows for almost a minute. Then he said, “Are you telling me that I’m doing dumb shit and acting out?”
Jerrod said, “Matt,” and waited till he looked at him. “I’m just a kid doing dog therapy. It’s not my place to tell you what you’re doing. I can just tell you what I learned about me and how it helped. Your family isn’t the only one going through shit. Michael, the kid that’s back there with Nate and Roger was in this hospital three months ago with lymphatic cancer. He got a scan yesterday that says he’s cancer free for two months. Just walk around and talk to any of the other kids in here. There are lots of them that are not just worse off than you or me, but worse off than Nate.”
“I guess you’re right… “ The sentence died as they both heard Roger say from behind them, “There you guys are. Is everything alright? You’ve been gone so long we were getting worried.”
“Things are better now, right, Matt?”
Matt glanced at Jerrod and then looked at Roger and nodded.
“Nate told me to tell you, if I found you, that he’s sorry and wants you to come back.”
Matt blushed and looked at Jerrod and said, “See. I told you he’s just a good kid getting a mega dose of shit.”
He took a couple of deep breaths and pushed himself into a standing position and turned to face Jerrod and Roger. “Alright, let’s go back. I’m sorry for blowing my top and calling you fags and all that other stuff. Will you accept my apology?”
Jerrod glanced at Roger with a smile and a little nod, and Roger turned to the larger boy and said, “If it’s for real this time, then yes.” He extended his hand and Matt slowly took it.
“We all have our shit to deal with,” Jerrod said to Matt. “I told you about mine and Michael’s. Roger found out at Christmas he has a form of epilepsy. But all I’ll say is guess what? We’re not taking it out on everyone else.”
“Got it. Let’s go see Nate.”
“Cool. You can also meet Kaiser.”
When they got back to Nate’s room, Matt apologized to everyone again in front of Nate, and then apologized to his little brother for losing it. Then he was formally introduced to Kaiser and to everyone’s surprise Kaiser didn’t act spooked or wary.
“I was worried he wasn’t going to like you,” Nate said, “the way you came in here yelling at everyone. See, he’s a pretty cool dog.”
Matt nodded, and Roger added, “He is an amazing judge of character. Come meet him.”
Matt walked over and petted Kaiser’s head, and after a couple of seconds his tail started wagging.
“If you’re serious about being his friend,” Roger said, “get down on your knees so you’re both at the same eye level. Then he’ll know you’re for real.”
Matt looked at him like he had to be kidding, but he did as Roger suggested and in three seconds Kaiser stepped forward and licked his cheek.
Roger laughed and said, “See, I told you. Also, Matt, for the record, you just passed the test. Kaiser thinks you’re a good guy…in spite of everything!”
He was smiling at Matt as he said it, and Matt shot back a strained smile of his own.
Jerrod had been watching the clock and said, “Listen you guys, we’ve got to go. We’ve been here way too long, and our shift has ended, but it was worth it.”
He looked at Nate. “Do you still want us to come by in the morning before we leave for Pendleton?”
Nate nodded, “Yeah, that would be way cool. Thanks”
“Okay, we’ll see you around ten o’clock. That’s when visiting hours start.” He turned to Matt. “Here’s our card. It’s got our mobile phones on it.” He handed one to Nate and said to Matt, “according to Nate we’re all friends now, so if you want to talk to me or Roger, you can call us… about anything.”
Matt nodded and quietly said, “Thanks,” and watched Kaiser and the boys head out the door.
It was a rush checking out because they were running late, but when they finally all got in the Cherokee and were headed down the hill for home, Michael asked from the back seat, “Okay, guys, what the fuck was that?”
“That was bat shit crazy,” Roger answered, turning in the passenger seat to look at Michael and give him an encouraging grin. “Jerrod’s had a bunch of run ins with Matt, the school bully and homophobe, since school started, and now we find out that Nate’s his little brother. Pretty strange, but don’t flip out, it’s not really as bad as it looks.”
He and Jerrod proceeded to give Michael the short version of the previous six months of interaction with Matt.
“What? You saved the fuckers life and he still acts like that to you? What’s that all about?”
“He’s got some real anger problems, Michael,” Jerrod said, “And probably something else going on too, but what I discovered the first time he apologized to me after he got called out publicly about almost dying on the mountain if all of us hadn’t pulled his ass out of that tree well, is that there’s a brain and a conscience in there. He may not have control of his emotions or really know what’s going on in his head, but we also found out today there’s a heart and soul in there too. He’s trying to take care of his little brother and he’s also trying to protect him from something. From when I was talking to him, I can tell you his family has had a ton of bad stuff happen to them, so it’s no wonder he’s messed up.”
When they got home, they found David and Jackson had finished their chores for the day and were interested in a long walk, so they all headed for Oaks Bottom Park. During the walk the boys started telling them about their day and meeting Nate and the confrontation with Matt.
“So, it sounds like he has serious anger management problems, some of it, at least, driven by legitimate harm that he and his family has suffered. And now you’re friends with his little brother?”
Jerrod nodded at David. “Yeah. Weird, huh? Nate told him twice to cool it cause we’re his friends, and then when he and I were talking I told him about living with you guys and how he was now surrounded by a bunch of gay guys and he better be careful that we didn’t turn him gay too!”
“Are you kidding me,” Jackson said. “You said that to the homophobe who’s been hassling you all school year? Are you looking for trouble?”
“No. I’ve learned from being around you guys. Somehow, I don’t think he really hate gays. I think there’s something else going on, but I don’t know what it is. In the meantime, though, Nate needs help, and Matt has to deal with the fact that two of the helpers are gay.”
They were at the north end of the park now, turning away from the river and back toward the Sellwood neighborhoods. He grasped Roger’s hand and said, “Are you with me that even after he’s out of the hospital we’re still Nate’s friends and helping him out?”
“What’s that going to entail,” David asked.
“Maybe nothing more than visiting him at home with Kaiser a couple of times a week.” Then he explained about their father being killed five years earlier, their Mom working and the financial strains, how immobilized Nate would be, especially for the first couple of weeks.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You might be getting in deeper than you want?”
Jerrod and Roger had been glancing at each other. “Yeah, we do. We don’t know how it’ll go. Maybe we just keep Nate company. Maybe we end up wiping his butt after he takes a dump. Who knows, but we can’t just let him be alone. His Mom will be gone most of the time, and once Spring Break is over Matt will be at school all day.”
“Point made. If I can help in anyway,” David said, “you know how to reach me. Right now, he sounds pretty resistant to help, but you may have found a crack in Matt’s armor through Nate and then sharing your own story. Maybe there’s hope. Here’s a thought. You should talk to Eric’s Mom. She had a bad hip injury from a ski race in college and was laid up for weeks. Maybe she has some ideas. If nothing else, she’ll relate to Nate’s situation.”
Jerrod nodded, and then reached over and pulled Michael in for a hug. “We can’t stay with you more than a couple of days, you know? We’ve got to come back and see how we can help Nate ‘cause he’ll be discharged Wednesday or Thursday.”
Michael smiled knowingly and nodded. “I know. If I could, I’d come back too. He’s a cool kid. I want to help too.”
“You can probably help more than you can imagine,” Jackson said, “if you do with him what you did with these two.”
“You called them regularly. You maintained communication. Here’s what I’m betting is already happening to Nate. Since before that first cast experience last year, I bet most of his little league teammates have dropped away. He goes back to school and starts up some of his other friendships, but them the hip problem starts up again and he’s limited in what he can do, and some of those friends drop away. Now he’s got four or six weeks in an immobilization cast, being at home, not going to school for a long while. How many of his remaining friends do you think will be staying in touch with him.”
“About as many as stayed in touch with me.”
“You’ve got it. You’ll find that just calling him a couple of times a week to shoot the shit and joke around will be really important to him.”
“I can do that. That’s easy, and he’s fun to talk to. Plus, these two,” and he nodded his head and Roger and Jerrod, “will make sure I don’t slack off.”
The next morning when they got to the hospital, and before they went to see Nate, they checked in with the Nurse Manager on the Ortho floor. Jerrod explained that they weren’t on dog therapy shift, but since it was Spring Break they weren’t in school, and they’d met Nate Willis the day before, and wanted to know if it would be okay to visit him again. She smiled and said, “You boys are too much. I never cease to be amazed by most of you dog therapy volunteers. You’ll do almost anything for the patients. Of course, go visit him.”
Jerrod then said, “Can I ask you something else? What can you tell us about Perthes disease? I don’t mean the specifics of Nathaniel’s case, but in general so we understand what he’s dealing with.”
She smiled knowingly, and said, “I can give you a summary,” and proceeded to explain to them that it occurred in children up to ages thirteen or so, that initial onset was silent and usually appeared in changes in the way the child walks or runs, and that limited motion develops into a limp or even a peculiar running style to avoid pain in the hip joint. They learned that the condition is caused by temporary loss of blood supply to the head of the femur which results in inflammation and irritation, and as it progresses the lack of blood supply causes bone cell death.
“We still don’t know what causes it, but treatment usually starts with anti-inflammation medicine, but if it doesn’t work that means that the bone that makes up the head of the femur dies and then collapses. The body then tries to regrow the bone, but it usually doesn’t grow back with a smooth and round surface that makes the hip joint work and that can lead to permanent disability. The first intervention is usually non-surgical, the A-frame immobilization cast to try and get the bone to grow back the proper way.”
“Nate told us he had that last year.”
“Yes, and apparently it wasn’t sufficient. So, the surgical intervention is to cut the head of the femur off and force it up into the hip so it’s snug, and then fix it with screws, and then join the head back to the femur. That’s why patients wear that big cast, to make sure the hip is immobile for six or eight weeks, so the bone grows back the way it’s supposed to.”
“Does that mean a lot of pain,” Roger asked, “after the surgery, I mean?”
“Initially, yes, but within a few days the bone healing begins and with the joint immobilized the pain should be minimal. The biggest challenge after the first few days is getting used to the cast, and not before the physical therapist says so, to begin to use a walker to mobilize. You can count on at least two weeks when the only mobilization is getting to the bathroom and back.”
She paused. “Are you guys going to stay in touch with him after he’s discharged?”
“Well, yeah! He’s our friend now, and he loves Kaiser, and Kaiser’s already told us he wants to visit Nate at least twice a week to make sure he’s healing properly.”
Roger grinned at her, and she grinned back. “Good for you guys. That’s all I can say. Good for you guys. Now, go see your friend. I have work to do.”
When they walked in Nate’s room, they were surprised that he wasn’t alone. Matt was sitting in the chair next to the bed.
“Hi, Nate! We’re back like we said,” Jerrod said to the boy in the bed. Then he turned to Matt, “I guess I didn’t expect to see you here too, but it’s cool.” He smiled at his former tormentor, and Matt hesitantly smiled back at him. Jerrod felt a tug on the leash and realized Kaiser wanted to be closer to the bed, and on a hunch, he just dropped the leash on the ground. Kaiser walked off and down the side of the bed. He paused and Nate rubbed the top of his head and Kaiser licked his wrist. Jerrod could see Kaiser look at Matt sitting in the chair. Matt was watching his little brother pat Kaiser’s head, and then watched as Kaiser stepped just a little away from the bed and over to Matt where he dropped his head into the larger boy’s lap.
No one said anything, all of them just watching with some level of understanding to see what would happen. It was only a matter of seconds before both of Matt’s hands were holding the side of Kaiser’s face and his fingers were working behind the dog’s ears. Kaiser’s tail started wagging intensely. Everyone understood something new was taking place, even Nate who had turned his head in the bed to watch. None of them were prepared for what happened next. Matt leaned forward and rubbed his face on the top of Kaiser’s head, and in ten or fifteen seconds, Kaiser raised his head as if to put it on Matt’s shoulder.
Matt responded unconsciously and did what every person would freely do when a dog expressed that kind of affection. He slid off the chair onto his knees and wrapped his arms around Kaiser’s neck. The dog’s head was now on Matt’s shoulder with Matt’s head next to his, and as his tail wagged vigorously, a rocking rhythm was established, and Matt followed along.
The other boys were quiet. They all knew something magical was occurring, and a minute or so later when Matt raised his head, they saw his face was flushed and there were tears in his eyes. He blinked and rubbed his eyes with one hand and then cleared his throat, feeling embarrassed as he looked at the other boys in the room.
Roger was closest and quietly stepped up and put his hand on Matt’s shoulder and said, “You don’t have to say anything, man. That was beautiful and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You don’t need to explain anything. ‘cause you’re part of his pack now.”
Matt was silent, his expression still emotional, but with hint of confusion about what just happened. Roger knew he needed to take the pressure off Matt, and turned to Nate and said, “Did they give you something decent for breakfast, or just Jello and fruit?”
Nate smiled knowingly and said, “Actually, it was French Toast. Not as good as at Elmer’s Restaurant, but still pretty good. Thanks, you guys for coming back today. It’s really cool of you.”
Jerrod and Michael had stepped up next to the bed now, and Michael said, “We’ve got time before we drive home.”
“Yeah,” Jerrod added, “and like Roger said, you and Matt are now in Kaiser’s Pack, so we had no choice.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Matt disengage from the dog and sit back up on the chair.
“That’s a pretty cool thing. Kaiser’s Pack. Is it like joining a club or something? Are there… what do you call them, requirements?”
“Yeah, there are,” Roger said with a grin. “First, he has to like you, and then he has to do something to say you’re part of the pack. He did it with Michael on Friday night when he curled up under the kitchen table and put his chin on Michael’s foot. Like he did with Matt just now. There’s a couple of things like that he does so you know.”
Roger also knew the question that was formulating in Nate’s mind. “And not to worry. He knows you just had surgery and he can’t jump on your bed or anything, but he told us this morning you’re in the pack too. That’s why he went to say Hi to you first, before he went over to Matt.”
Nate started giggling. “That’s wild.”
The other boys started laughing along, and Matt said, “You guys are all crazy. I mean good crazy, but totally crazy. But you know what, I’m not stupid enough that I don’t know affection when I get it, so I’m not going to argue.”
Jerrod turned to him and said, “So, you accept the invite? Kaiser wants you in his pack. Are you in?”
He could see caution flashing across Matt’s face, which he read as concern that he was about to enter into something childish that could embarrass him.
Jerrod understood exactly what was going through his mind and said, “Can I tell you about something that happened last summer?”
Matt nodded, and Jerrod said to Nate, “This is for you too. I told Matt yesterday I was out here for the summer because I did some stupid and illegal stuff back home and ended up spending the summer with my uncle and his boyfriend who straightened out my shit. I’d been acting out and couldn’t accept myself, stuff like that. Anyway, in the summer we found Kaiser on the run and decided to keep him. We started out with him sleeping in a crate in the kitchen, but a few nights later he decided he didn’t want to be alone in the kitchen. We’d left the crate door open, so he had his choice of any place in the house. I woke up when I felt him jump up on my bed and lay down next to me.”
Matt was quiet, listening, still petting Kaiser. Nate said, “That’s cool.”
Jerrod said to both of them, “It was more than cool. He chose me, he came and slept with me. He could have gone anywhere in the house, but he didn’t. He told me I was okay.” It was still close enough in the time of Jerrod’s experience that it was emotionally raw and real, and he felt himself choking up. “He was telling me… he was telling me… that he loved me, that’s all. That’s what being in Kaiser’s pack means. It means he’s telling you you’re a good guy and that he loves you.”
The room was silent, and then Roger said, “that means we all have to love each other. That’s the deal.”
Everyone realized the momentous nature of what had been said, and the fact that it wasn’t the kind of thing teenagers regularly talked about. Nate immediately said, “I’m good with that. I love Kaiser, and you three are loveable enough. We’ll all get along fine. I’ve never been in a pack before, so you’ll have to tell me how it works.”
He looked over at his brother. “It’ll be kind of cool, won’t it, Matt?”
Matt smiled wanly and nodded, not saying anything.
Jerrod caught Nate’s eye and said, “We’ll be back from visiting Michael in Pendleton on Thursday, and we’ll come see you in the afternoon or on Friday. You’ve got our card with our phone numbers, so let us know when you’re discharged, okay?”
Nate told them neither he nor Matt had mobile phones, but he’d call them when he got home to give them his address and stuff.
Matt cleared his throat and said, “So, you’re going to come visit him after he’s out of here? I thought you guys just did dog therapy here in the hospital.”
“Well, that’s the formal therapy when Kaiser wears his vest, like today,” Roger said. “That has nothing to do with being in the pack. Nate’s our friend now and in Kaiser’s Pack, so of course we’re going to visit him. Actually, it won’t work on Thursday because Thursday afternoons we meet another kid and his Mom at the park. He’s in the Pack too, and he has cerebral palsy.”
“Really?” Nates eyes were wide. “A kid with cerebral palsy? Wow!”
“Yeah, he’s really bright and a cool guy. He loves Kaiser and vice versa. So that means it’ll be Friday sometime, okay? And then we’ll have to work out times after school when classes start back up next week.” Jerrod looked at the clock. “Okay you guys, we’ve got to get going. We’ve got to drive to Pendleton.”
They walked Kaiser for a few minutes so he could pee, then headed back to the Cherokee. Michael had been unusually quiet, and as they headed down the hill toward I-5, Roger turned in the passenger seat and look directly at Michael and said, “What’s on your mind. You’ve been real quiet?”
Michael was stroking Kaiser’s ears, and the dog had his head in the boy’s lap. He smiled but looked just a touch embarrassed.
“What?” Roger persisted.
“Tell me it’s not always like this with you guys. I mean all this drama. I’ve never seen anything like this. In one day, we’ve got this new friend and his big brother, who’s a bully and a homophobe, is bawling on his knees. Do you guys do this all the time?”
Roger grinned back at him, and said, “Relax, man. It’s never happened before. You’re the second member of Kaiser’s Pack after Sean, but what happened with Matt was totally over the top. Don’t forget though, that he only got emotional and then started crying when Kaiser did his thing. It’s the dog, man. We’re just the handlers. That dog has a way to touch your heart. Am I right?”
Michael looked down at the head in his lap, and Kaiser opened one eye to look up at him. “You’re right. That look could melt ice. He did it to me, and I saw him do it with Nate, but I thought it was just the standard ‘Hi, I’m a cool dog, can I lick your face and you can pat me’ kind of thing. But that scene with Matt was totally different.”
Roger said, “There was another scene like that with Jerrod’s Dad, but he needs to be the one telling that story.” He turned back in his seat, kissed Jerrod’s cheek and said, “If he wants to, of course.”
Jerrod reached over and squeezed Roger’s hand. “Wait till we get on I-5.” He made the necessary two turns to get onto the freeway entrance, and in two minutes they were soaring over the Marquam Bridge, high above the Willamette River. As they took the I-84 exit to head east out of Portland, Jerrod said, “My Dad started out intolerant, but lucky for me my Mom’s a nurse and she understands that being gay is mainly genetic. Anyway, she worked on my Dad starting back in September. They came out for Christmas and got to experience the worst of what Roger was going through with his epilepsy. Anyway, it was kind of a breakthrough in our relationship because he saw how close we are. That we’re soulmates.”
He raised Roger’s hand in his and kissed it. “I think he was pretty blown away when he saw Roger have a seizure, and later when we were talking, he told me he suddenly understood that I was in love with my soulmate and was just being true to myself. It wasn’t long after that, in the living room I think, that Kaiser curled up in front of him and plopped his chin on Dad’s foot. It blew his mind because he always thought he didn’t like animals.”
“What he didn’t know,” Roger quipped, “was that animals might still like him.”
“For sure. It kind of melted his heart, and we’ve been closer ever since. So, what happened with Matt was a first, but something kind of like that happened before. It started with Sean, the kid with cerebral palsy. I was walking Kaiser and they saw each other at the park when they were like fifty feet away, and that was it. They connected and there was no stopping them.”
“Amazing,” Michael said from the back seat. “And I thought I knew something about dogs.”
“You do, man. It’s just this thing with Kaiser is new to you. It’s new to us too. Shit, Roger and I never even had a dog before, and now we’re in the middle of Kaiser’s Pack.”
Michael started laughing, “Not in the middle, man, you’re the leaders of the pack.”
They continued talking about the events and how Michael couldn’t wait to introduce Kaiser to his dad and granddad, since they’d always had dogs. “The dogs they’ve got now are older and pretty mellow, there won’t be any problems.”
As they drove up the Gorge, Michael pointed out the main features like Multnomah Falls, and explained the amazing nature of the Columbia River flowing through the Cascade Mountains in such a narrow gorge and how it was formed when a giant ice dam broke in Montana fifteen thousand years before and carved the vertical walls in the Gorge in its rush to the ocean. They stopped for lunch in Hood River, and then Jerrod and Roger were amazed as they drove out of the east side of the Cascades and entered the high desert of eastern Oregon. Even though it was winter, it was dry and brown instead of wet and green. They followed the river east and got to Pendleton in mid-afternoon. Michael directed them through town and south on Highway 395 toward John Day. After five or ten miles till they turned off on a gravel road and drove up to a newer home.
“This is it, the ranch. The family’s got sixty acres here, and another sixty a little bit west of here on the west side of the reservoir. This was originally my grandpa’s ranch, and he lives in that older house just over there” Michael said as he pointed to an older house about fifty yards away.” Let’s go see who’s home.”
They walked in the kitchen door, and Michael’s mom was busy baking, but happy to see her son home and happy to finally meet his new friends. Michael introduced Jerrod and Roger and Kaiser, and the boys were pleased to see that she took meeting Kaiser seriously and dropped down on one knee to greet him. Kaiser checked her out and then licked her cheek.
“He’s a beautiful dog, and well mannered, too. Michael, Ruby is down at the barn with your dad feeding the cows. Calving can start any day, so he’s pretty focused on that. Why don’t you get Jerrod and Roger settled in the guest room, and then all of you go down to the barn and say Hi to your dad and Ruby.”
It only took one trip to the car to get their duffle bags, and Michael showed them the guest room that had two twin beds. He wiggled his eyebrows and said, “No hanky-panky tonight! Or at least, it won’t be easy.” He started giggling, and Jerrod and Roger couldn’t help joining him. They put on their coats and walked over to the barn which was far larger than Jerrod expected.
“When you said barn, I figured one like on post cards. This is a huge building. How come?”
“Well, we call it the barn, but I guess technically it would be called a loafing barn because of the open sides. That’s what makes it looks different. Did you hear what mom said about calving? We run eighty to a hundred head of cows, and they breed in the summer and then have their calves in March or April, and they’re out on pasture till winter starts. It’s not snowing today but it’s cold. The winters are hard here, so the safest thing is to have the cows in big corrals connected to the barn, and then they can move inside under the roof when they calve or afterward to get the new calf out of the weather. It’s also easier to feed the cows and make sure they get all the nutrition they need to carry the calf, and afterwards when they’re making milk and nursing the calf.”
“You know a lot about this.”
“Well, yeah. I grew up here. When the calving starts, all the cows that are pregnant will calve in a couple of weeks ‘cause they were all bred by a bull about the same time. That means it’s almost a full-time job staying on top of them in case there’s any problems. Maybe you’ll see some of it while you’re here.”
They’d reached the barn and walked in through a side door and found themselves following Michael down the main alleyway that had two large, penned areas on each side that opened to outside corrals. About halfway down was a flat-bed trailer connected to a tractor, and a middle-aged man in Levi’s, cowboy boots and wearing a Stetson was throwing feed and hay into feeders in each pen. As they got closer, they saw a Yellow Lab raise its head, stand up and look with interest at Kaiser.
“That’s Ruby. She’s cool.” He clapped his hands and shouted, “Ruby, come.” The dog perked up further at the sound of his voice and then trotted down the alleyway. Kaiser had stopped along with the boys, and his ears were perked up as Ruby trotted towards him. They checked each other out from a few feet away, then sniffed each other’s ears and most importantly, each other’s rumps, and then their tails started wagging, and they circled around in the timeless dog dance about establishing dominance.
“That’s a good-looking Retriever you boys have.” They heard the deep voice rumble down the alleyway from the man with the Stetson on the trailer. The boys kept walking and as they got close the man hopped down from the trailer and said, “Hello, Son. Welcome home. We’re so glad you’re scan was clear.” He pulled Michael in for a brief hug and then said, “Now, introduce me to your friends and their dog.”
Michael turned out of the embrace and said, “Guys, this is my dad. Dad, this is Jerrod and Roger, and Kaiser. I’ve already told you a lot about them.”
The man extended his hand to shake theirs, and said, “Pleasure to meet you” to both of them, and then stepped over to kneel down and say hello to Kaiser and make sure he was getting along with Ruby.
“How old is your Golden?”
“We think he’s between four and five. We found him on the run last summer, so it’s kind of the vets best guess.”
The man smiled. “Lucky for you guys, and even luckier for Kaiser. Ruby’s ten going on eleven, so she’s slowing down, and I’m sure they’ll get along just fine. He’ll work at being the alpha male, and she’ll work to be the matriarch, and in a little while, they’ll have it all sorted out.”
They watched both dogs circling around the tractor and under the trailer, and then chasing each other down the alleyway. “You boys ever been on a ranch or around cattle before?”
Jerrod and Roger shook their heads, commenting on the size of the barn, the number of cows and the constant mooing. The man smiled as he re-set the Stetson on his head and said, “City slickers, is that it?”
He had a wide smile on his face and his eyes were filled with humor. “That’s not a problem. Not everyone can be lucky enough to grow up on a ranch and know how it all works, right Michael?” He gave his son a dig in the ribs with his elbow.
Michael smiled back and rolled his eyes and they all burst out laughing.
“Come on, boys. I’ve got to finish feeding the cows in the last pen, or they’re going to be pretty damn grumpy. Can’t you hear them wailing up a storm down there? Don’t want grumpy cows this close to calving. I figure some of them’ll start dropping in the next couple of days, and then it’ll be two weeks of watching them twenty-four hours a day.”
He looked at his son. “Good thing school doesn’t start till Monday, don’t you think?”
“Right, Dad! But I want to show these guys around tomorrow and the next day, okay?”
“I know you do, and that won’t be a problem. Why don’t you show Jerrod and Roger how to throw the hay and I’ll handle the rest of the feed?
They went to work, Michael showing them how to break bales open and throw flakes of hay into the pens while his dad shoveled the feed into the troughs in the pen.
When they were done Jerrod looked around and said, “Where’s Kaiser.”
Michael nodded to the end of the alleyway where Ruby and Kaiser were laying side by side panting, watching the humans hard at work.
When they were done, the boys walked back to the house with the dogs. “Dad’ll drive the tractor out the doors at the other end, over to the hay barn, and load it with feed for in the morning. He’ll be in the house in a few.”
After feeding Ruby and Kaiser, they settled in the kitchen talking to Michael’s mother who wanted all the details about the scan and the results, and a description of the weekend in Portland. His dad walked in as Michael was telling them about Jackson taking him to the hospital on Saturday because Jerrod had a ski race in the morning and Roger and a couple of other friends skied with him in the afternoon.
“That was a very gracious thing for him to do for you,” his dad said. “Did you thank him?”
“I sure did. He’s a great guy, just like David. Mom’s talked to David, so you guys know about them. Anyway, then these guys made me go to the hospital with them on Sunday while they did dog therapy with Kaiser.”
Michael’s mom raised her eyebrows. “It was all fine,” Jerrod said. “We introduced him to the nurse manager in Oncology and she remembered him as a patient and thought it was really cool that he was back doing dog therapy.”
Michael described the day, about meeting and talking to different patients and how much having a dog visit meant to them, and how a nurse manager had told him he should look into dog therapy work at the hospital in Pendleton.
“That’s an interesting thought,” his dad said. “I don’t even know if St. Anthony’s has a program like that. First, though, you’d have to have the right dog. Ruby’s getting up in years, and she’s a ranch dog that got trained to hunt. It’d be pretty hard to train her now.”
“I know, Dad. I just thought it was a pretty cool suggestion.”
“It was,” his mom said, “now why don’t you boys go do something and then get cleaned up while I put dinner together?”
“I think we’ll take a walk first, okay? I’ll show them the reservoir and stuff.”
She nodded and they grabbed their coats as they headed out the door, both dogs following behind them.
They were back within an hour having seen the large reservoir only a quarter of a mile away, that Michael said was a great place to go swimming with Ruby in the summer. They cleaned up and when they walked into the kitchen, an older man was sitting with Michael’s dad by the fireplace. Both had a bottle of Miller High Life beer in their hands. Ruby and Kaiser were lying in front of them before the fireplace.
“Hi, Grandpa,” Michael said, and walked right over to give the older man a hug. Roger and Jerrod were introduced, and the older man said, “Nice to meet you boys. I’ve already met your dog, and a fine specimen he is too. You two and your dog are about all that Michael’s talked about since he met you down at the hospital.”
“Grandpa! You’re making me sound like a groupie or something.”
“No, I’m just saying what’s what, and it’s pretty apparent to an old man like me that you found yourself some really great friends, and, of course, I’m including Kaiser when I say friends.” He winked at Jerrod and Roger and kept on smiling at Michael.
“You’re right, but don’t embarrass me about it, okay?” He turned to Roger and Jerrod and said, “Grandpa lives in the house over there that I showed you, but he usually comes here for dinner. That makes him a regular part of the family and why he thinks he can give me a hard time about everything.”
Roger said, “I’d like to have a grandpa like that. Both of my grandfathers died when I was young and I only saw them once after we moved from Switzerland, when we went back on vacation one summer.”
“Well, if you need a grandpa, maybe I can help you out. Michael seems to think I do okay, even though I appear to be embarrassing him today.”
Roger grinned in appreciation, while Michael rolled his eyes in mock embarrassment.
“Alright you men, enough of all that,” Michael’s mom said from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready, so let’s move to the table and you boys can help me serve.” When the food was on the table, they sat down for dinner, at the outset of which Michael’s mom said grace and then passed the food. It was a beef roast, and Michael let them know it was beef raised right here on the ranch.
Dinner conversation ranged widely, starting with Roger telling them more about the family move from Switzerland, and then moving on to cover Jerrod’s growing up in Philadelphia, coming out to Portland for the summer and staying for his senior year. He was quite honest about the problems that caused the move without going into all the gay details. He made it clear that he’d stayed for the whole summer because they’d found Kaiser and he needed to be trained, and he’d met his best friend, and between them they’d done the dog training. “It’s kind of like that saying about a silver lining in gray clouds.”
“Do you mind me asking why you needed to leave home for the summer and then stay for the school year,” Michael’s mom asked. “If I saw that taking place with one of my students, I’d consider it a pretty serious circumstance.”
“I guess you’d say I was running with the wrong crowd. It was a high school fraternity at a rich prep school, and we started doing stupid stuff, and then not very good stuff like vandalism, and finally what we did was illegal, and we got caught breaking into an empty house. We were really lucky because the owner used to be a Boy Scout leader and didn’t press charges and was more concerned with why we were doing stuff that could ruin our lives. That’s why I left for the summer. My Dad was ready to send me off to some military academy, but David told him it would probably be the worst thing he could do. He and Jackson let me stay for the summer, and then convinced my parents that the best solution would be for me to keep living with them, and finish high school in Portland.”
“Why the worst thing he could do?” Michael’s mother asked.
“Because I’d gotten settled, started to sort out my problems, made new friends, had Kaiser… and because David knew from his own life, moving every few years, how disruptive it can be. My Dad wanted good grades, and David convinced him that shipping me off to a military school would probably produce the opposite.”
“To say nothing of resentment?” Michael’s mother made the comment quietly, and said it as a matter of fact, as a teacher who understood student dynamics would be expected to.
“Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it then, but if my parents had taken me away from Kaiser and Roger, and from David and Jackson, I don’t know what would have happened. It probably wouldn’t have been good. But my folks came through, and we’re closer now than ever before.”
“That’s wonderful to hear.” She turned to Roger. “Michael tells us that your father is a teacher too, right? Or I should say professor. Doesn’t he teach at a university?”
“Yeah, at Portland State University. Like I told you, my parents immigrated from Switzerland when I was just a couple of years old. They’re great and I guess you’d call them progressive. Anyway, they’ve gotten to know Jerrod’s parents pretty well, as well as David and Jackson, and it’s kind of like a big happy family now.”
“You’re both lucky boys. I see way too many high school students from broken families, estranged parents, no real support at home. It certainly makes completing an education and getting ahead in life that much more difficult. What are you boys thinking about college?”
They related visiting the different schools they’d applied to, but that they’d ended up where they started with Jerrod wanting to attend Lewis & Clark because David was Dean of Students and it was academically strong, and Roger wanting to attend Portland State because it was the only public university in Portland and with his dad on faculty his expenses would be quite low.
Michael’s Grandpa turned the conversation turned to the likelihood of calving starting by saying, “I walked through the barn on the way over. I think those cows are getting close.”
“Yeah?” Michael’s dad made the comment with a wry smile.
“For sure,” Grandpa continued, “things are more like they are now than they ever have been.”
Grandpa grinned. “You know what I mean.” He grinned at the Roger and Jerrod. “Once it starts it’ll be a pretty much non-stop for a week or two.”
Michael’s dad nodded and agreed that a few of the cows looked pretty close, and it could start in the next day or two. “I’m sticking close to home. I told Michael he can show his friends around tomorrow and the next day, but by then I’m pretty sure it’ll be full on calving time, and I need him to help.”
The older man reminded everyone that he was around and capable of helping with any calving problems, and Roger asked what calving involved. He got a short lesson on being present in case of problems. He didn’t know that cows, like most mammals are perfectly capable of birthing on their own and that calves born healthy and with no complications will be up and moving and being taken care of by their mothers within twenty minutes. “Not all calves are born without problems, though, and that’s what you’ve got to watch out for. There can be breech births where the calf isn’t positioned right to come out of the birth canal, or for cows with the first birth they can need help to get the calf out. That’s where it matters because without help you can lose the calf or even the cow.”Michael’s mom turned the conversation back to domestic matters over dessert, and confirmed that Michael had shown them the bathroom, and gotten them settled in the guest room. “I put out clean towels in the bathroom, and there’s fresh sheets on the beds. You’re probably not used to twin beds, but they’ll help you abide with the rules of the house.