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35 things about me--just a meme I felt like doing [Feb. 24th, 2010|11:53 am]
shieldmaid1
01) Are you currently in a serious relationship? Yes--very happily married for almost 8 years
02) What was your dream growing up? to become a doctor or an orchestra conductor
03) What talent do you wish you had? to play tennis well
04) If I bought you a drink what would it be? a pina colada
05) Favorite vegetable? broccoli
06) What was the last book you read? Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder and Other Stories
07) What zodiac sign are you? Aquarius
08) Any Tattoos and/or Piercings? Explain where. both ears double pierced; no tattoos yet
09) Worst Habit? eating cheese :)
10) If you saw me walking down the street would you offer me a ride? If I knew you, I would
11) What is your favorite sport? tennis to play, or Superbowl football to watch
12) Do you have a Pessimistic or Optimistic attitude? half and half right now
13) What would you do if you were stuck in an elevator with me? giggle nervously
14) Worst thing to ever happen to you? When my daughter died
15) Tell me one weird fact about you. I play the French horn
16) Do you have any pets? No, but I wish I had two cats and a dachshund
17) What if I showed up at your house unexpectedly? I would cook you dinner!
18) What was your first impression of me? You like E & J, so it must be good. :)
19) Do you think clowns are cute or scary? Terrifying, are you kidding??
20) If you could change one thing about how you look, what would it be? Thinner
21) Would you be my crime partner or my conscience? Crime partner!
22) What color eyes do you have? Hazel
23) Ever been arrested? No
24) Bottle or can soda? Bottle
25) If you won $10,000 today, what would you do with it? Pay off part of our student loans
26) What's your favorite place to hang out at? My house
27) Do you believe in ghosts? Yes
28) Favorite thing to do in your spare time? Read
29) Do you swear a lot? Yes, but only at home
30) Biggest pet peeve? Buffalo drivers
31) In one word, how would you describe yourself? Hopeful
32) Do you believe/appreciate romance? Yes
33) Favourite and least favourite food? Favorite--cheesecake; least favorite--olives
34) Do you believe in God? No
35) Will you repost this so I can fill it out and do the same for you? Sure.
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Pomp and Circumstances, chapter 4: Homework [Sep. 3rd, 2008|08:49 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Location |home]
[Current Mood |exhaustedexhausted]

Pomp and Circumstances

Chapter Four—Homework


“Well,” Randall said, not at all perturbed, “looks like Jack had somewhere else to go. Too bad, because he’s going to miss the best part of all: the assignments for this semester.” He stepped backward a couple of paces, until he was standing outside the circle, looking them over speculatively. “Now then, how’s everyone feeling? Did we establish trust bonds with our fellow participants?”

“I don’t know what you did, Randall,” Lureen said sourly, “but I think the rest of us just got felt up a little in the dark.” She glared around the circle at all of them. “Doesn’t pay to wear the leather when people can’t remember to keep their hands off it, I guess.”

Charles snorted a little, but sobered up when Lureen crossed her arms and flared her nostrils at him. Ennis couldn’t help but notice that he was the only one in the circle not to benefit from the full weight of her angry stare. In fact, she couldn’t seem to look anywhere in his direction at all.

“All right, all right.” Randall made winding-up motions with his hand. “Let’s go back to our chairs. This didn’t go exactly as I thought it would, but—not a total loss. Progress is being made.” He turned and began to waddle across the room to the folding chairs. Francois trailed behind him, trying ineffectually to catch his hand.

The rest of them made their reluctant way back to the first circle. Ennis found himself walking next to Lureen, who continued to stare straight ahead, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. On his right, however, Alma seemed to have emerged out of her habitual daze and was chirping something about subcommittees.

“That’s the best part,” she reassured him, fiddling with the tangle of nylon scarves looped around her neck. “You get to know people a lot better that way, than going to all these long meetings with Randall telling us what to do. I really hope you and I can work together!”

Ennis gave her a small smile, repressing a shudder, and found his seat. Lureen sat next to him and bent to retrieve something from under her chair. She pulled out a black binder and began to flip through the pages, sniffling occasionally. Ennis stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye. Her hands were larger than most women’s, muscular-looking, with blunt-cut nails. He’d heard she played the piano; maybe that was it. But still . . . those hands looked very capable. Of some hanky-panky. In the dark.

Suddenly Lureen turned to face him, and Ennis jerked sideways, startled. “Jack’s a nice guy, you know,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “He and I’ve been close ever since he started working here.”

“Yeah,” Ennis said, feeling defensive. “He seems like a really nice person. And I, uh, heard he’s a good teacher too.” He looked down and saw that his hands were clasped together so tightly that his fingernails were leaving red half-moons on the tender flesh.

“What I mean is that you shouldn’t take him the wrong way.” Lureen slapped the binder shut, seemingly oblivious to Randall’s meeting agenda, a multi-page handout circulating among the committee members. “Storming out of the meeting like that, it’s just one of the things he does. When he’s got something else on his mind.”

“Like what?” Randall was talking now, droning on about some course revisions they needed to write, but Ennis needed to hear everything that Lureen had to say.

“Well, for one thing there’s his history with Randall.” Lureen quirked an eyebrow at him, opening to the second page of her handout as though she were following along.

“History? With Randall?” Ennis fervently hoped she wasn’t telling him what he thought she was telling him.

“Mm hmm. With Anita, too.” At Ennis’s open-mouthed amazement she spared a small smile. “Oh yes. She’s had a thing for Jack ever since he started here. The only question is—”

“Question is what?” Ennis’s voice was a little louder than he’d intended. Everyone in the circle turned in unison to stare at him.

“Just the thing we need to discuss.” Randall’s voice was brittle, laced with acid. “And here I thought you weren’t paying attention. What, that is, each of us will be expected to do this semester.” He pursed his lips and looked down at the sheet attached to his clipboard. “I think our best use of you, Ennis, might be on . . . the revision of the Literature and Film course. Yes, that’s it. Spend some time thinking about adaptation theory, new book and film pairings to suggest. And you need a partner there, anyone want to volunteer?” He looked around, his hooded eyes giving him a reptilian appearance.

Alma’s hand shot into the air. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said eagerly. “I got a lot of experience last year, doing the revision of Shaking Up Shakespeare.”

“Excellent, Alma,” Randall said smoothly. “I can’t think of a better match.” He looked around. “Well, I think that was our last agenda item. Anyone have anything to add? No? I suggest we adjourn, then. I’ll see you all next week, same time, in the faculty lounge.” He stood up, and everyone else stood and began frantically gathering their belongings.

Ennis grabbed his jacket and dashed across the room to catch Lureen, who was already striding toward the exit. “Lureen!” he panted. “Wait!”

Lureen slowed down and turned her head to look at him even as she was pushing open the huge metal fire door. “What?” she asked him. “Didn’t get everything you needed?”

Ennis shouldered the door open and stepped in front of her, blocking her path so she couldn’t walk past him. “It’s not that, it’s just . . . what did you mean by Jack’s history? With Randall, I mean?” He felt himself smirk. “It’s already obvious that he doesn’t care about Anita.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge,” Lureen said slowly, tapping one finger against her black binder, now held tightly against her chest. “Jack and Anita have always been close. Sure, she wants something from him that he’s not going to give her, but . . . they’re allies. In a fight, he’d definitely be on her side.”

“Fight?” Ennis was flabbergasted. “Nothing physical, right? You mean political shi—uh, stuff?”

It was Lureen’s turn to smirk now. “That’s right, Ennis. All things verbal are fair game in this department, but nothing more. Although there was that showdown between Jack and Ted years ago, probably the first semester that Jack was teaching here. Ted asked Jack something, and Jack misunderstood what he was asking, and, well, next thing you know they’re standing nose to nose in the middle of the hallway with about twenty students cheering them on. Anita came out and dragged them apart and then I guess everything was fine.” She sighed. “Took them at least a year before they’d speak to each other again, though.”

Ennis’s spine zinged with electricity. “What were they arguing about?”

“I’m not sure, exactly. Something to do with Jack’s office key. Or was it his car key? Ted had it and wouldn’t give it back or something. Anyway.” Lureen shrugged. “I’ve got a million things to do. Get out of my way.” She gave Ennis a playful tap on the arm and cocked one eyebrow at him.

He moved to one side obediently and stared after Lureen as she marched down the hallway. It wasn’t until she’d slammed through the door leading outside that he realized he’d never found out about Jack’s past with Randall.

***

Back in his office, Ennis slung his latest stack of papers onto his desk and sat down to check his email. His earlier days of anal-retentive neatness were quickly disappearing; it was almost impossible to keep your desk clean when people constantly insisted on sending you memos and updates on obscure topics that you were expected to keep but couldn’t yet categorize. So approximately three reams of paper were now collected in messy piles on his desk and computer table. While he was waiting for his laptop to fire up, he spun around in his chair a few times, enjoying the sensation of freshly oiled castors whipping him soundlessly through space. On his third revolution, however, he encountered an unexpected face peering around the doorjamb at him. “Jack!”

“Hey, Ennis. Having fun?”

Ennis put a foot down to stop himself and pitched forward onto his desk, scattering papers in all directions. “Hey, uh, yeah. It’s been great.”

Jack bent to retrieve a few sheets that had fluttered to the floor at his feet. “I’ve been waiting for you to get back for ages. Did the meeting drag on that long? I’ve got something to show you.”

The skin on the back of Ennis’s neck began to tingle; he hoped the hair there wasn’t standing up as though he were, again, a skinny, nervous teenager paralyzed by nerves and anxiety about the odor of his breath. “Yeah? What is it? I, uh . . . never mind.”

“What?” Jack looked back at Ennis with bright eyes, the irises a deep and drowning blue. “Were you wondering where I went?” At Ennis’s nod, he laughed and leaned over to punch his shoulder lightly. “C’mon—that’s what I wanted to show you.”

They strode down the hall together, ignoring the drone of voices coming from open classroom doors and the sign posted on the door of the faculty lounge proclaiming “English Coffee Hour—Get to know your new colleagues—TODAY at 4 p.m.” Once they were outside, they headed for Jack’s car on the far side of the faculty lot. Ennis was impressed by his car, a burnt-orange MG with Wyoming plates. “What year is that?”

“What, the car? Uh . . . 2002, I think. The year they switched the models over. Don’t know too much about cars, really. My Uncle Harold gave me this one.” Jack got in and flipped the rearview mirror to a jaunty angle, adjusting his sunglasses and giving his hair a quick once-over.

“Where are we going?” Ennis fastened his seatbelt carefully. Letting other people drive always made him nervous.

“Oh, a little someplace I go when things get rough. Helps me relieve stress or whatever. Know the owner, too, like to help him out when I can.” Jack cleared his throat and his forehead settled into a frown as he merged into traffic and turned onto the road leading out of town.

Ennis let the silence stretch out between them. He could tell that Jack had something on his mind, but he also felt comfortable with him, without needing to air the stilted witticisms often on the tip of his tongue. They were driving into a part of the countryside Ennis hadn’t yet explored, one marked off by neatly cultivated green or yellow farm fields, tiny cemeteries, and picturesquely ruined brick houses, each set on its own lush plot of land. After about fifteen minutes, Jack flipped on his left turn signal and pulled into narrow gravel road marked only by a small painted sign reading “Malone’s Stables.” At the end of this path they came upon a group of large barns set around an enormous parking lot. Ennis rolled down his window, took a deep whiff. Sure enough, the familiar scents of fresh shit and hay filled his nostrils. He would never want to go home again, but still—there was something wonderful about being here.

“Goddamn it,” Jack said in a low tone, the first words he had spoken since they left the college parking lot. He was looking across the stretch of black-topped parking lot at a black pickup truck parked at the other end, its lights on. There weren’t many cars here at this time of day, on a weekday afternoon, but there were at least ten or twelve cars scattered across the lot.

Ennis began to hope, seeing Jack’s grip tighten on the steering wheel, that the distance between the MG and the truck would be enough to deter him. “Why the hell they need such a big parking lot?” he asked, hoping to distract him.

“Shows,” Jack answered through gritted teeth. “Lots of folks around town bring their kids to lessons here. They also host the regional roping and barrel competitions. Got some huge arenas around back, behind the far barn. Some of this is for horse trailers.” He gestured vaguely, but Ennis could see his mind was on other things.

“I used to—” Ennis began, but he was interrupted by the sound of Jack gunning the motor. Uh-oh. “Wait,” he pleaded. “I thought there was something you wanted to show me here.”

Jack smiled—a slow, feline grin that bared his teeth from the side. “This will only take a moment,” he breathed, and they were off, the MG slaloming around the parked cars positioned at random intervals throughout the lot. Many of the cars actually contained people, as Ennis discovered, probably waiting to pick up Little Ken or Sarah from a lesson. Jack brought the car dangerously close to several of these waiting vehicles, earning himself two middle fingers, several gasps of surprise, and once—when his side mirror came so close to a navy Ford Focus that Ennis could hear the metal whine along the paint—a beautifully eloquent “Slow the fuck down, fucking motherfucker! There’s fucking KIDS in here!” All the time, however, they were heading toward the black pickup truck, its lights still on and its owner apparently oblivious of the danger that Jack’s ferocity posed. Finally they cleared the last car, and Jack turned the nose of the MG straight toward his target. “Hold on, Ennis,” he said under his breath.

Ennis gripped the pull-down handle on the ceiling near the passenger door and braced his feet against the floor. His breath came in short gasps, but he was, he realized, energized by the chase. So what if he didn’t know who Jack was going after or why? This afternoon already seemed like the most important of his life.

Jack leaned on the gas just a little more as they arrowed toward the black truck. Ennis shut his eyes at the last moment, unable to face the actual sight of impending death or dismemberment, but he was recalled back to himself when he was slammed abruptly into the side of the car, apparently without contacting any external obstacles. The car’s gradual slowing was accompanied by gales of maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. Ennis opened his eyes to find that Jack had swerved at the last moment and drawn the MG up onto the grass next to a barn painted in dark green with bright yellow trim. Turning his head, Ennis saw that the black truck was still parked in the same place, but the passenger door was now standing open. Randall Malone stood on the grass next to the truck, hands on his hips, glaring at them.

“Ha ha ha, you crazy motherfucker!” Jack chortled. “Teach you to fuck around with me at work, you and your Stephen Covey bullshit.” He shoved open the MG’s sunroof and popped his arm through to give Randall the peace sign.

To Ennis’s surprise, Randall didn’t react with anger or even the fussy, fat man’s pique he commonly assumed at work when things weren’t going his way. He looked at Jack a moment longer, then shook his head and turned back to his truck, shutting the passenger door before climbing in the other side and driving away.

“I’m guessing,” Ennis said after a moment, “that there’s probably a story there.” He waited for his heartbeat to come back down to its normal rate, content for the moment to sit in the car and share a peaceful interlude with Jack.

“Yeah, isn’t there always.” Jack seemed tired now, heaving out a big sigh as he followed the progress of Randall’s truck through the rearview mirror. “Truth is—Randall’s folks own this place. Only one in the area. So when I moved here, I had to have a place to board my horse—Twilight. Think you’ll like her. Anyway, I, uh, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash when I was first starting out—student loans and all. I get to talking with Randall one day, he tells me about the family stables, and we start hanging out a bit. From time to time. I guess we were . . . friends, of a sort. Of course,” he gave Ennis a searching glance, “he was in much better shape then. Not that that matters, I’m not that shallow, but he wasn’t married either and was a hell of a lot nicer. But I started getting busy with stuff, as people will, didn’t have as much time for him, he started spreading nasty rumors about me. Things I wasn’t really comfortable having people know about me. Or believe about me, I mean. I—probably shouldn’t have done this, but I had a little thing with Anita, just a couple of months, and he started talking lawsuits, non-renewal of contracts, etc., etc. Was a real dick to his folks, too, never helped out with the business at all, and after he and I stopped . . . hanging out, he got even worse.” Jack sighed, ran his hands back through his hair, scrunched up his nose. “Now he just comes around here when he wants to pretend like he’s the proverbial good son, doing nothing but fucking up relationships with their clients and everything else.” He coughed briefly and pulled his keys out of the ignition. “Remember last week, when I was late to the department meeting?”

Ennis nodded. They hadn’t gone to get a beer that evening either, Jack muttering something about previous obligations before he slid out of Ennis’s office and practically ran down the hall.

“Yeah, well, Randall apparently came by and said he needed a loan, wouldn’t take no for an answer when his father told him they didn’t have the extra cash. This place takes a lot of moolah to keep it running smoothly. I guess Randall and Francois overdrew their bank account and she was at home cleaning the house—this is when she also had six classes to teach that day, mind you—so that Randall could have a peaceful worry-free evening after his tough day at work. He got loud and belligerent with his dad, and Mrs. Malone called me to calm her husband down. He’s got high blood pressure, she doesn’t want anything worse to happen to him.”

“No. Way,” Ennis exhaled. “But Randall was at that meeting—I thought—”

“Yeah, he’s pretty good at acting like he’s calm and collected, no doubt. But under all those precious habits and fat cells, he’s a mess, a raging control freak who can’t stand to see anyone around him feeling satisfied about anything that doesn’t involve him directly.” Jack sighed. “I had to get out of there right away so I didn’t have to deal with the raft of bullshit I knew would be coming my way. I mean, imagine how embarrassing it must be that your own parents would rather talk to one of your colleagues about their problems. Your old . . . friend, even.” Jack spun his key ring once around his finger and put his hand on the door. “You ready to go?”

Inside the green-and-yellow barn, they found Jack’s Twilight, a dappled, dark-gray mare with an inquisitive look and the softest mane Ennis had ever touched.

“OK, Ennis,” Jack said, grinning. “This is my baby. She’s—she’s real special to me.”

“She’s gorgeous, Jack,” Ennis said, stroking her nose. “How old is she?”

“Eight.” Jack sighed. “She’s always been in good shape. I take care of her, even when the rest of the world’s gone to hell.” He opened the door to her stall and moved to the back wall, taking down a brush and a polished, worked-leather saddle. “Ready to ride?”

Panic stiffened Ennis’s spine, and he stuck one hand in his back pocket, clenching his fingers around his wallet as though to protect the picture hidden there. “I don’t. . . I haven’t ridden in a while,” he said quickly. “It’s been ages, actually. Don’t really ride anymore at all, I guess.”

“What are you talking about?” Jack turned back to him, brush in one hand, his blue eyes wide with disbelief. “You grew up on a farm, boy. That means you grew up on a horse! Just because you’ve became an academic superstar, that doesn’t mean you can’t get down and dirty with me once in a while.” He gave Ennis a wink, then turned back to his work again.

“It’s just . . . something happened, that’s all. I . . . lost someone. It’s been hard for me to get out there again, ever since then.” He saw Jack’s back tighten as he stood up straighter, clearing his throat as though about to speak. “But I guess—maybe it’s time for me to try again.”

Jack put the brush away and gave Ennis a brilliant smile. “That’s the spirit! I already reserved one of the stable horses for you. Let’s get out there, and you can show me what you’ve got.”

Ennis led his rented horse, Lightning, out to the practice ring, Jack close behind him with Twilight. Once they had entered and secured the gate, Jack swung himself easily up into the saddle, the play of his muscles clearly visible in his close-fitting jeans and his ass rounding perfectly into its seat. He was a natural. Ennis tried to follow, but froze. He couldn’t get up, couldn’t back away. He just stood there, holding onto the reins with one hand and a stirrup with the other. The horse was patient, standing quietly, an occasional fly producing ripples in the powerful muscles of its sides.

“What’s wrong?” Jack was peering down at him, his eyes squinted against the late-afternoon sun.

“I don’t know, I just—”

Before Ennis could finish, Jack had swung himself back down onto the ground and was standing behind him. “It’s all right,” he whispered, so softly that his words were barely audible, “it’s all right.” His lips ghosted against the back of Ennis’s neck. Ennis felt the barest trickle of saliva on his skin, the wet underside of a slightly parted lip perhaps, and a shiver ran across his belly. Jack put his hand over Ennis’s, the one holding the stirrup, and rubbed back and forth gently. “Just relax,” he said. “I’m right here. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. I’ll hold onto you, and you’ll get up there with no problems at all.”

Ennis’s mouth was dry. He could feel Jack’s body lined up against his, his chest and stomach against Ennis’s back, his arm lying along Ennis’s, his crotch pressed up against Ennis’s rear end. His belt buckle felt cold even through Ennis’s jeans. Ennis’s nipples were suddenly hard, swollen, catching on the thin fabric of his dress shirt in a way that was both irritating and unbearably erotic. “Um, OK,” he said carefully. He shifted his hand a little, so that the pads of their fingers were touching. This was a deliberate caress, nothing accidental or comforting about it. Jack sighed again, shifting his weight so that his boots crunched a little in the packed dirt. Ennis started to turn, and—.

“What the hell is that?” Jack’s voice was rough and low.

“My cell. Sorry. I really gotta—“ Ennis dug his phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. Shit. The English department office. He could feel Jack release his arm and step away as he slid the phone open. “This is Ennis Del Mar—” Turning his back to Jack, he talked quickly. “Are you sure? Right now? But—well, if he says we’ve gotta get it done. All right, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hung up and swung around to face Jack. “I’m really sorry. But I’ve got to go back to work. Apparently Randall says our course revision can’t wait. Alma’s waiting in the office for me.”

The ride back to campus was silent, excruciating. Again, Jack didn’t speak, but this time Ennis couldn’t feel the thrumming energy that had spun out between them on the ride to the stables. Jack punched the radio on, then jabbed the search button, running through the entire listing of possible stations at least three times before they reached the parking lot. He didn’t say anything even when he stopped the car at the edge of the lot closest to the English department, just sat there looking through the windshield at the students streaming in and out of buildings.

Ennis put his hand on the door, then looked back one more time at Jack, unsure how he should leave things. “Thanks,” he finally said. “Sorry it got cut short. Maybe we can try it again sometime.”

“Yeah,” Jack said, still not looking at him. “Maybe.”

Ennis got out and shut the door, bending down to say something more meaningful, he wasn’t sure what, but as soon as the lock clicked into place, Jack was reversing away, spinning perilously close to a perky green VW bug as he turned around, and peeling out of the lot.

Ennis stood there, on an autumn afternoon so unseasonably warm that he could see the heat rising off the blacktop in shimmery waves, looking after Jack’s car. He could still feel the weight of Jack’s hand on his shoulder, the press of his body up against the length of Ennis’s own. Lines from an old Paula Cole song drifted through his mind as he wished for a way out, any way out, of the next four hours. The time he would have to spend tied to a chair in the department, away from home and time off. Away from Jack.

Oh you get me ready in your 56 Chevy
Why don’t we go sit down in the shade
Take shelter on my front porch
The dandy lion sun scorching,
Like a glass of cold lemonade
I will do the laundry if you pay all the bills

Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie son?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?
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Pomp and Circumstances, chapter 3: Committee Work [Jul. 11th, 2008|01:50 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Location |home]
[Current Mood |nervousnervous]
[Current Music |fan blowing air]

Pomp and Circumstances

Chapter Three—Committee Work


“Knock, knock!”

Ennis heard Anita’s chirpy voice at the door and turned to greet her, groaning inwardly. He had barely escaped from her office with his dignity intact after last week’s department meeting; she had sat him in the chair next to her desk that normally was reserved only for problem students and spent an hour badgering him about his prospects in the department. Worse, she had punctuated her remarks with coy tugs on his tie, pats on the knee, and sideways glances out of her artificially brilliant green eyes. Finally she had leaned so close to him while explaining his future role in the department—that of the cool young scholar who dares to make the field of Romantic poetry sexy again, bringing University of the Northeast back onto the academic map—that he could perfectly discern the elements of her breath: a three-parts mixture of coffee, cigarettes, and cinnamon gum. While Ennis had chewed his share of gum on the rare occasions when he met someone attractive at a party or slept too late to brush his teeth before class, he never indulged in the other two staples of Anita’s diet, and he didn’t feel too comfortable getting close to them now.

“Ennis? Got a minute?” Anita breezed in, waving a manila folder at him. She was dressed in a charcoal-grey suit with the thinnest possible pinstripes, the skirt slit high on her left thigh. Her red lipstick gleamed at him from both her lips and the white coffee cup in her other hand. Its logo read, inexplicably, “Wild Women Eat Coffee For Breakfast.”

“Good morning, Anita.” Ennis gave her his most professional smile. He had spent a lonely weekend at home alone, pondering what he could have done differently during the transition to Anita’s office after the meeting. Jack had left with just a wink in the doorway to her office suite, and he hadn’t seen him since, in spite of the beer they’d promised to have together. Therefore, Ennis had decided that this week he could pick his own friends and allies. He didn’t have to pander to Anita just because she was his boss; he wanted to spend time with Jack, and so that was what he would do. Simple.

Anita sat on the yellow pleather couch across from his desk. “You’ve got a committee meeting today, right?”

“That’s what I understand. Randall emailed us to make sure we were free today at 3:30.” Ennis leaned back a little in his chair, careful not to swivel or show any signs of enjoying himself.

“That so? Who’s on the committee this year?” Anita sipped from her mug, leaving another red lip print sandwiched between “Wild” and “Women.”

“Um, Charles, Francoise, Alma, Lureen. Randall. And Jack. And me, of course.” Ennis could feel sweat rolling in slow drops down between his shoulder blades.

“Ah, Randall and Jack. Jack and Ennis. The unstoppable duo lives on.” Anita’s brow was creased. She gave him a strange, pointed look that he didn’t know how to read.

“I guess?” Ennis sighed, and rolled his eyes at his own vocal inflection. Where had he ever picked up the habit of phrasing statements as though they were questions? He sounded like a low-rent Valley Girl. Or a first-year grad student.

“I’m boring you?” Anita raised one eyebrow and stood up, leaving the manila folder on the couch.

Shit. “No, no, I was just . . . trying to blink. Got something in my eye.” God, he was a dumbass.

“No problem. I’ve got a chairs’ meeting anyway.” Anita took a final swig and brandished her empty mug. “Just keeping an eye on things. That’s my job.” She winked at him and was gone, leaving behind her a faint scent of Glow perfume.

Ennis stared after her for a moment, then turned back to his desk. He could see the folder out of the corner of his eye. Would she be back for it in a moment? Did he have time to peek inside and catch a glimpse of his workplace’s true identity? He scuttled to the door, pausing to wipe his hands on the sides of his khakis. His tie, a jaunty red silk, was pointing distinctly to one side—the right. Just like the way my—. He caught himself thinking decidedly non-university-approved thoughts and peered out the doorway, adjusting the tie to hang straight once again. The hallway was filled with a crush of students, most talking on cell phones or consulting Blackberries as they cruised the corridors before their next class. Ennis, who stubbornly continued his years-long practice of writing everything down in his planner, found this technological immersion only another sign of a cultural decline in literacy.

But there were no faculty anywhere in sight. 3:00 on Monday was the designated chairs’ meeting time, so Anita would not be around. Ennis knew this because she’d had to leave in the middle of his research presentation when he’d interviewed for this job, and she had apologized at least three times at the dinner that evening. He backed away from the door, then pushed it shut and made for the couch. The folder bore the label, “Del Mar, Ennis – Personnel File.” There was a red smiley face that someone had scratched out with a blue pen, then another smiley face in black ink. Hmm.

Ennis scooped the folder up and carried it to his desk. He was definitely not supposed to see this, so he was going to take his chance while he had it. The first sheet contained his stats—address, telephone, and all the rest—but the next five were committee analyses of his job interview. Not as horrific as he might have supposed, since he’d gotten the job in the end, but still not pleasant reading. He flipped through a stack of recommendation letters, his CV, his grad-school transcript, and stopped, taken totally aback. Why was his RateMyProfessor.com page in here? He hadn’t received a rating until his sixth year of grad school, when he’d been teaching for a while and had almost stopped caring what his students thought. But then he’d taught a killer composition class, where every day had been a struggle to get anyone at all to open their mouths. They had turned in work late, talked openly during class, pulled their baseball caps low so they could sleep in the back of the room. Ennis’s advisor had come to watch him teach it and suggested later that he try some popular icebreaker strategies. Ennis had pooh-poohed his ideas but had privately obsessed over the ten negative RMP ratings he’d gotten as a result. He definitely did not have a chili pepper, and his smiley face wore a blue frown.

Ennis was just turning over the last page of the ratings, thinking there had to be something else in here to justify this flagrant violation of academic professionalism, when he heard a wry throat-clearing behind him. He whirled in his chair, clutching the folder to his chest. Papers drifted out, sagging to his lap and onto the floor.

It was Jack, holding his own coffee cup, also white with chocolate-brown letters. His did not sport any lipstick stains, however, and its slogan was vastly superior: “If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake,” read the side facing out. Ennis smiled to himself. He didn’t need to see the rest to remember how that story ended. “Hey!” he said. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Uh . . . just reading some notes.” Ennis’s hands were sweating again; he dropped the folder, remembering all at once the episode of CSI in which the killer’s fingerprints had shown up in guilty relief on a piece of paper wrapped around the murder weapon. The killer had shot the victim just after giving a Rotary Club speech, nervous and sweating profusely.

“Ha! I bet. I recognize that folder. Don’t worry, though. Anita always pulls that trick to put you at ease your first semester. The real shit’s in a file locked in her office. And believe me, you’ll never get to see it.” Jack took a drink of some clear liquid from his mug.

“That’s not water, is it?” Ennis watched Jack’s smirk. “Is that vodka?”

“Nah.” Jack shrugged. “Diet Sprite.” He drained the mug and set it down on the edge of Ennis’s desk. Sure enough, the other side read, “My straw reaches across the room. I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!”

“Well,” Ennis said, feeling defensive. “There’s not much in here anyway. Most of this stuff I’ve seen already. And RateMyProfessor—who cares, right? That site is crap.” He bent and gathered the papers, stuffing them back into the folder.

“True enough.” Jack looked around, taking in the bare bulletin board, the carefully organized bookshelves, Ennis himself. He seemed bored and edgy, his hands scrunched up in his jeans pockets. “You ready?”

“Is it time already?” Ennis looked at his watch. Five to three. “You know where we’re going?”

“Oh yeah.” Jack grinned. “Randall reserved the women’s gym for us.”

“The gym?” What the hell? “Good thing I asked you; I never would have found it. Um . . . do most committees meet in there?”

“Oh no. Randall’s got something special planned for us.” Jack took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. His shoulders lifted slightly, then relaxed. Ennis found himself wondering if he worked out. Probably, if his flat stomach and muscled forearms were any indication. “Kind of a team-building thing, I think. The committee last year didn’t get along that well. He wants us to do better this time.”

“What happened?” Ennis read The Chronicle of Higher Education online everyday and was always on the lookout for signs of dysfunctional departments. This one had seemed pretty normal at the interview, apart from an entirely absent fashion sense, but it was always possible they could be hiding toenail fetishes, furry lifestyles, hired hits, or romantic midnight trysts.

“Well . . . .” Jack looked down, contemplating a pair of beat-up black cowboy boots. “He tried to have us work in pairs. You know, get the tasks done more easily that way. But there was lots of in-fighting, people switching partners when they weren’t supposed to, that kind of thing. Even had a face-to-face confrontation at our last meeting in April.” He chuckled briefly, then frowned. “Kinda surprised he asked me to be on the committee again this year.”

“Couldn’t you say no? I mean, it sounds like you’re doing tons of stuff already.” Ennis had heard that Jack was a favorite advisor of the undergraduate English majors, that he supervised a couple of student interest groups and had already published a substantially revised version of his dissertation.

“Well, not really. Randall’s got tenure, you know. A little hard to say no to him.” Jack lifted his eyebrows, treating Ennis to a hot blue glance, then as quickly looked away again. “Well, we’d better get going. We’re gonna be late as it is.”

*****

The women’s gym was a sad affair, a huge bare room with cream-painted walls, liberally scarred by decades of bouncing balls and pep-club posters. The only equipment in sight was a wire cage containing blue exercise balls and a stack of gymnastics mats in the corner. Randall and their other colleagues were seated on metal folding chairs arranged in a circle in the center of the room. Ennis felt everyone’s eyes on them as they approached.

“Well, Ennis!” Randall bellowed heartily, standing to offer Ennis his hand. It was, indeed, hot and moist to the touch. “Glad you’re going to be part of the group this year. We’re not going to do too much work today, I don’t think. But our task is just as important: getting to know one another. Really know.” He eyed Jack for a moment, then turned back to the group. “OK then! Let’s get started.”

Ennis took the opportunity while Randall was returning to his chair to sniff, surreptitiously, at his hand. It smelled like a slightly rotten banana. He caught Lureen’s eye as he was trying to rub his hand casually with his handkerchief, and she wrinkled her nose, then smiled briefly.

Once Ennis and Jack had settled into their chairs, with Ennis sandwiched between Jack and Randall, the session began.

“So you’ve all heard of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, I trust?” Randall looked around at them expectantly.

“Sure,” Jack drawled, stretching his long legs out in front of him and crossing his arms over his chest. His chair was balanced precariously on its back two legs. “It’s business speak garbage that we—excuse me, University of the Northeast—can spend thousands of bucks on so we can learn to spew the exact same jargon that businesses all over the country are already using. Then we can get together in our comfy little convention suites, sipping our Evian water, and communicate with each other until we all feel satisfied that we are the most elitist bunch of assholes on the planet.” He tipped his head back and glared at Randall. “It seems to me, though, that we might be missing something here. Hmm, let’s see . . . what could it be? Oh yeah, that’s right.” He jerked himself upright, slamming the chair’s front two legs onto the gym floor. “Our students.”

The gym was completely silent for a few moments. Ennis stared at Jack, who was jiggling his right foot up and down so that his boot heel clacked against the floor. His venomous gaze, fixed on Randall’s pinkish, fleshy face, had the unfortunate effect of turning Ennis on. Way on. He shifted uncomfortably, not sure what hurt more—his ass on this chair, or the inappropriate hard-on throbbing in his carefully pressed trousers.

Randall finally blinked and laughed, shaking his head from side to side. “Jack, Jack, Jack. You always have a way of getting us started. Not the way I would choose, certainly, not the most helpful way, but always a unique one! Well, as I was saying, Stephen Covey’s program has garnered a lot of commercial success. Many people have cited their participation in it as a turning-point in their careers. While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I do think that what I learned from it over the summer has helped me to design the program we’re going to do today. And I think you’ll all enjoy it.” He stood, ponderously, then swayed a little before gaining his balance. “Now, let’s go get our mats, and I’ll get the lights.”

Everyone gaped at him. No one moved.

“Go on, now. Get a mat and take it over there.” Randall pointed to the far side of the gym, near a basketball hoop. “We’ll make another circle since that’s the best way of getting our collective energy flowing.” He frowned, looking around the circle. “Get me one, too, Francoise.”

The tired, mousy woman who habitually followed Randall around shot out of her chair and scurried across the room. Not until she had begun dragging two of the dusty blue mats toward the other side of the gym did the others rise from their seats, however.

“She’s Randall’s wife,” Jack said into Ennis’s ear as they straggled behind the black-leather-clad Lureen and a distracted Alma, wearing a collection of filmy scarves and a tartan skirt held together with a giant gold safety pin. “Does everything for him including grade all his papers, I think. They’ve been married forever—legally, of course. Can’t imagine they’ve ever been married in any other sense of the word.” He snorted and bent to take the mat that Lureen shoved at him.

Once they had all arranged their mats in a circle, with one empty mat for Randall, their leader stood at the bank of light switches near the door and gave them instructions. “Now I want you to sit cross-legged on your mat . . . good . . . then close your eyes.” He paused.

Ennis opened one eye and found that all other eyes were closed but Jack’s. He was staring at Randall, while Randall appeared to be mouthing something to him, his forehead creased. His hands were clasped in front of him, making him appear unusually vulnerable. Ennis coughed, feeling dust and an unfamiliar emotion swirling in his throat.

“Right,” Randall said, catching sight of Ennis’s open eyes. “Let’s all get into it, shall we?” He waited until Ennis had closed his eyes. “Now. I’m going to turn out the lights. I want you to wait a few seconds, then stand up and walk slowly to your right. We’re going to practice trust and teamwork this way. We’ll keep moving and I’ll join the circle, until we’ve all found places where we feel comfortable again. Then I’ll turn on my flashlight so we can share our experiences of groping in the dark and finding others who helped us.”

Ennis heard a high, female titter. He thought it might be Lureen. Then Randall clicked off the switches and the room was engulfed in blackness. Opening his eyes, he found there was no difference at all. The gym had no windows, so they had no other sources of light. Perfect. Probably he should have mentioned before now his overwhelming fear of the dark. Hearing sounds of movement from either side, he put his hands on either side of him, gathering his courage, and pushed himself up. Someone bumped into him from behind, and he began walking. He was utterly terrified, holding his arms out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster from one of the old black-and-white films. He thought he remembered where the door was; if he could just make his way over there, he’d escape or at least let some light in.

Ennis staggered to one side, trying to extricate himself from the ring of mats, which were slightly sticky to the touch and made a squelching sound when you stepped on them. But someone’s hand found him, someone’s grip tugged him back into the circle, and he all at once found himself walking next to his captor, an arm slung protectively across his shoulders. The hand squeezed his, and he squeezed back. The hand was strong and warm, the arm heavy on his back. Was this—Jack? He could feel the hand’s short fingernails, the steady grip of sturdy fingers. The women he knew always grew their nails long and pointed, shaking his hand as though it were a limp fish they couldn’t hold onto for long.

Randall spoke from some distance behind him. “Keep moving, everyone, keep moving. Find someone to help you, if you need help. Embrace the dark. Make it your own.”

Ennis leaned into his partner, smelling the faint scent of pine and fresh air. The hand he was holding relaxed a little, the thumb stroking over his wrist.

“Now stop,” Randall intoned. “Get comfortable in your space. Find where you want to be. I’m going to turn the lights on again in a few seconds.”

Ennis stopped, and the person guiding him turned him so they were facing one another. He felt a hand on his shoulder now, gripping him lightly. It moved slowly up to his neck, paused, then a finger traced a line up his neck to the side of his face. He sighed. The hard-on that had been subsiding since Jack had talked back to Randall flared up with a vengeance. He risked freeing a hand down to adjust himself, but while he was finding that this afforded scant relief, his partner’s hand continued to quest. It slid down his chest and over a nipple. Ennis gasped softly, pleasure radiating out from the swollen nub as the hand found its twin on the other side of his chest. His unseen partner stroked his chest slowly, breathing almost inaudibly, as Ennis squeezed his eyes shut, finding the dark more welcoming than he could have imagined possible. The hand moved slowly, skimming his belly lightly.

“Lights on!” Randall shouted suddenly.

The hand withdrew, and Ennis heard a quick flurry of footsteps. He whirled around, breathing hard, and tripped over the edge of the mat. His ass landed on the mat with a loud squish just as fluorescent light once again flooded the room. He found that he was facing outward from the circle, his back to most of his colleagues. Looking around, he could see Charles and Alma standing to either side of him, confusion written across their faces. There was Lureen, and Francoise, and even Randall had somehow rejoined the circle. But where was Jack? Ennis twisted his head around until he at last glimpsed him, standing halfway between the circle and the door, a flashlight in one hand.

Jack’s eyes were hot and furious, his hair mussed and standing up in untidy spikes. He swept the room with a scathing look, but his gaze stopped at Ennis, and his features softened. He cleared his throat and opened his mouth, about to speak, then seemed to think better of it. Ennis could do nothing but sit there in shocked silence, his own tie hanging askew and the middle button on his shirt undone, long after the reverberations from the door Jack had slammed were no longer echoing through the gym.
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Pomp and Circumstances, chapter 2: Department Meeting [Jul. 3rd, 2008|11:24 pm]
shieldmaid1
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Pomp and Circumstances

Chapter Two—Department Meeting


Jack pushed open the door and waved Ennis inside. The Cellar was a dingy, dimly lit place with only a few patrons sitting at the bar or hunched over corner tables at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. Jack nodded at the bartender, who seemed to know exactly what was called for and handed over two bottles of beer with cold drops of moisture rolling down their sides.

“C’mon,” Jack said, throwing a ten on the bar and turning toward the pool tables on the far side of the room. “There’s some people here you’ve got to meet.” He gave a bottle to Ennis and began to twist the top off his own.

Ennis followed him across the room, where they found a game in progress at the second table between a short man in reading glasses and a rumpled black cardigan, his salt-and-pepper beard sticking out in all directions, and a taller, thinner man with perfectly white hair, wearing a starched blue dress shirt carefully rolled up at the cuffs. “Ay!” the first man shouted, as his partner sank a striped ball in the corner pocket nearest to him. “I can’t have you kickin’ my ass like this every week, Charlie! It just ain’t right!”

The white-haired man smiled. “You just need a better sense of timing, my good man,” he said. “But I’m willing to—” He broke off as he saw Jack approaching. “Ah, Jack. You’re just in time to show Ted that it isn’t just my balls that are superior. You’ve always been able to handle a set pretty well yourself.” He winked at Jack, then drew back slightly as he caught sight of Ennis standing behind him.

“Charles,” Jack said, clapping a hand on Ennis’s shoulder and tugging him forward. “This is Ennis Del Mar, our new hire. You remember, right? He’s the new Romantic scholar?”

“Ah, yes,” Charles said, coming forward with his hand extended. Ennis could see blue marks from the pool chalk on the tips of his fingers. “The lucky one. I know Anita couldn’t wait to get her claws in you.” He grimaced a little while shaking hands, Ennis’s grip clearly more than he was used to. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Anita, mind you. She’s a very kind woman, married well, lots of cash, good politics, all that. But she has a taste for . . . young meat, shall we say.”

“That’s enough,” Jack said, grinning, though Ennis saw him shake his head slightly at Charles. “Charles is an education guy, specializing in teaching these young’uns how to take their knowledge back out to the common man.”

“You could describe it that way, I suppose.” Charles withdrew to the table and picked up his cue stick again. “What I really do, though, is babysit twenty-somethings with Birkin bags who think carrying around a stack of textbooks might ruin their manicures. I tell them which school they must student-teach at, I call to make sure they actually made it to their first day, and I clean up the mess when they get fired for wearing a thong under a see-through skirt or driving a student home during school hours. Or for posting naked pictures of themselves with a student on FaceBook.”

“You’re kidding!” Graduate school had not prepared Ennis for this. Was he going to have to deal with students whose sex lives would become part of his office hours?

“True story. That’s probably the most extreme example, but something happens every time.” Charles raised one eyebrow and gazed at Ennis. “Hope this won’t dispel your Romantic ideals too quickly!”

“Yeah, well, if you’re gonna spend your time wiping kids’ noses instead of teaching them something real, well, you gotta deal with the consequences.” The bearded man came forward to shake Ennis’s hand. “Ted Berryman. American lit. No relation to the whole teacher-training thing whatsoever.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jack said, rolling his eyes at what was obviously a familiar conversation. “Ted here’s just an adjunct—a part-time instructor. He’s only around part of the time, so he only gets part of the story right.”

“Screw you, Twist,” Ted said, with no rancor. “At least I gotta job. That’s more than a lot of those sad sacks can say.”

“True, true.” Jack sighed. “OK, we’ll catch you later. Gonna fill Ennis in on some juicy departmental gossip. Part of the whole orientation package.”

“OK,” Ted said, already turning back to his game. “See you later.”

Jack led Ennis to a small table against the back wall. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out—long legs, Ennis noticed, though Jack was a touch shorter than him. “So,” he said, his eyes dropping nearly closed. “What’d you think?”

“Huh?” Ennis wasn’t sure what he was supposed to respond to—the classes, his office, his colleagues? The novelty of going to a bar in the middle of the afternoon? Jack himself?

“About the guys. They’re good people, both of them, but a little odd. I’d hardly want you to judge all of us by them.” Jack opened his eyes and gave Ennis an intense blue stare. It was a little bit like standing in front of the display case for the Hope Diamond. You could see this object of incredible beauty and incalculable worth, but it was impossible for a mere man to touch it. And even if you did—it would probably kill you.

“I thought they both seemed really nice. Uh . . . how long have they been here?” Ennis groaned inwardly. Again, he had returned to high school, unable to make small talk that would interest anyone under the age of 90. He longed for this day to end, even if that meant it would be followed by another one just like it.

“Charles, well, that’s hard to say. He taught in the public schools for quite a while before deciding to hang up his hat with us. About ten or twelve years, I guess. And Ted’s been here for eons—at least twenty years. Could be working somewhere else, too, but he’s stuck at the University of the Northeast and just can’t leave.” Jack snorted a little, then tipped up his bottle and drained the rest of his beer.

“Why not?” Ennis sipped at his beer, not wanting the giddiness that usually overtook him when he drank to blur any memories of this conversation. “Has he been on the job market at all?”

“No . . .” Jack sighed, looking into his bottle as if it held the answer he was looking for. “He’s got a Ph.D., not just an M.A. like a lot of our part-time faculty, even published a couple of books in the field that got good reviews, all the stuff you’re supposed to do. But he starting teaching here part-time when he was still finishing his degree, fell in love with a woman from town, and then he never wanted to apply for other jobs.”

“What does his wife do? Can’t she help him find a job?” One of Ennis’s best friends from graduate school had become a spousal hire—what their advisor sneeringly referred to as a “trailing spouse”—when his wife got a job at Yale. Now he was teaching four sections of freshman composition each semester and making one-quarter of the salary his wife earned for teaching two courses a year.

“Naw, he’s not married. They broke up a couple of years after he finished his degree. She got sick of waiting for him to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. Think she’s dancing in some club downtown now.” Jack shook his head and gave an Ennis a what-can-you-do look.

“Seriously?” Ennis hadn’t even known there was a downtown here.

Jack laughed. “No, I’m just messing with you. Actually she owns her own landscaping business now. She fixed up my lawn this year. I’ll have to have you over sometime so you can see the place.”

Ennis looked down at the table top. His heartbeat was reverberating in his ears. “That would be great,” he mumbled. A silence fell between them, which he tried to fill by chugging the rest of his beer. Rubbing his shirt sleeve across the table to absorb the spilled drops of moisture created an irritating squeaking sound, rocking the table on its four unsteady legs, so he stopped.

He was just getting up the courage to ask Jack if he lived near campus when Jack abruptly stood up. “We’d better go,” he said, frowning at his watch. “I’ve gotta—well, you don’t care about that. Probably you’re sick of hanging around here anyway. Got a hot evening planned, places to go, people to see?” He rummaged in his wallet, found a couple of dollar bills, and stuck them under the ashtray on their table. Ennis followed him out the door, wondering if he had said or done something wrong to bring about Jack’s changed mood, barely registering the calculating look that Ted gave him as he raised a slow hand in farewell.

At the faculty parking lot, Jack said, with bluff heartiness, “Well, this is me. It was great meeting you, Ennis.”

“Yeah, me too.” Ennis dug in his pocket for his keys. “Thanks for the drink.” He didn’t know why he had spent the entire walk back to campus stewing over their conversation. It was no big deal, just a guy taking his junior colleague out for a welcome-to-the-office drink. He didn’t need to read some kind of larger significance into every glance or brush of elbows. And he definitely would not go home and lie on his bed, thinking about Jack Twist’s blue diamond eyes instead of unpacking the rest of his kitchen boxes. No, he would not. “Oh no,” he muttered, mostly to himself, turning away from Jack, now searching through the pockets of his jacket.

“What?” Jack’s eyes were liquid with concern. Or was that beer?

“Forgot I left my wallet in the office. I’ve gotta run back up there and get it.” Ennis shrugged.

“You know, Ennis,” Jack said suddenly. “I’ve got somewhere I’ve gotta be right now. Gonna give a friend of mine a hand through the dinner hour. But later—later I might be back. At the bar again.”

“Yeah, well.” Ennis was getting hot and tired now in the late afternoon sun. “I’ve gotta go home and unpack some boxes.” He rubbed his forehead, feeling his eyes squinting against the light.

“OK.” Jack’s eyes were huge, open and vulnerable in a way that hit Ennis in the pit of his stomach, making him look all at once much younger.

“Well, see you around, I guess.” Ennis tossed his jacket over his left shoulder and began trudging back up the hill to the English building. Halfway up he stopped, feeling a bit sick, as though he had lost something important to him. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Jack still standing there, looking down at the ground.

*****

Ennis walked into room 3266 the next day promptly at noon. He had been looking forward to this moment ever since he’d started at University of the Northeast: his very first department meeting. There was only one other person present so far—Mildred, the department secretary. She gave him an uncertain smile and turned back to her carefully aligned stacks of paper.

He found a seat in the second row of desks, figuring that this was close enough that he would look involved but not so close that he’d appear to be brownnosing.

“Hey!” came from behind him. When he looked around he saw Mildred gesturing at him. “You didn’t get an agenda or minutes from last time. We’ve got to approve them before the meeting can go forward, don’t forget.” Ennis went up to the front of the room and got his handouts, refraining from pointing out that this was his very first meeting. As he was centering them on his desk, preparing to examine them in a manner befitting an assistant professor, the rest of his colleagues began to straggle into the room. Ennis observed them covertly, from beneath lowered eyelids. Most of them he recognized from his interview, though he couldn’t yet put names to all the faces. They came reluctantly, clutching paper cups of coffee from the vending machine, yellow legal pads, and cell phones, giving him quick smiles or pats on the shoulder or thumbs-up signs.

Anita arrived last, her hair caught up in an elaborate French twist, today’s suit a deep cherry red rather than her traditional grey or black. “OK, OK,” she said loudly over the chattering voices. “Let’s settle down.” She frowned at some persistent mumblers in the back. “Now I know it’s only the second days of classes and you’ve all got catching up to do, but we’re already late getting started and we’ve got lots to cover.” She riffled through a stack of papers, finally pulling out the one she needed and tossing the rest casually at Mildred’s desk. Mildred caught them skillfully, looking resigned to her fate. “First off—let’s all welcome Ennis Del Mar, our new Romanticist. I’m sure you’ve all been getting to know him already, but why don’t we show him how we do things here at University of the Northeast.” She raised her arms above her head and began clapping enthusiastically.

Ennis’s face burned. To his deep chagrin, everyone dutifully followed Anita’s example, and he was serenaded by at least forty clapping hands. This concerned him less, however, than the fact that Jack was not yet present and might walk in during his moment of humiliation. If Jack could wait just a minute or two longer, Ennis could pretend he’d already assimilated successfully into the department. Maybe they could start their friendship over. “See you around”; why had he said that?

Anita smiled as the clapping died down, putting one hand up to smooth the back of her hair. “OK, then,” she said. “Next order of business—approving the minutes. Any motion?”

Ennis sat as still as he could through the next half-hour of Roberts Rules and tedious recountings of summertime activities. He couldn’t possibly care less who had taught what classes and what committees would be assigned for this year. Where was Jack? It was his understanding that department meetings were mandatory, and Jack, as an assistant professor who had only been working here for three years, did not yet have tenure and thus could not flaunt the rules as his senior colleagues no doubt did.

“. . . . and Ennis, I think,” he heard. Shit! He twisted around in his seat and caught sight of a tall, portly man smiling at him and nodding his head almost conspiratorially. Now what had he missed. He turned back to the front.

“Yes,” Anita nodded as she marked something down on her paper. “Ennis did have some experience with curriculum development in graduate school; that was one of the things that most impressed us on his resume. I think he’ll be perfect for our Curriculum Committee.” She looked up and tilted her head to one side. “OK with you, Ennis?”

“Great,” Ennis blurted, nodding as vigorously as he could to simulate a keen interest in the proceedings.

“Excellent.” Anita’s smile widened, her dark lipstick seeming to ooze from the corners of her mouth. “Why don’t you come see me in my office after the meeting? I can catch you up on things a little then.”

“Thanks.” Ennis nodded again, but his stomach was churning. Maybe he could drag someone else in there with him—like the guy who’d just put him on this committee. What was his name again? But his musings were interrupted by a high, rather breathy voice coming from his left.

“Anita? I have a question?” The speaker was a short, dark-haired woman of about fifty, wearing a strange costume: black shoes, grey tights, knee-length purple skirt, black and green striped sweater, and a filmy scarf tied around her neck. She had a blue streak dyed into her hair, and Ennis could actually see a spit curl attached to her cheek. Amazing.

“Yes, Alma? What is it?” Anita folded her arms across her chest and looked down at her table, tapping one foot impatiently.

“I thought maybe—since this is the first meeting of the year—maybe we should discuss committee membership? So we can plan our schedules?” She looked up at Anita as beseechingly as a child.

Anita sighed and rolled her eyes. “Alma, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the past half-hour. Try to stay with us, please.” She tapped her fingers on the desk. “Now is there anyone else with questions?”

The only person sitting in the front row, a woman wearing a black-and-white checked Jackie Onassis suit and fishnet stockings, raised her hand. “Yes, Anita, there are several things we’ve missed here. First of all, we need to get going on our department review, and we have sample papers from last semester to collate and add to the assessment report. There’s also the problem of the new dean of arts and humanities. They’re looking for someone to serve on the search committee. I would volunteer myself, since they clearly need someone discerning, but I served on the last one, so I can’t.”

“OK, Lureen, that’ll do for now.” Anita pursed her lips. “Most of these are things I think we can handle outside the meeting. So I think we’ll conclude now. Motion to ad—”

The door opened, and Jack strode in, smirking a little.

“Well, Jack,” Anita said acidly. “Glad you could join us.”

“Sorry,” Jack said, not seeming sorry at all. “Got held up. Hope I didn’t miss any of the good stuff, though.” He walked behind Ennis, squeezing his shoulder as he passed, and took the seat next to him.

Ennis stared straight ahead, willing himself not to react. His cheeks wanted to glow red and his face to break out in the world’s silliest grin, but he sternly kept his emotions in check. After a few seconds, though, he felt a nudge against his elbow and looked down to see that Jack’s notepad had migrated to his own desk. “Anything good? Wanna get a beer tonight?” it read.

Lureen had moved to adjourn and Charles had seconded, so people were beginning to move out the door. Ennis turned to look at Jack. “You free at six?”

“Yeah, anytime. Not to much to do this first week of classes.” Jack stood and gathered his planner and cell phone. “Good thing I missed that. Usually if you’re here they put you on a shitload of committees, but if you’re gone they’re afraid to. Why don’t we—”

He stopped talking as the portly man who had volunteered Ennis for the committee approached. “Jack,” he said, smiling wetly, his fleshy lips parting slightly to reveal a grotesquely purple tongue. “Ennis! It’s wonderful to see you again!”

“Uh, you too,” Ennis said, wondering what in the hell his name could possibly be. “Thanks for putting me on the committee. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Committee?” Jack said sharply. “What committee? Didn’t they tell you you’re supposed to get the first semester free from that kind of crap?”

“Curriculum, of course,” the fat man said smoothly. He clasped his hands over the stained purple T-shirt stretched tight across his enormous belly and beamed at Ennis. “I think he’s going to be a smashing addition to our little workforce.”

Jack glared at him, then took a deliberate step to the side so that his arm pressed against Ennis’s. Ennis felt the contact all the way down to his knees; his toes curled inside his shoes, and this time he couldn’t repress a slightly goofy smile.

“Of course,” the man went on, seemingly oblivious to Jack’s disquiet, “I’ve been working so hard these past few years, I’ll probably be slightly less active this year. Not that my role will be any less important, mind you, but I’ll pull back a bit, let some of you younger folk take a turn.” He smiled unctuously at Ennis, who grimaced back, hoping he wouldn’t have to shake hands. This guy looked like his hands would always be moist and leave a bad smell behind. “Well, Jack, must be going. I’ll be emailing to set up our first meeting next week. See you both then.” He nodded at them and waddled toward the door. Ennis noticed a pale, tired-looking woman trailing in his wake.

“Who was that guy?” he asked Jack, keeping his voice low.

Jack’s hand was trembling against Ennis’s side. “Randall Malone,” he said.
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New story: Pomp and Circumstances [Jun. 25th, 2008|10:41 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Location |home, where else!]
[Current Mood |accomplishedaccomplished]

Pomp and Circumstances

Chapter 1 – Office Hours

Dr. Ennis Del Mar, newest member of the English Department at the University of the Northeast, slid the last book into its place on his fourth and final office bookcase. He stood back for a minute or two, admiring the arrangement. All his books were categorized exactly the way he liked them: one bookcase devoted to literary criticism and essays, another to drama and poetry, and the final two to fiction—each one alphabetized by author, of course. He stood in the center of the room, his hands clasped in front of him, and reflected with satisfaction on his pristine workspace. The desk was clear of papers—it was only the first week of classes, after all—and he had organized his stapler, jar of pencils, telephone, tape dispenser, notepad, and paper clips in a tidy row along the perimeter. His computer and monitor were free of dust, the mouse resting in the exact center of the mouse pad. He had even spent an hour carefully removing the stray papers and yellowing posters that the office’s previous occupant had tacked up on the bulletin board. Now it bore only the college-issue calendar and a copy of the “Academic Year Deadlines” pamphlet.

Ennis’s watch alarm buzzed suddenly, and he glanced down. It was already 2:00—time for his very first office hours. He’d been looking forward to this moment ever since he’d signed his job contract, even more than teaching his first classes. Those had taken place this morning, and had gone fairly well, but Ennis seriously doubted whether he could impart the wisdom gained over the previous twelve years of advanced education to a group of baseball-cap-wearing, feet-shuffling, iPod-bound, sullen-mouthed freshmen. The real mentoring would take place here, in the privacy and comfort of his office, with students who were too shy to speak up in class but who sensed in him the ability to anticipate and solve their academic quandaries.

Ennis strode to the door and opened it wide, kicking the wooden doorstop until it was firmly wedged in place. He had half-expected to see a line of eager students standing outside when he appeared, but none was in evidence so far. Sticking his head out the door, he could see only a lone female student standing halfway down the hall, her bag slung haphazardly over one shoulder, talking in a fierce whisper on her cell phone. She was wiping at her eyes with a crumpled tissue; Ennis hastily turned away to scan the other side of the hallway. The only other person in sight was a man sleeping on his back on one of the long wooden benches that lined both sides. His head had rolled so far to the side that it seemed in danger of falling off the bench entirely; the backpack lying unguarded on the floor next to him was unzipped, regurgitating sheets of looseleaf paper, folders in an array of colors, and a bicycle seat. Ennis reluctantly withdrew back into his office, deciding to do something productive. Surely his good example would then draw in, if not students, certainly his colleagues.

Twenty slow minutes later, Ennis was sitting at his desk, staring blankly at his computer screen, trying to convince himself that he was interested in checking out the library’s website. Didn’t he have a research project he could be working on? He felt his eyes begin to close and his head drop slowly to one side; he jerked awake and clenched his hands into fists, digging his fingernails into his palms to get his adrenaline up again. But he hadn’t slept much the night before, anxious over new classes and the colleagues he didn’t yet know. Again he felt the slow, luxurious slide into sleep, and decided this time to surrender. If no one had shown up yet for office hours, it was likely no one would. He propped his elbows on the desk and put his chin in his hands, preparing for a more comfortable nap. Just when his eyelids were heaviest, however, and the peaceful blackness was settling over his consciousness, one elbow slipped out from under him—his corduroy jacket no match for the fake wood veneer—and sent the tape, stapler, and box of paper clips flying.

Damn! Ennis, jolted back into reality, found himself staring at approximately eight million gold and silver clips twinkling up at him from the institutional gray carpet. Sighing, he bent and began scooping them into piles. After a few minutes, he spotted one final clip lying far under the desk, near the surge protector, and he scooted underneath to grab it. Just as he reached it, however, he heard a wry throat clearing behind him—addressing, he assumed, his ass, since that was the only part of him visible. Ennis pushed himself backward, twisting simultaneously to get a look at his first visitor. He succeeded in whacking his head on the edge of the desk before catching a glimpse of Dr. Anita Rosenbrand, the chair of his department.

“Ennis!” she exclaimed, beaming at him and extending her hand to help pull him up. “What on earth are you doing down there under the desk? We pay you to teach, not to clean up. And anyway, there’s no telling when these carpets were last shampooed.” She dropped him a slow wink.

Ennis swallowed hard. He liked Anita, but she made him nervous—all those tidy grey and black suits she was always wearing, her get-it-done-now attitude, and the way she had of always turning to smile at him in a meeting or at a happy hour, as though they were particularly special friends. “Just dropped something, thought I’d pick it up,” he mumbled, certain he sounded exactly like the kind of up-and-coming young academic superstar they had intended to hire.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” she said, dropping his hand at last, with one final caress to his wrist. “I just stopped by to see how your first day is going. Are you finding everything you need?”

“Yes, ma’am, no problems at all.” Ennis shifted a little, uncomfortably conscious of his new black dress shoes digging into the tender sides of his feet.

“And the men’s faculty restroom? You’ve found that, I suppose?”

“Ma’am?” Ennis was honestly puzzled. He’d taken the elevator down to the ground floor, just as he’d seen everyone else doing. It was a little weird that there was only one bathroom in a building this size, but he figured the English department would never be pulling in the big bucks at any university. Probably they could only afford one anyway.

“I know it seems as though we’re stuck in the dark ages here, Ennis, but in fact we do have separate restrooms for the faculty. None of the students even know they’re up here!” She seemed very proud of this fact, smiling down at him as she said it and smoothing the seams of her skirt carefully. “Just go down the hallway marked 4523 – A. There’s a men’s room there, across from the part-time faculty offices. Be sure to stay on this floor, though; if you go down to the sociology wing, you have to get a key from the secretary that’s attached to a wooden spoon. So no one steals it, you know.” She raised her eyebrows at him and then, her attention apparently caught by something on his bulletin board, crossed the room to examine it more closely. “What’s this, Ennis? Did you forget something?”

Ennis walked over to stand behind her. He couldn’t see anything amiss, other than a few stray staples that had been overlooked in his earlier cleaning session. “I don’t think so, Dr. Rosenbrand . . . Anita. What do you mean?”

“Why, you don’t have anything personal in here, Ennis! Not a picture, or a poster, or a mug from your favorite coffee shop. Maybe you haven’t visited Perks yet, around the corner?” She frowned at him, her perfectly applied lipstick creasing at the corners.

“Uh, I don’t drink coffee, actually.” Ennis fidgeted, feeling sweat begin to roll down the center of his back. “Water, mostly. And beer. On the weekends, I mean.”

“Ennis! I can hardly believe that. I’m not sure we would have hired you if we’d known initially that you didn’t drink coffee.” She quirked her lips in what might have been a smile, but it disappeared so quickly that Ennis thought she might not be joking. People took their coffee very seriously around here, it seemed. “Don’t you have any friends or family that you want to remember during your long work day? A girlfriend, perhaps?”

Ah, yes, Ennis remembered. He had successfully dodged these questions at the interview, but now the hiring process was over and he was here, strapped into a desk. With his contract signed, sealed, and delivered, she obviously felt that she now had every right to ask him the most personal questions ever. “Ah, no, not exactly. I’ve got my mom and dad, of course, but they’re not much for pictures. My brother Keith, though, I think I’ve got a picture of him around somewhere, riding in the Last Chance Rodeo. Me ‘n’ him, seems like we grew up riding the bulls. You might not expect that, since I ended up here. I’m not totally unpacked yet, but I can find it, bring it in. You’re probably right—it’d seem more like home in here if I did something—” Ennis trailed off, finally aware that Anita was no longer listening.

She had extracted a Blackberry from her jacket pocket and was now fiddling with it, jabbing a tiny stylus at the screen and frowning abstractedly. “Right, Ennis, well, I’m glad to hear that you’re settling in so well. I’ll let you get back to it—seems like you’ve got plenty to do. Don’t forget about the department meeting tomorrow, OK?” And she was gone, leaving a trail of floral perfume in her wake.

Ennis, not given the chance to offer an appropriately collegial farewell, felt his mouth gaping open like a fish and closed it firmly. He’d get the hang of this eventually, no problem. But for now he would allow himself just one short moment of self-pity, just one moment to wallow in the past of might-have-beens. Pulling out his wallet, he folded back the otherwise empty packet of photo slips to reveal one final photograph at the back. He found his desk chair and lay the wallet down on his desk so he could gaze down at the photo in wet-eyed silence. However, before he could really get his sad going full-blast, he heard the tell-tale clack of returning heels.

Anita stuck her head around the door frame. “Ennis, almost forgot to remind you about your first meeting with your mentor. You cannot miss this meeting; we’ve had it scheduled for a month. He’s a hard man to get a hold of at times, so you need to be there. OK? Today at 3 p.m., room 4564.”

“But my office hours are until 4. Can I contact him and see if we can meet a little later?” Ennis put his hand over his wallet and slid it slowly to his right, away from the door.

“Don’t worry about it, Ennis. No one ever comes to office hours. In twenty years of teaching, I think I’ve only had people here three or four times.” She shook her head at him, smiling indulgently. “Anyway. You’ve only got a few minutes before then. Don’t be late!” And she was gone.

Ennis sighed, looking toward the empty doorway, then turned to look at the picture again. After a minute or two, he forced himself to check his watch again. It was 3:01 . . . shit! Why hadn’t his watch alarm rung this time? He jumped up and grabbed the notepad off his desk. His keys and cell phone were in his pocket; he should be set to go. He dashed out the door and yanked it shut behind him, noticing only after he’d turned to run down the hallway that the tall red-haired young woman who sat in the front row of his 8 a.m. class was standing just outside his doorway, a notebook clasped to her chest and a hopeful expression beginning to fade from her face. “Sorry, got a meeting!” he yelled back over his shoulder. “Come back on Thursday!” He sped down the hallway, barely pausing to glance at the room numbers. He knew 4564 was at the far end; he’d seen it when dragging in his boxes of office supplies earlier today, and had felt a quick pang of envy. Some lucky person got to escape any time he or she wanted to without being subject to the scrutiny of the entire floor’s offices plus any classes that happened to be meeting.

Finally Ennis reached the correct door and skidded to a halt, breathing heavily. He took a moment to smooth down his unruly hair—his mother had always sighed over his “brown sugar curls,” but they drove him insane—and wipe his sweating palms on the sides of his pants. Classy, no doubt. Then he knocked on the door.

There was a long pause. Ennis felt doubtful about knocking again, but had just lifted his hand to do so when he heard, faintly, a guffaw from within. There was simply no other way to describe it. It wasn’t a chuckle, a giggle, a snort, a snicker, a titter, a cackle, a chortle, or even a plain old laugh. It was a guffaw. “Hello?” he said tentatively.

“Hello!” The voice was louder now, tinged with hilarity. Much as one might expect a guffawer to be. “Door’s open. Come on in!”

Obediently, Ennis turned the door knob and opened the door. What he was faced by was not at all surprising, given his surroundings: books. Not books arranged in tidy rows on shelves as his own had been, however, but books everywhere. Spilling out of brown paper bags on the floor, stacked on wooden chairs, scattered across the floor, littering the window sill, and filling the shelves of the eight or nine bookcases Ennis could immediately see, in unsteady stacks and tightly packed columns. Almost every book also seemed to be sporting bookmarks and scribbled pages of notes, which stuck out at every possible angle. The chaos was overwhelming—and wonderful. Clearly this was a place where books were loved, perhaps as much as Ennis loved them himself. The office’s occupant, however, was not in evidence. There was a desk and a computer table, both with empty chairs. Ennis took a look around, then glanced behind himself, wondering if he should go out and wait somewhere else.

A head popped suddenly up above the desk. “Hey! Why didn’t you say something?” And a man scrambled up to lean across the desk, hand outstretched.

Ennis found himself gazing into the deepest, the richest, the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen. “Hi,” he managed, lingering thoughts of another pair of blue eyes all at once gone from his head.

“I’m Jack. Jack Twist. Resident postmodernist. And you?”

Ennis took his hand, gripped it firmly. His daddy had taught him how to shake hands, and he’d never learned to soften the blow for the sometimes frail academic types he encountered. “Ennis.”

“Your folks just stop at Ennis?” Jack grinned at him and, shockingly, dropped him a slow wink. Ennis found himself not minding this one at all. Not one bit, in fact.

“Del Mar.” Ennis gulped in a quick breath of air. He realized he was still holding Jack’s hand and dropped it like a hot stone.

“Nice to know you, Ennis Del Mar.” Jack nodded, then glanced down, bending to scrabble with something on the floor beneath his desk. “I was just working on something here—”

“I can come back,” Ennis interjected hastily, already backing toward the door. “I didn’t mean to—”

“No, no, no,” Jack replied, still kneeling on the floor. “Been looking forward to meeting you, actually. This whole mentoring program was my idea. I was surprised—” He stood up, a black leather-bound book in one hand. “—to find that there was no mentoring program when I started here. So I’m glad the department’s decided to do it, at last.” He slid a hand into his back right pocket, evidently checking for his wallet. He was wearing a denim work shirt, a corduroy blazer, and khakis. Finding everything in place, he grabbed a pair of sunglasses off the desk. “Ready to go?”

“Where are we going?” Ennis wondered if he had overdressed for his first day.

“Just go to Perks, I guess. You like cappuccino and all those fancy drinks, they make them all there. Sound OK?”

“I don’t really . . . drink coffee, actually. But that sounds fine to me. I’ll just get a coke or something.” Ennis’s ears burned. No way was he going to make it through five pre-tenure years without learning to drink coffee.

“You like beer?”

“What?”

“Beer. Rather go to the Cellar anyway.” Jack looked at Ennis, lifting one eyebrow.

“On a school night?” Ennis’s voice squeaked a little, and he looked away. What was he, a high schooler? “Yeah, that sounds great.”

“OK, let’s go.” Jack followed Ennis into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him.

Ennis patted his pockets, feeling a growing sense of panic until he realized. “I’ve gotta go back to the office. Think I left my wallet on the desk.”

Jack waved a dismissive hand, holding him back. “Don’t worry about it—it’s on me. I’m supposed to be mentoring you, after all.”

“You sure?” All at once, Ennis was finding it difficult to breathe.

“It’s nobody’s business but ours.” Jack tipped his head toward the exit, and they set off down the stairs.

When they reached the first floor and were going through the double glass doors to the street outside, Ennis pulled off his jacket and slung it over his arm. It was an unseasonably warm day, the sun glinting off the cars parked outside and casting a white-hot glow from the sky. But it was the feel of Jack’s hand in his that Ennis remembered, the rough caress of his callused palm, the warm weight of his flesh that had lit the fire smoldering in his belly. Maybe there was more to these office hours than he had imagined.
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Good Neighbors, Part 2 (sequel to my lovefest entry) [May. 19th, 2008|09:42 pm]
shieldmaid1
[Tags|, , ]
[Current Location |home]
[Current Mood |awake]

Good Neighbors, Part 2

E stood gaping at Hot Guy—Jack Twist—for a moment or two, then remembered himself and managed a smile. “Yeah, hey,” he said. “Uh . . . pleased to meet you?”

This earned him an even brighter smile from Jack. “Me too. Been thinking we should meet up in person for a while now. I’m sure we’ve got lots to talk about.” He shifted the pizza box to his other hand. “But in the meantime—you think you could let me in? This thing’s about to burn the skin off my palms.”

E stepped back hastily, waving Jack inside. “C’mon in, sorry about that. Uh . . . you wanna beer or something?”

“Yeah, I’d love one.” Jack followed E into the spotless kitchen, setting the pizza box down on the granite-topped breakfast bar and perching on one of the high stools. “So,” he said, twirling around on his stool to face the living room. “What’s your name, then?”

E felt his face grow hotter still. “E, s’what most people call me.”

“E? Your folks just stop at E? That sounds a bit minimalist to me. Either that or Sesame Street.” Jack grinned at E and dropped a slow wink.

“Yeah, well, it’s kind of an unusual name. Ennis, ever hear of it? Ennis Del Mar.” Ennis dropped his head for a moment, avoiding Jack’s open gaze, and turned to get their drinks out of the refrigerator. While he was closing the door, though, he snuck a quick peek at Jack and was rewarded with the sight of him looking back from under thick, dark eyelashes, his smile turned down a few notches from cocky to shy. Ennis came back to the breakfast bar and set Jack’s beer down, then sat down with his own. He didn’t move to open it right away, though, settling instead for picking at the label and tracing patterns in the cool beads of condensation that covered the bottle.

After several moments of silence, Jack cleared his throat and turned his stool toward Ennis, who jerked his head up to meet warm blue eyes and a cautious smile. “You don’t say much, do you?”

“Sorry.” Ennis ran one hand nervously through his hair, rumpling the dark blond curls. “Just—never been in a situation quite like this one before, I guess.” He looked at the pizza box, then back at Jack. “Not to say that I’m not . . . enjoying it, though. Nice to get to know you. Uh . . . are you ready to eat now? Or did you want to save it for later?” He quirked a smile, unable to believe his own boldness.

“Eating sounds good to me. Then—who knows?” Jack grinned back at him, and tipped his beer back to take another swallow.

Ennis pulled two plates out of the cabinet and grabbed some napkins from the counter. As he lifted the rapidly cooling pizza slices out of the box and set them on their plates, he sensed Jack’s eyes on him again and turned to look. Jack looked back, not judging, not scoping, just watching him calmly, with affection and curiosity. Ennis felt strangely comforted. He sat on the stool next to Jack and turned his attention to the food.

Ennis heard Jack shifting next to him. All at once, Jack’s hand was on his cheek, gentling along the side of his face, smoothing away the tension locked in Ennis’s jaw. Jack’s fingers stroked his skin as lightly as a summer breeze. He traced a line across Ennis’s cheek, along his jaw, and back to the nape of his neck, where he rubbed at the tight muscles there. “Ennis,” he breathed, so softly that Ennis couldn’t be sure he’d said it. “Do you know how beautiful you are?”

Ennis turned then, and their eyes met with all guards down. Ennis’s lips trembled, and he felt something he hadn’t in years: tears rising unbidden to his eyes. Jack leaned toward him and dropped a kiss on the top of his head, then took his hand away and turned back to the bar.

They ate dinner in silence, making a game out of reaching across one another for more pizza and drinking from each other’s beers. When they were finished, Ennis turned to Jack and lifted one eyebrow, tipping his head toward the living room. Jack grinned and nodded.

At the entrance to the living room, Jack stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Well! So this is the place.”

Ennis frowned. “Not sure what you mean by that.” He looked around. Everything was in its place, as always. He was a habitually tidy person and preferred to keep the place in order. The dark wood of the breakfront gleamed, free from dust. The TV sat in the exact center of its appointed shelf in the entertainment center, its remote control lined up alongside it. The couch and loveseat were aligned, the coffee table covered with a spread of tasteful magazines, positioned in a carefully arranged fan. The club chair, his own favorite place to sit was—oh yeah. Pulled up to the window. Cushions in disarray. His binoculars on the windowsill. Ennis cleared his throat. “Guess I, uh, owe you—”

“No problem at all! I’m just giving you a hard time.” Jack winked at him. “I do think, though, that there’s probably a better use for that chair.”

Ennis’s shoulders sagged. He’d move it back, of course. It wasn’t all bad; it would make vacuuming easier, and—

Jack’s hand gripped his. “In a minute. Can we put on some music, do you think?”

In a fog, Ennis moved to the stereo and switched it on. His favorite album was already in the player, and he let Rufus Wainwright fill the room as he and Jack found each other on the couch.

One more chain I break
To get me closer to you
One more chain does the maker make
To keep me from bustin' through

One more notch I scratch
To keep me thinkin' of you
One more notch does the maker make
Upon my face so blue


“Yeah,” Jack said suddenly. “That’s how I’ve felt, a lot of the time.”

“What do you mean?” Ennis looked down at his own hands, clenched together in his lap. He forced them apart, then moved one closer to Jack, trying to get up the courage to touch him.

Jack sighed, then laid his hand over Ennis’s. “Like I’m always waiting for someone to come back to me, someone I really cared about, a long time ago. Problem is, I’ve not met the right person yet.” He gave Ennis a sideways glance. “Or hadn’t before today, maybe.”

Ennis squeezed his hand, unable to stop a smile from curling the corners of his mouth. “This album is one of my favorites. I listen to it all the time, didn’t know if anyone else had ever heard it.”

“I’ve got all of his stuff, actually. Went to see him in concert at the Artpark last year.” Jack turned his body toward Ennis, hitching one leg up on the couch between them so they were facing one another. “The last verse, though, always makes me think of something else. Kind of a fantasy of mine.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“You know, where he says ‘only can the maker make a happy man of me’? Well, I always think of watching a baker kneading some dough, at one of those bakeries with a huge glass window in the front so you can see what he’s doing. I’m standing there while he’s making a kind of gingerbread man or something, working at his counter, but then he moves to the side, so the counter’s not in front of him anymore, and I can see the front of his apron sticking out in front. Like he’s got this massive hard-on, just unbelievable, and he sees me watching, so he gives me this smile, and lifts up the apron, and then—”

“And then what?” Ennis couldn’t stop grinning.

“And then instead of kneading the dough he starts kneading me. He makes a happy man of me. Get it? Isn’t that great?”

“Sounds like a rather pervy Pillsbury Doughboy if you ask me.” Ennis bit his lip. Thinking about hands and hard-ons was making it difficult to hide his own interest in the proceedings.

“Well . . .” Jack leaned in toward Ennis, eyes fixed on his mouth. “I was really kidding. I love that song, it always makes me sad. But you’ve got the greatest smile. I just had to see it again. Any silly story will do in a pinch.”

Ennis’s breath was thundering in his chest. He met Jack’s lips with his own and suddenly they were lying full-length, entwined together, on the couch. Jack’s groin pressed against his, and he found that it was indeed possible to grow even harder. They kissed deeply, stroking their tongues together, rubbing lips until their stubble chafed. Jack pulled back a little to run one hand under Ennis’s shirt, pulling it up so he could kiss his chest and touch his nipples. Ennis’s stomach trembled under Jack’s ministrations; he wondered if his eyes would just roll right back into his head when he finally came.

Jack sat back on his haunches for a moment, looking down at Ennis. Then he seemed to decide something and bent down again, his hands going to Ennis’s belt. He unbuckled it, pulled apart the two halves of the clasp, and pulled the belt out of its loops, laying it carefully beside him on the floor. Next he unbuttoned Ennis’s jeans, pulling the zipper down slowly so he could follow each millimeter of exposed skin with his lips. When Jack realized that Ennis hadn’t put on underwear that day, he looked up, raised both eyebrows, and went back to work with the widest smile Ennis had ever seen. Ennis found himself deliriously glad he’d made that choice this morning. Perhaps he should do laundry less often. His dick, swollen and leaking, pressed through the gaping fly. When Jack brushed his lips against the tip, it throbbed in time with his touch.

Jack slid both hands under the waistband of Ennis’s jeans, skimming them down to his calves in one smooth motion, then shifting to pull off his shoes and socks. Ennis sat up a little to pull his t-shirt over his head. When he had finally disentangled himself, he was met with the sight that he knew would outrank any other in his short but happy career as a peeping tom: Jack Twist, the neighbor-formerly-known-as-Hot-Guy, standing before him in all his naked, well-toned glory, sporting a hard-on that would have made a baker proud.

“C’mere, Pillsbury,” Ennis panted. “I’ve got some dough that needs pounding.”

Jack threw back his head and laughed, then got down on all fours and proceeded to do some kneading. Ennis thought he gave as good as he got; he kissed and sucked and licked and raised some red welts on Jack’s skin that wouldn’t be going down for quite a while. Figuring that this first time might best be labeled an information-gathering session, he gathered as much as he could. Jack liked it when Ennis sucked on the skin just behind his ears; he loved to have his nipples bitten and his back scratched and his ass slapped. But he purred like a cat when Ennis kissed a long, slow trail from the nape of his neck right down to the cleft of his buttocks. Ennis pulled his cheeks apart and quested therein, slowly at first and then more confidently, until Jack was crying out his pleasure to the walls around them.

In his turn, Jack found all of Ennis’s pleasure spots: the balls of his feet, which Jack massaged with careful fingers; the crease of his inner thigh, where Jack kissed and licked and blew a hot line right up to the treasure chest; his balls, which Jack cradled and squeezed and finally rolled around in his mouth; and his belly, which Jack rubbed in gentle circles while his mouth teased the tender skin below.

Finally they were ready, and Ennis rolled on a condom, followed by the lube that Jack produced as if by magic. He gripped Jack’s hip with one hand and smoothed the other over his ass. Jack pushed back against him, groaning. “Don’t make me wait, Ennis,” he gritted out. Ennis sucked on two of his own fingers for a moment, then slid first one and then both inside. Jack answered with a howl that made the hair on the back of Ennis’s neck stand straight up.

“Come on, do it,” Jack breathed. Ennis withdrew his fingers and replaced them with something more substantial, feeling the last tumblers on the lock of his heart clicking into place. He slid his hands around the body in his arms, pressing one against Jack’s flat belly and wrapping the other around his aching hardness.

Afterwards they lay panting on the floor. Ennis was dimly aware that he’d have to wear a turtleneck for the next few days. Either that, or nothing but a baker’s apron. Jack’s arms were around him, his body cradled tightly against Jack’s. He dozed for a few moments—or maybe an hour—feeling pleasantly exhausted and happy to be where he was, for the first time in forever.

Until Jack stirred, drew his arms away, and slowly got to his feet. Ennis froze. Was he not supposed to notice Jack leaving? Should he just pretend to be asleep? He felt suddenly sick.

“Hey,” Jack said softly, leaning down, his mouth just above Ennis’s right ear. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

Ennis got up slowly, feeling muscles working whose existence he’d apparently ignored for quite some time. “What is it?”

“Here.” Jack put his arm around Ennis’s shoulders and guiding him toward the window. He sat down in the club chair, still facing out toward the blank stillness of the house next door, the starry chunk of night between their windows.

Ennis sat down in Jack’s lap and felt himself gathered up against Jack’s chest. They sat together in silence for a while, rocking a little, one of Jack’s arms wrapped around him and his free hand stroking Ennis’s stomach. “This is it?” Ennis asked.

“Yeah.” Jack sighed. “This is what I wanted you to know. See the view now? I much prefer it over here.”
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What Jack Means - an AU one-shot [Apr. 8th, 2008|08:23 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Mood |accomplishedaccomplished]

What Jack Means

I love the word “Jack”—what it means, how it sounds, the man it embodies. So I’ve been thinking for a while about how to turn this into a story of sorts. Hope you enjoy it.

Rating: NC-17
Thanks to: Em (smiles_a_lot), who gave me the idea for the last paragraph. :)

When Jack thinks back over his life so far, wondering what he’s made of himself, it doesn’t take long for a phrase to come to him. It’s a nickname his mother gave him years ago, when he was still working for his father on the ranch, and doing a damn sight better than the old man would allow. Jack-of-all-trades. He could rope anything, fix anything, grow anything, even ride anything—including the stable hand from two ranches over. After one close call too many, though, Jack thought he’d better cut his losses and look for something new to do.

Jack of hearts. That was the card Jack was sure he’d drawn the day he drove up to Aguirre’s shitty old trailer and saw Ennis Del Mar leaning against the side. Long and lean and fair, Ennis mumbled when he spoke, but stole glances at Jack with rich brown eyes that struck sparks off the heavy granite of his heart. Jack knew he’d read his cards correctly the night that whiskey finally gave him courage, helping him to pull Ennis’s hand down onto the forbidden part of himself. He’d felt the firm squeeze, the gentle caress of fingers against the rough denim of Jack’s fly, before Ennis remembered himself and jerked away. Even in the deed’s rough consummation, Jack savored Ennis’s hands cupping his bare ass and spreading him so carefully, then the strong hand that gripped his in the midst of his own rainbow climax, the thumb stroking along his wrist. The only heart Jack cared about then was Ennis’s.

Ennis just had to get married, though, and he turned away from the open invitation in Jack’s eyes, leaving him with a beat-up truck and a bag of rocks in his stomach. Jack had to become Jack Frost then, pretending not to care, locking in a block of ice where his heart used to be. Seemed like every guy he met after that felt the freeze, too. He’d meet up with them in the back alley behind the bar, in someone’s truck, even once in the bathroom at a party, but after they had banged each other senseless, he pulled on his jeans and left, never looking back. And no one ever once asked him to stay. Until he met Lureen, the fire-red hat on her head the palest ember in comparison to the fire that blazed out of her eyes. He liked her fine, had a good time in the back of her daddy’s fancy car, so when she told him about their problem a month or so later, he figured, why the hell not? And became a daddy and a husband all at one blow. He even loved her, in a way.

For the next several years, Jack had to be Jack-in-the-box, popping up wherever he was needed, on call 24 hours a day, it sometimes seemed, to Lureen and Bobby and also Ennis. No matter what Bobby wanted, Jack was always there, never minding the late-night cries or the doctor’s visits or the evenings he’d spend playing cars and Lincoln Logs on the floor of the living room, while Lureen kept a lonely vigil at the office. Things were a little different with her, however; he was willing to work for her father, drive an endless series of combines that all worked the same way, just dressed up with more bells and whistles, and all the rest—but he couldn’t stomach the bedroom stuff after a while. He could get her off and was generally happy to do it, but there was someone else he’d rather have touching him. No fault of hers, of course, and he remembered that. Especially when he was driving back from his twice-yearly camping trips with Ennis, thinking back on all he wasn’t willing to give him, all the things he already had with Lureen.

Ennis got divorced, and Jack’s life Jackknifed like a semi caught speeding on an icy road. He blew off L. D.’s order to follow a shipment of tractors down to their new owners in El Paso, left Lureen a vaguely worded note on the kitchen counter, threw a duffel bag in the back of his truck, and took off. Fourteen straight hours of driving on nothing but coffee, two greasy hamburgers, and pure hot adrenaline. When he got there, he was even glad to see that Ennis’s daughters were in his truck. After all, they’d be part of his life now, too, wouldn’t they? He couldn’t wait to introduce them to Bobby. Finally they would all have a new road to travel down.

After Jack got back from Riverton, he decided the right thing would be to spend more time with Bobby. Frankly he’d been neglecting him, what with working and going out to the bars and mooning after Ennis Del Whatshisname. Jack dressed Bobby up for Halloween in a tiny jester’s suit, sparkling with green and purple and silver threads, carrying his own (invisible) bag of tricks on his back. Together they carved a Jack-o’-lantern, putting on a silly face that all the world could see, perched on one of the elegant carved railings of their front porch. They trick-or-treated together, gathering candy and laughing over all the makeshift costumes the neighbor kids were wearing. When Bobby had finally fallen asleep, stunned by sugar, Jack sat out on the front porch, watching parents herd their kids together, thinking of nothing until the candle in the center of his pumpkin had gone out.

Lureen was happy with the new Jack, saying more than once that his trip back home must have done him good. He did more of the housework, apologized to L. D. for missing the El Paso trip, and even snagged the business of a client they’d both been hankering after for years. Jack noticed, though, that this relatively peaceful time was also filled with more: more drinking, more smoking, more late nights in front of the TV because he couldn’t sleep or didn’t want to, even more work since that would keep his brain occupied and his thoughts focused on anger at L. D. rather than despair caused by Ennis. He traveled a lot, too, jumping like a Jackrabbit down to Mexico, back up to Randall again at his ranch outside of Childress, moving faster and faster, afraid to slow down because of what he might start feeling.

When Jack found himself proposed to one night, Randall down on one knee and peering up so earnestly at Jack, his pale skin shimmering in the moonlight, he knew that things had finally gone far enough. He even had a ring, was offering it to Jack along with a promise to move with him, far away, to a place where no one knew them or would care that they were two men living together. Jack heard the phrase “sweet life,” and stood up. Jackass that he was, he just couldn’t take from Randall what Ennis wasn’t willing to give him. This was a way out, but it wasn’t his way.

Jack’s tire blew as he was coming back into Childress one afternoon, back from a trip to scout clients in Wichita Falls. That was what he’d told Lureen, anyway. The truth was that he’d been looking into a new job there, was pretty sure he had the deal sewn up. The secretary had even given him some flyers on local real estate as he was leaving the office. He sighed, slammed his hands against the steering wheel, and maneuvered the car onto the shoulder. He’d just get out, Jack up the tire, change it, and be on his merry way. The faster he could get home and have this conversation with Lureen, the better. He’d just started to work off the first lug nut when he heard the crunch and spit of another car pulling onto the gravel shoulder. Well, fine then. He hadn’t especially wanted company, but maybe this person could help him out. He didn’t look up until a shadow fell across him, someone coming to a stop behind him and clearing his throat. He twisted around, his eyes widening in surprise, and leaped up so fast his tire iron went skittering under the bed of the truck. “Heard I might be able to find you out here.”

One of the things Ennis just can’t get enough of in their new life together is watching Jack. He likes to see him shaving in the morning, cutting the grass, riding his horse along the edge of the corral, and, especially, touching himself. Seems like Jack gets to Jack off in front of his man just about every day now. He’ll slick himself up, then slide one hand nice and slow, up and down his shaft. He leans back against the pillows, stroking his cock, pulling and pumping and sometimes slowing to a leisurely caress. His free hand cups his balls, feathers over the swollen buds of his nipples, rubs soft circles on his belly. And Ennis watches, smiles, and finally kisses Jack where it counts the most.

The way Jack sees it, their life is what he always wanted. Finally, and after all these years of thinking there was nothing he could ever win, he’s hit the Jackpot. He and Ennis, living in a small tidy house together, both working long hours at their jobs, squabbling over smoking and where to go on Ennis’s birthday and whose turn it is to feed the dog. Now everyone knows what they are together. Not everyone is happy about it, but Bobby and Junior and Jenny are young enough to know that their family is, at bottom, just like everyone else’s.

There comes a moment every night that Jack especially cherishes. When they’ve grappled together, tugged and kissed and caressed until their lips and tongues are sore, when their loving is done and Ennis is lying before him, sweat gleaming on his sleek, bare body, Jack looks at him and smiles and thinks, Yeah, baby, you know it. This is the house that Jack built.
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Life Is a House--a (tardy) birthday tribute to Heath [Apr. 7th, 2008|08:15 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Location |home]
[Current Mood |contemplativecontemplative]

Life Is a House: Birthday Tribute to Heath

I have been thinking for a long time about how to pay homage to Heath’s life and work on this most important day . . . which also happens to be the day my husband and I moved into our first house together (after living in apartment, condo, apartment) last year. Thus it’s a day I had associated with joy for various reasons, and now will also always remember with sorrow.

Sorry that it’s late—call it RL with a vengeance. Still thinking of you, Heath.

Thanks to: trekfan (Linda), whose faithful posting of Heath pics inspired many of my ideas here. :)
Rating: PG

The basement
is where we keep the things that we don’t always think about, but they’re there to make sure everything is running smoothly—the boiler, the washing machine and dryer, the hot water heater, and, yes, the weight bench I swore I’d use someday. You hid these things about yourself: your skill at chess, your other career as a champion hockey player, your love of racing. You preferred to do your own stunts, riding a horse more gracefully than most of us can walk, somersaulting through the set of Casanova, yet you shied away from most cameras’ eyes.

The front door
welcomes us inside. Your eyes and hair, your rare but gorgeous smile, your somehow indescribable way of dressing and carrying yourself through a sometimes hostile world. Who could ever forget your striped socks and your purple knitted cap? Who else would pair red plastic sunglasses with a black suit and grey dress shoes? Gloves with the fingers cut out and a baggy trench coat? But no one else could have loved her the way you did, carrying her so tenderly on your shoulders, pushing her in a stroller, shielding her from other people’s hungry stares.

The first floor
houses your private life, by definition always on display. Though people may have joked about your love for blonde women, it was a dark-haired man who helped many of us to fall in love with you, finally and forever. We watched you pull Ennis Del Mar out of a secret place deep inside, then fall back into the shadows when fame’s floodlight beamed down on your head. You seemed comfortable in your Brooklyn life, as easy on a skateboard as in your expensive car—but I think back now to all those colorful shots, and I realize that I never once saw you eat anything. You often held a cigarette, clutched a paper cup of coffee, or even sipped at an occasional cocktail—but where were the sandwiches, the omelets, and the hotdogs? How did you get your nourishment?

The second floor
kept you apart from everyone. Here you loved and also lost, in scenes that will never be captured on film. You bared a body whose secret beauties and delights are gone forever, except in the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to live inside with you. You bathed in private waters, washing away the dirt and sweat of honest work and unsought desire. At times, you slept . . . but not enough. Those among us whom sleep eludes know only all too well the long hours spent staring at the ceiling, watching the slow minutes tick by on the digital alarm clock, feeling nausea rise at the thought of another long work day faced on no sleep, sitting dry-eyed and despairing in a midnight living room while the rest of the world sleeps on, oblivious . . . these were your everyday realities. If only we could know you lived past, beyond, in spite of them.

The attic
is where we’ll never be. The rest of the house opens your desires like a book, allowing us to read (or think we do) the lust that swells your groin, the hungers in your belly, the sadness in your eyes, the plans for music and directing and future roles that fill your brain, the pure sweet joy that crinkles your eyes and lifts your arms up in an embrace. But up here you keep the hidden possibilities of love and hope and depression and disappointment. They’re protected from flood and accident up here, dusty and tucked-away, yet always waiting for you to climb back up the stairs, unearth a box, and pull out these mysteries again.

Now your doors are shut and shuttered; we can never get back in. But we stand here on the lawn, holding up our candles, breathless at the beauty of this house. The one that you built.
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The Dark Knight trailer [Mar. 24th, 2008|07:52 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Mood |sadsad]

First thing that's made me cry in ages . . . we watched two Dark Knight trailers online this evening, and I couldn't stop the tears at all. My husband was very kind about it, and I think I even saw a stray tear from him in there. He said, "it's kind of the opposite of schadenfreude . . . you don't want your friend NOT to do well, you desperately want him to succeed. But instead you have someone near your age who dies at the peak of his talents. And there's nothing we can do about it."

Oh, Heath. We miss you so much. And just from these two trailers I can see the incredible, complete, scary transformation he had to undergo and deal with in this role.

:(
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Good Neighbors--my lovefest entry [Feb. 27th, 2008|06:44 pm]
shieldmaid1
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[Current Location |home]
[Current Mood |accomplishedaccomplished]
[Current Music |people chattering]

E switched off the overhead light in the kitchen, snapped off the two lamps that flanked the couch in the living room, and cursed under his breath when he tripped over the book he’d left lying open and face-down next to the recliner. Finally it was full dark, no illumination in here at all except for the occasional glint of moonlight off the glass breakfront or the silent television. He looked around the room for a moment, gauging his choices, then moved toward the black leather club chair that stood in the far corner. Gripping the chair by its heavy arms, he manhandled it toward the narrow, rectangular window that looked out over the side lawn. In the summer his view would be obstructed by the two oak saplings that helped to define the border between his lawn and his neighbor’s. Rather than serving as a fence, however, the trees represented his rather halfhearted attempt to cultivate this little piece of the world. But now, in the middle of winter, the trees’ spindly branches were barely noticeable. Perfect, because he had a very different view in his sights right now.

E settled back into the chair, extending his legs and crossing them at the ankle. After a few moments, he realized that his lower back was aching and his feet were freezing. A draft must be blowing in from somewhere. He found his way back to the couch, grabbed up a few throw pillows, and managed to stub at least three toes on the ottoman before getting a good grip on it.

Back at the window, he arranged his pillows in the chair, sat back, stuck his feet on the ottoman, and smiled to himself. At last. And not a moment too soon, it seemed. The show was just beginning.

A faint glow appeared in a window of the house next door—a rectangular window, the same shape and size as his own. The glow was faint and far away at first, as though a light were shining somewhere in the back of the house, but it brightened suddenly, with a nearly audible click, and E sat up a little straighter in the chair, craning his neck slightly to gain a better angle into the room he could see in the other house.

It was a bedroom. He wasn’t sure of the other house’s exact layout; it was a brick colonial, like his own, but the sleeping porch had been built onto the back, rather than the side, and the driveway ran past the house, ending in a detached garage that looked older than his.

In any case, the room E was familiar with was a bedroom, and here came its occupant now. He was a dark-haired man of about thirty, at best guess, who lived there alone but who must work long hours. He usually came home around seven or eight p.m., sometimes later on the weekends, usually alone. Though on one memorable night recently he’d had a guest. His voyeur, now nestled in a well-padded black leather club chair, hadn’t gone to bed himself at all that night.

Now the dark-haired man came into the bedroom and shut the door behind him, already unbuttoning his shirt. He must be a lawyer or a stockbroker or something, probably coming home late every night from the city, sporting a different well-cut suit each time. Tonight his tie and coat were gone, and his shirt was well on its way to the same fate, already open enough to reveal a solidly muscled chest, with swirls of black hair between his pecs and flat pink nipples just begging to be touched—or nibbled. He finished unbuttoning the shirt and yawned, scratching at his belly languidly as he contemplated a bookcase that stood to one side of the window. He reached up and selected a volume, turning it over to scan the back for a moment, then turning away, book in one hand and the other working at his belt buckle.

The man in the club chair drew in a harsh breath, gritted his teeth for a moment, then exhaled and pushed his hands down flat on the arms of the chair. E wanted to relax—and needed to get himself under control now—so he could last long enough to watch the whole scenario unfold tonight. His jeans already felt uncomfortably tight, however, and he had to grip the chair arms, feeling the cool brass studs that edged the leather pushing into the pads of his fingers, to keep from undoing his own belt.

Next door, things were just getting interesting. Hot Guy—this was the way E usually thought of his neighbor—had taken the book with him to his bed, which was king-sized and very cushy indeed, piled with pillows and covered in a dark green comforter. It stood against the wall opposite the window, positioned off-center so that the right side of the bed was clearly visible from the club chair, though a little well-timed craning allowed E to see any part of it that he wanted to. Hot Guy threw the book onto the bed, and let himself drop down beside it. His shirt was still on, though completely unbuttoned. He reached for the remote that was sitting on the nightstand and aimed it at the far left-hand corner of the room. This was the one part of the room E had never been able to glimpse, in spite of the one afternoon he’d wasted experimenting with some strategically placed mirrors. However, judging from the bluish glow that tended to emanate from that direction, E guessed there was probably an entertainment center of some kind.

Hot Guy was holding the remote up, angled toward the corner of the room, probably flipping channels. E was much more interested in his left hand, however, which had finally managed to undo his belt buckle and was now toying with the top button of his pants. The button came undone, the zipper slid slowly apart, and his hand came to rest on his bare stomach, one finger twining in and out of the dark curling hairs that ran in a tantalizing line down into his plaid boxers. E watched, mesmerized, faintly aware that his own mouth was hanging slightly open, as Hot Guy slid two fingers under the waistband of his boxers, rubbing gently up and down on the tender skin just above his groin. His tongue emerged at the corner of his mouth, and his eyes fell closed. The remote came to rest, forgotten, on the bed beside him.

E shifted on his chair, hyper-aware of the slick leather slipping under his ass. He leaned back, trying to make some room for himself in his too-tight jeans. As he watched, his hands shaking even as they gripped the binoculars, Hot Guy sighed, his chest rising and falling abruptly, and allowed his hand to slide farther down. His right hand, now empty, found its way to his chest, passed slowly from one perfectly sculpted pec to the other. The pad of his thumb stroked first one nipple and then the other to stiffness. He shuddered, his hips lifting slightly from the bed, and E saw a tremor run through the muscles of his belly.

All at once, the phone on the nightstand shrilled, faintly audible even through the two windows. Hot Guy’s eyes snapped open, and he grimaced, twisting to one side to read the caller ID screen. Fuck, E saw him say, and he grabbed the phone and put it to his ear. He threw his other arm across his eyes so that E couldn’t really judge the tenor of the conversation, but his lips were pressed into a tight line. It didn’t look good, whatever it was. After a few minutes he pulled the phone away again, looked at it for a moment, then chucked it across the room.

E held his breath, waiting for his earlier activities to resume, but this was not to be. Hot Guy got up and stalked out of the room, pants and shirt open but hands clenched at his sides. E closed his eyes, trying to sustain his fantasy alone for the time being, remembering the tenting in Hot Guy’s boxers, the slow glide of fingers against skin, the obvious pleasure he felt while touching himself. He ran a hand through his hair, moved it slowly down his body from the base of his throat, across his chest, trailing a gentle nail across his left nipple, down his stomach, feeling the firm muscles beneath the skin, lingering just above the waist of his jeans. As he began to unbutton his fly, his other hand found its place on his inner thigh, rubbing soft circles as it moved higher and higher. His legs relaxed, opening wider as one hand crept toward its prize inside his pants while the other cupped his balls from outside and massaged gently. His hand grasped his shaft, began to stroke, almost tentatively at first, then with growing eagerness as heat built in his belly.

E was right on the verge, wild tendrils of pleasure just beginning to shoot through his body, when he glimpsed a sudden movement through his half-closed eyelids. Hot Guy was back. E’s left hand stilled. With his right, he pulled himself upright again. His neighbor had returned with what looked like a pretty hefty shot of whiskey. Tilting his head back, Hot Guy swigged most of the glass’s contents, blew out a quick breath, and tipped the glass up to get the rest. A single amber drop trembled, clear as desire, at the corner of his mouth, until his pink tongue darted out to retrieve it.

Hot Guy set the glass on his nightstand, then fell onto the bed again. His eyes were already closed. He reached for the glass again, his mouth curving upward into a private smile, and tipped it up to chase the last few drops of melting ice. An ice cube fell out, landing on his chest. E could almost hear the surprised noise that Hot Guy made, flinching upward and grabbing at the offending object. However, once his fingers closed over it, he seemed to change his mind. He brought the ice to his mouth and licked it once, carefully, then trailed it over his lips, outlining them with the slippery wetness until they were both red and gleaming, fuller than ever. The ice slipped farther down, then farther still, tracing a shiny path down his neck to his chest. He rubbed the ice in circles around his nipples, chafing them until they both stood out stiffly. Abandoning the ice for a moment, Hot Guy rolled the swollen nubs between thumbs and forefingers, pinching and teasing until his mouth fell open and his hips flexed upward again.

E watched, transfixed, as the ice slid, apparently forgotten, right down the center of the heaving chest, the flat belly, until it hovered at the waistband of Hot Guy’s boxers. Hot Guy rubbed the palms of both hands over his chest, massaging the flesh in tight circles, then moved his hands gradually down the length of his body. He pushed his boxers and pants down to mid-thigh in one fluid gesture, using both hands, then gasped when the last thin sliver of ice made contact with his groin.

E bent forward at the waist, his own straining need forgotten for the moment, pushing the binoculars out in front of him until they hit the glass window with a soft clink.

Hot Guy shoved one hand between his legs, squeezing and pulling on his rigid cock, moving his hand up and down with a rough kind of grace. The other hand slid along his inner thigh, teasing at the secret crease where leg met groin and then coming around to cradle his balls.

E was torn. Keep watching, piling up hot material for his future fantasies, or relieve his own pressing need? His eyes were open, the binoculars bruising the bones of his face, but he couldn’t stop his free hand from sliding down the front of his jeans. He spread his legs, slid his hand down his dick, and groaned aloud with the pure hot pleasure surging through his lower belly. His hand moved faster, stroking and tugging, until he couldn’t hold back anymore. His eyes closed, and he moaned through clenched teeth, emitting a long, low whine.

After a few moments, E remembered himself. Picking up the binoculars, which had somehow come to rest on one thigh during this little episode, he focused once more on the house next door. To his surprise, Hot Guy was now lying on the bed, his feet stretched straight out in front of him, in an attitude of total relaxation. His head was pillowed on one arm; the other hand played idly across his taut tummy, stroking and circling and caressing in all the ways that E liked best to see. His eyes were wide open. He was smiling. And he seemed to be looking straight at E.

E froze, unsure about what to do. He lowered his feet slowly to the ground, then pushed the chair, as slowly and quietly as he could, farther back into the shadows of the living room. He hunched his shoulders and slid down into the cushions, closing his eyes as though this might better shield him from the other man’s gaze.

After a few minutes, E finally ventured to open first one eye, and then the other. Hot Guy was gone. The bed was empty, no sign of his recent escapade other than the empty whiskey glass and the rumpled covers. He waited, holding his breath, ready to find out whether Hot Guy was even now calling the police to report his peeping-tom neighbor, or getting out the shotgun. But five minutes passed, then ten, and still nothing. Silence, and an empty room. E began to relax again, let his eyes close, and thought back to some of the sweetest nights he’d spent over the past few months. He could get himself back in the mood this way.

Hot Guy straddling a desk chair, pulled up to the side of the bed so he could peruse a stack of papers spread out across the comforter. He’d flicked open his belt buckle, pulled it through the loops, and thrown it on the floor. After a while the shirt had come off too, Hot Guy gripping the wooden chair back in both hands, throwing his head back, and rubbing up against the wooden slats. He’d thrust a hand down his pants and rubbed himself wildly, rocking the chair back and forth until E had feared he might fall flat on his back. The real cherry on top of the sundae had come, though, when Hot Guy sucked two fingers into his mouth and then reached around behind, stroking his crack and finally plunging them in, as far as E could see. He assumed Hot Guy had come at some point after that; he’d gasped as soon as the fingers went in, slid his own hand over the front of his still-buttoned jeans, and come so hard he’d seen tiny red stars bursting at the edges of his vision. He’d been too caught up in his own orgasm to pay Hot Guy much mind for a little while.

Yeah, that had been a good night. Or maybe

Hot Guy came in, wearing nothing but a pair of dark gray boxer-briefs—and a silk scarf, tied loosely around his neck. He lay down on the bed in his customary position but this time, instead of flipping on the TV, he picked up the phone and dialed a number. Waiting for someone to answer, he drummed his fingers nervously on his stomach, scratched at his right thigh, then drew a careful, trembling line right up the side of his cock—already standing up in proud outline against his shorts. When he began speaking at last, E could see that he was turned on immediately by whatever his partner in crime had said. He cupped one hand roughly under his balls, then scrubbed a hard line up over his cock, stomach, and chest. His palm circled over one nipple, moving in time with the short, sharp thrusts of his hips. A slow smile spread over his face, then he tugged on the scarf and positioned it over his eyes, pulling at the knot at the back of his head to tighten it. He rolled over onto his stomach and buried his face in the comforter, squirming and twisting to form a tangled nest of blankets just beneath his hips. He rode this hump for a while, clutching the phone to his ear, until things apparently came to a head—so to speak—and he dropped the phone, grabbing one tight buttock in each hand, arching his back, and shoving his dick against the bed. E, wanting a little of that action for himself, had jammed a random throw pillow down over his own groin and cried aloud.

*****

E opened his eyes, smiling to himself, ready to take in the sights again. He was pretty sure, come to think of it, that Hot Guy hadn’t seen him watching this time. He’d checked out the window angle pretty carefully when he’d last mowed the lawn in September; he was certain that no one could really see into a dark room at night anyway. And Hot Guy didn’t really seem like the type to mind being seen. Otherwise he would have probably invested in some curtains by now.

Suddenly a knock sounded on the front door. E sighed, tried to ignore it. Surely Hot Guy would be coming back any minute now; he didn’t want to miss anything. Maybe tonight he’d get to see the real deal. The whole package. Full frontal. Didn’t the Brits call it the Full Monty or something?

The knock came again, firm raps that refused to be ignored. Still E waited, leaning forward slightly in his chair, jogging his left leg nervously up and down. More raps. A pause. Raps. Longer pause.

Finally E settled back in the chair again, shifting his back against the cushions to push them back into the most comfortable arrangement. He pulled the binoculars off the window sill at his right elbow and was just about to raise them to his eyes when he heard the doorknob rattling.

“Hey!” a hoarse, unfamiliar man’s voice called. “Anybody in there? Hurry up, would you? This thing is hot!”

Hot? What the hell was he talking about? And, more importantly, who the hell was that?

At the door, E fumbled with the deadbolt for a few seconds, his hands all at once slippery with sweat. When he finally pushed the door open, he saw an envelope—probably his cable bill—lying on the mat. Bending down to get it, he was confronted by first a pair of dark green and brown hiking boots, then an appealing pair of jeans-clad legs, a tight white T-shirt . . . hmm . . . then . . .

Oh.

Shit.

“Hi!” Hot Guy stood there, framed in the doorway like a Greek god who’d come down to earth and shopped at Eddie Bauer, pizza box in his hands. “Noticed you hadn’t been eating much lately. I was afraid you’d be wasting away over here, and I sure don’t want that to happen. I’ve, uh, . . . I’ve gotten kind of used to seeing you.” He grinned then, showing off lusciously shaped lips and teeth bright enough to rival the sun, shifted the box to his left hand, and stuck out his right. “Almost forgot to introduce myself. Name’s Jack Twist.”
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