by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.
So I know it’s been a while
Keith looked down at the screen, frowning. His phone wasn’t attempting a guess at the unknown sender, not even providing an initial in the generic silhouette in front of the number. Not a local area code, though that didn’t mean anything these days. It didn’t look like a junk message, unless it was some irritating new kind of marketing campaign, stuffing up everyone’s miraculous pocket computers with even more random garbage than got on there in the normal course of living.
He switched back over to the newspaper site and sipped his cooling coffee. Through the kitchen window came the midmorning racket of the country, distant tractors and birds he had not yet identified marking their territory.
I don’t know if you keep up with this stuff anymore
Who at work had he given his personal number to? A slew of people, to be honest, though he hadn’t expected to hear from most of them. They had been a great team, but he knew from being on the other end of things that the gap caused by his retirement would have closed like water over a diver in a matter of weeks.
Anyway I was hoping we could talk
Definitely a wrong number. There hadn’t been anyone in his life for a long time who would have had cause to wield that particular cliche. He pondered the little grey bubbles. It would probably be best to nip this in the bud before more explicit details popped up.
Ethan said you’d probably kill me but I told him if you were going to do that you would have done it a long time ago
Ethan? He knew a few Eth–
Everything in Keith froze. Oh. Oh, no. Seriously, no.
His phone trilled.
Keith fumbled it and nearly sent it off the table. “What?” he snapped at his long-ago, ancient-history, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit ex.
A pause. “Is Keith Hoyle there? It’s about the back porch job.”
Keith’s brain did a painful one-eighty. “Um. Right. The porch. Sorry. This is Keith Hoyle.”
“I’m Nicholas Fields. Pat, Pat Griggs, sometimes passes work on to me when she’s too busy. She got your request for a quote and asked me to give you a call. You can check that with her, and I got other references if you want. I had a job fall through, so I can come by and take a look at the job day after tomorrow if you’re interested.”
“Sure, yeah. That’s good for me. Around one? Do you have the address?”
They exchanged contact details. After he ended the call, Keith switched over to the message app. Nothing new. He checked it several times as he finished his coffee, in case he had missed anything, but no more grey bubbles appeared.
There were no further messages that day, in fact, which was not a surprise. Someone had probably waved something shiny in Jonathan’s peripheral vision and driven the conversation from his head.
When he woke up the following day it was to a new text bubble, sent at 3:11 in the morning. So can we talk?
Into and out of the shower, down the stairs and into the kitchen, measuring out coffee and stirring oatmeal, Keith contemplated the dozen responses that percolated through his thoughts. Terse. Obscene. Flippant. Compassionate but firm.
What he felt, frankly, was pissy. Two, no, three–Christ, over three decades since they’d spoken, and Jonathan sent him a text message?
His bowl of oatmeal with flaxseed and raisins slowly congealed as he typed in responses to see how they looked, then backspaced them out of existence. How did you get this number? No shit, it’s been a while. Are you fucking kidding me?
He finally settled on a dignified Not interested, thanks and sent it out into the ether.
What could Jonathan want to talk about?
Nothing we need to get involved in, he told himself sternly, and resolutely did not pull up his favourite search engine while he flipped through his daily roster of news sites.
He was fixing lunch the following day when he heard truck wheels on the gravel of the driveway. That made Fields almost an hour early, which Keith was less than thrilled about; though he’d been warned that time was a little looser out here than it was in the city, service people who showed up at their whim were an endless hassle to deal with. Still, Pat had come well recommended, and he might as well give anyone she vouched for a chance. He told his project-manager brain to stand down, and went to open the front door.
When he opened it, though, what greeted him was not a carpenter getting out of a dusty pickup, but a man in a tan uniform pulling an enormous wooden apple crate heaped with flowers from the back of a delivery van.
“Keith Hoyle?” the man said asked, walking up to the porch.
“That’s me,” Keith said slowly, waiting for his assumption to snap back into sync with reality.
The man ascended the stairs and put the crate down at Keith’s feet. “Here you go, Mr. Hoyle. Have a great rest of your day.”
There was a white envelope nestled among the flame-orange lilies and fuchsia carnations and roses in a purple he hadn’t known was possible. Keith opened it and pulled out the little card.
So can we talk?
The fact that it was a print-out in an elegant curling font and not in Jonathan’s sprawling handwriting was about the only thing that prevented Keith from flicking it off the balcony into the wind as if it were a pushy salesman’s business card.
He carried the crate into the house, where the flowers overwhelmed his four-seater dining room table and filled the room with the chilly sweetness of a florist’s walk-in refrigerator. They did draw the eye, though, he had to admit.
After a short internal struggle he checked his phone. No new messages. He turned all notifications off entirely so he wouldn’t be listening for one, and went back to the kitchen.
He was just finishing off his spinach and strawberry salad when he heard a vehicle pull into the driveway. He gave his mouth a quick wipe with the napkin, briefly checked his teeth in the mirror in the hallway, and went out to greet Nicholas Fields.
Nicholas did in fact have a pickup truck, only slightly dusty, with a logo on the side and a shell on the back. He was shoving his keys into the pocket of his jeans as he came up the concrete stepping stones of the walk. He sported that popular lumberjack Viking look and frankly wore it well, tousled blond hair, red flannel shirt open over a T-shirt against the light cool of May. As he so often found himself doing these days, Keith internally shook his head over how much more attractive the Youth of Today were compared to his own greasy, scraggly cohort. Nobody Keith knew had had muscles like that in the Eighties.
The introductions accomplished, Keith led Nicholas around to the back of the house, through the shapelessly overgrown perennial garden and the raised beds he’d dug and manured and ringed with chicken wire against the predatory rabbits. “You can see it better with a bit more distance,” he said, and they tramped into what had once probably been a lawn, already half-drowned in dandelions and creeping charlie. Nicholas dipped a hand down to set free a snowy puff of dandelion seeds, and continued on as though nothing had happened.
The porch sat half in and half out of the roofline with the new slate-grey asphalt shingles flowing around it, a stone in a steam. It had likely been smaller at one time, a sleeping verandah just wide enough for a cot or a few chairs, but someone at some point had extended it to become a good-sized deck. The roofers had assured him that the rafters below it were sound, but the untreated redwood had gone well beyond tastefully silvered to splintering. Half of the planks needed replacing, and the railing shivered and creaked like a rigged ship when the wind blew.
“So you’re looking at a full replacement?” Nicholas asked, squinting up at the roof. “That same size?”
“I was thinking of going with a more period-appropriate look,” Keith said. “I’m not wedded to authenticity, just something more in keeping with the look of the house.”
“Oh, sure, I know what you mean. Craftsman style. There’s a bunch from that time period in town.” Nicholas got his phone out of his pocket and took a few photos. “Can I see it up close?”
They went inside through the kitchen door. Nicholas toed off his boots without being asked; Keith as amused to see that they were the same brand favoured by the urban jeans-and-flannel crowd.
“I saw when this place went up for sale. Mrs. Cuthbertson lived here as long as I can remember. Did you do a lot work on it?” Nicholas asked, hand lingering a little on the square newel post as they climbed the stairs.
“Not much. Mostly scrubbing and painting. And I had the floors redone before I moved in.” Most of the period fittings had survived the benign neglect of the elderly previous owner, including the linen closet and the kitchen cupboards. The shiplap wainscotting had been a mustard brown, complemented by grimy institutional greens and yellows and, in the kitchen, an abominable orange. Keith had done the first floor and stairs in white woodwork and fog-grey walls, which gave the small rooms a bit of breathing space; the bedroom walls were robin’s-egg blue, a promise of spring in the winter and, he hoped, cooling during the summer.
The door to the porch was on the upstairs landing, in an alcove that might originally have served as a sewing nook. Keith unlatched the door and stood back. “Please watch your step. I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“I know what to keep an eye out for.”
While Nicholas ventured onto the porch, Keith stood at one of the windows and gazed out past the roofline to the green mist of the weeping willows by the creek at the end of the garden. By city standards the property was enormous, but the original hundred-acre farm had been subdivided well over a century ago, a semi-rural small holding close enough to town for commuting–or for emergency medical care. He knew he was a little long in the tooth to be moving out to the country; other people his age were downsizing, moving to condos or seniors’ apartment buildings and letting the next generation take over. But it had been now or never, with never feeling a lot sharper than it had in his thirties or forties. He had ten, maybe fifteen years out here, if he was lucky and all the damn flaxseed and spinach lived up to their promise. After a lifetime in the city he was planning on spending a good portion of them sitting out on his porch, looking up from a book to take in all the green.
Nicholas came back inside. “Yeah, your whole substructure needs replaced.” He shut the wooden door behind him, turning the cut glass doorknob with care. “Nice door. Probably original.”
“I thought so too.”
“She’s a solid little house. They don’t make them like this anymore.” Nicholas reached up to tap his knuckles gently against the sloping ceiling. “I’ll get a quote to you in the next couple days.”
“Thanks for coming out,” Keith said. He walked Nicholas to the door and spent the afternoon pulling grass from the perennial beds, chiding himself every time his mind wandered back to the carpenter and his casually possessive hands.
A few days later he walked over to the community mailbox a kilometre or so from the house, set back from the road on the grassy shoulder. It was widely reviled and routinely vandalised, even more so than the end-of-the-driveway mailboxes it had replaced, but it did give him an incentive to take a walk on a soft spring morning, even if he almost never received any real mail.
He unlocked his cubbyhole and pulled out a brochure illustrating the municipality’s astonishingly detailed recycling rules. A rectangle of cardboard slid out, bouncing off his knee and landing on the grass. A postcard, with colourfully kitschy illustrations of famous buildings decorating the chunky letters: Greetings from LOS ANGELES.
Ridiculously, Keith felt a shiver as he picked it up and turned it over. A goose walking over his grave, his grandmother would have said. Or over his past.
Remember when we dreamed about being here? — I can’t believe how long ago it was — Anyway we really should talk — Call me
And then a phone number. No signature, as if it were needed. Keith stared at the familiar handwriting for what felt like an endless time, as if there were another message there that he had still to decode.
“Good news, I hope?” said Mrs. Wilkins, poking her head out of the window of her SUV as she slowly rolled onto the shoulder of the road.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Keith said, and moved out of the way so she could collect her mail.
It had never been his dream. He’d gone along with it because, well, Jonathan– Because Jonathan, full stop. Forming a band with his best friend had been fun and exciting and a better use for twelve years of piano lessons than anything else Keith had been doing with them, but if Jonathan hadn’t been there smashing his way into his future with words and voice and force of personality, Keith would never have been trudging in his wake. By the time they’d started sleeping together he’d known that making music wasn’t the part of this whole thing that kept him alive; by the time he’d thrown away a year of university in pursuit of someone else’s dream, Jonathan had started to resent that Keith didn’t find the late nights and grimy clubs the nirvana that Jonathan did; and then the blast radius of suburban nobody Jonathan Saunders transforming himself into Jake Sterling, glittering rock star, had turned everything to ash.
They hadn’t parted on friendly terms. But it wasn’t until a few years later that Jonathan had really screwed him over.
When he got home, he tucked the postcard into the bouquet. A few of the lilies were browning at the edges, and he plucked them out and nudged the carnations closer together. At least the aggressive sweetness of the scent no longer permeated the entire first floor.
He received the quote from Nicholas Fields in due course. It wasn’t cheap, but it looked fair–Keith recognized a padded quote when he saw one–so he phoned Nicholas and left a voice message saying he’d like to go ahead. He was sitting out in a lawn chair later that day with a glass of iced green tea and his stack of seed catalogues when his phone rang, a number with a local area code.
“Hey, Keith, it’s Nicholas Fields. I got your message. I can start next week if that’s good for you. Listen, are you on Pinterest?”
“I’m not,” Keith said, his assumptions about rural carpenters expanding with dizzying abruptness.
“I got a board put together with some ideas for your railings. Is today good for you? I could swing by when I’m done this job and we can go over it.”
“Sure, today’s fine,” Keith said, and ignored how the afternoon suddenly promised to be much more interesting.
Nicholas arrived around four. His jeans were flaked with sawdust, but his nicely fitting navy T-shirt was clearly fresh. He’s just a good businessman, calm down, Keith told himself, offering iced tea and leading Nicholas around the corner of the house to where he’d dragged the lawn chairs and rusty tin table into the shade.
It quickly became clear how much thought Nicholas had put into his options for the porch railing. His digital scrapbook-board-thing was full of houses of the same era as Keith’s, including a few vintage ads for mail-order houses–“I don’t think yours is, but we could take a look at the joists in the cellar if you want, they could have the model number stamped on them”–and several had the same elongated pyramidal posts as his front porch.
“Not trying to upsell you here,” Nicholas said, “but what you got in front is a nineteen-seventies job on your railings. If you ever wanted to spruce it up, you could match the woodwork front and back. Now I think of it, I did a job like that up near Wingham a couple of years ago–just a sec, let me find it–“
“Do you use Pinterest a lot in your work?”
Nicholas grinned, and Keith felt himself go a little warm. “Guilty. Outside it, too. My sister got me hooked. I’m on Insta too.”
“Do you often do restoration work?”
“Some. Wish I could do more. I do a lot of the same kind of decks and fences, mostly, and I get it, most people don’t want to drop an extra couple grand getting the period details right. Okay, this one here.”
Keith’s phone let out two seconds of a thoroughly obnoxious disco beat. It was the one he’d assigned to Jonathan’s number in a mixture of ambivalence and spite that he wasn’t proud of but felt was reasonably justified, so that he’d know when Jonathan texted him and be able to ignore it.
“I like the mix of natural wood and white paint,” he said.
“Yeah, me too. I’m not sure it’s period-accurate, but it looks great.”
Another set of thumps and cymbals.
“You showed me a picture of one with a grid at the top of–what are the vertical pieces called?”
“Ballusters. Yeah, I liked that one too.”
Disco erupted again.
“It’s okay if you want to go ahead and answer that,” Nicholas said, looking up from the images furling upwards on his little screen.
“No, it’s fine.” Keith grabbed his phone and tried to key in his passcode too quickly; the keyboard shook disappointedly at him, and his little slice of disco hell erupted again in his hand.
“This one?” Nicholas put his phone back on the table and spun it so that Keith could see it.
Keith managed to log in on the second attempt, and muted Jonathan with an emphatic jab at the screen. “Yes. Would that be difficult?”
“Nah, it’s just one-bys. Wouldn’t even need custom millwork.”
“Let’s go with that one, then.”
“Great.” Nicolas stood up. “I’ll be out first thing next week.”
“Let me know if there’s anything else you need from me,” Keith said, and firmly tamped down thoughts of how sincere a straight line that was.
After Nicholas left, the seed catalogues stopped holding Keith’s interest, and it wasn’t time to start dinner yet. He went inside to put the catalogues back onto the desk he’d set up in the corner of the living room. Dust motes twinkled golden in the late afternoon sun pouring through the west-facing windows. He briefly considered a nap on the couch, knew he’d regret it later, and decided to take advantage of his restlessness to do a bit of tidying. He fetched a rag from the kitchen and moved around the first floor, dusting shelves and straightening picture frames.
One of the carnations from the bouquet had dripped dry petals onto the dining room table; he swept them into his hand and deposited them into the compost bucket by the kitchen sink, then brought some water back to top up the bowl inside the crate. Some of the greenery was looking sad, too, and he culled and rearranged the display. While he did like the crate base, the flowers were really too gaudy for his taste, and didn’t clash so much as steamroll the rest of his plain and homey decor, but he hated seeing things look neglected.
On Saturday afternoon he was checking his email to see when an order of seeds was due to arrive, and noticed an email that had gotten through his spam filter. He was about to swipe it into oblivion when something about the subject line stopped him. A donation has been made in your name.
He opened the email. Jonathan Saunders has made a donation in your name to support our hospice work for people in their last…
The room went airless. Surely it wasn’t–surely Jonathan couldn’t be–
He strode into the dining room, snatched the postcard from where it hovered among the weird purple roses, and stabbed the numbers into the screen of his phone.
Two rings. “Yeah, Jake here.”
“Tell me you’re not dying,” Keith said with what he felt was remarkable calm.
“Keith? Is that you? Hey, man, good to hear from you. Of course I’m not dying.” He sounded perplexed. “Why would you–“
Keith killed the call, turned his phone off, and rested his forehead gently on the edge of the dining room table, suddenly exhausted. Another one of those annoying life lessons that ageing brought you: the past, and how you felt about it, were never as far away as you thought.
Then he straightened up, turned his phone back on again, and googled the Bright Lake Hospice Centre.
He found Jonathan on the Campaigns page. Or rather, Celebrity Ambassador Jake Sterling, alongside boilerplate text about gratitude and giving back to the community.
Jonathan looked good. Healthy. Stylish in his battered leather jacket, silver shirt, close-cropped greying hair. Everyone in the photograph was turned his way, blossoms to the sun.
Keith put his phone on the table and ran hands that weren’t entirely steady through his own whitened hair. At least the asshole wasn’t dying of cancer. So what, Keith wondered wearily, was his fucking issue?
Sunday and Monday were stormy, which was perfectly fine; his newly transplanted melons and cucumbers could do with the moisture. On Tuesday morning, Nicholas arrived with an armload of tarps, a load of lumber, and an assistant. The banging that ensued at the back of the house was so disconcerting that Keith fled to the garden centre and lunch in town.
The next message from Jonathan came in while Keith was in his kitchen, about to answer a text from a former coworker about someone’s new baby. He literally watched the blue dot appear beside Jonathan’s number.
What do I have to do to get you to talk to me, write a song about you? Haha
“You. Obtuse. Fucker,” Keith said aloud to the screen, and looked up to see Nicholas looking startled by the open door to the hallway. “Not you,” he added quickly.
“I figured. You okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m just…” Unsettled was a little strong. He shook his head. “I thought something was finished, and apparently it isn’t.”
“Is that the same person who was sending you all those messages before?”
Keith supposed that that crossed a professional line, except that it felt good to see the honest concern on Nicholas’s face. “My ex.”
“Oh yeah, eh? I’m sorry. Breakups sure do suck.”
“Long, long ago ex. I never expected to hear from him again, but–” He held up the phone as wordless explanation.
“Is he doing some making-amends kind of thing?”
That hadn’t occurred to Keith. He’d never heard that substance abuse had been among Jonathan’s problems. Alcohol made him ill, and pot did nothing for him; in their time in the clubs, he’d occasionally been tempted into trying something stronger, but never more than once.
“It’s unlikely. I told him I wasn’t interested in talking to him, but he just keeps coming back.”
“Yeah, he’s doing a crap job of respecting your boundaries,” Nicholas said, with no hesitation over the pronoun whatsoever, and there went another of Keith’s probably vacuous assumptions about rural communities.
“He has a long-standing problem with that,” Keith agreed. But it had been decades. If Jonathan were wanting to apologize for everything that had happened after their breakup, what was prompting it?
“Do you need a lawyer?” Nicholas asked.
“No, no. It’s not threatening, just deeply annoying.”
“Okay, well, I know a lot of people around here and I can probably get a name for you. If you change your mind, let me know.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.” Maybe Jonathan just wanted closure, as pop psychology liked to put it, as though your past were something you could shut a door on.
“Anyway, we just finished the tear-down, if you want to take a look at it before we start the rebuild. We found something pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see it. Just give me one moment.”
Please stop contacting me, he typed out, and sent it before his curiosity could make him second-guess himself. He was fed up with playing into Jonathan’s tease.
They trooped up to the landing, where Nicholas’s assistant, Tyler, was packing up their equipment into sturdy rubbermaid boxes. Keith looked through the window. Where the porch had been there was now nothing but air; a much smaller recess tucked into the roofline showed where the original sleeping porch had been, its old floorboards riddled with screw holes and rotten gaps. Keith grimaced. He loathed this part of a project, when everything looked smashed-open and raw.
Nicholas picked up something leaning against the wall. Skinny lengths of wood attached together, weathered grey flecked with scraps of white paint.
“This was stuck in as a shim under one corner of the porch. Gotta say, I’m surprised the porch lasted that long. Whoever built it was making it up as they went along.”
“Is that part of the old porch?”
“Part of the railing. The infill, nothing structural.”
The pieces of wood resolved themselves into something coherent. Three longer pieces–ballusters–connected by two cross-pieces, one at the top and one at the bottom.
“It’s not far from what we decided for the railing,” Nicholas said. “I already ordered the lumber, but we can tweak the design if you want to go with a replica instead.”
Keith gestured, and Nicholas handed the section of wood over. It was splintery and dry against his skin. A hundred years ago, give or take, someone had stood here on this landing, maybe while the subfloor was still naked or the roof rafters still open to the sky, and imagined where it was going to fit when it was done.
He frowned at it. “I’d like to keep it for reference, but I think I like the grid pattern better.”
“You know, I thought that too.”
Tyler picked up one of the boxes and headed downstairs with it. Nicholas knelt to close the lid on the other.
“Are you still on schedule?” Keith asked.
“Oh, sure. Shouldn’t take more than the week.” Nicholas stood up with the box. “Got any plans for the two-four weekend?”
“I hope to pick up some annuals at the garden centre. And put my tomato plants out, if there isn’t a frost warning.”
Nicholas turned and pointed out the window with his chin. “That’s a big project, that garden.”
“You’re not wrong. I’ve promised myself I won’t plant more than I can keep up with.”
“You and every gardener ever.” Nicholas grinned. “Could you do with any melon seedlings? I always plant too many. They’re chancy, but if you have a good year there’s nothing better than a fresh muskmelon out of the garden.”
“I’d love some.”
“Did you have a garden back in the city?”
“I tried. It was a shady lot. Even the hostas didn’t do well, and anything that survived, the squirrels got.”
Nicholas laughed. “Out there, there’s nothing but sun. But I got bad news for you about the rabbits and the groundhogs.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve definitely run into those already.”
The front screen door creaked open, and Keith heard Tyler’s steps on the stairs. Nicholas called down, “We’re good here. I’ll be right down.” He hefted the toolbox, which he’d been standing holding all that time, muscles flexed under the close-fitting sleeves of his T-shirt. “I’d better get going.”
“Enjoy your weekend,” Keith said.
“I sure will. You too.”
It was undoubtedly Keith’s wishful thinking that Nicholas’s smiling glance lingered a little before he turned towards the stairs.
The porch went up quickly. The banging of building was easier to bear than the banging of destruction, but Keith still found reasons to get out of the house while it was going on. He spent most of his time in the garden, excavating decades of neglect to reveal the old, stone-edged perennial beds and paths, and starting three new compost piles with the uprooted weeds, slow-burning treasure for the years to come.
Nicholas’s melon seedlings flourished, in part because after the Victoria Day long weekend an unseasonable heat rolled in like a gush of steam. Nicholas was right about the sun; with no trees except for the unkempt line of crabapples along the western property line, the garden was an oven. By three o’clock on that first hot afternoon Keith was done, every iota of energy leached out of him. He stowed his tools back in the plywood shed and fled indoors to a tall glass of iced tea, lemony and sweet, his condensation-wet hand cooling the back of his neck.
Nicholas and Tyler were still clambering around the roof with the vigour of the young. Keith had seen the enormous insulated lunchboxes and thermoses that they each brought out of the truck at lunchtime, and had made sure they knew they were free to take as much cold water and ice from the kitchen as they liked. Still, maybe they’d like something fresh.
He filled two glasses and took them upstairs. The skeleton of the porch was taking place, like a huge window without a pane. The door was propped open with a length of two-by-four. Keith waited until the two men had finished fastening together the cross-brace they were working on.
“I’ve got some iced tea, if you’d like some,” he said.
“That sounds awesome,” Nicholas said, and he and Tyler made their way over to the door. Keith stood back to let them in.
“Thanks,” Nicholas said. He smelled of sweat and sawdust and sunscreen. His fingers brushed Keith’s as the glass changed hands. Keith wasn’t going to stare, but he was able to take in quite a bit in a casual glance as Nicholas tilted his head back and took a drink, damp blonde hairs clinging to the side of his neck, throat long as he swallowed.
“Ah, that feels good,” Nicholas said, dabbing at the moisture on his upper lip with the back of his hand.
“There’s more where that came from,” Keith said, and managed to keep a straight face as he heard the words emerge from his mouth.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Nicholas said, deadpan.
The next time Keith walked to the mailbox, there was a letter for him in a business envelope with an embossed return address. Daigneau and Voss, with a Los Angeles address he was probably supposed to be impressed by.
His first thought was, oh god, he really was going to have to get a lawyer. But when he opened the envelope, the letterhead revealed that Daigneau and Voss were agents, and they understood and respected his request not to be further contacted by their client Jake Sterling. However, they felt it was in his interest to know that in the fall, Mr. Sterling would be releasing Twenty-Six Again, a new body of work referencing his multi-platinum album Twenty-Six, and Keith should be prepared for some possible media interest in himself given his involvement with the above.
They felt it was in his interest? Well they fucking might, Keith thought, given that when Twenty-Six had been released it had, albeit temporarily, ruined his life.
If he wished to speak with Mr. Sterling in person, Mr. Sterling would be at Keith’s disposal at the time and number listed below, although it was entirely at his discretion and no further expectations would be put upon him. If he had further questions, he should feel free to contact Daigneau and Voss at any time. They were his truly, etc.
Keith stood there with the letter flapping in the breeze coming off the soybean fields. A sense of anticlimax mingled with the beginnings of outrage and what was probably a completely maladjusted impulse to laugh. Of course Jonathan wasn’t wanting to make amends or find closure. Of course it was about another album. Because of course it was.
When he got home, he went to put the letter with the card and postcard in the bouquet. Most of the greenery had curled in on itself, and the carnations were turning coppery and dry. Keith picked the fading pieces out one by one. All that were left were the roses, an imperial, imperious purple. By themselves, they were too big for the vase, tilting every which way. Keith went into the kitchen and filled a mason jar with water, brought it into the dining room, and clipped the rose stems to fit. The resulting bouquet were still intense in colour, but more to the scale of the room than the crate that took up most of his dining room table. It was a nice-looking crate, though, solid blond wood. He could probably find a use for it somewhere in the garden.
The cards and letter he leaned up against the mason jar, easily found if need be. Perversely, now that the prospect of seeing Jonathan again or not had been left up to him, the idea niggled at him. But what could he possibly get out of it, short of digging up resentments that had more or less been put to one side years ago? Saying his piece? Satisfying his curiosity? Closure, dammit?
A few afternoons later, he was bringing his now-routine glasses of iced tea up to the construction site when he was met by Nicholas on the stairs. “We’re about done,” Nicholas said, and took the offered glass.
The door to the porch was open; the landing smelled faintly of paint. “Don’t go out yet,” Nicholas said, as Keith put the second glass down on the drop cloth beside Tyler, who was hammering the lid onto a paint can. “You’re going to want to give it a good two days for the paint and sealer to cure.”
Keith stood in the doorway. The porch was no bigger than it had been, but it felt expansive, the way new or freshly cleaned spaces often did. The roof overhung the original sleeping porch, making a shady nook for humid days; beyond it, white railings, glossy with wet paint, outlined the decking of honey-coloured cedar. It was like a bowl filled with sunshine.
“It’s gorgeous,” Keith said.
“Yeah, I think it came out pretty nice.”
“It’ll be a great place to sit with a drink and a book.”
“You could even set up a bed out here for hot nights.” Nicholas said contemplatively, and took another sip of iced tea, lips curving around the glass.
It was hard to wait the two days. Keith passed the time in extensive online browsing, after which he went into town and picked up two handmade Muskoka chairs at one of the main street stores. He heroically resisted buying an outdoor rug, numerous strings of lights, a vintage-look cooler, and a trunkload of decorative planters. Better to live with a space for a while before deciding how it was going to be.
The porch wasn’t the only thing he had to wait for. On the morning of the day that Mr. Sterling would be at Keith’s disposal, as the letter had put it, he woke up with a sense of anticipation. He still hadn’t consciously decided what he was going to do, but apparently some part of him had an opinion.
At four o’clock he sat at the dining room table with his phone in hand. Behind him was the blank mist-grey wall. He wasn’t sure how much he was prepared to reveal of himself.
At five past, he picked up his phone and put it down again.
At ten past, he admitted to himself that he wanted to know what was going on more than he wanted to make a point. He keyed in the number. The screen cleared after two rings, and there Jonathan was.
It wasn’t as though Keith hadn’t seen him, literally speaking, in thirty years. There had been magazine covers, and album ads, and a couple of movies that he’d gotten sucked into watching on cable, and the entirety of the internet, not to mention the photo he’d seen just a few weeks before. But what Keith thought first was, Wow, how’d we get so old?
Then Jonathan smiled. “Hey, Keith. I’m glad you called.”
He was wearing a black T-shirt with half a dozen pendants and strings of beads around his neck. Behind him was an impression of blue–sky, or maybe ocean. His hair was longer than it had been in the picture, worked up into artful spikes. “How have you been?”
“I can’t complain,” Keith said, feeling himself turn even more ancient as he sat there in his short-sleeved plaid shirt and twenty-dollar haircut.
“Man, it’s been a few years, right?” Jonathan said, as though it had been two or three rather than thirty-odd.
“The phone was always there.”
“Yeah, but–” Jonathan shrugged gracefully. “I wasn’t sure you wanted me to call. I heard you were pretty mad at me.”
“That’s true,” Keith agreed. “Do you remember why?”
Jonathan waved a hand in the air. Silver rings glinted. “Are you telling me you’re still mad?” He looked amused.
“If I was, I wouldn’t be talking to you, but just so we’re clear, I was mad at you,” Keith said, “because you outed me in the international fucking press.”
It had been bad enough to hear Jonathan’s voice every time he turned on his car radio, to see Jonathan’s face mock him from every glossy front cover in every drugstore. But that summer of angst had been only a warm-up for the week the issue of Rolling Stone had dropped in which Jake Sterling, in a candid, tell-all interview, had revealed that the vanished lover that haunted every song on Twenty-Six wasn’t a girl, but a boy named Keith.
“Look, I know the Eighties were a different time,” Jonathan said, “but was it really that big a deal?”
“For heaven’s sake. Yes, Jonathan, it really was that big a deal. Reporters camped out in front of my apartment. I got politely fired from a job I really liked. I had to have a conversation with my parents that I was very much not ready to have. I got hate mail.“
“I get hate mail all the time. You should see my social media. People are nuts, Keith. You can’t let that stop you from living your life the way you want to.”
“I tried,” Keith said, “but it played differently for those of us who weren’t rock stars.”
Jonathan shifted in his seat and leaned towards the screen. Keith heard his pendants and chains chiming faintly together. “I get you. I’m sorry about that, I am. But it was my truth. The whole album was. And I had a right to tell it.”
Keith opened his mouth to say, But it wasn’t only your secret to tell, took a breath, and shut his mouth again. “You know what,” he said, “it was a lifetime ago. I’ve been digging in the garden all day and I don’t have the energy to fight about it. What did you actually want to talk to me about? I hear you’re putting out a new album?”
Jonathan’s face blossomed into a smile, and Keith suddenly remembered what it had been like in their early twenties, when every possibility had been vivid and open. “I’ve been doing some good work. Ethan calls it my Old Man Album. Anyway, he’s not wrong. It’s about looking back on my life choices, where I came from, what I aimed for, where I’ve ended up, and I’m really proud of it. It’s coming out in the fall. And it’s–” He rubbed a silver-studded ear. “It’s, uh, not exactly about you this time. But there might be, you know, press.”
“I didn’t talk to them then, I’m not going to talk to them now.”
“Yeah, I get it. If anybody gives you any real trouble, give my agents a call, they’ll sort it out for you.”
Somebody in the background said something Keith didn’t hear. Jonathan looked over and back. “Look, I’m kind of out of time, I have to go do a thing. Thanks for calling. It was good to see you.”
“You too,” Keith said. “I’m glad you got to live the dream.”
“I know, right?” Jonathan grinned. “Take care, man, okay?”
“You t–” Keith said, and the screen went blank.
Feeling a little stretched thin or maybe just overstimulated, Keith let out a long breath and rolled his tight shoulders. He’d been telling the truth about the digging, and he didn’t have it in him to do any more garden work today, even though physical exertion would probably make him feel better until he was ready to think about that conversation more closely.
It was two days to the hour that Nicholas had finished the porch, though. Now he did wish he had bought some lanterns and outdoor tchotkes, things he could mess absorbingly with. At least the Muskoka chairs required a bit of assembly.
He’d left them in the trunk of his car. He wrestled the boxes up the stairs, and left them on the landing while he opened the door and stepped out onto his new porch.
He went to stand at the far railing, resting his hands on the smooth white paint, warm from the sun. From up here, he could see the bones of the garden in its entirety, the half-buried lines of stone edgings and the half-wild clumps of irises and foxgloves, the section where he’d been working sharper, like a photograph coming into focus. Beyond the creek, fields rolled into one another, punctuated by darker patches of woodlots until the green met the sky.
He found himself smiling. Prioritizing the ability to walk out into this view had been a good decision.
He went down to the basement to hunt up a screwdriver, and got an old fleece blanket from the linen closet to spread down on the decking of the porch while he worked, lest he scratch the finish before he even got to sit down. The assembly would have gone more smoothly with someone else to hold things steady, but he managed to get both chairs together and in a preliminary arrangement flanking the door. He had just sat down when his phone rang.
He checked the number with some annoyance before he realized that he recognized it and that it wasn’t Jonathan’s. If it hadn’t been physically impossible in a Muskoka chair, he would have sat up straight.
“Hey, Keith. How’s it going?”
“I’m doing well. You?”
“Not so bad. You used your porch yet?”
“I just set the chairs up,” Keith confessed.
He could hear the smile in Nicholas’s voice. “Good job. Are you doing anything later? And do you drink?”
“On occasion,” Keith said. “Drinking, that is. And I have no plans.”
“Do you mind if I come by? Say, a bit after seven?”
“That sounds good.”
Keith made and ate and cleaned up after dinner. Then he gave the bathroom a quick wipe-down because, well, maybe Nicholas was going to drop off some goodwill client gift, and maybe Keith was going to have a guest over, and it couldn’t hurt. He’d picked up some fancy pretzels and fresh tortilla chips at the farmers’ market that morning, and he took the bags out of the cupboard and poured some into two bowls, which he left casually on the counter. He made sure the ice cube trays were full. When he couldn’t think of anything else to do that didn’t make him feel ridiculous, he sat down in the living room, where he could hear the occasional passing car through the open windows, and managed to read a few chapters of a novel.
Nicholas rolled into the driveway at a bit after seven. Keith opened the front door and watched him walk up to the house. In his chinos and an untucked white T-shirt he looked like a cool breeze. He was carrying an insulated bag.
“How’s things?” Nicholas asked.
Nicholas lifted the bag by its handle. “I was up Goderich way today, stopped by this microbrewery that does a lemon tea radler. Thought you might like to try it.”
“That sounds delicious. Should we take it up to the porch?”
“Yeah, it’s going to be a nice night.”
Keith ducked into the kitchen for the snacks, and they went upstairs. Nicholas looked approvingly at the chairs. “Oh, yeah, those’ll last you.” He took two bottles out of the bag. Keith set the bowls on the floor between the two chairs, and they sat down.
“This is lovely,” Keith said after a sip of the light, tart drink.
“Mmm, you can keep your hoppy IPAs, if you ask me. The same place does some nice ciders, too.”
The westering sun gilded the porch railings. A bird Keith hadn’t yet learned the name of called out in the high distance.
“I found the first bud on one of the melon plants today,” Keith said. “How’s your garden doing?”
They talked vegetables, fruit trees, the benefits of raised beds and cold frames. Nicholas described the built-in oak bench and shelves he’d scavenged from a demolition site and planned to install in his own living room. Keith told him about the original wallpaper samples he’d found at the back of one of the closets. They nibbled on pretzels and opened another pair of bottles.
“So there’s a place over in Clinton that has a rainbow trout fish fry on Wednesdays,” Nicholas said. “Local lake fish, when they can get it. Live music too, mostly bluegrass. You interested in going?”
“I’d like that. Though I know nothing about bluegrass,” Keith admitted, wondering whether he’d just been asked on a date, and whether young people even did that anymore.
“The rainbow thing’s kind of a pun.”
“It’s–ah, got it.”
Nicholas took a drink. “I guess it’s different in the city. Around here…I’m not saying there’s no bullcrap. But people are more accepting than you’d think. They just don’t want to have to think about it too hard.” He took another drink. “It’s different for the young kids. My niece’s school has a, what do you call it, gay alliance group. We never would’ve had that when I was in high school.”
Keith nearly let out a laugh. “Young kids? How old are you?”
“Thirty-four.” Nicholas gave him a sideways glance. “Why, how old are you?”
“I am…less than twice that,” Keith said.
“Doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you.”
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“Anyway, I’m asking to take you to dinner, but you can tell me if we’re not on the same page here. No harm, no foul.”
“I’d like that,” Keith said. “I’d enjoy getting to know you better. Though I do feel as though we’ve already been on a few dates.”
“That so?” Another of those sideways looks.
“We’ve had drinks a few times, we’ve exchanged small talk, we’ve discussed our hobbies. If we’d been meeting in bars rather than my backyard, I’d already have tried to kiss you right about now.”
“Fair enough.” Nicholas put his bottle down on the floor and stood up. He took a few steps until he was standing in front of Nicholas’s chair, and put out a hand.
Nicholas allowed himself to be pulled up. Then they were standing chest to chest, almost identical in height, inches apart.
Neither of them had to make the first move. They came together with ease, without hurry. Nicholas’s hands came up to cup Keith’s shoulders. Keith put his arms around Nicholas’s waist. Nicholas tasted of tea and lemon. His end-of-day stubble rasped a little, but his mouth was sure and gentle.
Nicholas slid his hands down Keith’s arms to his elbows. Keith flattened his hands against the small of Nicholas’s back. They broke for air, and then they were on one another again, pressing closer in the growing dusk.
“If we’d been to a bar,” Nicholas said low into Keith’s ear, “I’d be asking if you wanted to come in for a while.”
“That’s a yes on this end.”
He felt Nicholas’s lips curve. “I told you you needed a bed out here.”
“A grave oversight on my part.” He kissed Nicholas again. “There’s one inside. Two, even. Oh, wait. I can offer you a blanket.” He stepped away to retrieve the fleece blanket he hadn’t put away after assembling the chairs. It was almost transparent in spots, but it fit a queen-size bed, and folded in three, it provided a little padding.
“Comfy.” Nicholas sat down on the fleece. Keith followed. Nicholas leaned in, and Keith let himself be pushed down onto his back. The sky was an ombre of azure fading to a narrow line of lemon in the west. Stars were appearing, thousands more than Keith had ever been able to see in the city.
Nicholas leaned over him on one elbow. He pressed one of his legs between Keith’s knees. Keith pulled him close, enjoying the warmth against his side; without the city’s concrete, the day’s heat disappeared fast here.
Nicholas’s hand slid down Keith’s chest, paused above his waist. “Go ahead,” Keith said, and inhaled sharply as Nicholas’s touch moved lower. He pushed his hips upwards, and took another breath as Nicholas’s deft carpenter’s fingers popped the button, pulled down the zipper of his fly, worked under his briefs. There was that contrast again, callused fingers and delicate touch, and as Nicholas wrapped his hand around Keith’s cock, a shudder went through Keith from shoulders to toes.
Nicholas was hard against Keith’s hip, but he started moving down Keith’s body, peeling Keith’s pants down as well, until Keith was bare to the night air and to Nicholas’s warm breath. Then Nicholas’s mouth was on the tip of his cock, shockingly hot as he took Keith in in a leisurely slide.
Keith groped for something to hold onto. His hand met Nicholas’s bicep, hard and flexed as Nicholas held his weight above him. He closed his hand over Nicholas’s arm, and Nicholas hummed in a way that almost made Keith come right then.
It only took a few minutes anyway, all sensations braiding together into an exponential level of sensation, the hard boards supporting him below, the river of stars above, Nicholas echoing back Keith’s small sounds, the relentlessly gentle caresses of Nicholas’s lips and tongue. He felt his orgasm forming like a cloudburst gathering in the distance, stimulation to awareness to urgency, and it swept through him without mercy and left him boneless.
Nicholas settled back beside him, head on Keith’s shoulder. Keith gave himself a few moments to enjoy the gift of this young man’s presence. Then he returned the favour, shuffling down the blanket to cup his hand over the bulge in Nicholas’s chinos and slowly undress him.
Nicholas smelled of sex and laundry soap, tasted of salt and a familiar bitterness. Keith had missed this, and he took his time, licking and stroking in exploration before he settled into a rhythm.
He felt Nicholas’s body tense, and looked up to see him propped up on his elbows. Nicholas feel back with a laughing groan. “Damn, I wish I could watch you.”
“We do have chairs,” Keith pointed out.
So Keith ended up on his knees between Nicholas’s splayed thighs, his chest supported by the wide seat of the chair so he had mouth and both hands free to make Nicholas tremble.
“Okay if I touch your head?” Nicholas asked, voice strained.
“Feel free. I’ll let you know if it gets too much.”
He was expecting a firm grasp, a little direction this way and that. But it seemed to be just contact that Nicholas wanted, and Keith sucked him with Nicholas’s fingers combing softly through his hair. Even at the end, Nicholas didn’t clench or pull his hair; he just said, “Coming,” and end with a shaken groan.
Keith’s knees were aching, and he might have put a crick in his neck. He hadn’t felt this young in years.
He got to bed later than usual, but woke up with a bone-deep sense of energy and well-being that echoed the sunshine outside. He ate his oatmeal and showered and dressed for gardening. If he worked at it, he might get the entire south-west corner of the perennial garden finished, and there were some late-blooming peonies at the garden centre he’d had his eye on.
Passing through the dining room, his gaze fell on the mason jar of roses, their glaring purple darker now, petals beginning to wrinkle. He carried the whole thing out to his row of compost piles and tipped it into the nearest one, listening to the water rustle down through the heap of drying weeds.
The old crabapples at the property line had come into bloom, light pink petals around dark pink hearts, and their scent came to him on the breeze. He went into the shed and found his secateurs, then clipped enough twigs to fill the mason jar with a starburst of flowers. It would look more at home on his dining room table than any bouquet of imported lilies and dyed roses.
He looked up to the porch. Nicholas was right, a bed would be good up there, or at least a chaise. He definitely wanted some lights. Maybe an umbrella for the hottest days. Or for a little more privacy.
He waded through the long grass to the kitchen door. A small walk-out deck might be nice here, too, somewhere to put the barbeque that he was looking forward to using this summer. Those nineteen-seventies repairs on the front porch could do with replacing. And, happily, garden work never ended.
Keith looked around himself and smiled. The structure was sturdy, but there was plenty in this old house and this old property that needed work. He had plans that would keep him here for a long time to come.
This is a great little slice of life — it has such a leisurely, restful energy to it. I love all the detail you’ve given to the house and the plants. It made it really easy to get invested in Keith via his home and garden plans. I hope the poor guy doesn’t get hounded too badly by the press! (And has more nice dates with his carpenter gentleman.)
What a nice, calm story where terrible exes are permitted to remain terrible exes, new flames across a hefty age gap are allowed to grow and prosper, and the porch successfully gets fixed! I enjoyed the many ways Keith was determined to keep himself busy with constant home improvement, which I’m assuming was no accident as a metaphor for fixing his own self up. Seeing stories not afraid to have a queer community presence in small towns is also very nice; it’s not all glitzy, glamorous city life, and sometimes you just want to enjoy your twilight years out where you can hear the birds and insects. Hope the paparazzi isn’t too awful out in his neck of the woods!
I love how it could be anywhere but it’s actually near Goderich.
The way the flowers slowly were culled made a nice metaphor.
This was a sweet little tale and I enjoyed it a lot – especially the way the burgeoning bond and attraction between the two leads developed. I also appreciate how neither Keith nor his awful ex got any satisfying closure on what went down between them, because realistically “closure” is tremendously overrated.
I’m so glad I got around to reading this issue, this is so cute! I know the author’s notes say this must be a slightly AU version of the 80s but honestly, the media focusing their attention on the ex and not the famous person, who presumably has money and lawyers, felt very plausible to me.
Good for Keith and Nicholas!
Ah, it’s making me think of better weather with all the gardening! I enjoyed the subversion of the rom-com trope of getting back together with the dramatic ex .
Oh, this was lovely! Good job on the slow reveal.