Towards the Decent Inn

XIV

By Michael Arram

'Oh I had a great night,' said Paul as they sat in the huge kitchen with iced tea, coffee and pancakes provided by Minnie. 'Me and the girls explored the sports bars of Salonica. Except all that was on the TV was what they call football, but doesn't seem to involve much kicking. Then we went to several bars, two of which refused to serve me because of my boyish good looks. But we bumped into some Brits later on and they took us to what they called an Irish pub, which it may have been, cos they made no bones about serving me.'

Jim shambled in, wearing just a bathrobe. He stretched. 'Hi, men. Andy, you know it's the game today?'

Matt asked, 'Game?'

Jim ignored him. 'The guys'll be here after lunch.'

Andy looked nettled, 'I forgot. But you can do without me just this once.'

'Dude, no way. The guys need you. How can we play with just the three of us. Who'll get the beers?'

Minnie cut in. 'Snow's forecast today.' Matt looked out the window. The morning was overcast and the cloud was low and brownish.

Jim cocked a brow, 'Better get the boy to put grit in the drive then.'

Big flakes began drifting down not long afterwards. Paul got very twitchy. He wanted to be out in the snow, and Matt volunteered to go out with him.

'This is so great, Matt. Here we are in the States, in the snow.' He looked a little sly, 'It's time for a confession. You know I think that those films you and Andy watch all the time are crap. But I do so love White Christmas. I watched it last year when you and Andy left me all alone, and I cried and cried over me meagre seasonal turkey sandwich with a piece of holly on top. Sad, innit?'

By the time they were dressed, complete with gloves and scarves, the snow was settling fast and coming down harder and harder. They walked down the road in a world gone suddenly quiet. The temperature had sunk low in the night and the snow wasn't even thinking about melting. The campus looked magical, and the valley had already gone white, with thick blue masses of trees just visible on the opposite hills. There were quite a few students around, many holding hot coffee in vacuum mugs. For this was not Britain and the weather didn't close things down. By the time they trudged back the snow was up to their knees, and a genuine snow plough sluiced past them spraying snow high over their heads. The roads were open.

It was so cold that they weren't that wet when they got back into the warmth of Andy's place. More cars were in the drive, snow heavy on their roofs, and the card party had begun downstairs. Beer was stacked on the floor and the air was filled with a haze of smoke. Jim and two strangers in baseball caps were setting up in a front room. It looked like serious cardplay; there were plastic chips and several new packs. Andy was sitting at the table with a beer and a roll up. Matt caught his eye; he looked a little sheepish. Paul sniffed the air and whispered in Matt's ear, 'Recognise that stench?' Matt did. It hung round corners of the Union back home, and also featured at certain sorts of party.

'Want a smoke, you English guys?' said one of the strangers.

'I'll pass.'

'No problem.'

Matt and Paul watched the cards begin, but Matt soon got bored. The Americans were by turns monosyballic or let loose streams of cultural references he couldn't follow. From the uncomfortable look on Andy's face, he got the impression that some of the comments were directed at himself, and they always came from the direction of Jim. He got fed up of it, and the pot-stink was making him light-headed. He drifted off to the other room and read one of his books in front of the TV. Paul hung on and sat behind Andy and watched him play.

Eventually Paul joined Matt. 'How's he doing?'

'Losing. You know Andy.'

Matt did, Andy tended to play his luck, and in poker that did not work too well.

'How much is he losing?'

'Couldn't really say, as I don't know what the chips represent. But does it matter? He could probably buy half this town and not miss the price.'

'These guys are taking him for a ride.'

'Maybe. But he chose to get on board. I don't think they're cheating, if that's what you mean.'

Paul drifted back, and quarter of an hour later, to his surprise, Andy appeared offering him a beer. Matt looked a question.

'Paulie wanted to play, so I let him have my hand.'

'Was that wise?'

'Oh, I don't think they'll be too hard on him.'

'It's not him I'd be worrying about. We never beat him, and I don't know anyone else who has. None of his first year mates will play him any more.'

'But these guys are good.'

'If you say so.'

Andy pulled at his reefer, a bit defiantly, Matt thought. He was not going to mention it. He noticed the exaggerated care with which Andy moved around and sat himself down. He was clearly getting stoned, and he wouldn't talk to him like that. They sat together silently, Matt feeling troubled by a sense of real distance between them. He could no longer deny to himself that Andy had taken a long step away from the quiet and funny suburban boy he had fallen in love with. The game went on next door, and got a lot quieter. In the end, they both got up to see what was going on. They felt the concentration and tension as they moved in. The blue-grey smoke cloud was low over the table, and the Americans were growling. The stack of chips in front of Paul was significantly higher, and those before his rivals were significantly diminished. Paul was smiling and perfectly at ease. The secret of his success.

He threw down his cards. 'No-one calling?' and he raked in another pot. Jim swore. Matt half expected him to reach for a gun. It was that sort of atmosphere.

His two friends looked at each other and rose. 'The little faggot's cleaned me out. I've had it,' said the biggest of the two.

'Hey!' protested Andy.

The two left under a thunder cloud, with Jim behind them pleading, 'C'mon guys, hey!' He came back eventually as the two cars bounced and ploughed their way down the drive into the dark of evening and the falling snow.

'Jeez, Andy. Couldn't you just have stuck with the game!'

'Don't lose very well, do you guys?' observed Matt, no longer bothering to hide his contempt.

'No one asked you, asshole.'

'Jim, cool it, please!' pleaded Andy.

Jim picked up an open beer, threw it like a foaming comet at the expensive wall paper, and stormed out. His car started up moments later and he was gone.

Andy, Matt and Paul were left, looking uncomfortable.

'So how much did I win?' asked Paul anxiously.

They sat over some pasta, marvelling at the depth of the fallen snow round the house. The blizzard was slackening now. The TV was on in the kitchen. It was warm and comfortable, but the three of them were hardly at ease.

'You don't like Jim Rosso, do you?'

'It's not a matter of me liking him. He made it pretty clear from the beginning he'd rather we weren't in his house.'

'He's OK, most of the time. I guess you make him uneasy. He knows we're lovers. It can't be easy for him.'

'Why? Does he fancy you?'

'No, that's not what I meant. He's not comfortable round gays.'

'Seems OK round mega-rich gays.'

'His people aren't poor, Matt. It's not snobbery.'

Matt sighed. He hadn't crossed the Atlantic just to pick a fight with Andy, and he only had three more days. He let Paul rattle on about his great card victory, 'Man, it was like Deadwood. I was the one in the thin black tie who comes into the saloon, and is so cool and takes down the bad guy who's in league with the corrupt sheriff.'

'Doesn't someone get shot in that scenario somewhere?'

'Hey, this is modern America, such things cannot happen.'

Andy was not going to let the subject of Jim drop, 'He was really good to me when I got here. He went out of his way to find me a group of friends, and was full of good advice. I owe him, Matt.'

'OK, I understand. I'll be good for the next few days, honest.'

Minnie returned, and they put up Christmas decorations all evening. Jim came back late, looking a little sullen. He nodded at the others, and went up to Matt, much to his surprise, and took him by the shoulder. His breath smelled a little of spirits.

'Guy, I was sorry to have been such a heel. Shoulda remembered you were a guest. Shake?'

What else could Matt do? His hand was swallowed by Jim's. He was given a thump on the shoulder, and Jim rolled off to bed, picking up Minnie on the way. Andy looked pleased, and Matt didn't have the heart to be mean. He and Andy went to bed. Matt slept badly, troubled by he didn't know what, other than that he didn't like the sour reek of marijuana that clung around his lover, who had passed out next to him. There was no thought of sex.

Matt and Paul spent three uneasy days under the roof of Jim Rosso. He didn't get to like Rosso any the better, but at least there were no further outbreaks, which was as well since they were all socked in by the blizzard. In any case Rosso spent a lot of the time out of the house, either with Chuck or about some other business.

Mostly Matt hung round with Andy, enjoying what time he had with his lover, and trying to get used to the new Andy; for he was different. There were moments when Andy was remote and if Matt had wanted to be frank, he would have been tempted to call him a stuck-up rich kid, but he knew that there was more to it than that. The fact was that they had lost the intimacy they had once had, the jokiness, the bizarre flights of fantasy, the mad little moments and the mock rhetoric that had reduced them both to hysterics. Andy did not sing much to himself, in fact he did not sing at all, which Matt knew was a bad sign. Matt was forced to admit to himself that all was definitely not well.

By their last day the snow had retreated into frozen drifts and cliffs by the side of the roads. Andy drove them all the way down to Niagara to enjoy the splendour of the still unfrozen Falls. They returned to find a big new car with Michigan plates in the drive. Andy didn't recognise it.

When they got in a slight trace of expensive perfume and a musical laugh alerted Matt to the presence of the Stepmom. Andy looked surprised.

She was talking to Jim and Minnie. Jim was on the arm of the chair on which Minnie was sitting. Paul looked suddenly very interested; he recognised her immediately from their descriptions. She was on her feet and gathered up Andy, and then Matt in a very warm embrace. They placed kisses on the proffered cheek. Then she warmly greeted Paul, once he was introduced. He looked utterly charmed and highly intrigued.

'I was sorry you couldn't join us for Christmas again, Matt; but Andy explained that you wanted to be with your parents. After a year like this last one, you were quite right in your decision. That foolish little vice-chancellor of yours. I hadn't realised that people with those responsibilities could be so lacking in sense and discretion. Well, he has paid for his mistake.'

'But Andy and Matt paid more,' chipped in Paul. She looked regretful but smiled at him.

'Indeed. I was so sorry for the both of you.' She looked across at Jim.

'Now where would you suggest for dinner, Jimmy?'

'The faculty go to the Lansing Country Inn, I guess it's the best round here, unless you want to risk the Statler. Statler's closer.'

'The Lansing Country Inn then. Can you ring and get a table, Jimmy dear.'

Jim salvaged his cell phone from one of his pockets, wandered out to the hall and they heard muttering as he carried out his instructions. Matt was puzzled by Ellie's obvious familiarity with Jim Rosso.

'They've had a cancellation, it's OK,' he said as he came back in and resumed his place.

'We'll go directly then my dears. It's all on me. A Christmas treat.'

The meal was very good and very long. Ellie took control of the conversation, and had amiable support from Paul and Minnie. Matt was discontented as he'd hoped to have Andy to himself for one last time. Andy seemed a little depressed, perhaps for the same reason. But Jim was rendered more or less mute, and even a little awed, by the presence of Ellie.

It appeared that she had looked in on Andy as she was passing through on her way to Christmas shopping in New York. She brought some details of holiday arrangements for Andy. Christmas this year was to be in Colorado.

She left for her hotel and the others returned to the house. As Paul and he were packing, Matt asked him if he noticed the odd relationship between Ellie and Jim. Paul surprised him by laughing, 'It's not odd.'

'Well, she treated him like a lap dog.'

'What do you expect, she's his aunt.'

'His aunt! How do you know that?'

'You really should talk to people. Didn't Andy mention it? Ray-ray told me three days ago.' Ray-ray was Paul's name for Rachel Hollister, Fred's ex-girlfriend. They had been inseparable for days now. She was a dark-haired feisty girl, exactly Paul's height, and possessing much the same chaotic temperament. Perhaps because of the instant connection with Paul, she had dumped Fred the first day they had been there, 'He's a total shit. He's been cheating on her almost since they became an item.'

Matt reeled, 'They tell you everything, don't they?'

'That's cos I'm irresistible but safe.'

'Do they know you're also weird?'

Paul looked questioningly at Matt. 'Weird? Now see here Matthew. Ray-ray may well be the woman of my dreams. I won't have you saying things that could impede your chances of being a bridesmaid at our wedding.' Matt laughed.

When he was finally undressing with Andy, Matt asked him about Jim and Ellie.

'When I arrived at dad's last Easter, they had a family conference, and Ellie said that it would be easier for me if I went to a US university where there was someone to give me support, so she mentioned that her sister's son was at Burnett. The University President was an old friend too, so it was settled quickly. One school was as good as another to me, so I went along with it. It was a good plan as it turned out.'

They lay facing each other on the bed, Matt memorising every detail of Andy's beloved body, as his right hand traced its contours and inner spaces. He wondered how he could stand the pain of separation yet again.

'Promise me you'll keep in touch'

'I'll keep in touch.'

'Promise me you'll try to get over to Britain, just for a flying visit.'

'I promise.'

'Promise me you'll love me for ever.'

'Oh, Matt.' Andy smiled, reached over and pulled him towards him.

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