A Mann's World
by Rick Beck
"Albert," Robert said with a fondness their new relationship didn't deserve.
"But you said!" Toby stuttered in protest as Robert held his arm back to keep the boy at bay.
"Next time, shorty. This one's mine. Take a hike."
"My name is Toby. Bastard!" was the hiss that came from Toby's lips, but Robert wasn't listening because Albert had his undivided attention. "Albert, shame on you. What are you doing out here cruising?"
"Bobby!" Albert's voice was filled with unexpected surprise. "Step into my chariot, won't you? Please, join me for a cup of coffee at my place. I found some exquisite beans you'll absolutely adore." The aire of the continent was thick in Albert's voice.
Toby knew he'd been suckered again and didn't listen to the conversation. It didn't pay to let anyone distract you. He could have scored a meal and more and now he was just the audience for another boy's success. He'd been pushed out of the way enough times to know when resistance was useless. He eased himself dejectedly back up on the wall, hoping the driver would pick him but knowing he wouldn't.
"Albert, there's a strangler loose. Why are you taking this kind of risk?"
"My friend, I am not above delivering a meal and a caress on occasion, but I assure you I can sort out the riffraff from the rose blossoms. I'm an exceptional judge of character. Please, won't you enter so we don't appear as common pick-up artists in the middle of where so much history has been written?"
"What told you this guy was okay, Albert?" Robert slid into the seat as he spoke. Albert leaned forward to look up so he could see the boy who was now back on the wall.
Taking this as one last opportunity to reverse his fortunes, Toby leaped down from his perch, rearranging his pants for effect. He walked, more strutted, hips thrust forward in an exaggerated attempt to get the attention he wanted. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets to further draw his trousers tight to accent the object he hoped would create some interest.
Robert watched the sexual walk and noticed the forlorn look on Toby's face and then the finger that told the story as the car started to move. Albert took it all in but he couldn't bring himself to ask Robert to let the boy ride along for fear he'd be viewed as just another old queen. And he desperately didn't want to be perceived that way by someone he liked.
"You see, he's of no danger. The boy only seeks to make contact with another of his species and poor Albert is powerless to say no. He is lovely, no? You do not know how difficult it is to leave this one at the curb," Albert said, driving away disappointed, with regret in his heart for the lonely looking lad.
"I know this one is of no danger but I worry that one you pick up will be. It isn't safe. I wish you wouldn't do it again until this guy has been caught."
"I'm flattered that you are concerned for my well-being. I don't do this often."
"I am concerned. You're a nice man and I don't want to see you hurt."
"Yes, and I've caught up on my reading. One must practice what one preaches, Bobby. Now I see your scars of war more clearly."
"Yes. My maid collects them from the front stoop and saves them for me to peruse once I've returned after being away."
"Certainly! You don't think I keep the house spotless myself, do you? It's especially clean after I've been away because I'm not there to be in the way."
"I never thought about it at all. I've never had a house or nice things."
"Well then you should come to mine more often. I believe in sharing."
"I'm straight, Albert."
"Yes, well, I haven't held that against you. Can I then ask you why you are taking time out to defend the honor of gay men at the most popular queer bar in town?"
"I thought not."
"I know the piano player."
"Ah, Philip. He's a most charming chap."
"You know Phil?"
"Ah yes. After Howard died, he played at Leon's, an old haunt of mine from when I could still hold my own on the bar scene, Phil became the best man among the gay set. Howard died at his piano. Dedicated artist to the end."
"So you do know him?"
"Phil? Only by reputation and from a distance. When one only hears nice things said about someone, he must assume there is a ring of truth in what's said. Why, do you have any gossip I should know?"
"I don't gossip, Albert."
"I am finding it difficult to believe that I found you loitering on the street. I know times are hard but I've offered you gainful employment, my boy. Why have you sunk so low so quickly?"
"It's not what you think, Albert. I was not selling it."
Albert looked at Robert's face and questioned in his own mind what he had seen and where he had seen it. He didn't doubt that it was true but it was very confusing, if only because Robert was a mystery.
"You know, had I not spent an evening in your pleasant company, I wouldn't believe you so easily, but I do. It is none of Albert's business what your business is, although I do know I don't have a clue what that business might be. You certainly could curry favor with any number of gay establishments if you liked."
"I'm not and I don't go to gay clubs, so why shouldn't you go? And to answer your question and so you'll know, I'd have taken him for a meal. They're always hungry. I don't know if they eat from day to day. We would have chatted. He'd have told me something about himself and I'd tell him something about me. If I felt the least bit ill at ease he'd have been dropped off with a handshake and a smile and a fresh new ten dollar bill that I keep here in my shirt pocket for such eventualities. Had I not felt ill at ease, he'd have gone home with me and we'd have continued our chat over drinks and a hot Jacuzzi, or television, or whatever he so desired. Communication with someone you don't know is not all that complicated if you keep in mind that the other person is much like yourself except for background and current circumstances."
"It's still dangerous and I wish you wouldn't do it."
"Who was the dude that got into that car?"
"What car?" Toby said, leaning on the open window of Bland's car.
"The young guy that was sitting here with you. What do you know about him?"
"Nothing," Toby said, liking being questioned even less than being robbed out of a trick.
The car lurched forward, forcing Toby out of the window as he watched it chase after the silver Mercedes.
Robert and Albert were pleased to see each other in spite of the questionable circumstances that brought them together. Albert pointed the car into the driveway and the garage door closest to the staircase opened automatically. The Mercedes came to rest beside a classic Corvette. It looked as though it was right off the showroom floor.
It was Robert's color, black, and he jumped right out and walked around the sports car with reverence. "Remarkable condition. It has really been taken care of. I've always wanted one of these. They are a man's car!" He said.
"Yes, I'm led to believe that is so. I've not driven it myself. It's somewhat spirited for my taste."
"Let me get this straight, you have a Corvette in your garage and you haven't driven it?"
"It's a long story, Bobby. If we spend more time together I may tell you some of the assorted details about my past, the Corvette being a remnant of one. For now it should remain a mystery."
"Hell of a remnant," he quipped as he followed Albert to the interior staircase.
"How fortuitous that we've met today. I've acquired some new artifacts that I think you might find interesting. In fact I thought of you the very moment they arrived. Allow me to show you."
Once they 'd removed their shoes, Albert led him straight back to the room where he'd seen the breastplate, only this time they got to it from the opposite side of the house. Robert drew a picture of the house in his head and realized a single hallway connected three of the four sides. "This is also the room I use as my photographic studio. If I take pictures of a piece or a person, this is where I do it."
Robert stood in the middle of the room and more carefully examined the deeply grooved faces of the Indians whose pictures decorated the walls.
"Here Bobby, isn't this magnificent?" Albert turned from the table after unwrapping a package carefully before handing it to him. It was a shield that had been finely decorated and obviously belonged to someone of importance.
They both held it reverently but this was a different kind of reverence than Robert felt for the classic Corvette. This feeling of awe was connected to something he had never been allowed to be a part of even though it was part of him. The shield was a powerful symbol and he felt its history.
"It's a fine piece, Albert. I think only a Chief or a Shaman would carry it."
"Yes!" Albert agreed. "I thought the same thing. You've seen something like this at home?"
"Nothing as elaborate as this. Shields I've seen were used and saved because they belonged to someone from our history before it was taken from us."
"I'm having it researched and I should know more about its owner in a few days. I just thought that you would be the only one to appreciate it as I do."
"Yes. Yes, I do, Albert. It's beautiful. Thanks for sharing it with me. I can see why you wanted it," he said, handing the shield back to Albert. Even after the shield was out of his hands, its effect was not lost on a part of him that he couldn't keep at bay. His heart was now in the white man's world but his soul was Indian through and through, and he'd yet to face up to it.
Albert placed the piece back on the workbench. "Let's go to the kitchen and have that coffee I promised you." They continued down the corridor until it led them to the kitchen. By the time the coffee was brewed and poured, Robert's mouth was watering from the smell of the fresh ground beans that filled the room.
"See if you aren't dazzled by the fragrance and flavor of this superior brew," Albert said as he sipped. It was everything he promised it would be and they sat at the table and talked until all the coffee in the pot was gone. Albert was excited by his purchases and spoke of the history of the pieces he had previously acquired.
Daylight had given way to dark without their help and Albert brought out some small photographs of the Plains tribes taken long ago. Both looked into each picture, creating personal conceptions of who the native peoples might be.
Robert found himself able to relax around Albert. The man was full of stories and experiences that were fascinating and he obviously delighted in telling them. Having always lived in a very narrow spectrum, and mostly inside of himself, the stories gave new meaning to his own limited experience. Albert's love for the Indian cultures expanded Robert's own understanding about who he was. It left him feeling good about the Indian half he now rarely acknowledged.
"You've told me about everything but the Corvette."
"Hardly everything, dear Robert. The Corvette?"
"How is it you have a Corvette you've never driven?"
"This is not a story I tell easily. There was a young man, a beautiful young man. He had a brain like no other I've known. He wanted to be a surgeon and Albert helped to make it possible. When he became a doctor I gave him the Corvette to show him how proud I was. He did love that car."
"No doubt!" Robert said.
"His country called. He said it was his duty. He never returned and the car is now his memorial. I can neither drive it nor can I sell it. We are prisoners of our love you see, even when the love has gone."
"I'm sorry," Robert said as Albert faded almost completely inside himself. They sat in silence, the coffee gone and the house quiet. Albert finally collected the pictures and returned them to their place.
"I'm sorry I didn't let you pick him up."
"Pick whom up?"
"Toby. That was his name. If I hadn't been there you wouldn't be upset and he'd be keeping you company."
"But you don't even approve of a man my age picking up a boy his age. Why are you such a willing participant now?" There was a new accent. It certainly wasn't continental. It was neutral but very American and the first time Albert had spoken without his facade.
"I can see how upset you are about your friend. I just thought maybe being with Toby might help."
"Nothing can do anything about that pain. But at times I need someone to get me from one day to the next. That's when I go looking for company, unless I just happen by and someone is waiting for me."
"Waiting for you? They wait for you?" Robert questioned.
"Perhaps not waiting for me but it'll do and I pretend. Some times life is about pretending. Pretending you're happy. Pretending you have a home and a family. Pretending you have a friend. Pretending you're going to eat tonight. The boys and I each pretend whatever it is that needs pretending at any given time. It's harmless if you don't think too much."
"Yes, but quite illegal, Albert."
"Yes, true. A lonely old man tempers the emptiness while giving a lad who has no place and no food a little of each, and if after we've eaten and laughed, we decided to share a bed, who is harmed? Certainly when I think I need to find a boy, lust takes me out, but once I've met him and addressed his needs, it's only my concern for him that matters, not me. Everything else that follows is by mutual agreement. I would never do harm to anyone."
"Yeah, but it can still get you into trouble. The harm is that you are violating a law."
"Yes, and is it the law that allows the waifs to haunt our streets, hungry, lost, in search of themselves or a human contact."
"They have options, Albert. They should be home. If they stayed home there would be less trouble for everyone and you wouldn't be tempted."
"What do you suppose makes them leave happy homes to live lives of misery in our gutters?"
"I don't know… they don't like being told what to do."
"Yes, the family must be right and they wrong. Even now I have cause to worry about the boy we left at the curb. Will he eat today or will he sleep tonight with his jagged belly tearing at his insides? If my concern was only for lust, Bobby, you'd be at the curb and he'd be here drinking my coffee. You might give that some thought before judging me so harshly. I just regret I can't offer more of them some comfort."
"You aren't that old Albert and I know you wouldn't harm anyone. I'm worried about you. I'm not judging you."
"You are that young, Bobby. The world is not perfect and if we don't reach out for one another in spite of the law, it's all quite pointless. The law has no heart or soul and it is never hungry or lonely. I'll stand by my efforts to help take care of the boys and I'll accept whatever comes out of it. The law will take care of itself."
"It's there to protect us."
" You must stay for dinner so we can fix the rest of societies ills. I should be forced to eat a TV dinner if you don't. You wouldn't want to be responsible for such a thing, would you?"
"I've got things I should do."
"Of course, you have someone to meet. I should have known you only have so much time to dally with Albert."
"It's not because I wouldn't like to. I have stuff to do. I wish I did have more time. I'd gladly stay for dinner and more of that coffee. I am very glad we ran into each other. Seeing you was a pleasant surprise and I didn't want to pass up a chance to talk."
"What do we have to talk about, Bobby? I'm curious." Albert stopped his work in the kitchen and sat across from him, trying to see through the dark lenses to the boy's eyes.
"Not anything in particular. I mean, I liked our conversation before. I was glad to see you today. That's all."
"You haven't called. I would make time for you. You won't even stay for dinner. Let go of whatever it is and just spend an evening dallying with an old man who is full of stories he hardly ever gets to tell. You never can tell what hidden secrets you might get Albert to confess."
"You're not that old, Albert. Why do you keep calling yourself old?"
"Today I am old. Tomorrow I'll be renewed. We are much alike, you and I. You are not so young tonight. We are both something, but appear to be something we are not." Albert got up to start preparations for dinner.
"How so?" Robert asked. "I appear to be me."
"That will require dinner, some wine, and a hot Jacuzzi to get my mind in the proper frame. I've selected this marvelous cut of beef that I'll braise and I'll prepare a light béarnaise sauce. I shan't burn my meat, not even for you, but you'll absolutely love it. I promise."
"I really shouldn't."
"Ah, but you shall. I can hear the resistance fading. Just mention beef to an All-American boy and he's all yours. I'll bake potatoes and you can bury yours in sour cream and butter. I won't even look or make any snide remarks about how you smother the natural flavor of things with common condiments."
"How did we get from potatoes to condoms?" Albert laughed and Robert liked seeing him happy. He would stay for dinner but he didn't know why. There would be another visit to the room that was filled with objects that reminded Robert of his past. It drew him back now. The resistance, which seemed so powerful on the first visit, was fading and being replaced with curiosity.
It was quite late when they leaned back in the Jacuzzi, Albert with his martinis and Robert with his Miller beer. "I should like to hear about the reservation."
"I'm white, Albert. My Indian half is dead."
"No. You have white blood in your veins, but you are as much
Indian as your father before you."
"He is full blood and I never fit. I'm better off not thinking about it."
"You never think about your father? About going back to see him?"
"He's never expressed any desire to see me."
"How would he know where you are? You said he didn't have a phone. Couldn't you at least make an effort?"
"You are a hard case. A person gets one shot and if you get displeased they're out, that it? It's a hard way to be Bobby. It's a long life and we need to cling desperately to those we love and who love us. There won't be many. I can guarantee you that."
"He sent me away."
"Did you ever ask him why?"
"Now that you're a man, don't you think it's time you asked?"
"I see you as a thoroughbred, headstrong and determined. But some times, even with someone pure bred, and there are damn few of those, he must learn to bend a little to survive. When you learn to bend, you'll be a better man for it."
Robert sat silent. He only knew how to go straight ahead. It's how he had made it this far. He did think about his father, but it always came back to exactly the same place. He wouldn't bend and he wasn't a thoroughbred. He was just a man doing the best he knew how to do.
"He broke horses?"
Robert reached into the bucket filled with ice to retrieve another beer. He rolled it across his face before he opened it. His temple was starting to throb again. He thought it might be the heat but he didn't care. It wasn't the deep relentless pain any longer and it would pass.
"Yeah, that's how he earned a living mostly. He'd go out and bring in the mustangs and break them. White folks would come out to buy them. They knew a pony Pa broke wouldn't ever throw one of their kids."
"Pony? I thought you said horses."
"Mustangs are small and powerful, but they're horses. We call them ponies. The elders didn't think much of the white folks coming there but Pa wouldn't go to them. Word gets out and they'd just show up for one or two or three. He'd tell them to come back in a week. He'd see what he could do."
"You said you were white folks. Did the white people treat you white?"
"No. I was a breed. I wore long black hair. I looked good."
"I bet you did."
"I got beat for it more than once."
"Sounds like you took your beatings on both ends," Albert said. "So why were the white beatings easier to take than the ones the Indian boys gave you?"
"I was one of them, an Indian. They beat me any way. I can pass as white and I do pass. I'm just a guy getting along who prefers not to be beat if he can help it."
Albert looked at the bruise and the beer bottle that kept going to it. His companion looked weary and the beer had made his relaxing easier. "I know the lines of a thoroughbred when I see them. It doesn't matter which world you choose. You can be anything you decide."
"What makes you such an expert anyway?" Robert gazed across the pool at his inquisitor. The words were bittersweet and harsh even to him.
"I've told you who I am. I am a student of your people. I'm a photographer. I am a dealer in fine artifacts and antiquities. I know a bargain from a bust. I recognize character when I see it. I've made my fortune knowing what will be of value tomorrow."
"And I am an unemployed half breed. There is no noble Indian waiting to surface in my character, Albert. He is dead. It and he died at a bus stop in North Dakota."
"As you say," Albert saluted him with his glass and didn't want to annoy him any further.
"I watched my father break ponies for the white eyes until his bones broke and it didn't matter because we had to eat. I watched my father's shame from having a white son. I watched him drink until he couldn't stand and then I watched him fall down. I found him in more than one gutter when he hadn't come home to sleep. No nobility here."
"The white men would laugh at him after they bought him enough booze but they didn't dare laugh at him sober. It was all a game to them. And so you see, there is no noble Indian here, no matter how badly you want to believe it."
"I know of that which you speak, Bobby," Albert said. He was reflecting back on his own childhood when he said it. It wasn't exactly as he had led people to believe it was. The door had been opened and while there were few people Albert told the truth about himself, he thought he would tell Bobby one day. He knew it takes one to know one and they shared more than the illusion they furnished for others.
"Give me a break," Bobby said in his all knowing demeanor. "How could a guy like you possibly know what it's like being stuck between two worlds? Only my mother was there for me and she died."
"Perhaps if you could walk a mile in my moccasins, you might see the similarities."
Robert put his beer down and waited, sensing there was even more to the man than he had suspected. He did want to know more about how Albert got where he was and so he did something quite unusual for him, he listened.
"Yes, I know about that which you speak. You see I was an outcast too. I liked pink shirts with frills and I played with dolls and girls, a double curse for a little boy. Later they'd curse me for not liking little girls in the right way. The way they liked them, as a receptacle for their libido."
"They marked me early, the religious and the pure of heart. Their children taunted me and beat me up. I was the queer boy and they were all sure of that. I was the sissy everyone hated," Albert brooded, sipping from his martini. "Made them feel so damn superior, picking on a helpless child."
Robert listened more carefully once he realized that the continental aire had completely gone out of Albert's voice. His drawl was southern and it ran very deep. "Yeah, they marked me early, and when the smoke cleared, I outclassed them, out invested them, and was more than willing to let them know the difference. My revenge didn't come from hate. I was never built for hatred, but I was built for success. They tempered my steel so that no one could ever hurt me like that again. I suppose in some way they made me who I am."
"When I come to town now, they can't do enough for me, and I let them do anything they want and I'm oh so gracious, but I don't give them a dime. Oh, we talk about it but my memory runs long."
Robert smiled deep inside. There was something about Albert's revenge that tickled him. "All this refinery, this is the payback, huh?"
"Yes, I suppose it is. I try not to become too attached to things because I lived so many years not having much of anything."
"I can relate to that."
"One day, Bobby, you will do the same thing in your own way, after you find what it is that you are searching for. You will go back and all those thorns that pricked your side will have to look at what you've become. The great part is that they'll still be living with their tiny little minds, and when you get the opportunity, you'll kick sand in their faces. You will make them eat your dust. They'll smile and pretend they love it and hope a little of your success, or preferably some of your money, will rub off on them." Albert laughed boldly and drank freely. "Too much alcohol bares the soul."
"You've really succeeded."
"That's the nice thing about being well known. People call for me when Momma or Grandma kick the old bucket. Please come. Now! Can't wait to get their hands on the cash. Mercenary bastards. Not all of them, I guess, but too many for my taste. I should talk. I don't come cheap."
"You certainly come to earth when you drink, Albert."
Robert couldn't help but show his amusement. He enjoyed seeing Albert unwind. He was tempted to tell him the truth about himself, the rest of it, but he drank beer and listened instead.
Albert continued in the pleasant and unmistakable southern drawl, "I suppose I do. My family, really Sister and her husband, raised me. He was a textile factory worker. She was a seamstress. Never knew my old man at all. Mom died of TB when I was four and some. I didn't know her very well either," Albert tailed off and looked into his glass.
It was empty and so was the martini pitcher and he got up to refill it, bringing back more ice and beer for Robert's beer bucket. He eased himself back into the bubbling pool. He continued to look deeply into the glass after it was renewed.
"How did you do it? I can see you did. How'd you pick antiques? It would never cross my mind."
Albert settled back in the tub, setting the quickly emptied glass beside the pitcher. He watched the water ripple and the years melt away. He went somewhere he hadn't been in ages and he could see what he spoke of as clearly as if he was there.
"There was this guy that owned the antiques store. Anderson. Anderson, South Carolina. That's where I hail from. Heart of the fiber belt. His shop was just off Main Street, maybe a block. It had been there as long as I can remember. I walked by it all the time when I was little but I never paid it any mind."
"When I was twelve, I was looking for work. You know, riding my bike, no shoes, nice clothes though. Sister always made nice clothes for me to wear. Man could she sew. Lord knows where I'd a been without her. Family is important, Bobby, especially in my case."
"Anyway, this antiques store is the most fascinating place in the world to me by the time I'm twelve. Every day I am out looking for stairs to sweep or trash to move. Anything for a nickel or a dime. Never thought of asking in there but every other day I go in and look at all that history. The old fellow that runs the place keeps seeing me day after day, and he starts telling me the history of this piece or that piece. You know, just the thing to get a kid's imagination going. Man, did he know stuff and I was mesmerized. Of course he was a lonely old man and no one could afford antiques back then. It was the depression."
" He tells me the difference between the junk in the window and on the shelves and the really valuable stuff in the back rooms. Hell, no one gave a shit in Anderson, South Carolina. I rarely even saw a customer, but the store had been there forever and it was absolute magic for me."
" When I was fourteen, he up and hires me one day. To dust and move things he buys, that kind of thing. He continued to tell me what was quality and what was junk and what would be treasure one day. I was a lonely kid on the outs with everyone but Sister and Ray back then. He was a lonely old man and so we just passed the time together."
" So, I clean the place up. I display things, different things, you know, change his windows once in a while. Business actually picked up while I was working for him. I know the history of every piece and I know what it's worth. Every once in a while I'd try to milk someone that was dumb as a post, and old Mr. Hampton, he'd appear up between the counters, clearing his throat, and then I'd say, but for you, I got this special price today, and he'd shuffle on back to his rocker. "
"That man knew everything that went on in his store. He told me once, 'if you never cheat a man, he'll always be your customer'. He wasn't talking about antiques but I didn't know the difference then. I never thought of it as cheating. I was just trying to make him some money, but he had no interest in anything but antiques, and maybe me after a time."
"I can remember polishing the silver and brass that's sat there for years. He didn't pay me much but I never did it for the money. He'd taught me about everything he knew by the time I graduated high school. I didn't have a clue what he had in mind for me, but he knew. Smart old fart. Paid for my college. Said I'd earned it and that I was lucky he stayed alive long enough to see that I got what was coming to me. I always thought that when you got what was coming to you, it came from a fist. Not that time."
Albert grew silent, still gazing off in the distance and through the years. It took him some time to gather his thoughts and to continue. "Anyway, I go off to Atlanta to college. Every faggot's dream is to get out of those damn redneck towns and find someone else like them. Damn, I never knew there were so many men in the world. Like a bear in a bee hive," Albert laughed as he thought back. "…And I ate all the honey I could get my hands on and I am never going back to Anderson, fucking, South Carolina."
"Sister wrote me. She said, "thought you'd want to know, old man Hampton died. They found him in his shop. He'd been dead a week and they wasted no time getting him in the ground."
"I never gave him much thought or went back to that shop, even once, but when I read this, I cry. Lord knows why. Guess the old boy was the only friend I ever had as a kid. He never once asked me if I liked boys or football or getting drunk and raising hell. I was just fine to him no matter what way I was."
"I don't know why it was so painful then. I haven't thought much about it. Anyway, I cried, and went on about my business, feeling bad because he'd so enriched my life and I was too busy enjoying it to go back to see him."
"Month later, I get another letter from Sister. 'Old man Hampton left everything he owned to you. You better come home and sort through it. I wouldn't know where to begin, so don't ask. It's time for you to come home.' And I went back."
"Hell, I didn't know what I had. I knew the stuff I knew and it would have been worth a nice piece of change compared to anything we ever had, but I didn't know about the other. I wanted to tell her to put a for sale sign on it and sell lock, stock, and barrel to the first guy that takes out his checkbook."
"Then I got to thinking it over, and I thought that the old boy had been kind enough to leave it to me, and I should go see what the hell it is I've got, and I return home to Anderson for the first time in over three years."
"There I was in Atlanta, right where I wanted to be, and I go back to the town whose taunts are still so vivid in my mind. I start taking inventory. I separate the good stuff from the junk and classify everything. I'm a business major, so it's just routine."
"I go into the basement, and in back of where he slept on a cot with a green wool army blanket, there's a room with a big old lock on it. I can't find the keys and finally I get a crow bar and bust in the door."
"Lord have mercy! Couldn't believe my eyes. It was the really good stuff. It was the motherlode. I remembered him telling me back when it all started that Massachusetts was where you got top dollar for the finer jewels, silver, random stones, and such as that, and I loaded the car up and headed north to find out what kind of horse traders the Yankees were."
"Thirty thousand dollars in gold and jewelry. I sold the first lot to one dealer after he looked over it for five minutes and gave me a price. I was too dumbstruck to bargain. Hell, he might have changed his mind. I had ten trunk loads of stuff just like that first trunk load. I'm sure they were robbing me blind but it was silver, gold, jewelry, I couldn't begin to know the value. It was just the road out of the South then and it was more money than I ever dreamed of. I don't even know if Mr. Hampton had any idea what he was worth. I don't think he cared. He was a collector and a dealer and that was all. He lived in his store and he died there.
"I gave Sister the store to do her sewing. I gave her ten thousand after paying off their house, and I was off to find my fortune. As you can see, I found it, but I'd nearly gone through all the money by the time I was making any of my own. Kids shouldn't have too much money when they start out, they waste it. But I had a hell of a good time while I was doing it. I got a reputation as an honest broker, and business started coming my way."
"Then everything I touched turned to gold. I put money in stocks after my best year and the market leaped almost over night. I took it out and bought property and its value doubled in a year. There wasn't anything I could do to lose money. I'm more cautious now but I live good and enjoy my life for the most part. I'm not going the way of Mr. Hampton. He'd probably say I sold out."
Albert grew silent and sipped slowly, thoughtfully. All pretense had gone. He'd told the entire truth as he knew it to be for once. He didn't know why he picked Bobby to be the recipient of this information. He did think it could aid him in the journey he was taking, as an old man had once aided him, but he wasn't sure that was the reason.
"So you see, it never hurts to be kind to old men. You just don't know what is around the next corner in life. I can honestly say, if it hadn't been for that old man, I'd be a hayseed, working in a textile plant between Anderson and Greenville, South Carolina, or maybe even dead by this time. I would have stayed the sissy boy because that's what the people there made me." The southern drawl was heavy and slow.
"Sorry if I bored you. I was making a point, I'm sure. I'm just not sure what the point might be." He held up his glass. "Too many of these, but there must be a point in there some where if you care to sort through it."
"You didn't bore me. That was a terrific story. I would never have figured you for a hillbilly." Robert smiled across the pool.
"Well, not far from the hills. You see, a few drinks, and you can get anything from me. I don't tell that story to everyone, hell, I don't tell it to anyone any more. No one cares." Albert laughed loudly. "Most of my friends just know I came up in antiques. It's all they need to know."
"Why tell me, Albert?" Robert was particularly curious.
"Why? Why? Why do the birds keep on singing. Why do the waves come to shore? I don't know why. It was just something I wanted you to know."
"Of course I feel like a total dope now."
"The story wasn't about you, Bobby. It was for you. Maybe that's the point I was trying to make. Look at me now and look where I came from? It's nice to trust someone enough to level with them. It's not like anyone really cares what happened thirty years ago. It's not so much about how one acquires his wealth as it is that he has."
"Talking is such hard work and you've worn me out. You may reside in my guest room for the night. You've had too many of those for it to be safe for you to pilot your auto. I make a hellacious omelet. There's a lock on the door, so it is risk free. You may finish your soak but I'll show you the room first, and then I must recline these ancient bones until morn."
Bland laid out his plan as Pollard listened. "You're going to take me home at lunch time and I'm going to catch a nap. When you're ready to call it a day give me a call. I'll drive over to your place and get the car so I can stay out tonight. I think we'll do better if we stretch our hours this way."
"You notice he never hits on the nights we've been staked out together," Pollard said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know it's supposed to mean anything. I was looking at the dates when these guys were murdered and the dates we staked places out at night. He never struck once during our stakeout. He's lucky."
"Luck runs out. If we keep at it we'll nail him. They always make a mistake somewheres along the line."
"Yeah, they always do. It's just one of those odd facts I collect. Here's another one for you. I was cross checking addresses and phone numbers last night. The place where that guy's car is registered?"
"Yeah, that one. There's also a car registered to a Michael Connell at the same address, which is interesting in itself."
"Michael Connell?" Bland said.
"Yeah, Brown's main man. The guy he gave a desk job to when they was aiming on retiring him… After that big shooting last year?"
"I know Mike Connell. You sure it's the same Mike Connell? This is getting more strange as we go along," Bland said, mostly for his own consideration. "You're telling me that the kid I hit and Brown's right hand man are linked?" Jim Bland found himself searching for angles to explain these particular facts.
"I don't know, Jimmy. I don't imagine. What kind of a coincidence would that be? A guy you rough up has a car registered at the same address as the aide of the man that runs our taskforce? Even Ripley wouldn't believe that one."
"Yeah, Ripley and James Foster Bland. Check it out anyway," Bland said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he thought about the new information. "I still want to have a face to face with that guy. I don't want him coming back on me by mistake. He doesn't want to make that mistake."
"He hasn't said anything yet. Why ask for trouble? Leave well enough alone for Pete sake. I'm still looking for where he moved. He could have left town, you know."
"Just find out if there are any more links between those two. I want to know where I stand on this deal. You don't leave loose ends, Pollard. You leave nothing to chance. How many times I got to tell you that? Mike Connell? That could explain a lot of things."
"I don't know. There's only so much time in any given day. I'll run another check on the apartment, phone, registrations and like that. It's a waste of time, you ask me. This guy isn't coming forward. Fags don't come forward. They know you don't want to get on the wrong side of the law."
"They're already on the wrong side of the law. I want something on this one just in case he decides he wants trouble."
"There is nothing, Jimmy. He's clean. It's almost like he never existed before you hit him. Just an address and a car."
"We might need to get creative. There's always something if you look hard enough. So keep looking."
"I'll look… I'll look."
"With me going out evenings it'll extend our surveillance time. It's not like I got a life otherwise. I'll be leaving my car at your house from now on and then I'll leave the unit for you when I'm done and you can pick me up at my place at noon and I'll pick up the unit in the evening. I want to follow some leads I'm working on."
"Whatever you say."
Bland knew where to find Robert and he was building information about his habits but knowing what he knew already, and then having Mike Connell added to the mix, only made him more curious about Robert Mann.
"This is great and I don't even like mushrooms," Robert said, digging into his food.
"Ah, yes, the cheese makes it an experience one shan't soon forget."
"You know, you told me about everything else last night, except for the Indian thing."
"Oh my word, you are wicked, Bobby. I really shouldn't be telling you that. One does have one's pride." The voice was rich with a continental aire and Robert was sure the southern drawl came out only late at night and well lubricated with alcohol.
"It can't be much further out there than what you've already told me. Come on. Give. Why all the interest in Indians?"
"My first lover was a Black Foot Indian. We may stress the black. He was the most magnificent creature I have ever been with and the word 'no' never entered his vocabulary. He was a true adventurer."
"The homosexual is highly regarded in some tribes," Robert said, thinking back to his youth. "We didn't have any but I remember hearing about it. It's not a big deal to Indians. It just is."
"Believe me, it's a big deal when you are dealing with Randolph Dark Horse of Idaho and Eastern Oregon. He covered a lot of ground. Oh, mercy, did he."
"It was only once I came here that everyone was calling everyone else queer and fag. I never really heard the words back home. Maybe in town. I was just referred to as the breed. That's about the biggest insult at home."
"One must choose up sides here. Would you please stick your head out the front door and get me the paper, while I finish with my omelet?"
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]