Goats and Bugs

by Nick Brady

Chapter 13

George clicked off his cell phone and dropped it in his pocket. He sat for a long time and dawdled over his cola, not anxious to go back to the apartment and deal with whatever waited for him there. He looked at the clock on the wall of the deli. It was eleven-thirty. He wondered if Bobby was in church with his father. A little prayer couldn't hurt the situation. He tried to draw some comfort from that.

At noon, he decided that he might as well go back to the apartment. Maybe no one was home. Maybe they were and all hell was about to break loose. George sighed and rode back to face the music.

He parked his bike in the shed and walked to the apartment door. There were two cars in the parking lot next to the entrance. One was his mother's, and the other he guessed belonged to Ron. "OK," he thought. "Let's get this over with."

His mother and her friend Ron were sitting in the living room when George opened the door. They stopped talking and looked at him. He paused and stood still. After his speech last night, it was their move.

"Have a seat," Ron said. Apparently, he was in charge.

"Your mother and I have had a long talk," Ron began. "She has explained to me that you have a unique relationship with your friend Bobby. We have also tried to consider your point of view regarding the move. We understand that this was sprung on you rather suddenly and can understand your reluctance to move to a new place with us."

George exhaled slowly, realizing that he had been holding his breath up to this point. This was going better than he expected. He nodded slowly.

"I believe we need to have a long talk with Bobby's father Ely. If the situation is as you have described it, we think it would be acceptable for you to stay with them for at least the present time. Of course you realize that we would like to have you live with us eventually. You certainly are part of this family," Ron paused. "Are you following me?"

"Yes, Sir. I, uh, thank you." This was going much better than expected. "I can give you Ely's phone number. He will verify what I told you. There are several projects that I'm working on with them. They will pay me, of course."

"No doubt you will be worth whatever that is," Ron smiled slightly. "Let's leave it at that for now. I hope you will find that I am a reasonable person, George. I assume that you are mature and responsible until you give me reason to find otherwise."

"Thank you, sir." George began to relax a bit. He looked at his mother who had been sitting quietly.

"I'm sorry, George. I should have been more open with you about Ron, but I was unsure of myself. That wasn't your fault. I apologize too that I have been so distracted. I've been focused on my own situation and haven't been very tuned into what's important to you."

"It's OK, Mom. I want you to be happy. We all deserve to be happy, right?"

"Yes, honey. I guess that's the point. I want you to be happy too. I can see that for now, you need to be with your friend. Ron is a better person than you realize. He's helped me see things more clearly. "

George looked back and forth between Ron and his mother. "You need to talk with Ely, then I need to talk with Bobby. You guys have a lot of planning to do before your move. I think I would like to go out to Bobby's as soon as it's OK with you."

Ron nodded. "Can you give me Ely's number?"

George went into his bedroom and began to pack some essentials into a suitcase. He would be ready as soon as he got the word. He could hear Ron's voice as he talked to Ely, occasionally punctuated by his mother with what sounded like questions. After some time, the tone of the conversation changed and it was apparent that Ron was talking to Phyllis. The phone call was finished. George closed his suitcase and went back into the living room. Ron and Phyllis were in the kitchen drinking coffee. They turned and looked at George.

Ron smiled at George. "According to Ely, you will be an asset to the farm. He spoke very highly of you."

Phyllis looked a little teary eyed. "I guess you can go anytime," she said. "I hope this is for the best."

George hugged his mother. "It will be Mom. We can talk on the phone every day if you like."

"We aren't gone yet. We plan to be married on Christmas Eve. You, Bobby and Ely will be there, I hope."

"Of course, Mom. Do I get to be the best man?"

"Yes, of course .

George called Bobby when he got back in his room. "I can come! I guess you know that Ron talked to Ely and it's OK."

"I know. I was listening in while they were talking. So tell me about Ron."

"I had him all wrong. I think Ron is a really stand-up guy. I'm happy for my Mom."

"Everybody deserves to be happy," Bobby reminded him. "When can you come out?"

"I've got most of my clothes packed in a suitcase. Is it OK if I ride home with you on the bus tomorrow?" George asked. "I don't need all the junk I have in my room, just some clothes."

"That's OK. We can make room for your stuff. I can't wait for you to get here."

"I'm really excited. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up and it's all a dream. I promise I'll make this work. You won't be sorry."

"I won't be sorry," Bobby laughed. "You might be sorry when you figure out how much work there is to do out here. You'll earn your keep."

"See you tomorrow!"

George lugged his suitcase and a cardboard box to school on Monday. His clothes were in the suitcase and in the box were shoes, his mounting board and the pickle jar. He was all set.

Bobby and George sat together on the bus coming home to the farm. It was strange to be riding the bus on a Monday rather than of Friday at the end of the week. "You will get tired of this noisy old bus when you ride it every day," Bobby told him.

"No I won't," George assured him. "It's taking me home."

"You really feel that much at home on the farm?"

"It's more like home to me than the apartment. That's been true since the first weekend I spent with you."

Bobby nodded and smiled as they pulled up to the road to the farm. Pepper was there to greet them. "Hello Pepper! I've come to see you girl," George rubbed her ears. She followed them to the house. Bobby carried George's box. George struggled with the full suitcase.

"Bring that into the bedroom," Bobby told him. "We'll find room for everything." He emptied the drawers from his dresser and the shelves in his closet.

"Wait. I don't need that much room," George said.

"I know. I need to sort out all my junk anyway. This is a good time to do it. You get half the space whether you need it or not."

"But that's not fair. This is your bedroom," George protested.

Bobby smiled. "It's OUR bedroom now, George. There's plenty of room for both of us."

"OK, OK. You're the boss," George laughed. "I don't want to crowd you."

"Really. It's no problem," Bobby stopped and looked at George. "I always wanted a brother. This is really cool for me."

"Am I your brother?" George asked.

"Close enough," Bobby grinned.

Bobby set aside a pile of clothes that he had outgrown or no longer wore and made room for George's things. "There. We got plenty of room. You got two drawers and a shelf and a half. There's room for some stuff on hangers if you need it."

"That's more than I need," George said. "I just brought the stuff I can wear. There isn't much else at the apartment I want to bring out. Thanks, Bobby."

"We'll work this out. Let's go check on my dad."

Ely had come up to the house when he saw the boys come in from school. He smiled when he saw George. "Looks like we got a full time hand now. It's good to have you, George."

"I can't thank you enough. I'll try to make you glad you let me come."

"You aren't a stranger here," Ely smiled. "We're glad you're here already."

Bobby slapped George on the shoulder. "Come on, hand. We've got our chores to do."

They began the now familiar routine. Pepper chased up the cows, and Bobby started to milk. George looked after the goats and gathered the eggs, then went to watch Bobby on his milking stool.

"I need to learn how to milk," George said. "I know I'm slow, but I'll never learn by watching."

"OK. Let me finish this girl and you take the last one." Bobby moved the last cow into the milking stall and gave the stool to George, then coached him through the task.

"Sit close enough so you don't have to lean over. Wash your hands in the rinse bucket and wipe down the udder with the washrag. There, that's it. Now grab the two teats closest to you, push up with an open hand then grip and squeeze as you pull down. Start from the top and pull down. That's it."

George tried to follow Bobby's instructions as he walked him through the ancient art of milking. He was a little awkward, but the milk started to flow. He fell into a rhythm as he began to get the hang of things. "There you go," Bobby encouraged him. "That's about it for the front teats. Now move to the back. You're getting it!"

It took George longer to finish the than Bobby, but he got it done. "I think I'm getting the hang of it," George said.

"You do this every day for a week, and you'll get faster," Bobby said. "All it takes is practice. Your hands will get stronger too, and that helps."

They walked back to the house with the eggs and stainless buckets of milk. "If I can help milk, we could increase the number of milk cows we have," George said.

"That's the idea," Bobby agreed. "We'll get there."

Back at the house, Bobby began to pull things out for dinner. While he was in the kitchen, George sat down across the table from Ely. "I want to fit in here. What are the rules?"

Ely raised his eyebrows. "Rules?"

"Yes sir. Every place has rules. I want to know what's expected of me."

Ely chuckled. "I don't know that I have any rules. There is work to be done and I reckon you can help with that as best you can. Me and Bobby can show you how to do things, but we don't really have any rules."

"Yes, sir. But you must have some expectations for me. Things I should and shouldn't do."

"I expect that you will do what you always do when you're out here. Help with what needs to be done and treat me and Bobby with courtesy and respect. That's all I ask of Bobby and that's all I would ask of you. You're a good boy, George. I'm proud to have you with us, and I know that Bobby loves you. You'll do fine."

That was the extent of Ely's instructions for life on the farm. Life was full of surprises.

George spoke with his mother on the phone fairly often. The conversations were cordial now that she no longer felt the need to be in control. Phyllis was in love, and excited by the prospects of her new life with Ron. He turned out to be a decent man and George felt badly that he had misjudged him without knowing him at all. People did deserve to be happy, George realized, and that included Ron as well as his mother.

For his part, George tried to settle into the routine at the farm with Bobby and Ely. He learned to milk more efficiently and Bobby even taught him to be more useful in the kitchen. Ely turned out to be more than Bobby's father, he became George's friend and mentor. There were never any cross words between them. Ely showed him how to do a lot of things with patience and gruff affection. It was as if George had acquired a father as well as a brother and his anxiety about his usefulness faded into a quiet confidence in himself.

George found himself working hard to please Ely, not because he had to, but because of the satisfaction it gave them both. His time at the farm evolved into a pleasant routine. Bobby knew how to make things go smoothly, and George quickly learned the skills that Bobby took for granted. With George to help, the chores went smoothly and there was free time to explore the simple pleasures of rural life.

George learned to fish, Bobby taught him how to shoot and they occasionally supplemented the daily menu with rabbits and squirrels. As the season progressed, there were ducks that visited the pond, some of whom volunteered to be food for the table. Pepper was their constant companion and eagerly retrieved what fell to their marksmanship. The garden gave up potatoes and winter squash. The woods yielded mushrooms. There was ample time to explore secret places in the pine forest and to enjoy the intimacy such places provided. They rode the bus to school and back every day. The school work was no challenge for the two and they were looking forward to the Christmas holidays. Life was good.

Two weeks before Christmas, Ely received a wedding invitation in the mail. He opened it that evening at the supper table. "Well, well. Would you look at this." Ely chuckled. "We've been invited to a wedding. How about that?"

Inside the envelope was a folded note with George written on it. "This is for you," Ely handed the note to George who read it aloud.

"Dear George. We hope that Ely and Bobby can attend our little wedding. It will be an informal affair so don't feel like you need to wear anything fancy. It will be in front of the County judge as neither of us are active in a church. Forgive us for being heathens. Ron and I have only invited a few friends, and we will go to a restaurant for a small wedding dinner. We will be at the court house at noon on Christmas Eve and will leave for Kansas City the next morning. Our wedding will be our Christmas present. Your attendance is all the gift we could ask for. We love you. Mom and Ron."

"Sounds like they are getting married all right," George said. "Are you guys up for a wedding?"

"I wouldn't miss it for anything," Ely smiled. "It's nice of her to invite us."

"Do you remember your daddy?" Bobby asked.

George shook his head. "Apparently he wasn't around very long. I think I got his name and that's about all."

"What happened to him?"

George shrugged his shoulders. "Mom never wanted to talk about it. I guess it's supposed to be a mystery."

"Well now. Sometimes its best not to pry into things," Ely said softly, glancing at Bobby. "I guess George will be getting a new daddy for Christmas."

"Maybe I'll just borrow Bobby's," George said quietly.

"That would be alright by me. I always wanted another boy," Ely laughed, then stood to signal the discussion was over.

"I'm sorry," Bobby said when they got to the bedroom. "I guess I was being nosy."

"It's OK. Being out here is the closest I've ever been to having a father. I wasn't joking about that."

"Dad wasn't kidding either. He thinks a lot of you."

"What do you guys do for Christmas?" George asked

"The little church usually has a Christmas Eve service. We go to that, then open some presents on Christmas morning. That's when Santa brings me my new socks and underwear," Bobby laughed. "I'll get my dad a new shirt or something. We don't make a big deal out of Christmas presents."

"Didn't you get toys when you were a little kid?"

"Yeah, when I was little. I don't guess I never got that excited about toys. There wasn't anybody to play with."

"You never mentioned any family. Don't you have any aunts or uncles? Maybe some cousins?"

"Nope. Dad's got a sister back east somewhere but she's not married . We might get a Christmas card from her but that's about all," Bobby said. "I remember my mom but she didn't have much family. What about you?"

"Mom's an only child and her parents died when she was young. "My father is a mystery and I know nothing about his family," George shrugged,

"That's kind of weird, you know? Neither of us has much family," Bobby said.

"Maybe we do now. At least I do."

"Yeah? I'm OK with that. Maybe we both do."

George laughed, "Hiya Brother!"

"Hi yourself. I was hoping my brother would be better looking."

"Ouch! Thanks a lot!"

"I'm just kidding. You're cool," Bobby laughed.

"I'd like to get Ely something for Christmas," George said. "Any ideas?"

"You trying to make me look bad?"

"No. But it's so kind of Ely to let me stay here. I'd like to get a nice present for him."

"Seriously?"

"Yes. Wouldn't that please him?"

Bobby shook his head. "It would probably embarrass him. If you want to do something nice for my dad, work hard, be polite and don't clown around."

"What do you mean Clown around?"

"You know. Make dumb jokes and act like a smart alec. He doesn't like that. Work hard and be nice. That'll make him happy."

"But you know I'm goofy. Maybe he won't like me when he gets to know me."

"When I said you were goofy I just meant you were funny. I think you're fun to be around," Bobby said. "It's not like my dad doesn't have a sense of humor. We kid around sometimes."

Bobby leaned back. " I remember one time when we were in the Corner Cafe and these boys came in and started horsing around. They ate the crackers, poured salt on the table and were noisy. They were showing off and being rude to the waitress. That's what I meant by clowning around. He didn't much like that."

George hung his head. "I remember that too. I was one of those boys. But your father never said anything."

"I know you were. But he wouldn't ever say anything. It's a respect thing. Dad will treat you square no matter what you do. But when people act rude like that, he doesn't respect that."

"I'm surprised you wanted to be friends with me," George said sadly.

"I wasn't sure about you at first. But when I got to know you better I figured out you weren't really like that. You aren't really a smart alec, you just want people to like you. You were showing off for your friends."

"I've never seen you show off."

"I don't feel like I need to. The thing is, I'm OK with who I am. If people like me that's nice, but I really don't need other people to tell me I'm OK."

"Not many people are like that," George said.

"Well, think of it this way," Bobby said. "I live with my dad. You live with your mom. They are all we've got so we care a lot about what they think. My father tells me I'm a good boy. He brags on my cooking even when it stinks. He constantly lets me know he respects me and appreciates what I do so I feel good about myself. Your mother puts you down a lot so you don't feel that good about yourself."

"Yeah, that's true."

"Your mom and my dad are very different people. Dad's had a hard time. He really loved my mom and she died. He had to try and make it on this little farm with only a little kid to help him. It was tough but he's made the best of it. He could be bitter but he's not. I don't much about your mother but I expect she's had a hard time too. Maybe it made her kind of bitter. Maybe she takes that out on you."

"I think you're right about that," George sighed.

Bobby leaned forward and looked very serious. "You have to understand. I know my father loves me. He never says it in so many words. He never tells me he loves me, he shows me that he cares about me every day. How can I not respect him? How can I not respect myself?"

"I think I'm beginning to understand you better." George said.

"If you're around my dad for awhile you'll understand a lot of things. I always know where I am with him. He never tells me I'm stupid or anything like that. He never gets mad at me. If I screw up, he just tells me what I should have done differently. He'll treat you the same way."

"That will be nice, for sure," George smiled. "I'm going to like it here."

It had been a long serious discussion and Bobby was tired. He stretched out on the bed and yawned. "I don't know about you, but I need to call it a day. Those chickens will be knocking on the door pretty soon."

"I'm sorry. I always talk everything to death."

"That's OK. You're trying to get everything figured out. Just play it by ear, George. It'll be fine. You ready for bed?"

"Sure. Scoot over, I'm coming in."

The big day came soon enough. On Christmas Eve morning, George and Bobby went out and cut down a small spruce tree and set it up in the living room. "Where are the ornaments and the string of lights?" George asked.

"We don't have any of those," Bobby told him. "We just bring in a little tree."

"It figures," George laughed. "I guess we need to get ready for the wedding."

Bobby and George changed into slacks and a sweater. Ely came out of his room wearing a vintage suit smelling vaguely of moth balls. "Bet you didn't know I had a suit," he laughed. "I bring it out of the closet just for special occasions."

"They wedged themselves into Ely's pickup truck and drove to the court house. Ron and Phyllis were already there with a few friends. Ron was wearing a good blue suit and Phyllis was fashionable in a pink dress.

"You said not to dress up," George reminded her.

"A girl doesn't get married everyday," she bubbled. "You boys look fine."

"I came prepared for a wedding," Ely grinned smugly.

The county judge appeared wearing his black robe and after signing the appropriate forms, performed the ceremony. It was simple but legal.

George hugged his mother, "I love you, Mom. Everybody deserves to be happy and I hope you and Ron are very happy. I'll come to visit you when you get settled in your new house." He shook hands with Ron. "I'm sorry I wasn't nicer to you. I didn't know you and it wasn't fair to be so rude when we first met."

"We should not have sprung this on you like we did," Ron said. "I promise that I will do my best to make your mother happy and I look forward to knowing you better. Your mother tells me that you are a terrific young man. Come see us when you can. Now, let's go eat."

The small group adjourned to a local steak house and enjoyed a fine dinner. George sat with Ely and Bobby and didn't have a lot to say. He had never seen Phyllis so animated and happy. He did wish her the best.

"Well, we got them married off," Ely chuckled as they rode back to the farm. "That Ron seems like a nice enough fellow. When you go to visit, you might want to stay."

"You trying to get rid of me already?" George asked.

"Oh no. We need to get some more work out of you before we let you loose. You do what's best for you, but we like having you with us."

George smiled. "Let's go home. We have chores to do, and tomorrow is Christmas."

Unseen by Ely, Bobby quietly took George's hand and gave it a little squeeze. "Merry Christmas, brother," he whispered.

They changed into their work clothes and went out to go through the evening chores. George helped with the milking and showed improvement. An increase in the number of milk cows was the subject of discussion. They were in good spirits. That night they shared the bed in what was now their bedroom.

George was thoughtful as they held each other close. "The other day, your dad said he was proud to have me here and he knew that you loved me too. Is that true? Do you love me?"

"Now why would you ask me that? It's easy to say something like that. People say that all the time and don't mean much by it."

"I know you told me that you and your dad never say you love each other even though I' know you do, but isn't it different with us? I'd like to think I'm more than your adopted brother."

Bobby rubbed his hand across George's chest. "What would it mean if I said I love you. Would it make things any different between us?"

"It would mean something to me."

"I could say that but it kind of scares me."

"Why would it scare you?"

Bobby sighed. "Once you say that, you can't unsay it. We're just kids. What do we know about stuff like that?"

"I know how I feel. How do you feel?"

"Oh, George. It'd be so easy to say I love you. I'd mean it too. But then what would we do? You would say you love me too, and then what?"

"But I do love you, Bobby. More than anything."

"What we have now is good. Can't we just be friends? Can't we just enjoy what we have and be satisfied with that?"

"Can't we love each other? Is that so bad?"

"I don't know. I never knew anybody like you before. I never felt this way before. It's confusing."

"Me either, but it feels right."

Bobby searched for a way to explain his hesitation. "Suppose I felt about some girl the way I feel about you. That's the way this sort of thing is supposed to work. If we were both thirteen, almost fourteen, I would figure that maybe we were a little young to be falling in love. I'd be careful what I said to her because if I really liked her a lot, I wouldn't want to hurt her. You follow that?"

"Yeah, I think I do," George laughed. "But what would you do if she told you she loved you and played with your willy?"

"Hmm. I guess that'd make it hard."

George fondled Bobby and giggled, "It's getting harder, too."

"I think maybe you're right about that," Bobby reached down to see if George suffered from the same condition and found that he did.

"Darn it George, let's just play with each other. Maybe if you put that thing in your mouth and sucked on it you wouldn't talk so much."

It turned out that Bobby was right.

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