I sighed as I saw the signs for Morrisville. My home town, the place I had struggled to escape over fifteen years ago; now I was coming back with my head hung low and my tail between my legs. It was humbling and humiliating. I had left when I was eighteen and never looked back. I wanted a career, I wanted a life, and I wanted love. I'd gotten the career, I'd had a life, and I thought I'd had love. I'd been wrong.
My company started the cut backs at the beginning of the year. They hit different departments, pruning the dead wood and scaling back over the course of the year. I had thought I was secure; I'd thought I was invaluable; I thought wrong. My loyalty had been appreciated and I was most regretfully given the boot, but the boot came nonetheless. At least they'd given me a good severance package and my skills were in demand.
I came home near the beginning of August and told Steven that we would have to economize till I could secure a new job. Steven had not been pleased. His displeasure only increased as the weeks passed and I was unable to find a job. Economics was not one of Steven's strong points. He loved money; he loved spending money; and up until I'd lost my job I'd been able to keep his habits well supported.
I hadn't sat on my ass waiting for a job to fall in my lap. I went to more than a few interviews, most I was well over qualified for, but none of them panned out. I came home from my latest interview in the middle of October to find Steven's things gone. His things weren't all that was missing. Anything that had been jointly purchased, the entertainment systems, electronics, some art, and such were also gone. By the time I'd gotten over the shock of having the man I'd lived with and loved just leave me without a word after three years together, I wasn't surprised to find our joint accounts completely emptied. Steven had obviously decided that his meal ticket had run out and he'd left with the last plate of food for a new buffet. I at least had enough common sense to have our joint credit cards cancelled before I broke down.
I spent nearly a week in a complete funk. With most of my cash gone, and half of what I'd owned taken, I really didn't have many options. With a sense of defeat, I'd called my mother and asked if I could come home. I don't know about other thirty-five year-old ex-professionals, but by the time I'd packed up my life into a U-haul trailer and started on my way out of metropolitan life in New York to return to the hill country of Pennsylvania, my self worth was in the crapper. I was the eldest son, and the one who'd gone the farthest in my chosen field. I'd been on top of the world. Now all I had was my long-term investments, my 401k and an SUV with a trailer full of my worldly possessions.
I looked at the buildings along Main Street as I pulled into town. I couldn't face the house, not immediately. I pulled into a parking spot and decided to go for a walk. The town had changed a lot since I was a kid. They were doing a major revitalization of the downtown and it was really looking good. I grinned as I saw a sign of civilization calling out to me: Starbucks. Yes, they are everywhere.
I went inside and closed my eyes, letting the aroma waft over me as I tried to imagine myself back in the business district and getting my mid-morning cup of life. Even the heaven of the familiar coffee smell couldn't wash away the fact that I was back in a small town with no future, and having to sponge off my mother to get back on my feet. My shoulders slumped a little as I opened my eyes and went to the counter.
I was looking up at the options when I heard my name being said by a deep, resonant voice. "Hey, Kevin, what can I get you?"
I snapped my attention to the man who'd just come out of the back. He was tall, dark blond, athletic build, wearing a Starbucks long-sleeve shirt that hugged his body in very pleasant ways. I shook those thoughts out of my head; my dick had messed up my life enough, I didn't need to have it do it to me again. "Umm, a cinnamon-vanilla latte?"
He smiled, "Sure," and turned to make my order.
I studied his back. I had no idea who he was. He obviously knew who I was. Other than swinging by for the obligatory Thanksgiving family gatherings and Christmas, I didn't spend time in the hometown. Who the fuck would want to; no bars, no clubs, closest mall was an hour away, and cell phones were only now becoming a dependable thing. He had my latte ready in short order.
"You wouldn't want a sandwich or something with that, would you? Lunch crowd will be in soon."
I nodded and pointed to the turkey-croissant. I couldn't place him, but there was something familiar about him. He must have noticed my perplexed expression because he started to laugh.
"Sorry, I forgot that you haven't been back in years." He stuck out his hand. "Jesse Carlson."
I blinked. Jesse had been one of those "friends of a friend" guys you hang with by default on Friday or Saturday nights. Not that anyone ever did anything in Morrisville; the most that ever happened was guys snagging one of their father's bottles of jack and heading out to the fields to tip cows. Woo Hoo, just my idea of fun. We'd never really known each other in high school, he'd been into sports and I'd been on the debate team and in band. I played sax, if you must know, and still do; Steven had at least left me my sax. I shook his hand, forcing myself to be pleased to be recognized. In truth, I was embarrassed. "Hey, Jesse." I tried to make pleasant conversation; it was only polite. "How'd you recognize me so quick?"
For a moment I could have sworn he looked embarrassed, but he shrugged it off quick. "You're the 'guy who went places' out of our class, bud. Harvard, big success in the corporate world, the local rag keeps track of all the 'kids who did good'."
I felt like crawling under a rock. Yeah, big success I was. I'd done great. I mustered a smile, paid for my food, and took my drink to a table to brood. After a few minutes, Jesse came over with my sandwich. "You forgot this."
"Thanks." I couldn't even muster the smile. Home wasn't more than two miles away, and I couldn't bring myself to go any further. It was the ultimate humiliation. I'd always scoffed at the guys who'd lived with their parents after graduation; they were losers. I'd paid my own way, through scholarships, grants and hard work, and had gotten the hell out. Now I was one of the losers; it was a bitter pill to swallow.
The lunch crowd came and went. I didn't even notice that Jesse replaced my latte a couple times and cleared away my plate as I sat at the window watching the afternoon drag by. Morrisville wasn't as dead as I remembered it. The lunch crowd had been pretty good and the streets, though not bustling, weren't empty. I realized I wasn't alone when I saw Jesse's reflection in the darkening glass of the window. I blinked at him as he drank his coffee.
"Mind if I ask you a question?" He sipped from his cup, looking at me with the soft concern that you get from barbers, or bartenders. It was the "you can tell me, I won't judge you" face.
I shrugged. "Nah, go ahead."
"Why do you look like someone shot your dog?"
I shrugged. "Lost my job; lost my lover; lost my money. Pretty much feeling lost."
He nodded, looking out at the street. "Can't face the Mom yet, huh?"
I was shocked. I didn't think I was that transparent. I hung my head, not willing to look at him. "Only losers live at home with their parents, Jesse."
He made a non-committal noise. "Not always, but I know what you mean."
I looked around. "This is your place isn't it?"
"Yep, how'd you guess?"
I grinned. "Because you have two employees who are doing cleaning and such, but you're sitting here, talking to a customer, without any concern about getting on the boss's nerves."
He smiled. "Dad helped me start the franchise a few years ago."
"That's cool." I looked around the shop, and really took it in. It was a fairly large place, larger than the average Starbucks. It had a separate meeting room area and what looked like a small stage area at the other end. "I wouldn't have thought Morrisville could support a Starbucks."
Jesse laughed. "You really have no clue what's been going on since you left have you?"
I blushed. In my mind, there was no reason to think about Morrisville. It was part of my closeted, miserable past. I'd hated the place. I hated living in a small house, sharing my bedroom with my brother and wearing clothes from thrift shops and second hand stores. I looked back out the window. "Yeah, I'm pretty clueless."
Jesse smiled at me. I could see it in the glass. It was a soft, gentle smile that just seemed to radiate calm acceptance. "You should get home, Kevin. If you want, I can show you around tomorrow after the lunch crowd. That way you won't get lost on your first day back."
I grinned. "It's grown so much I need a guide?"
Laughing, he finished his coffee and stood up. "Not really, but I know the recent histories; so think of it as a 'this is your town' recap."
"Ok, you win. Mom never could make a decent cup of coffee anyway." I stood up and put out my hand. "Thanks, Jesse."
He met my hand with a firm shake and smiled. "My pleasure."
Fortified with coffee and the knowledge that there was one friendly face in Morrisville, I got back in the Acura and finished my journey to the house. Mom came out, smiling and drying her hands as I pulled into the driveway. "Kevin, I was getting worried." Kissing me on the cheek, she pulled back to shake her head as she looked me over. "You're too thin and you look tired. What has Steven been feeding you?"
I hadn't actually told Mom that he'd left. I tried to face it with defiance and strength, but my voice died when I tried to say it and I started to cry. Mom, like she always did, just bundled me into the house and had hot chocolate and cookies in my hands before the tears could hit the ground. She listened quietly as I told her the whole story. She'd been the only person in Morrisville who'd known I was gay. She'd just sat down with me one day during my senior year and point blank asked me. The only person I could never lie to was Mom. She'd been my hero growing up, and the last thing I'd ever wanted to do was be a disappointment. She'd just smiled and told me that she loved me no matter what gender I preferred.
Dad had died shortly after Katie, my youngest sister, had been born. I'd been twelve. Mom had done the best she could, worked two jobs, and had always managed to be at every concert or game or scholastic event her children had been in. What we'd lacked in material things, Mom had always tried to replace with love. I should have paid more attention to that. I'd been so caught up in my own conflicts and dramas that I'd missed the fact that she'd kept our home as a refuge.
Mom put me back in my old room. It felt strange to sleep in that room without Jack in the other bed. Still, I slept better than I had in weeks. I had no idea what I would do, but I wasn't going to be a drain on Mom. Coming home to recover and rebuild was one thing, becoming a dependant was quite another.
I spent the morning moving most of my things either into the storage shed or down into the basement. Even though it was chilly, being late October in northern Pennsylvania, I still worked up a good sweat by lunch. I caught a quick shower, dropped the trailer off at the local U-haul place, and got to Jesse's around one. They had a good flow of people until around two pm, and then he was able to get out from behind the counter. He grabbed his coat and carried out two venti cups.
I nodded, taking the cup. "Yep; I've got to pay you for this."
He waved away the comment. "My treat. Owners can do shit like that." He grinned and pushed open the door. "Ready?"
"Lead on MacDuff." He looked at me, clueless, and I just laughed and followed him out.
Though I was impressed at how much Morrisville had grown, I wasn't nearly as impressed as I was with Jesse's pride in the place. He just radiated love for the town. He told me all about the struggles to revitalize the downtown, how they had torn down the old industrial park and made space for the new Community College campus, and the attempts to bring awareness of the town to others through art festivals and events.
We made it back to the shop around six, feet a bit achy but smiling in spite of ourselves. It had been a great day. One of Jesse's employees came up when we got out of our coats.
"Mr. Carlson?" She was maybe nineteen, pretty, and had a pleasant smile. "Will we be hosting the usual jam session on Friday? A few people called while you were out and I wasn't sure."
Jesse grinned. "I don't see why not. Tell them that costumes are optional but encouraged."
Her smile lit her face. "Way, cool. Us too?"
He laughed. "Sure, but nothing that will dip into the food or cause anyone to catch on the handles or counters."
"Ok, no drapy sleeves or Lady Godiva hair, gotcha." She practically danced back to the counter area to conspire with the other workers about costumes. God, would I want to be that young again? Probably not, but it was tempting.
"Damn, that means I'll have to wear something or the kids are going to drive me nuts." Friday was Halloween.
I laughed. "What happens Friday nights?"
"Music Jam and Poetry night. It gives the college kids and locals someplace to show off their talents, and is a draw for an otherwise slow evening." He grinned. "You don't still play sax do you?"
He had me surprised again. I'd been in Jazz band, which was a relatively small offshoot of main band. It kept me wondering how much he really remembered about High School. Of course, I'd tried to forget most of it so the whole thing baffled me. "Yeah, actually I do." It was the one "art" I ever bothered with. It was impractical and foolish, but I still loved playing the damn thing. Steven had hated it. I suppose that should have been my first sign that he really wasn't the best choice in lovers.
"Cool. It'd be great if you'd come down. We go seven to nine, or ten on heavy nights, and we don't have anyone playing sax. "
I rolled my eyes. "Like anyone would want to hear an out of practice sax player screeching through a blues number."
Jesse laughed. "I would. It would be a nice change of pace from country guitar."
I shuddered. "Oh, that really makes me just pant with anticipation."
I narrowed my eyes. "You're going to make this an ego thing, aren't you?"
"Damn straight." He headed back for the counter. "I don't think you have the guts to come here, in costume, and jam with us uncultured country folk." Bastard. If I hadn't known any better, I'd have thought he knew me too well. There was no way I was going to let that one slide.
I spent the rest of the week getting settled into Mom's house, getting my feet on the ground and contacting headhunters. I also agonized over what I was going to wear Friday night. Leave it to a gay man to fret over clothing for a party when his life is in the crapper. I should have been a drag queen then at least the drama would have made sense. I went through my club clothes and shit that I'd accumulated since college. If you can't make at least a dozen costumes from a gay man's wardrobe, you have to turn in your Fag-Club Card. The hardest part was resisting the impulse just to go out and buy new stuff. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping; but that wasn't an option.
I looked at myself in the mirror as I adjusted my vest. The only thing I had had to buy was some dark tan foundation and some setting powder. Othello didn't have to be -black-, dark Arabic or Mediterranean would do. I'd done my face, ears, neck and chest. I got into costumes. Hell, I'd dyed my hair and goatee from my natural medium brown to black. Can you say "male-drag"? I'd even conned Mom out of a pair of her larger Avon hoops. When I got flush again, I'd have to get her some real jewelry, the fake shit had to go. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best I could do on short notice. Burgundy satin swashbuckler's shirt, black tights, black boots, black velvet vest, gloves… gold jewelry and my sax. I looked like a fucking idiot, but I looked like a hot, great assed, stylish idiot. It would do.
I kissed Mom goodnight between bouts of trick-or-treaters. She rolled her eyes at me, but they sparkled with mirth. "You can't do anything simple, can you?"
I'd become so much more comfortable with my sexuality since I'd left home. The few times I'd gotten Mom out to New York, she'd had a blast when I showed her the "night life" of the city. For a down home, small town girl, Mom was cool. I put my hands on my hips, struck a pose and did my best diva imitation. "What, don't you think I look fabulous?" I dragged out fabulous into a twenty-syllable word in a drag-queen voice that made Mom laugh.
"Yes dear, you'll knock them dead."
"Thanks Mom." I was feeling a little self-conscious as I stepped out of the house. In the city, I'd have been out and flaming with the rest of the girls, but this was Hicksville, and flaming wasn't really what I wanted to do. I looked back. "I don't look like a fag, do I?"
"No dear, you look dashing. I'm sure you'll break a few hearts, especially if you do even half as well with the sax as you did practicing last night." She smiled at me lovingly and made a shooing motion as more kids came up the walk. "Get going; you're blocking the door."
I laughed, bounded past the ghost and witch that were coming up the steps, and got an appreciative second glance from their teen aged escort. Ok, maybe the tights did look good. I got downtown by half-past seven. I was surprised at the number of people in Starbucks. I'd had to park a ways down the street, and walked briskly to the warmth of the store. I may have looked "fabulous", but tights and satin just didn't make good late fall clothing for Pennsylvania. I got inside, brushing past a couple of non-costumed javaholics who had made their last run for the night, and looked for a place to set my sax. I decided not to bring the case; it'd have ruined the look of the costume. Was it practical? No. Did it make sense to my ego involved self image? Hell, yeah.
I found a spot where I could warm up when I realized that I was drawing more than a few looks. I wasn't certain if they were favorable or not. I think it is what an alien would feel if he were to walk into a place. Maybe a third of the people there were in costume, and other than Jesse's employees, none of them had tried nearly as hard as I had to do it well. Most of the people in the place were college aged. There were a few older people, and a few my age. At first I didn't see Jesse. My eyes finally found him; he had been sitting at the stage with a guitar.
Damn if he didn't look good. He was wearing tight, brown denim pants, a white poet's shirt that was loosely laced up the front and showed off a nice bit of dark-blond fur covering a distractingly well-defined chest. He had on a pair of leather moccasin boots and looked like one of the folksy singers from the sixties or early seventies. He even had a leather band with feathers tied around his thigh. All in all, he looked incredible for a thirty-something ex-jock turned coffee shop owner. Who was I kidding; he looked hot enough to melt the makeup off a drag queen. I pushed that thought out of my head and steered it clear of my groin. The last thing I needed was to have a rebound crush on a straight man.
His eyes met mine and he smiled. Getting up he motioning another guy to take his turn on the stage, and came over to my table. He had the most satisfied grin on his face. "Had to prove me wrong, huh?"
I set my jaw and looked defiant. "City boys can take down country boys any day of the week, Mr. Carlson."
His grin only strengthened at my attitude. "Damn, you're feisty tonight."
"I haven't had my coffee and this makeup took forever. Sue me."
He laughed. "The coffee I can fix; you're on your own with the makeup." He looked at me for a moment and shook his head. "You actually did your chest and dyed your hair?"
My confidence waned a little. I looked down at myself, beginning to feel like an idiot. "Yeah, so I went a little over board."
When I looked up, Jesse was still smiling. "Nah, I think it's cool. Most people wont' go to that much trouble for a costume. I have to admit; I'm not placing the look though. Give me a hint?"
I smiled. "Shakespeare, tragedy."
He smiled. "Othello." I melted. I hadn't expected him to be able to guess. He actually blushed. "I should have figured that one out without the hint."
"Hey, without a reference it'd be tough. I still can't figure out who you are." My confidence was returning. Jesse was damn good at making people feel comfortable.
"Well, I was going for minstrel… but I don't know what the fuck one of those looks like. I went to a Medieval Festival once, and I put this together from memory."
I laughed. "It's close. You look like a bard who made the wrong turn and ended up at Woodstock."
Damn if he didn't blush further. Straight men were so easy to keep off balance. "Yeah, well, you want your usual?"
"Oh, an evasion," I thought, but decided to give him a break. "No, surprise me. I'm not Kevin, I'm 'Othello'… just don't poison my cup."
Jesse laughed as he went to make me something. I couldn't help letting my eyes follow him, memorizing how well the denim hugged his muscular ass. I jerked my eyes away and returned to checking my sax. I was not going to lust after a guy I'd just met. I wasn't going to be staying in Morrisville; this was only temporary.
The last singer finished up his song as Jesse got back with my drink. He'd been a 'country' singer, covered a Garth Brooks song, not sure which one, most of them sounded the same to me. Ok, I don't like country. It was another reason I really had to get back to civilization as soon as possible.
Jesse nodded toward the stage. "Get your painted ass up there, Mr. Hamilton. If you're going to talk the talk, you'd better walk the walk."
Another challenge, the man was really getting on my nerves. Knowing I was being played didn't stop me from taking my sax and heading for the stage. I got up on the stool and switched off the microphone. This was a small space; amplification wasn't necessary. I closed my eyes and played some soft jazz. It was Kenny G'ish, which normally turned my stomach, too "popular" for my tastes, but seemed to please the crowd. This was all for show anyway; normally my playing was something from inside, personal and heart felt. I had no desire to open my heart to a bunch of strangers. Not to mention, at the moment my heart wasn't in the best of places.
Jesse grinned at me as I came back. "Ok, so you still know how to play. I admit defeat."
I bowed graciously. "Thank you." Struck by an appropriate punishment, I smiled fiendishly. "I haven't heard you play that stick of yours yet. I think it's only fair that the victor should be rewarded with a song."
He frowned, but picked up his guitar. "You actually want me to 'sing'?"
"Is the Pope Catholic?"
He sighed. "Ok, fine. But don't expect miracles."
I grinned. "I'll settle for not breaking glass."
Giving me an evil look, Jesse made his way to the stage and turned on the microphone. I sat back with my coffee, prepared for something from Tim McGraw or another country star. My head snapped up when I heard him croon his way into "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Albert King. Jesse was right; he wasn't a singer, but he honestly wasn't bad. His guitar playing, however, had me transfixed. It would never have occurred to me in a million years that Jesse would play the blues. I sat, watching him work his way through the words with his eyes closed, and was hypnotized by how his fingers chorded and strummed the song with practiced, though not perfect, skill. The way his fingers made love to the strings, just like the way he loved the town, fascinated me. My thoughts lingered on what those fingers would feel like. It wasn't till the end of the song that I realized I was hard and pressing obscenely down my tights. Thank God I was sitting at a table.
Jesse came back, smiling at the applause but looking a little embarrassed. I liked him blushing; it made him adorable. "Shit, stop that Kevin. You're not going to go there," chastising myself silently. I smiled back as he took a seat at the table and took some strength from his coffee. "You're really good."
He grinned. "Thanks, but I know I sing like a dying dog. You realize you're not going to get one over on me again, right?"
I was disappointed he felt that way; though I wouldn't have run out to buy his records, the idea of listening to him sing again was not unappealing. "Yeah, I guess. We're both full of surprises I suppose."
We talked while other people played, sang and read poetry till late. Jesse was in no rush to lock the place up and leave. He'd gotten me up again, daring me into a blues instrumental duet, bastard; honestly, we sounded damn good. His employees locked up and I found myself sitting with him in the shop, after eleven, with no desire at all to leave. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so comfortable. I'd been lulled too deep to catch what was coming next.
Jesse looked at me, his eyes sincere and honest, and he smiled. "Kevin, play something for real."
I looked at him, confused. "What do you mean?"
"I remember how you played in school, bud. You've been fucking off tonight. Don't get me wrong, it was great, but you weren't really doing it for you."
Have I mentioned that it was fucking annoying how well he could read me? Yeah, I probably have. The guy had some nerve. He didn't know the first thing about me, and there he was telling me how I'd been 'faking' all night. I wanted to be pissed, but honestly, I was scared. Who was this guy who could just look at me and know me without having spent any time with me? I didn't need that; the worst thing in the world would be to fall in love on the rebound. "I don't open up to strangers, Jesse." I looked away, uncomfortable as hell.
He sounded really disappointed; like he thought I'd meant him specifically. "Sorry." He got up and took our empty cups. "I should probably close the place up anyway."
Fuck. Why did that tug at me? He started doing the final things like shutting off the amp and checking on the register and the supplies for the next day. He was checking over the totals, not looking at me, when I started playing. I could feel his eyes lock on me, but I couldn't see them. Mine were closed, and I pulled something up for me. I settled on "You don't know what love is" by John Coltrane. Maybe I played it for me, maybe I was trying to say something to Steven, who would never hear me anyway, or maybe I wanted to give Jesse a look at my soul; but whatever the reason, I played.
He just stared, transfixed on me, as he leaned on the counter. When I finally looked at him, he wasn't smiling. The look was, for lack of a better word, wistful. "That was beautiful."
I really didn't know how to respond to that.
I didn't go back to Starbucks for almost a week. I told myself I was too busy to spend time sitting around a coffee shop. I needed a job. By Wednesday, the combination of suffering through Mom's coffee and my desperate need to socialize had me back downtown. I forced myself to believe that I just wanted some good coffee and to see a friendly face. Yeah, right. What I wanted was to feel connected. After Halloween I'd thought a lot about my previous relationships and how fake they had been. Either I hadn't really been a participant, or my partners hadn't. Steven had just been the most convincing. I realized I hadn't really been in love with him; I'd been in love with the idea of him. He'd been an asshole in many ways, but he was handsome, charming and was more than happy to make me feel special. At least he had been as long as the money was there; he'd just been a really good whore, and I'd been his favorite John. That was probably an unrealistically harsh analogy, but I was bitter. We had filled more needs in each other than money and sex, but in the end it came down to a simple exchange of services.
That was what my career had been too. I gave my skill and talent for pay. The longer I was away from it, the more I began to realize I didn't even like my job. Oh, I loved my field; I loved the investment markets, banking and commerce, and the interaction of money with people's ambitions and dreams. What I didn't like was the constant cutthroat nature of the business; the bottom dollar; the take. Who cared if a major investment group was happy or unhappy with performance? It was like making deals with inhuman titans; the personal rewards were nonexistent.
Jesse smiled as I walked to the counter. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me. "Hey, Kevin; I'd begun to wonder if you'd fallen off the face of the earth."
I grinned and put on a fake tone of boredom in my voice. "Nah, I'm just getting settled into the 'country life' again. You know: raking leaves, hauling fire wood, listening to the sounds of -nothing-."
He nodded, making a drink as we talked. "Yeah, I know. I must have raked up two truck loads of leaves this weekend."
"That's right, you're family owns the orchard outside of town." I remembered the fall harvest celebrations that happened there when I was young. They'd have big barrels of apples, filled with water, and cider and hot dogs. They'd stopped doing it by the time I'd gotten to high school. Like any other farming family, the Carlson's struggled as the produce market turned more and more to South America and other countries for goods.
Jesse frowned. "Owned." He set my cinnamon-vanilla down. "We sold most of the land for development."
That must have hurt. Jesse had such pride and love for the small town and things of our childhood. I couldn't imagine how that must have felt. "Oh man, I'm sorry."
He smiled. "Don't be. It let me afford the franchise," he lifted his hands to his shop, "and I was always better with people than I was with trees."
I set my money on the counter and took up my drink. "You wouldn't want to catch a bite after the lunch rush, would you?" I wasn't making a pass, really; I just wanted to spend time with someone who was turning into a friend.
"Sure; how about Claire's? Nothing better than a diner cooked burger and fries to eat around while you get reacquainted with someone." I liked the sound of that.
Over the next couple weeks, I learned that Jesse had never made it out of Morrisville. His mother had died shortly after graduation, and his father didn't take it well. He'd stayed home, tried to manage the orchard to help his father. He'd taken correspondence courses, and attended the old community college while it was at the other campus in Haydon. He'd managed to get an associates degree, and had taken a couple small business courses in finance and accounting. Unfortunately, the orchard had been a lost cause.
Five years before, when they were breaking ground for the new campus, Jesse realized there wasn't a chance for the family business. They got the land rezoned and broke it into parcels. The Carlson’s had owned a hell of a lot of property. They sold to a couple of developers who planned nice communities for the land. Since the family home and land had been free and clear for years, they had enough to invest and live comfortably, though not extravagantly. Jesse's dad didn't believe in market investments; he believed in investing in people, not companies. So he invested in Jesse; he helped him buy the building and open the franchise. It was a good investment; Jesse was a natural.
Jesse's dad died the previous year. Jesse didn't tear up or sound regretful, but I could tell he missed him. Jesse had been an only child, so he was living in the family house, and wasn't dating anyone. I suppose that was why he kept such long hours at the shop. It was better to spend time with a few customers than to spend it at home, alone. He seemed to look forward to our growing friendship as eagerly as I did. At least we had someone to bond to; someone who understood. It didn't matter that he was straight and I wasn't; we didn't discuss dating or relationships, we just worked on the friendship. It really helped.
It was the Friday before Thanksgiving when I had my next lesson in how small towns work. I'd been back to every Jam Night. During my time with Steven I'd forgotten how much I loved my music. Jesse and I had even practiced together a few times, learning a few songs to play as duets. I had just gotten a couple lattes from Carlie, when I bumped into a couple that I'd seen at a couple of the Friday sessions. They never played, but they would spend the evening quietly enjoying the music and readings. Fortunately, I didn't splash him as I dribbled over the cup. "I'm sorry."
The man smiled. "No problem; we were too close." He looked at me for a moment. "You're Kevin Hamilton, right?"
I blinked. I had no idea who he was, but his smile seemed genuine. "Yep." I grinned. "Should I be nervous about what reputation precedes me?"
He laughed. "I hope not, everything I've heard has been good."
I smirked. "Then I know they were lies."
His wife patted him on the shoulder, moving him aside so that she could get refills while we talked. He kissed her on the cheek as she went by. "Thanks, love." He followed me back to the table and offered his hand once I'd set the cups down. "Jeremy Bates, I'm the President of Franklin Community College."
I shook his hand. "Pleasure to meet you." I sat down and offered him a seat but he waved it off. "I've seen you two at other Jam Nights."
He smiled. "We love the community gatherings. Most people only come through, sit long enough to have a coffee and maybe a desert, but we get to see a lot of our neighbors this way."
Nodding, I sipped my coffee and smiled. "Yeah, I hate to admit it, but it grows on you."
He chuckled. "Missing city life?"
I shrugged. "Sometimes, but not as much as I'd expected."
His face shifted slightly; a bit more serious expression settled into his look. "I understand you decided to leave big business."
I shrugged again. "It was, inevitable, I suppose. I've come to realize I wasn't enjoying it, and I'm not sure I want to go back."
"Ever think of changing vocations?"
I blinked up at him. "Umm, well, not really."
He saw his wife returning with their coffees. "Would you be willing to meet with me at the school, Monday around ten?"
That was odd. He seemed a little nervous. I had to admit, I was intrigued. "I don't have anything on my calendar, and it would give me an excuse to get some coffee other than for the company."
He chuckled. "Any excuse for good coffee."
He took his cup from his wife and he introduced us. "Anne, this is Kevin Hamilton. Kevin, this is my wife Anne. She's a sucker for a mournful sax ballad."
She frowned at him. "Jeremy, don't give away all my secrets at the first meeting." She extended her hand with a smile. "I think you play wonderfully."
"Thank you." I took her hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. "I think your husband is trying to butter me up."
She laughed. "Don't mind him, he's harmless." Grinning, she leaned down and whispered into my ear. "And you're right, he is."
I grinned, and Jeremy looked flustered. "Gee, now I'm wondering if I should wear my good clothes for Monday."
He grunted, but I could tell he wasn't upset. "Business casual. No classes next week so we're just having administrative days before the holiday."
"I look forward to it." They wandered back to their table, Anne teasing Jeremy about something, and I wondered what that had been about.
Jesse came back and snagged his cup. "Nice to see you making new friends."
I grinned. "Worried you couldn't handle me on your own?"
He almost choked on his coffee; it dripped from his chin as I reached for some napkins. "Asshole."
I couldn't stop grinning for the rest of the night.
I met with Jeremy on Monday, and he gave me a short tour of the school. The campus was definitely in a growth mode. He explained that more people were moving into the county and the school's reputation and connections with larger universities was making it a stepping-stone for further education. They were also developing quite a reputation for specialty two-year degrees and adult education. I enjoyed the tour, but it didn't answer why he'd wanted to meet me. That was answered when we got back to his office.
"We're opening a full business school next year." He beamed with pride at the statement.
"Really, that's impressive." Honestly, I was impressed.
"Unfortunately, I'm losing my head instructor for business and finance."
He nodded. "Yes. Up to this point, the position has been only a part time affair. George Madison, the investment officer for the bank, has been teaching our economics and finance classes, but he's retiring next month and plans to move to a warmer climate while he's still young enough to enjoy it."
I smiled. "What does this have to do with me?"
Jeremy folded his hands together and leaned forward on his desk. "I wanted to know if you'd be interested in heading up the new department."
I was stunned. "I don't have an educational degree."
Shrugging, he sat back. "You have a Masters in Economics from Harvard, you're young, talented and respected in the field." He smiled. "I did a little research before I approached you; you come highly recommended."
"You want me to teach?" I was still struggling to get my mind around the concept.
"Yes, and head up the department as it grows. I believe we will have a growth in our business program in the next few years; with the changes in the economic environment, a lot of people are trying to get a better education or need the skills to run their own businesses."
I thought about it. One of the things I'd missed, as my career advanced, was the interaction with individual investors. I still loved the field, but I needed a change. I shot him an ironic grin. "I would guess the catch is it doesn't pay."
He chuckled. "Not as well as you could make back in the corporate world, that's for sure. But for the area, it isn't pauper's pay."
We went over the numbers and I was tempted. He had given me a lot to think about. I put out my hand as we stood. "When do you need an answer?"
He shrugged. "George will be here for the spring semester if we need him, but I'd really like this resolved before the fall term ends. That way we can either put out feelers."
That would be about three weeks. I nodded. "Ok, I can give you an answer by the fifteenth?"
"He nodded. That would be fine." His smile was warm and he seemed to know what I was thinking. "It's a huge move, Kevin. I made it myself twenty years ago. I honestly don't regret it."
I got to Starbucks with my head still spinning. The money was less than a third of what I'd been making in New York, but my expenses, even with buying a house, would be less than half. It'd be a change in life style, but Jeremy had been right, I wouldn't have to live in a trailer. I sat at the window, looking out at the town. Did I really want to stay? Could I be happy away from the beat and pulse of the city?
I was pulled out of my introspection by the voice that was beginning to haunt my dreams. "Penny for them?"
I smiled at Jesse as he sat down across the table from me and set down another cup by mine. "Not sure they're worth that much, but thanks." I picked up the new cup and took a sip. I shuddered for a moment. It wasn't my usual. I gave the cup a dubious look and Jesse grinned.
"I thought you should try something new. You've been drinking the same thing for weeks. Sometimes change is good." He took up his own cup and sipped.
I took another sip, savoring the flavor now that I wasn't being shocked by the unexpectedness of it. It was smooth and creamy with a hint of spices I couldn't quite place. I raised any eyebrow at him. "Ok, I like it. What is it?"
"Our new Holiday Spice latte. We started offering it at the beginning of November."
I tasted it again. It really was pretty good. "It's good. I bet people enjoy it." I grinned. "I wouldn't want it all the time."
Chuckling, he smiled. "Nah, everyone needs a change every so often. Little ones are usually better than big ones; they spice up life without causing too much commotion." I just melted into that smile. It wasn't perfect, but it was real, like Jesse. I hadn't realized I'd been staring till he pulled a funny face. "Earth to Kevin."
I blinked, suddenly embarrassed by my behavior. "Sorry, lost there for a moment." I looked back out of the window. Change; that was something I still wasn't comfortable with. We sat there in silence for a few minutes. It wasn't really uncomfortable, just necessary. I turned back to Jesse and smiled. "What are you doing for turkey-day?"
Jesse shrugged. "Probably a Stouffer's hearty meal and a beer."
"You're kidding? Don't you have any relatives nearby?" Jesse was such a person-oriented guy; it was hard to believe he didn't have plans.
"No, they all live a few states away. With 'Black Friday' right afterwards, I can't leave town for the holiday." He sounded tired. I believe that he hadn't had a break since his father had died.
"Then you're coming over to our place. With half the crew coming in for the weekend, one more mouth won't even dent the fixings."
He looked shocked. "I couldn't do that, Kevin. Thanksgiving is a family day."
I frowned. "Originally it was a time to give thanks for friends and neighbors too. I'm not going to sit around, stuffing myself on turkey and home made fixings, knowing you're eating a microwave meal."
He grinned. "You sure?"
I laughed. "Mom loves to cook. If you want to bring something, supply the coffee for after dinner. Mom can still burn Maxwell House."
Jesse cringed. "I'll be there, if only to save the good name of coffee."