The Battles of Leuctra
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“There’s a kind of watchful softness in your eyes. A desire to not hurt or be hurt.”
“What?” I was appalled.
“Especially when the door opens. Your eyes dart up like you’re expecting pain, then they go flinty, as though in defiance of the first feeling, then you look away.”
I must have gaped.
“Sorry,” she said. “I try to look into people. If I can find something nice, it helps me not get so angry so fast. Or that’s the idea.”
“Terrifying, isn’t it?” Jimmy said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Kind of nice to be seen, in a way. Not have to worry.”
“You’re not, ah...” She made a silly little gesture like doors opening.
Two nights ago these two stole a pizza from me. She had clobbered me. Now this pretty brown girl saw through me, and I was crushing on her boyfriend. What the hell?
I said, “That’s what cost me my b... my relationship. I was in, he was out.”
“What was his name?”
I took a breath.
Jimmy said, “It’s all right if you—”
“Calvin,” I said.
“What was he like?” Leuctra smiled.
Skinny, I thought. Brown hair. Melty. A cuddler. A crier at movies. Always cold. He’d snuggle up on the couch and rest his head on my shoulder. Made me feel brave. But he was the brave one.
“He made me try sushi,” I said. “He told me my name meant courage. But I was afraid to take his hand when we walked down the street. Played it off as buddies. Calvin didn’t need another buddy. He made friends everywhere he went. Sullen store clerks came alive and couldn’t do enough for him.” I shook my head. “What a perfect ass I was.”
I looked into my coffee mug.
“Worshipped the Delta bluesmen.” Long, elegant fingers. “But hopeless on guitar. So he switched to ukulele. Wore this dreadful plastic lei from a costume shop while he plucked and strummed old blues songs.” One night he drank too much and performed Charley Patton’s ‘Heart Like Railroad Steel’ for me wearing nothing but the lei. Possibly my favorite memory.
“You have a nice smile,” Leuctra said.
* * *
The door to Mogie’s opened. I forced myself to keep my gaze on the table.
There was a silence.
Leuctra said, “Why couldn’t you—”
“You still have that pizza bag,” I said. “We’ll need that back.”
“Of course,” Jimmy said. He cleared his throat. Dipped those lashes. “You’ve been so — that is, after what we put you through—”
“Just give it to me, and I’ll tell Mogie I found it somewhere.”
“And we’ll pay for the pizza,” Jimmy said.
“And I hope you’ll let us give you something for this,” said Leuctra.
“Never mind. This was on me,” I said.
The baby sighed and shifted.
“Well,” said Leuctra, “we should probably—”
“Calvin wanted me to come out. I wanted to. Intended to. But I was convinced it would all go bad.”
Jimmy and Leuctra stopped moving and looked at me.
“Calvin was all touches and feels. He wanted to be able to take my arm in public. When he got excited, when we were sharing. He’d forget and start to reach for me. See me stiffen up. He got good at passing it off briskly, but his face always fell a little. It broke my heart, but I couldn’t get past the dread of coming out.
“One vacation we went to another state. Stopped in at this ice cream place. He got his rum raisin and I got my double chocolate and we walked over to the little table. As we were pulling out chairs, I kissed him.”
“Just a peck. Nothing vulgar. But there it was, in front of the college girls manning the counter, the other customers, whoever. His eyes filled up. I thought, Uh-oh, he’s going to expect this now.
“But in the car he said, ‘You never plan to come here again, do you?’ He saw through me. Kind of like you did.
“I tried to tell him, baby steps. I’ll get there. I did it once, didn’t I?
“For a time I think he hoped. I’m sure of it, because one day he stopped hoping. I looked at his face and it was like somebody’d switched off a lamp.
“Things changed. He’d gaze off into space at dinner. Stopped initiating... things.”
After a silence Leuctra said, gently, “Was it... your family?”
“I kept rehearsing how to tell them how much Calvin meant to me. I couldn’t get past the shock I imagined on their faces.”
“Would it have been that bad?” said Jimmy.
“One day, when I was fourteen, Dad came home from his job. Said his coworker Harry had come out. Dad was blindsided. They’d had a nice work friendship. Dad felt he’d been deceived. Never forgave him. ‘A damn swish, can you believe it?’ he’d say.”
“What about your mother?”
“I’m sure she knew. And lived in terror of the day I’d tear the family apart by revealing myself. Her face would pinch up when I asked her if she thought this or that actor was handsome. I wised up. And I learned never to start a conversation with the words, ‘Mom, can I talk to you?’”
“Whew,” Jimmy said.
I swirled my cold coffee. “Calvin and I used to dance. In the living room. We called it practice. For after I made the big decision and we could go out and dance in public. Slow. Not much more than swaying. He’d lay his head on my chest. His hair smelled so good. I’d think, ‘I can’t wait until I can show you off as mine.’ I’d also think, ‘I’ll never be able to do it.’ I still can’t listen to any version of ‘Por ti Volare’.”
Where was this coming from? I had never talked about this. I started to panic. But I couldn’t stop the words.
“Just in socks, or barefoot, ’cause we were home. You know how people have dancing shoes? He had dancing socks. He found these ridiculous socks in Black Watch plaid and called them his dancing socks. He was so... damned... silly.”
The tears came. Right there at Mogie’s. Where I worked, where I saw the people all the time. I tried to stop and it came out a sob. People looked over. I mashed a napkin to my face. I didn’t want to wake the baby, sprawling serenely on his mother.
This is a nightmare, I thought. I’ll make less noise if I don’t fight it. Let them flow and weep silently. It worked, kind of.
Through the blur I saw Leuctra look at Jimmy and jut her chin at me. His expression said, Really? She nodded, pursing her lips.
Oh, no, I thought.
They knew I was smitten with Jimmy. How had they picked up on that?
He slid onto my bench and slipped his skinny arms around me. I stiffened. He tilted his head into mine. “It’s all right,” he said. “Exhale.” I closed my eyes and let myself feel him holding me.
Well, who could help it? I thought.
I felt his chest move as he breathed. His bony hand reached up and touched the back of my head.
“Ouch,” I said.
“Ooh. Sorry,” he said. “Jeez.” His hand plopped onto my shoulder and patted it. “Want my ice?”
I laughed, making a cartoonish snorting sound. I couldn’t swear I did not produce a bubble from my nose.
Jimmy and Leuctra cracked up. The baby fussed and we froze, then chuckled silently, eyes meeting in shared guilty mirth. After a moment, Jimmy gave me a squeeze and released me. Leuctra had teared up in sympathy, and we made a mess of the napkins.
I felt Mogie’s beefy arm across my shoulders. “You okay, buddy?”
I looked up at him. “Mogie, I like dudes,” I said. “I really like ‘em. Not girls. Dudes.”
“Shocker,” he said.
* * *
Jimmy and Leuctra came to work at Mogie’s. It turned out Leuctra was a hell of a cook, and Jimmy whipped pizzas around town on that moped like lightning. With me watching Marcus Dale in my off time for nothing, the kids were able to move out of Leuctra’s mother’s house.
On Sundays we made sandwiches, went out to the Rejoice wall and spread a blanket for a picnic. While we ate, we planned how we were going to get that shelter. It was fun brainstorming with the kids. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
Word got around. Men quietly began to come forward.
Marcus Dale teethed, then toddled, then ran.
* * *
Two days after we met the lawyers and town administrators to sign the last papers for the shelter, Leuctra came by my place to pick up Marcus Dale and drop Jimmy.
Marcus Dale plowed into his mother. “Were you good for Riley?” she said.
“Terrible!” he said. He laughed.
“Show Mommy what I taught you,” I said.
Marcus Dale pressed his mouth to his mother’s neck and made a loud, slobbery wind-passing noise.
Leuctra gasped. “Scandal!” she said. She did it to him, right on the belly. Marcus Dale squealed in delight.
“Go get your stuff,” she said. He roared off.
She put a hand to her nose.
“Nausea?” Jimmy said.
“Just a little. It’ll pass.”
“How’s Meredith?” I said.
Jimmy said, “Good days and bad have become bad days and worse.”
“I don’t know how Terence does it,” Leuctra said.
“Must be love,” Jimmy said.
“It’s hell to listen to her. She has this idea she’s going to watch the children when I’m at work.”
“That’s all me,” I said.
She nodded. “I wish I hadn’t told her.”
“You’ll start to show soon,” Jimmy said.
“It’s low,” she said.
“I hear if you carry low it’s a girl,” I said. “Wouldn’t you like one of each?”
She shook her head. “Give me boys all day. Boys are sweeter and more vulnerable.” She squeezed Jimmy around his lean torso. “I’m nervous. It’s too much.”
Jimmy said, “You’re going to run this shelter like one of those companies they write books about because it changed the whole paradigm.”
“We’re too young for this. Even Riley.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“All the better. So much time to learn. And look what the three of us have already accomplished.”
“Some of the sponsors are already trying to push us around,” she said. “Everything’s a battle. And then the baby—”
“By the time the baby comes,” Jimmy said, “we’ll be running smoothly enough for you to take the time off.”
“How are you so calm?”
“I’m faking it.” He smiled that sudden heart-squeezing smile.
Marcus Dale charged in, backpack slung over one shoulder. He took possession of his mother and led her off.
After they drove away I locked the door and looked at Jimmy.
“It’s been quite a ride,” I said. “Leuctra needn’t worry. She’ll crack that whip.”
“It’s like she was born to organize this sort of thing.” He turned those luminous hazel eyes on me. “We couldn’t have done this without you,” he said. “That letter campaign alone was a marvel. When you get a thing in your teeth, you’re like a pit bull.”
“Then it’s safe to say you owe me,” I said.
“That’s so,” he said. His gaze held mine. “I wonder how I should pay you back?”
“I’ll think of some service you are uniquely suited to perform.”
“I’m afraid you’ll prove a harsh taskmaster.”
“We should review those applications.”
“Later,” he said. He kicked off his white canvas low tops.
“I like your hair so much better brown,” I said, ruffling it.
“Think she’ll ever realize?” I said.
“Realize what?” said Jimmy.
“That you hit her on purpose that time you bruised her chin.” I took his face in my hands for a long, lingering kiss.
We were breathing heavily when we broke apart. He was so pretty when he blushed.
He knelt in front of me and sat back on his heels. “She may,” he said. “Or she may not. Move your feet.”
“The bedroom’s that way,” I said.
“I know. Now stop talking.”
He reached for my belt.
No, I thought, the battles of Leuctra are not over.
Copyright © 2020 by Max Christopher