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The following is an expanded version of a story I wrote five years ago. In that story I sought to capture some of the intense closeness some men can feel for other men, a closeness borne out of shared experiences and common struggles that can often leave friends as close as brothers. I came back to this story because I really liked its message that nothing is more unpredictable than love, which may comes early or late, but always slips in by the back door. I got some fantastic comments to my last story and learned so much from them. For those of you who take time to read this story please consider leaving a comment, no matter how short. I know what I mean to say in a story, but I’m not always sure that comes through until I hear from readers.
Thanks, the author
Mike Kronos had made all the stops on his rounds except for one. In the course of one of day he had managed to work his way from one end of Baltimore’s Old East Side to the other, tracking down his customers, cornering them, cajoling them, and all too often taking every cent they had. Today, Monday, was a busy day for him because it followed a busy weekend loaded with sports; but the fact was that every day was busy for Mike because he was at the beck-and-call of his clients twenty-four hours a day. In the course of a week he could easily see more faces than the average doctor or priest would; and he had to keep careful track of every one of those faces, not to mention the various sums large and small he regularly handed out or took in. The work consumed his days and nights, and Mike had been at it for longer than he cared to recall—longer indeed that most in his line of work. He had made a handsome profit in the business—but at what cost to his private life? He wasn’t at all certain he wanted to continue doing it. But then, somebody had to. Such was the life of a bookie.
Mike Kronos was a tough guy, everybody on the East Side knew that. He had grown up on some of Baltimore’s meanest streets. He had been on his own since the age of 17. He had worked the docks. He had been a marine. For five long years he had flexed muscle for Tommy Medina’s gang. And he had made book in this working class corner of Baltimore for nearly eleven years. He wasn’t afraid of anybody or anything—but he did dread what awaited him on this his final stop, which is why he had saved it for last.
He mounted the steps to the second floor walkup of his good friend Jake Tarnowa’s crumbling old apartment building. Jake was the best friend Mike had ever had, closer to him than his own family. But now Jake owed his good friend money. By the standards of some of Mike’s flashier, more freewheeling clients, it wasn’t much—pocket change really. But for Jake who lived on a small disability check, it was a fortune.
For several years Mike had chosen to look the other way as Jake’s debt mounted, preferring to keep his old friend safe and close to home. The expense of Jake’s small weekly wagers didn’t amount to much in the great scheme of things, Mike reasoned, and it was a small price to pay to keep Jake away from those sharks downtown that would have swallowed him and his monthly check in a single gulp. The only stipulation in this very special arrangement was that under no circumstances could Jake tell anybody about it. Time and again Mike had hammered this point home to Jake, emphasizing the disaster that might occur if he didn’t keep it secret. And his friend seemed to understand. But then a little over two-and-a-half weeks ago when Mike was making one of his regular rounds, one of his most reliable customers begged off paying his tab, offering as an excuse, “The Jake Exception.” With those three little words, Mike felt like someone had ripped a hole in his heart while simultaneously delivering a blow to his gut. Instantly, he was thrust into the painful process of damage control.
No bookie can survive a reputation for going soft, for cutting special deals for his friends or looking the other way on their debts. The long sordid history of street corner wagering was littered with the remains of bookies who had lost sight of this truth, and Mike was determined not to be one of them. But now he was confronted with the situation he dreaded most. As much as he hated to, he would have to impose a payment plan on his old friend and actually enforce it, that or cut him off entirely. Any way you cut it, no way was this not going to be a damned unpleasant conversation. Of course Jake knew what was coming. Mike had let him have it big-time on the phone right after he found out; but otherwise, the two had not talked since then. Mike had avoided Jake and the problem for as long as he could; now there could be no more delay.
How much damage this would do to their twenty-five year friendship Mike didn’t have a clue. He could only hope it wouldn’t end for good. But what other choice did he have? He was trapped. He knew it. And Jake knew it too.
Mike swallowed hard and pounded on the door. He was canlı bahis şirketleri dying to get this whole ugly chore over with. He had his speech ready, it only waited to be delivered. When the door opened he launched into his spiel.
“O.K. Jake, now listen up . . .” But instead of Jake, there stood a tall, lanky, loopy-looking kid with a big grin and a shock of curly blond hair.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Wow, you don’t remember me. Gee, Mike, I sure as heck remember you. Come on in.”
Not entirely certain he was at the right door, Mike peered in before taking a step inside. Sure enough, it was Jake’s ratty old apartment.
“Towson. He went to see Unca Armin.”
“Armin: that goddamn two-bit shyster lawyer, self-righteous son of a bitch,” snarled Mike. “What’s Jake up to going to see that asshole brother of his?”
“That’s pretty funny coming from you, Mike. Can’t you guess?” The youth’s grin seemed to grow even wider. Mike noticed that the kid had not stopped smiling since he entered the place, and it was really starting to rub him the wrong way.
“I wasn’t born with a lot of patience, boy. I would strongly suggest you answer the damned question.”
“He went to earn some money, of course. So he could start puttin’ a dent in that boatload of dough he owes you. Look, dude, he knows he messed up, like big-time. It really crushed him to see how he let you down. I swear he’s been on the phone for days trying to scare up a loan or a part-time job or somethin’, just so he can maybe buy back some of that trust he pissed away. He hasn’t talked about hardly anything else lately. Callin’ Unca Armin was like his last shot. Everybody knows Unca Armin’s pretty tight and all, so Unca jake didn’t really expect anything come of it, but somehow it did. Unca Armin told him to come out to Towson and he’d find somethin’ for him to do for the next coupla weeks. It probably won’t come to much money—but every little bit helps—right?”
“Wrong!—you empty-headed little mop top,” yelled Mike, driving his fist into his palm. “That’s the absolute last thing I would ever want Jake to do: go crawling to that tightfisted sleazebag begging for help. Armin’s a pig. He’s always looked down on Jake because he didn’t become some hot-shot piece-of-shit ambulance chaser like him. He’d love to get Jake up at his place and rub his nose in it by making him do every shit job he could find. And then probably wouldn’t even pay him minimum wage. Call him. Get him back here. We’ll find some other way to work this thing out.”
“Too late for that, Mike. It’s past five o’clock. Day’s over. Unca Jake was doing some kind of painting in Unca Armin’s house, but now he’s finishing up. He called right before you got here and said I should keep you here if you showed up. I think he means to surprise you with a big check or somethin’. I’m tellin’ you, guy: he’s super psyched.”
“Super psyched—what does that even mean?”
“I’m just sayin’ he was like totally bubblin’ over on the phone. Couldn’t keep his excitement inside. I’m tellin’ you, dude, it’s the best mood I’ve seen him in all week; hell, since I got here. He has a heck of a lot of pride, Mike. You know—like you.”
Mike took a long look at the kid. There was certainly more to him than just a big goofy smile and a mop of blond hair. He was really quite tall, over six feet, very nearly as tall as Mike himself. And lanky, yes, but he was no stick. Underneath that tank top and gym shorts was some decent muscle development, especially in through the shoulders and upper arms. Overall, he was pretty well put-together. Fair complexion, smooth skin, bright blue eyes, and a covering of peach fuzz from his chin down to his ankles. It made for a strong impression, Mike had to admit. But he was young, terribly young—probably no more than sixteen, by Mike’s calculation. Jailbait; but just the sort of jailbait to make the man’s dick jump.
“That’s at least the third time you’ve talked as if you knew me. I’m usually pretty good with faces, kid. How come I don’t know yours?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy with an almost shy laugh. “Maybe because the last time you saw me, I was like twelve years old. As far as you were concerned, I was just some dumb, pimply-faced kid from the sticks following his parents around while they visited his two uncles.”
“Wait a sec,” said Mike with a start. “Of course, dammit! You’re his sister Marla’s boy all grown up. And jeez, don’t you look like her too. The spitting image. And as I recall they blessed you with the most god-awful nickname I’d ever heard.”
“Yeah, Buzz, short for Barry. According to my mom, when I was a kid I used to careen through the house for hours with my arms extended out, buzzing like a plane. Used to drive her absolutely batty.”
“So what are you doing here, kid?”
“Lookin’ for work. I graduated high school two years ago, and I’m still just helpin’ around the farm. Jobs in Somerset County have canlı kaçak iddaa dried up and blown away. Mom talked Unca Jake into letting me come and stay with him for a coupla weeks and look for somethin’ here, Baltimore being such a big town and all. But I’m still lookin’.”
Mike went to the old fridge in the cramped little kitchen and pulled out a beer. He opened it and took a swig, and turned back to the boy.
“So when did Jake say he’d be getting back?”
“It’ll be a while yet. He says he still had some cleaning up to do. Then he has to catch a bus back.”
“A bus,” grimaced Mike with a bitter laugh. “Now isn’t that just like Armin. He should’ve offered to give Jake a lift back after working all day. So, uh, boy, shouldn’t a kid like you be off in a college somewhere?”
“I tried junior college for a year. Didn’t much like it. I wanna get out and do stuff—maybe like some of the stuff you’ve done, Mike.”
Mike bristled and again cast a wary eye at the boy. “And what the hell do you think you know about what I’ve done?”
“Well, before your present gig makin’ book, I know you were a marine. That sounds pretty neat. Wouldn’t mind doin’ that. And after that you were a bodyguard for some wiseguy named, uh, Medina, I think. You should hear the way Unca Jake talks about that. I mean, he makes that sound really neat.”
“Well, you can take this to the bank: your ‘Unca’ Jake is an idiot. And he talks too much. And you’re a fucking little idiot, too, if you think working for a guy like Tommy Medina was some kinda goddamn romp in the park. Don’t get me wrong, kid. You’ll never catch me saying a thing against Tommy. He gave me a job when I needed one and got me out of a very big jam. He’s even the one who got me set up making book on the east side. But working for Tommy was no picnic. I had to do some pretty unsavory things working security for him, and I got sick and tired of it. That’s why I’m not doing it today. And a kid like you shouldn’t even being joking around about doing stuff like that.”
Mike glanced past the youth and spied several set of barbells in various weights scattered about the living room floor. “So—those yours?”
“Yep, just tryin’ to stay in shape,” said Buzz, pulling on a pair of fingerless leather gloves. “I had to leave my weight bench behind in the barn. It was a beaut. Built it myself. Unca Jake said I could bring some of these free weights along if I kept them out of his way. I’d better finish up my reps and get this all cleared out before he comes in.”
Mike looked on as the boy handled the heavy steel weights with surprising ease, hoisting them to his chest and then above his head smoothly and efficiently. The man was duly impressed. Young Buzz was a lot stronger than he appeared.
“Not half bad, boy,” said Mike, sipping his beer and slowly circling the boy, closely observing his workout. “You’ve got real potential. Listen, I do my work at Sol’s Gym on Ninth. They’ve got a hell of a lot better equipment than just a down home weight bench. Sometimes when I’m heading that way, what’d ya say I cruise by here and take you along?”
“Wow, dude. You really mean that? Cool!” Buzz focused all his attention on the weight, controlling its balance by controlling his breathing. Meanwhile, Mike continued to move and watch and admire what he saw. The boy was like a column of clean youthful lines and flowing muscle, encased in pale cool skin. Mike noted how the paleness was starting to give way to a blush of deep incandescent red underneath the skin, and each exertion only served to intensify the effect.
As the warm full color spread across his chest, neck and face, the youth took on a heated sexual glow as well. Eventually, Mike stepped away from the youth and retreated to a window on the far side of the kitchen which looked out on the street below. From there he could observe the movement of people and cars, and try to force his mind onto something other than Buzz. It bothered him that this kid was having such a strong an effect on him, namely, the growing bulge in his pants. Maybe he should reconsider the offer about the gym. He liked the boy, but considering the problems he was already having with Jake, the last thing he needed was for something to happen between him and Jake’s only nephew.
Few people knew—Jake being a notable exception—that Mike had a real weakness for slender, good-looking young men. He had had that weakness since he was a kid himself, but in the neighborhood where he grew up, being ‘queer’ could get you killed so he had always guarded his secret zealously. Early on Mike had gone out of his way to be the strongest, toughest, most virile young guy on the block so that no one would ever dare question his masculinity. That meant that his sexual exploits were few and far between, and even now he generally limited his liaisons to an occasional anonymous pick-up to make sure his secret stayed just that: a secret.
Interestingly enough, one of the few people who canlı kaçak bahis knew of Mike’s secret was the mobster Tommy Medina. Not long after leaving the marines Mike was arrested for soliciting sex from an underage boy and was facing some pretty serious charges. Mike needed a lawyer so he called Jake, but rather than call a lawyer, Jake approached Medina whom he had known from his days as a longshoreman. Tommy was able to get the charges dropped. From then on, Mike felt that he owed both Tommy and Jake for his very freedom.
Jake and Mike’s friendship went back even further than that, to when Mike was just 17, a high school dropout and on his own. Because he was big and strong, he had managed to get himself signed on as an apprentice longshoreman, one of the few jobs a young man could get in those days that paid decent wages even without a high school diploma. But his prospects of holding onto the job were slim until Jake, an experienced dockman, stepped in and accepted the responsibility of training him, and went out of his way to help him keep the job. Though Mike left the docks just two years later for the marines, he had made a friend for life in Jake and they stayed close. Back then it was Jake who looked out for the welfare of the eager young Mike. In the years that followed the roles seemed to slowly reverse, and especially after a back injury ended Jake’s life on the docks for good.
“Say, Mike,” said Buzz, abruptly snapping Mike out of his reverie. “You mind if I ask you a big favor.”
Mike looked around and was surprised to discover that not only had Buzz completed his workout, he had put the weights away and was now standing in the middle of the living room, running a large towel over his head, neck and torso. The youth had dispensed with the tank top, and the man’s eyes were immediately riveted onto the boy’s smooth hairless chest, now shiny from an oily sheen of sweat.
“You can ask.”
“I heard that you used to be a pretty fair amateur boxer. That true?”
“You might say that. I, on the other hand, would say I was pretty damned good boxer. I took it up in the marines, and for some reason I was just a natural at it. Still got the trophies to prove it. Every so often I like to climb in the practice ring at Sol’s and go a few rounds with the young guys training there, just to see if the old reflexes are still workin’.”
“Then why not train me? I did a little boxing in my senior year, and was on the varsity wrestling team all three years. My coach actually said that he thought I might be able to compete if I really worked at it.”
Mike chuckled. “And that, sunshine, is why there ain’t a high school coach worth a Canadian penny. Put you in the ring and all anybody is gonna do is go for the pretty mug of yours. You’d be a sitting duck.”
“I already know how to fight, Mike,” said Buzz, visibly bristling at the man’s implication. “What I need is somebody to help me polish my technique.”
“Your technique? Who are you kidding, boy? You don’t know what it means to fight. Just look at you. There’s not a mark on you. You see this nose: it has been broken more times than I can count, not to mention my collarbone and a couple of my ribs.”
Buzz’s face registered indignation and exasperation all at once. “I get it. You don’t think I’m good enough . . . or tough enough. Well, I’m plenty damn tough. I guess I’ll just have to show you.”
The youth set his jaw and began pulling chairs away from the rickety old dining table in the middle of the room. He shoved them in a corner. Next, he began moving all the tattered furniture in the room back against the walls, clearing a wide swath in the center of the living/dining room. Mike stood quietly by, watching with curiosity.
“What’s up, buttercup?” he said, mindful that he had just tread on the boy’s feelings. “Getting ready to start some new exercises?”
“No,” snapped Buzz curtly. “I’m clearing enough room so you and me can spar—right here, right now. I figure the only way I’m ever gonna convince a dinosaur like you that I can fight is to show you what I can do.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“Nope, you certainly do not. Jesus, kid, no way was I trying to hurt your feelings—really, I wasn’t—but boxing happens to be a subject I know a little something about. And while I’m sure you were a cracker jack little boxer in your high school, amateur boxing at the competitive level: that’s a whole different story. I’m just saying you may not be quite ready for that. And I can see I’m not getting through to you at all—am I? OK, tell you what, maybe tomorrow, you and I can go to Sol’s—”
“No, now!” insisted the boy, fixing Mike with a fierce stare. “Besides, I may not even be here tomorrow. It has to be now.”
Buzz crossed his arms and stood his ground. Mike was caught off guard by the boy’s intransigence, and uncertain what to do. He felt guilty about having been so dismissive of young Buzz’s capabilities, and the boy’s defiance left him feeling a bit confused.
“I’d get rid of that shirt if I were you,” said Buzz, getting ready to fight. “Wouldn’t want to rip it. And those nice shiny shoes, too. It would be a shame to see them get all scuffed up.”
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