Owen trailed his fingers over the red sandstone walls of the bank as he walked past, the intense late-summer sunlight casting a sharp-edge shadow which nipped at his heels. A stray breeze stirred up a lazy whirlwind of dust, tousling his short blond hair, causing the red-striped t-shirt hanging from his back pocket to tease his legs. The brief gust of wind caused the faded sign of Al's Barber Shop to squeak as it swung back and forth on its rusty hinges, the only sound to be heard in the shimmering heat.
'The sign's almost as old as Al,' Owen thought, grinning to himself as he glanced through the open door of the barbershop and returned Al and Harvey Greene's greetings. The two men sat opposite one another, fanning themselves under a slowly moving ceiling fan which did little to stir the heavy air.
"Are ya 'bout ready to head out Owen?" Al asked in his gravelly voice. Owen nodded in response, his smile brightening as he stepped into the shade of the barbershop. It was always good to visit Al. He was the only person other than a high school teacher, who not only listened to, but nurtured Owen's dreams of becoming something other than a farmer, like his father.
One of Al's beefy hands engulfed Owen's in a handshake before he turned back to his good friend. "You prob'ly already heard Harvey, but Owen's heading off to the big city to go to school. He earned himself one of those scholarships, for bein' so smart." He turned back to Owen and smiled broadly. "Good luck son; do us proud. We're gonna miss you."
Owen ducked his head and smiled as he sat on the shop's single barber chair and automatically began swinging to and fro, just as he'd done since he was a child. His father had always tried to stop his restlessness, telling him to sit still. One time, Al told Owen's father to leave the boy alone; he just needed to work off some of his extra energy.
His father had muttered a disgusted response, drawing a sharp and disapproving look from the barber and others in the barbershop. "If he'd put some of that energy to good use around the farm instead of dreamin' about the big city, we'd all be better for it."
After a moment's thought, Al's response had been a quiet, "hmmmm."
"Thanks." Owen responded to Al's good wishes. "I'll do my best." He looked around the familiar surroundings and inhaled the distinctive odors of a shop his father told him was old when he was a boy. It seemed as if he was seeing the place for the first time, on this, the day before he was scheduled to leave. Owen grinned at the pile of dog-eared magazines sitting on a table, dividing an optimistic row of faded red leather chairs, and told himself he couldn't be homesick already.
For as long as he could remember he'd studied those magazines, wondering aloud what it would be like to visit the places described in their pages. As he got older, he secretly suspected Al of buying magazines which would stimulate his imagination. That was one of the reasons he loved this place and its owner so much. He felt free to dream, here.
Al quietly studied the young man as he appeared to say goodbye to a place where he had once spent much of his time. Other than the days following an argument with his father, Owen had always been a laughing boy, always curious about where Al's customers were from, what they did, and where they were going. The boy had become a young man, grey-eyed, broad shouldered and fair-skinned, with a ready smile and a bubbling, carefree laugh.
Owen looked up and blushed slightly when he realized Al had been watching him. He laughed at Al's wink, the corners of his eyes crinkling and his blush deepening. "Ya seen Sam around?"
"Saw 'im earlier t'day," Mr. Greene volunteered, speaking for the first time. "Said he was goin' fishin'." Mr. Greene inhaled deeply and puffed a cloud of blue-grey cigar smoke into the still air. Al wrinkled his nose and waved a hand in front of his face.
"Wish you'd buy a better brand'a cigar," he groused, using a folded newspaper to blow the smoke back to its source. "Th'smoke smell's just like m'wife's pot roast, it does." He shuddered. "Whole house smells like this every Sunday." He shuddered and raised a hand in farewell as Owen heaved himself out of the chair, waving over his shoulder as he left the shop and headed down the abandoned street.
"There goes a good boy," he heard Al say, before the voices from the barbershop faded to be replaced by the half-hearted chirping of crickets taking shelter in the trees of the town's small park.
Today, the whitewashed bandstand in the center of the park stood empty, surrounded by a small patch of grass. Only a month ago the park had teemed with townsfolk celebrating Independence Day.
Owen grinned, remembering how he and Sam had spent the day sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, eating barbecued hamburgers and watermelon as they listened to the six-piece brass band play patriotic tunes, each song followed by a smattering of applause.
'Life was good,' he remembered thinking, losing himself in Sam's boyish grin and dark eyes. He recalled the heat of a blush on his cheeks when Sam winked at him and silently mouthed the words, "I love you."
He'd leaned closer, playfully nudging his friend, drinking in the heat from Sam's body. He wanted to remember that day, the feeling of Sam sitting close by, the way he would smile, and how his eyes would twinkle in suppressed mischief. They both knew a time would soon come when they would no longer be together. The thought of their imminent parting had caused his smile to fade. He and Sam had never been apart, and he found it almost impossible to imagine the day when he would have to leave for school.
Sam sensed his disquiet and had cajoled him into posing for a photograph, teasing him until he smiled for the camera.
Later that night, they sat side by side on the sidewalk curb and watched the mayor light fireworks, laughing and oohing and aahing, along with everyone else at the mayor's antics and the glittering display. He was sure there must be bigger and more impressive celebrations, but sitting by Sam's side was reason enough to be happy. From time to time they would glance at one another, catching the other's smile of contentment in the brief flashes of light.
Now, the park stood empty, and his departure, a distant future only a month ago, was imminent. The dry hot breeze brought him back to the present. If Mr. Greene was correct, Sam would probably be fishing from the cool shaded bank of the river.
He wiped a hand over his forehead. 'Sam always did know how to spend an afternoon,' he thought, as he waved to Gracie Miller, who languidly waved back from behind the counter of the Hardware and Feed Store.
"Good luck Owen." She puffed out her ample cheeks and exhaled a tired breath as she fanned herself with an old magazine. She pushed away from the counter where she had been leaning, and slowly walked towards the back room of the store where an antique air conditioner heaved and gasped. Owen waved to her retreating back.
'My entire world,' he thought to himself. 'The four dusty blocks of Riverton. The old timers speak of a time when the town was gleaming with hope. The summers weren't as hot; the river was full of enormous fish which practically jumped onto the shore at your feet; the rains always came on time . . . and everything was plentiful.'
His lips twisted into a crooked grin. 'Everyone recalls a golden past. They've stopped imagining a future which is better than today. Just like Ma'ma and Pops; they can't conceive of anything better than Riverton. Their view of the world centers on worry. Will the rains come to water the land? Will there be too much rain . . . or not enough? Or . . . maybe this will be another year like '63, when locusts descended one summer evening and ate everything in sight before morning. They don't have time to do much more than worry . . . about the crops, the bills, about . . . everything. There is no time in their life for dreams.'
He returned another well-wisher's wave, and felt guilty for feeling the way he did. 'I can't be like everyone else. I have to get away. I don't want to live consumed by worry. I want something . . . more. As much as I love them, I can't be like my folks.'
Owen came to the last building on this side of the street and turned toward the row of dusty green trees lining the river. He paused a moment in the shadow cast by the bulbous water tower, the dry grass making crunching noises beneath his feet. At one time the town's name had shown proudly, painted in big blocky black letters over the tower's pristine white surface. Through the years the paint had faded, just like the dreams of the town's people.
He thought about Sam as he scrambled down the embankment to the river, listening to the murmur of the water and late afternoon sound of crickets in the trees. He and Sam had often lain at each other's side in the dappled shade cast by the oaks lining the river, and dreamt of what their life would be like when they were 'grown up.' There was never a doubt that they would always be together. "Best friends, to the end," Sam once confidently proclaimed, his thick black hair ruffling in the breeze as an infectious smile split his tanned face.
Owen stopped to remove his sneakers, tying the laces together and draping the shoes over his shoulder before scrambling through the low hanging branches. Each step was a balancing act as he stepped on the shoulders of slippery stones and headed for his and Sam's special spot.
Sam had once awakened him by trailing a long blade of grass over his bare chest. He had slowly opened his eyes, and there was his best friend, naked and propped up on an elbow, smiling brightly. Sparkling droplets of water from their recent swim still glistened from his shoulders.
Sam's eyes twinkled a moment before he leaned close and they kissed. Sam's tongue had battled with his as he rolled on top of Owen, trapping their erections between their bodies. He had lain beneath Sam and thought that maybe he could stay. That was four years ago. He loved Sam; but neither his love . . . nor anything Sam might do, was enough to keep him from leaving Riverton.
His dreams of his future were vague. After all, he had never been more than sixty miles from home. All he knew of the world came from books he had read, people he had spoken to, and the brief times he had taken his turn on one of the few computers at his school.
His father scoffed at the idea of buying a television . . . or a computer, claiming that a person who had time enough to wile away the hours on those machines, had time enough to be working. There had been no point in arguing. So, Owen dreamed and studied, aware that knowledge was the only thing which would help him escape.
He paused, perched on a boulder at the river's edge. Sam was sitting in a circle of sunshine, seeming so alone . . . so vulnerable. Sam's knees were drawn back to his chest, supporting his chin. Owen watched in silence as Sam sniffed and brushed his eyes with the back of his hand, before once again resting his chin on his flexed knees.
Sam looked up and tried to smile when Owen had made some slight noise.
"Hi'ya, Owen." The voice was like a caress, a familiar touch that sent erotic chills of anticipation over his body whenever he heard it. A puff of breeze ruffled Sam's thick hair, causing the butter-yellow meadow flowers to bow. "Don't just stand there lookin' like you're not sure of a welcome." He held an arm out in a silent invitation, his crooked smile taking any sting out of his words. "Y'know, you'll always be welcome."
Owen leapt from the rock to the bank, his arms extended as he sought to remain balanced. Even so, his bare feet slipped slightly on the wet grass at the river's edge. The abrupt movement caused a nearby bullfrog to fling itself off a flat stone, landing in the sluggish river with a plop. As Owen approached his friend and sat down with a sigh, the cricket's song resumed.
Owen scooted close and tenderly laid an arm over Sam's bare shoulders. He drank in his surroundings, memorizing them to be brought out and enjoyed at some future time. Tomorrow he would leave everything he had known behind. Sam wouldn't be nearby. They wouldn't be able to laugh, or touch . . . or love. He'd miss the meadow's yellow blooms on their wiry stems, the leafy green canopy of oaks, and new-mown hay smell of the grass where he and Sam now sat. He'd miss the wide expanses of sky and quiet murmur of the river. He would miss it all.
Sam's lips curled into a sad smile as he leaned into Owen's one-armed embrace. When he finally spoke, his voice was low. "You know I love you, don't you?" A slight breeze rustled the leaves overhead and ruffled his hair. "You leavin's not gonna make me stop."
Owen tightened his arm around Sam's shoulders and spoke, his own voice rough with suppressed emotion. "I've got to go Sam; you know that. I . . . I wasn't made to live in a place like Riverton. I'm a square peg tryin' to fit inta a round hole. I . . ." He struggled to find words which would make Sam understand. "It's like I'm a musician, or a painter, or somethin'. Those guys need to make music or paint in order to feel like they're truly living. If they can't do what they were meant to do they'd just wither on the vine. I'd never be happy if I stayed here and didn't try and discover what I need to be. You mean the world to me Sam, but . . ." His voice trailed off.
"I'm not enough." Sam's voice was flat.
Owen tried to pull his friend closer. "Ahhhh, you know that's not the case. You are the only person other than my folks that I've ever loved. I expect you'll be the only man I ever will love. But, don't you see? I need more than love. I need to grow, and learn how to do all the things that will make me happy. I'll never know what I could be if I don't leave." He leaned close and kissed Sam's cheek. "I do love you Sam. More than anything.
"You could come with me." Owen's voice was soft . . . inviting. He grasped Sam's warm hand, feeling the work-roughened skin beneath his own fingers.
"I . . . I can't, Owen." Sam managed to choke out the words. "You know that. Ma and Dad . . . I can't leave 'em alone. Dad's not in the best of health. I'm their only son and they're dependin' on me, even though we have the neighbors working our land . . . I still can't. Don't go, Owen. Stay with me."
Owen felt Sam tremble as he finished speaking.
He whispered, not trusting his voice enough to speak aloud. "I can't. I just . . . can't." He closed his eyes as Sam linked fingers with him.
"I know, Owen," he murmured, taking a stuttering breath. "I just had to ask." There was a long pause. "Y'know?"
* * *
Lucas closed the book and scowled at his persistent sister. "No, Allison. Bailey doesn't love me. He's in love with the idea of loving me. Surely, you can see the difference."
Allison flopped back onto the large chair in the family's expansive living room, and crossed her arms.
"He says he loves you. In fact, sometimes that's all he talks about. I've never seen a man so full of drama in my life." Allison's voice changed as she parodied a person presenting an award. "And the award for an actor in the best dramatic role . . ." She made a sound like an envelope being ripped open, and then paused, as if she had an audience, hanging on her every word, all silently cheering for their own favorite candidate. "Bailey Wilkins," she shouted, waving the imaginary card containing the name in the air. "For the tenth-year straight, Bailey Wilkins wins the award!"
Allison threw herself back in the chair and joined her brother's laughter.
"The trouble is," she continued, when the laughter had subsided. "Drama, can be a bad thing. One never knows what a person like Bailey's going to do if he doesn't get what he wants. He may be nice looking, but beneath that pretty exterior is someone who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. He collects conquests like so many trophies. He doesn't really care for anyone other than himself. Even you must be aware of that . . . if you can see beyond the pretty exterior, that is."
He tiredly rubbed his eyes. "You're right, of course; but what should I do?" Lucas inwardly cringed. It was too late to call the words back. He'd already asked for his sister's opinion; now, all he could do was sit back and endure whatever she had to say.
Allison jumped out of her seat, only too ready to tell her brother exactly what she thought. "It's not so much what you should do, Lucas. It's what you've already done! There's nothing you can do to change that. You're already trapped in Bailey's web." He raised his eyebrows, wondering what she could possibly mean.
"You should never have taken the man to bed in the first place!" Her voice rose, just like her arms . . . both exclamation points to her delivery. "Men!" She pivoted to face him, standing across the large, wood paneled room with her hands on her hips.
"You see something sexy strutting their stuff and your brain shuts down." She pointed to her head, then to her groin as she continued. "Then, your animal brain takes over and the rest of the world could go to hell in a hand basket, for all you care. You're no good until you get your rocks off. Personally," she said, standing in front of him and nudging his foot with the toe of her shoe.
"Personally," she repeated, "I think that's your problem, Lucas. You don't jack off nearly enough! If you did it more often, you wouldn't be so all-fire anxious to hop into bed with anyone who wiggles their dick in front of your face!" She flopped back into her favorite chair and crossed her arms, giving him a knowing nod. "It's either my masturbation-as-a-means-of-self-preservation theory, or you're incredibly stupid." She shifted position, throwing a leg over the arm of the chair and kicking off a shoe. "I decided to be charitable and opt for the belief that you're not having enough orgasms, rather than call my dear brother stupid." She crossed her arms and tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling and tapping her other foot on the plush oriental rug in aggravation.
"Hormones," she huffed. "We women don't have them."
Lucas laughed. "That must be why I enjoy men, big sister." He licked his lips. "Hormones . . . yum. I can taste 'em." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Wiggling dicks are even better." She grinned at his playful response to her theory. Lucas was sometimes too serious for his own good. Today, he seemed to be in a playful mood. He sniffed the air. "Testosterone . . ." He gave his sister a lewd look, and abruptly stood, playfully covering his crotch with his hand. "I think I'll go to my room and masturbate . . ." He raised a finger. "Just so I can think straight, mind you."
"Straight?" She crowed in question. He ducked the pillow she threw at him.
"See," Lucas teased, flashing a bright smile, standing at the bottom of the curving stairway. "I'm so horned-up, I can't even choose appropriate words. I need to masturbate . . . bad. If you happen to encounter anyone who wants to wiggle their thing in front of my face, send them right up. They don't have to knock." He took the steps, two at a time as he stripped out of his t-shirt, followed by her laughter.
* * *
Owen climbed out of the back of the old pick up and helped his two sisters to the ground. His brother handed him his bags. 'My whole life in these two bags,' he thought as his brother, Jonah, jumped from the bed of the pickup with a quiet grunt. It was only then, Owen realized how many people had shown up to see him off.
'It must be the whole town!' He looked from side to side in astonishment. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday-best clothes, and were silently smiling at his surprise.
Al, the barber, approached and shook Owen's hand. He cleared his throat and spoke in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. "Owen, I've been asked to speak for all of us." He made a slight hand gesture including everyone standing close by. "We all want to wish you the best of luck at school. You're a wonderful young man, and we're gonna miss your smile and laughter . . . and your endless questions." He smiled and cleared his throat as a few people chuckled causing Owen to bow his head in embarrassment. "We wish you weren't leaving us," Al continued," and hope you'll be back when you've completed what you need to do." Owen bit his lip and blinked back the moisture threatening to overflow his eyes.
Al's wife nudged him with her elbow. "Uh?" He glanced in her direction. "Oh yes. I almost forgot." There was a sprinkling of laughter from the crowd. Al reached into his pocket and took out an envelope. "We took up a collection so you could get some of the things you're sure to need. Every single person in town gave something to help you out." He grinned. "Well, not the babies, but you know what I mean." He extended a hand with the envelope.
"Here, Owen. With our best wishes. As I said the other day; do us proud, son." First Al, then his wife, and almost all other onlookers either embraced him, shook his hand, or kissed him on the cheek. It was too much. He had not believed these people were capable of dreaming. Now, he realized, they were sharing his dream.
He sniffed and accepted a handkerchief from his brother, along with the whispered assurance, "It's clean." Jonah grinned and Owen wiped his eyes, taking a moment to bring his voice under control.
"Thank you all for showing up here today, for your gift, 'n your good wishes. They mean the world to me." He bowed his head for a moment and then sniffed once more and smiled. "You all are making me homesick before I've even left town." There was a smattering of chuckles and then everyone began drifting away, many taking another opportunity to wish him luck and shake his hand as they passed.
Soon, only a few people remained. His mother looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes. "Be a good boy, Owen." She hugged him tightly and kissed him on the cheek, and then stepped closer to her husband who gave his son a grim closed-mouth nod."
Owen studied his father a moment and the nodded back, surprised he'd even been able to get that much recognition from his father. The man had even told him once that he would refuse to let him go to college because he was needed on the farm. Owen had made the mistake of laughing in his face.
"I'm eighteen years old, Pops. Whether you like it or not, I'm an adult, and can go any place I wish, whenever I wish." His father had told him the family wouldn't provide a penny of support, and that if he left, he might as well not ever come back, because he wouldn't be welcome.
Those words had hurt, but had not changed his mind to leave. The nod his father had just given him was his way of saying goodbye for good.
Owen had never told his mother of his father's words. He knew she made every effort to keep peace within the family, and the words would most likely hurt her more than him. He pitied his mother. She never knew of the beatings he'd been given by his father, since they always occurred out in the fields. She had however, heard the frequent shouting matches, as had his sisters and brother.
Jonah had been wonderful, doing his best to comfort Owen after each beating, sneaking him food when it had been forbidden him, andholding him until he had stopped crying. He'd never cried in his father's presence though, and he wouldn't today.
He turned his back on his father. His sister Abigail, shyly hugged him. "I'll miss you, Owen." She lowered her voice. "Write and tell me about all your adventures." Abigail was more like him than anyone else in his family. She, if no one else, understood his need to leave. She bit her lower lip and then threw her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tightly, before joining her parents.
His youngest sister, 'Opie', or Ophelia, stepped close and took his hand. He squatted down to her height. "I don't want you to leave me, Owen," she murmured in a tiny voice, wiping her eyes. "I won't ever see you again."
"Sure you will, Opie. I'll be back, and I'll be sure'n bring you a present, too." Her eyes brightened.
He laughed. "I have to leave before I can come back, now, don't I?" She nodded, her head bowed, not at all sure a present was worth the pain of her big brother leaving.
"Owen, what's it mean when Pops says your head is in the clouds? I heard him say that last night." Owen looked over his shoulder at his father, who had the grace to look embarrassed.
"It means I can see further than he can, Opie," he murmured. "It's a good thing to dream and have your head in the clouds." He hugged her once more. "You remember that for me, okay? That it's a good thing to dream." She nodded and then flung her arms around his shoulders.
"I'll miss you, Owen." He sniffed and tried to control his breathing.
"I'll miss you too, Opie. Now, go stand with Ma'ma, I have to say bye to Jonah." Ophelia slowly walked to her parents, and then buried her face in her mother's dress and silently cried as her mother tenderly stroked her hair.
"Good luck, Owen." Jonah, hugged him. "I'm gonna miss you too."
'When'd he grow so tall?" Owen wondered.
"Keep the handkerchief," Jonah chuckled, and murmured in a low voice. "You're gonna need it." He nodded toward the lonely figure standing in the shade of a large nearby tree. Owen nodded his understanding, and his thanks.
Jonah joined his parents who were quietly visiting with the town doctor, the person who had volunteered to drive Owen to the train station, two towns away. He could hear the murmur of their voices, but his entire attention was on Sam, standing disconsolate, near the tree.
"Oh, Sam," he said, as he approached. "Don't look so sad. You're tearin' me up inside." He reached out and rested his hand on his friend's shoulder, intensely conscious of his parents nearby.
"Can't help it," Sam choked. "I've not been sleepin' or nothin', I'm missing you so much already." He took a ragged breath, and thrust something into Owen's hand.
"Here, this is for you." It was a small framed picture of the two of them at last month's Independence Day celebration, the one he'd so much wanted to have taken. They had their arms around one another's shoulders, and were smiling at the camera.
Owen studied the photograph, running his thumb over Sam's image. He bit his lip, doing his best not to break down. This . . . parting . . . was so much more difficult than he had imagined.
"It's . . . it's so you won't forget me," Sam choked out. "You won't, will you?" He seemed to swallow with difficulty. "Forget me, I mean?"
"Never, Sam," Owen murmured, pulling Sam close and burying his face in his friend's hair. "Never."
Thank you for taking the time to read my work. I always welcome your email and enjoy hearing your thoughts. If you would like me to send you a pic of the character(s), please ask.