Watching Parker stare down at the bleak hotel parking lot, Bubba asked, “Somethin’ on your mind, Parka’?”
Stepping away from the window, Parker replied, “I was just wonderin’....”
Parker hesitated for a moment and then asked, “Do you think Ken’s... gay?”
Bubba, sitting on the end of the bed he’d chosen, stopped in the middle of prying off one of his boots. “Neva’ really thought about it....” He shrugged. “I don’t know... maybe. None of my business if he is.”
Bubba always offered as neutral an opinion as possible on the subject of homosexuality. He'd seen too much over the years to waste his time worrying about what, in the big scheme of things, was just so darned trivial really. Unfortunately, a lot of other people cared way too much and wanted to fight about it at the drop of a hat one way or the other. Neutral was just the best way to go. The safest way.
Eagerly agreeing and taking it a step further, Parker assured, “It’s okay if he is... I was just wonderin’.”
Going back to his boots, Bubba shook his head. “Wonderin’ gets you into all sorts of trouble, Parka’. Haven’t ya learned that yet?” With both boots finally off, Bubba admitted, “I’d say if anybody was gay, it’s Luke... but like I said, none of my business.”
Parker considered his friend’s words and couldn’t help but wonder what might be going on in the room next door. It was all four of the men's turn to sit through another boring seminar that would have them cooped up in a decaying hotel for the weekend. Luke and Ken were along as the other two victims.
Hearing Bubba chuckle lightly, Parker knew his mind was being read and Bubba proved it, warning, “Ya know, they might be ova’ there wonderin’ the same thing ‘bout us.”
Parker migrated to the other of the room's two beds, muttering, “Why? We’re the least likely to be gay.”
“What, ya have a scale of gayness?” Bubba wouldn’t have normally let himself get drawn into a conversation like this one, but there was nothing better to do. The cable television was two hundred channels with nothing on and the weather included a prediction of two inches of rain by dawn. He was trapped with Parker for the foreseeable future. At least it was something, though silly, to talk about.
“I never thought of it like that, but yeah. Some guys just seem... more likely to be gay.” That said, Parker plopped down onto what would be his bed for their short stay. He knew immediately that the mattress wouldn't be to his liking. It was too unyielding. He'd toss and turn all night and wake up snared in a bundle of over bleached white sheets.
Bubba, not sure he really wanted to know, asked any ways for kicks, “So, where am I on the scale?”
“You’re second from last. I’m last, ‘cause I know I’m not gay.” That said with an air of certainty, Parker hopped up and stripped off the bed's blue and white quilted comforter. He tossed it aside with the same air of certainty, into one of the room's two uncomfortable looking stuffed chairs. Comforters found on hotel beds always seemed dirty to him. Unwashed, with a questionable history. The sheets weren't much better, but at least the smell of chemicals that always lingered on them gave a sense, perhaps a false one, that they'd been laundered.
Giving his friend a searching look from head to toe, Bubba teased. “Ya sure ‘bout that? Luke ain’t the only one I’ve wonda’d ‘bout.” He made a point of watching Parker fold back the sheets on his bed carefully. Once folded back, he smoothed the new edge he'd made until it was flat and crisp.
Realizing what Bubba was doing and with it, implying, Parker snorted, “Oh, that’s real funny.” Parker gave the sheets an extra stroke or two, assuring Bubba that he could make fun of his quirks all he wanted to, he wasn't changing anytime soon.
Bubba knew Parker wasn’t as insulted as he let on. It was just part of the act. He stretched out on the bed and tucked his hands behind his head, not caring about the comforter, let alone the sheets. He admitted, “I’ve always wonda’d ‘bout Lonnie, just cause ya sometimes wonda’ if he’s tryin’ too hard... havin’ so many girlfriends and all.”
Parker was following Bubba's lead now, sitting at bed's edge, stripping off his boots and socks. He admitted, “They say the same thing about you.”
Looking over with a startled expression, Bubba inquired, “They who?”
The balding man glanced back, flashing a grin. “Everybody who sits around talking about everybody else like we are.”
Bubba shrugged in acceptance. He couldn’t argue with that. He shouldn’t dish it out if he wasn’t willing to accept it. In his own defense, he argued, “Don’t think I’ve had that many girlfriends... and I have tried to keep some of ‘em.”
“It’s not just that... you’re too....” Parker just couldn’t quite find the right words as he positioned his boots side by side at the end of his bed.
“I’m too what?” Bubba prodded.
Parker latched onto the closest word to describe it. “You’re too.... butch.”
“I’m a guy, I’m s’posed to be that way.”
“I know!” Parker cried, defending himself. “That’s why I don’t think you’re gay. Other people do, but....”
Sitting up with a pained look in his eyes, Bubba interrupted worriedly, “People think I’m gay? Really think I’m gay?”
Parker cringed under his friend’s probing question and gaze. This was exactly what Bubba had warned him about. Thinking too much, especially out loud. He remained hunched over at the end of his bed, making himself into a smaller target before admitting, “Some do.”
“Who?” Bubba was to the edge of the bed, waiting for a reply.
“I’m not going to say. It won’t do you any good to know. What are ya going to do? Rough them up until they agree that you’re not gay?”
Seeing Parker’s reasoning, Bubba flopped back onto the bed and tried to relax, but found it impossible. All the enjoyment of stretching out after a long drive was gone. “Just nice to know who it is, that’s all. Nice to know who you can trust and who ya can’t.”
“I said they think you’re gay. Not that they don’t like you or anything. None of them really cares that you’re gay.” Parker realized his mistake and sputtered, “Not that you are gay.”
Perched uncomfortably at the end of his bed, smoothing down his thinning hair, Parker couldn't think of a worse way to start a long weekend. Couldn't imagine a better way to get off on the wrong foot with his sometimes short tempered roommate. Way to go, dummy, he thought to himself. He warned you. Everybody does. You and your big mouth.
When was he finally going to learn? How many times was the chief going to have to yell at him? How many hurt looks was he going to have to receive? How many friends was he going to have to lose?
Still reeling, unable to believe that some people really thought he was a homosexual, Bubba asked softly, staring up at the ceiling, “Do a lot of people think I’m gay?”
“Not many,” Parker answered, wondering if that also applied to how many friends he'd have by trip's end. Not many. At times like this, he was reminded of how much he took Bubba for granted. Bubba was pretty good at laughing off Parker's silly theories and notions. He also seemed to know exactly when not to laugh. Even Parker had moments when he didn't want to be laughed at. Had moments when he wanted to be taken seriously and Bubba was the only one who picked those moments out without fail.
“How many?” Bubba asked, oblivious that this was a time when Parker wished he'd just laugh and ask, like he often did, “Did aliens tell ya that, Parka'?” or “Did ya run outta' tin foil again?”
Parker issued a classic who-cares shrug, hoping his attitude would be contagious.
The other man's tone a sign that he cared, Bubba asked sharply, “What’d’ya tell ‘em?”
Parker shrugged again. He replied bluntly, hoping honesty might get him further than avoidance had. “What can I tell them? We might be close friends, but only you know for sure. I just tell them I don’t think so, because I don’t think so. That’s all I can do. That’s all anybody can really say about anybody else. Nobody really knows for sure... well, except people they’ve been with or something.”
Bubba agreed by silently turning his attention back to a water stained tile in the ceiling. The whole conversation was getting bizarre and it was just time to let it go.
“It wasn’t my intention to bring any of this up...,” Parker sighed.
Feeling that he was about to get an unnecessary apology, Bubba interrupted, “I shouldn’t have let it get to me, but it’s just... there’s a big difference ‘tween folks just talkin’, like we do, and folks really thinkin’ it’s true.”
“There has to be somebody out there thinking the same thing about me,” Parker offered jovially.
The big man shook his head. “Sorry, Parka’. Everybody thinks you’re straight. You really are at the bottom of the list.”
Trapped in a hotel hours away from Sparta, Bubba had few places to retreat to. It was too late to find an open bar and the deserted hallways and lobby of a hotel full of cops didn’t hold much appeal. Cops were a naturally suspicious bunch. They were paid to be that way.
He accepted his only alternative, filling the tub from only the hot tap. Like most hotels, the place didn’t provide water hot enough to even bring a slight blush to his skin, but it was better than nothing. He couldn’t sleep and he couldn’t stand lying there, listening to Parker mumble in his sleep a minute more without losing his mind.
Things didn’t seem as bleak, surrounded by white porcelain under bright fluorescent lights. He’d turned them all on to chase away every shadow he could.
Slouching low in the tub, he propped his feet up on the ledge at the other end. He studied his toes and pondered how men could be so much alike on the outside, yet so different on the inside. What caused some men to have such different desires?
He ran his wet hands through his hair. As a few drops trickled down his forehead, he swiped them away, wiping a hand down his weary face. He briefly rubbed at a day's worth of dark stubble on his jaw.
For just a flash of a moment, he was young again and looking in the mirror. Wondering when he'd finally grow something more on his face than the fuzz on his lip that his sisters loved to tease him about. It seemed like he'd waited forever, but now all of that was so damned long ago and gone in the blink of an eye. A lot of time and a lot of women had gone by.
He liked women. There was no denying that. He’d loved a few to the point that losing them had almost killed him, but he still doubted himself.
Bubba closed his eyes, trying hard to hate Christopher for the seed of doubt he’d planted, but he just couldn’t hate him. Christopher had loved him unconditionally and how could he hate someone for that?
Parker closed the door after having a short chat with Luke in the hallway. He came back into the room with other things on his mind, so Bubba’s words took him by surprise. “If I tell ya somethin’, Parka’, ya gotta’ promise me it’ll stay ‘tween us.”
Parker’s eyes gleamed. The man loved gossip.
“’Tween us, Parka’. Promise?”
The sparkle in Parker’s eyes faded. There would be no spreading this around, whatever it was. “Okay, I promise.” He sat down in an ugly chair and a sudden knot of dread grew in his gut as he realized Bubba’s demeanor suggested bad news.
For a minute, the only sound in the room was the annoying hum of the air conditioner's compressor. When it shut off, the silence finally spurred Bubba into saying, “What ya said last night... it got me to thinkin’. I’ve neva’ told anybody ‘bout this. I’m only tellin’ you ‘cause I want your opinion.”
“Okay,” Parker sighed leerily, worried about what might be coming considering what they’d talked about. He found himself holding his breath, wondering if Bubba was about to come out of the closest. Just like he’d said, he didn’t think Bubba was gay, but that didn’t mean a damned thing in the end.
“I knew a guy in college. His name was Christopher. Long story short, he helped me pass a few classes and I helped him avoid a beatin’ or two. Some of the guys bullied him pretty bad. We were close friends... suddenly, it’s time for us to go our separate ways and all he wants is a kiss goodbye. I didn’t know he was gay. Things suddenly made more sense....” Bubba shrugged, his movements as unsteady as his voice had become. “Anyway... when anybody looks at ya like that, ya find it kinda’ hard to say no... and I neva’ saw him again.”
When the room had stayed eerily quiet for too long, no compressor and no confessions, Parker dared to ask, “You kissed him?”
“More like he kissed me.”
“All ya did was kiss?”
“That’s all,” Bubba assured.
Parker, sensing what he was expected to ask, asked his friend, “Did ya like it?”
Bubba hung his head. “A little.”
The other man replied flatly, “That doesn’t make you gay.”
“I know.” Bubba began to shake himself out of his sudden stupor. “And I like women... really, but....”
“But you got a little thrill when some guy admitted he was interested in you.” Parker was in rare form, a seriousness to his tone that was seldom heard, even by Bubba.
Bubba met Parker’s gaze, amazed that his friend had summed it up so well. “Yeah.”
“He just stroked your ego a little.” Parker stressed the point, “That doesn’t make you gay.”
That said, Parker looked away for a moment. Without Parker’s eyes on him, Bubba admitted, “I always protected Chris, ‘cause he seemed like such a nancy-boy, but turned out he was far brava’ than I eva’ was.” A nervous little laugh escaped him, implying there was a lot more left for him to say.
The big man sat down on the end of his bed. His shoulders hunched as he kneaded his large hands together skittishly. “I got felt up a little once, by some fella’ who’d done a lil’ too much drinkin’. I guess we was both in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He chuckled more openly this time. “For him especially... ‘cause I arrested him... and no, I didn’t care for that at all, even though I got him for public intox, not the gropin’. I figured I’d spare us both on that one and just let it go.”
Parker moved from the chair and sat down beside his friend, but kept a comfortable distance for them both. “Could you see yourself in a relationship with another man?” Still, that unusually serious tone.
“No,” Bubba admitted, rubbing the tension out of his thick neck with both hands.
As if that settled it, Parker broke out of his funk and proclaimed, “You’re not gay.” His old, familiar smile was back in place. Blue eyes glinting with mischief.
“Life’s easia’ for a fella’ when he just sticks to women anyway,” Bubba offered back, but the doubt was still there in his voice. So far, women had done nothing but complicate his life and love just seemed to get yanked further and further out of his reach with each passing relationship.
With a tired sigh, Bubba stood up, with the intention of leaving the whole mess behind him. “This conversation neva’ happened, Parka’. Okay?”
Ken stretched his aching back. “An hour for lunch is just not enough. I need more time to recoup.” That morning’s string of lectures had them all confined for hours in torture devices being passed off as chairs.
“I’m olda’ than you, kid,” Bubba teased, “how’d’ya think I feel.” Ken’s back was aching, but Bubba’s was howling. Merely leaving one uncomfortable chair for another to eat lunch had not helped.
Ken didn’t get an opportunity to voice any more of his own complaints. The group was getting separated for the second half of the day per the chief’s instructions. The two higher ranking officers were not being shown any favoritism either, proven as Bubba reminded the two rookies, “Parka’ and I aren’t out ‘til six.”
The younger men put their heads together for a moment before Luke commented, “We’ll wait and catch dinner with you guys.” That said, Luke walked away, following Ken’s lead.
Bubba turned to Parker and grumbled as he arched his aching back, “I ain’t exactly thrilled ‘bout anotha’ ‘round of this.”
Familiar with his friend’s bad back, an unfortunate hold over from years of abusing his body both on and off the football field, Parker suggested, “Luke and Ken aren’t here, so the chief won’t be the wiser If you want to go back to the room. It’s not like we both have to suffer through this.”
Giving up on trying to rub the pressure out of his spine, Bubba offered his dejected retort, “We get caught, you’ll be in just as much trouble as me.” He smiled faintly. “If not more.”
Already painfully aware that the old man loved to take it out on him more than anyone else, Parker shrugged. “What’s the worst he can do?”
“Demote ya... again,” Bubba warned. Not wanting to discuss it any further, he mumbled, “We betta’ get goin’.” It was like being back in high school if you walked in late. Every head turned to see who the bad apples were and the lecturer gave you the look.
That’s exactly what they got when they walked in. There was then no doubt they were late. Parker took a seat, mindful to find one that would allow them to sit together. As Bubba took the seat to Parker’s right, Parker whispered, “We should have ditched class.”
Bubba whispered back. “Gone to smoke in the boys’ room.”
“Hide under the viaduct and look at dirty magazines.” Parker grinned. He’d got Bubba to snicker a little with that one.
Bubba admitted why that one in particular made him laugh. “I did that a time or two.” When enough time had passed to avoid getting too many annoyed glances thrown his way, he followed up with, “They were the real cheap magazines too. Ya got what ya paid for.”
Memories from his own youth came back as Parker recalled the homely girls he used to see in the cheap magazines. The ones that only put out an edition or two and then went under. There was one good thing about them. The ugly girls always did the raunchiest stuff, leaving the young gawkers bug-eyed and slack-jawed.
He smiled to himself, remembering turning a magazine upside down more than once and wondering out loud, “How is she doing that?” The blowhard of the group, every group had one, often responded, “Wish she’d do that to me.” If they had a real braggart on hand, they’d hear, “Yeah, my girlfriend does that... all the time.”
That thought in mind, Parker looked around and wondered which of the other men present were that-guy from his childhood. There were a few women present, but law enforcement was still a very male dominated field.
Meanwhile, the lecture had continued on. Parker tuned it out, allowing other waves of memories to flow out of the past and over him. His mind kept going back to Bubba’s earlier confession, despite Bubba’s request that the conversation be swept under a rug and forgotten. Oh, it had happened and there was no taking it back. It left him with a warm feeling in his gut, that Bubba had confided in him. With his big mouth, it amazed him that anyone, especially Bubba, could have that kind of trust in him. This hadn’t been the first time and because he surprisingly kept Bubba’s secrets, it likely wouldn’t be the last.
The muscles in his lower back had collapsed into an all out spasmodic disaster, leading Bubba to retreat back to the bathtub. He had the hotel room to himself, skipping dinner. If he knew now what he didn’t know back then, he’d have stuck with a gentler sport. Maybe skipped sports altogether. Hanging out with the girls working on the school yearbook suddenly seemed extremely appealing. Maybe playing a tuba in the marching band. Anything would have been better than enduring this.
He then remembered the bleak truth. There was no chance of going pro taking pictures for the yearbook or playing the tuba. It was just a gamble one took for that slim, slim chance.
So deep in his own thoughts, Bubba didn’t hear Parker let himself into the room. He didn’t know he wasn’t alone until he heard the knock on the bathroom door.
Bubba had lost most of his modesty sharing a locker room for countless years with a football team and then a whole police department. It wasn’t as if he had anything Parker hadn’t seen before and Parker, no doubt, had seen a lot during two tours in Vietnam.
Parker immediately went to the sink to brush his teeth, just as Bubba suspected he would. The guy had a perfect smile because he worked at it.
Bubba inquired, “Did ya make ‘em orda’ from the kids’ menu?”
Around his toothbrush, Parker mumbled to his image in the mirror, “Luke ordered that huge sandwich they have.”
Aware of the eatery’s famous challenge, Bubba asked with a chuckle, “Did he finish it?”
“Heck no.” Parker left it at that until he could rinse. Done, he added, “He had so much left, he gave half to Ken and still had some left.” Parker then went to work combing what little hair he had. “You could probably do it.”
Bubba groaned and slid deeper into the tub. “That’s the last thing I need to be doin’.” He had suddenly sprouted a bit of his old modesty and wanted to hide, self-conscious about the little bit of a gut that he felt he had. No one else ever agreed that it was there, but he was certain it was. Girlfriends claimed he was burly or just had meat on his bones, but to him, that translated to fat.
Fighting with a suddenly sprung cow lick, Parker glared at his reflection and asked, “Feeling any better?”
“Going to try to sit through another day?”
“We’ll see,” Bubba mumbled, dreading the idea. To give up was to admit total defeat. To admit he'd finally gotten to that dire point in his life. He was becoming one of those guys. Falling apart and old. Fat.
Parker teased, “I know where I can get some really bad girlie magazines.”
“Now all we need is a viaduct. Know of any?” Bubba asked, playing along.
Cow lick finally tamed, Parker proclaimed, “It’s a big city.”
“Parka’,” Bubba finally groaned, “what was I thinkin’ all those years ago....”
The first thing that came to Parker’s mind was what he had imagined Christopher to look like. He'd formed an image after Bubba's confession, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the young man. Imagined handsome, but delicate features. Blue eyes.
Parker shook the image from his head, thinking it unfair to typecast. It was unfair to a man he'd never met and unfair to Bubba.
Meanwhile, Bubba sighed, “They tell ya that you’ll be famous or rich or both, but they don’t tell ya ‘bout this.” This being ice packs, heat pads, bad joints, muscles that never worked quite right, tubes of stuff that cooled, bottles of stuff that warmed and gallons of stuff that did both.
Knowing there was nothing he could do, but be there to listen, Parker turned. Keeping his eyes slightly averted from the tub, he reminded gently, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty. We all have things we wish we could go back and change.”
“Amen,” Bubba sighed, closing his eyes.
Parker knew then that Bubba was going to stew on the inside and wouldn’t need him now. Maybe later. Probably later. He walked out, closing the bathroom door behind him, then went to the window. It was still raining. The heavy clouds had brought on an early dusk, making him feel even more depressed.
He hated seeing his friend like this, a grim reminder that this was the way it would always be for Bubba. It would likely only get worse as Bubba aged and the future would be a bleak one for his friend if he didn’t eventually find someone to grow old with.
Bubba’s confession about the mysterious Christopher was all the proof Parker needed. That someone would never be him. Not that he'd ever really thought that it would be.
Bubba wasn’t gay. Wasn’t going to be. He was just a big hearted guy that couldn’t be cruel to a man in love with him. Parker had always suspected that if he told Bubba how he felt, that’s the way it would be and now he knew. There was no point now of ever trying. It wouldn’t go anywhere. Bubba wouldn’t shove him away, but he wouldn’t be embraced either.
Watching rain dance off puddles on the sidewalk below, Parker thought to himself, “That’s life.” Bubba had his aches and pains and so did he. Some things you just couldn’t change.