The sign for Neasy’s Auto Repair flickered weakly as Gabriel peered out the smudged glass window of the Jiffy Mart. Jack was bent over the meager produce selection. He picked up a tomato, weighed it in his hand, then sat it back down with a crestfallen expression. He turned back to Gabe, “It uh, used to be better than this,” he said.
“Jack, I don’t think this place has seen its best days since dinosaurs walked the earth,” Gabe said and slapped him on the shoulder.
Jack pouted his lip, “Are you calling me old?”
“C’mon, Jackie, you don’t have to impress me. Just fix what your Ma used to make.”
“You dodged the question,” Jack said and narrowed his eyes. Gabe stuck out his tongue. The blond man huffed, but returned to the aisles. Their cart filled little by little as Jack found the things that his Ma used to buy. Familiar packaging stared back at him as he wheeled the cart to the register.
The old man behind the checkout counter smiled as the two men approached, “Well I’ll be. Is that you, Jack Morrison? You’ve grown like a weed since I last saw ya. And who is this fella here?”
“Hello, Mr. Clemons. This is Gabriel Reyes, a war buddy of mine,” Jack said. He was acutely aware of how close Gabe was standing behind him. Closer than justifiable to a small old man. Jack swatted him away without looking. He could almost feel Gabe’s smirk as the man stepped back.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Clemons,” Gabe said, stepping around Jack as he held out his hand for a shake. Mr. Clemons shook Gabe’s hand with enthusiasm while Jack placed the groceries on the conveyor belt.
Jack blushed as Gabriel regaled the old man with embellished war stories, many including Jack’s supposed acts of bravery. He bagged the groceries just as Gabe was pulling up his shirt to show off one of his old scars.
“Gabe,” Jack said through clenched teeth. Gabe looked at him with a shit-eating grin and shrugged. “I’m sorry, Mr. Clemons, but we have to go. I need to start cooking now if we want to have dinner.”
“Oh, alright. It was nice seeing you, Jack, and nice to meet you, Gabriel,” Mr. Clemons said and waved them farewell. Just as Jack stepped out the door, the old man called after him, “Oh, and Jack, I’m sorry to hear about your mother. She was a lovely woman.”
Jack stiffened as an unwelcomed swell of emotion filled his gut. He swayed on his feet, but Gabe placed a firm and reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“C’mon, Jackie,” he said, “Let’s get out of here.”
The two men piled the groceries into the back of Jack’s beat up pick-up truck and departed for his childhood home. The truck trundled along the old gravel roads. Gabe was able to feel every bump and pothole along the way, bracing himself on the door. They passed fields of corn, rolling hills, and pastures dotted with dairy cows. The farmhouse crested over the horizon like something out of a pastoral painting. Gabe couldn’t help but marvel at the sights, sounds, and smells of the country.
Jack pulled up in front of the old barn while Gabe hung his head out of the window, “You got a nice place out here,” he said as he opened the truck door.
Jack gathered the groceries and crunched his way across the gravel driveway to the house, “I never thought so as a kid,” he said, “I wanted to get out as soon as I could.”
He shouldered his way into the house. The familiar smell of apples and corn and something so innately homey engulfed him. He noted the distinct lack of noise. No Pa yelling at football on the TV. No Ma singing to the radio as she cooked and cleaned. His shoulders slumped. This was his house, but it was no longer his home.
The familiar presence of Gabriel pressed in behind him and the scent of apples and corn was replaced with cinnamon and sandalwood. Gabe pulled Jack into his arms. Jack allowed the groceries to fall from his hands. They hit the floor with a thunk as he pressed his face into the crook of Gabe’s neck. He didn’t cry; he’d done enough of that at the funeral. Instead, he let himself be engulfed by Gabe’s scent, Gabe’s warmth, Gabe’s everything.
“Jack,” Gabriel whispered, his warm breath gusting over the blond man’s ear. Jack stirred and looked up at Gabe’s face. The man stared down at him, running his hand over Jack’s cheek before placing a quick kiss on his lips. “Let’s put the groceries away. I’ll set the table and you can start cooking.”
Jack found the act of cooking comforting. While he wasn’t a master chef, if he had a recipe (or a grill), he could make things work. He found the index card his mother wrote the recipe on and was surprised to find he’d gotten every ingredient. He could hear Gabriel clattering around in the dining room. The extra noise reminded him that he wasn’t alone. He could almost imagine the house as it once was; noisy, warm, and full of life.
“Don’t go in there ‘till the food is done,” Gabe said as he came back into the kitchen.
Jack raised his eyebrows, “I’m not going to ask questions because I love you, but if there is any variety of animal in that room…”
Gabe held up his hands, “What? That was one time and you loved Randall the Raccoon!”
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, shook his head, and let out a laugh, “Just get over here so I can show you how to help out.”
“I’m surprised you know how to work more than a grill,” Gabe said. Jack punched him in the arm, then handed him a can of biscuits. Gabe eyed them suspiciously. “Biscuits out of a can? I thought you country folk made everything from scratch?”
“Don’t question my mother’s art form until you’ve had the finished product,” Jack said, jabbing a wooden spoon in Gabe’s direction, “Separate the biscuits and then tear them into quarters. Think your calloused brute hands can handle that?”
Gabe maintained eye contact with Jack as he seamlessly cracked open the can of biscuits on the counter’s corner. He took out the dough and tore it apart with finesse. He presented a piece in the palm of his hand to Jack. The blond man rolled his eyes.
“Show-off,” Jack said under his breath, turning to the chicken he had simmering on the stove. He cut the vegetables over the pot (thankful that the recipe didn’t call for tomatoes) and then stirred the soup-like mixture. The smell of chicken and spices filled the small kitchen as he worked.
“So, what do I do with these?” Gabe asked, holding up a piece of floppy biscuit dough.
“You get to handle the fun part,” Jack said, beckoning Gabe over. Gabe fell in beside him and peered into the pot. He felt his mouth begin to water. “Drop the dough in one by one on top of everything.”
“That’s it?” Gabe asked. Jack nodded, so he began dropping the dough into the pot. They landed with tiny plop sounds that made Gabriel smile. Jack wrapped one arm around his waist and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
The two men worked in comfortable silence as they cleaned the kitchen and waited for the meal to cook. The oven’s timer buzzed and Jack pulled down two bowls from the cabinets. He ladled out two helpings into the bowls, handing one to an eager Gabriel.
“Chicken and dumplings, just like Ma used to make,” Jack said.
“I can’t wait to try it. Let’s go in the dining room, yea?” Gabe said, taking Jack by the arm. Jack cocked his head to the side at Gabriel’s eagerness to sit down. His cooking wasn’t that good.
They rounded the corner to the dining room and Jack’s eyes flew wide. If it wasn’t for Gabe, the hot food would be all over the floor. Gabriel took both bowls into his hands and placed them on the table. He wrapped one arm around Jack’s waist, “Well, what do you think?”
“Gabe...I don’t know what to say,” Jack said, staring at the table. It was lined down the center with candles and at either end was a picture of his mom and dad. Jack covered his mouth with one hand. That unwelcome feeling that crept its way into his stomach at the grocery store was back, except this time, he was ready to face it.
“I thought we could have dinner with them one last time. You know, before we pack up the house,” Gabe said, letting go of Jack’s waist to pull out a chair for him.
They sat down across from each other. Gabe placed his hand palm-up on the table and Jack placed his hand on top. Jack didn’t know what else to say, but he knew he didn’t have to. Gabe understood. He always understood.