"Please," Neil said to me, "come in."
His extended hand guided me through the door into the entryway of his apartment. A large, patterned rug hung on the wall to the left, hiding white styrofoam. Probably soundproofing. Brad was standing in the livingroom, just to my right, petting a beautiful, cream-coloured dog which stood a bit above Brad's knees. Neil closed the door as he entered. When the dog saw me, a new round of barking began and she came toward me, limping as badly as her master.
"Sam!" the man scolded. Then, to me, he said, "Don't worry. She's gentle."
"You call her ‘Sam'?" Brad asked.
"Short for Samantha Morgan Dog," Neil said.
"No wonder you call her Sam," Brad smiled brightly.
Sam was no-longer barking and her tail was wagging energetically in response to my hearty scratching of her ears. She tilted her head into it. I turned to Neil. "Excuse me, where's my daughter?"
Neil stepped back to the entry door and indicated a doorway opposite. "Bathroom's right there," he said.
I saw the bathroom door immediately and walked there in just a few steps. A small kitchen opened to the right with a single window at the back and another door leading outside. Both were opened to let in the fresh air. There was no room in the kitchen for even a tiny dining table. I knocked on the door. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"
"I'm looking at a Reader's Digest, Daddy!" she called back. "There's lots of ‘em in here. And newspapers and everything!"
Typical bachelor's reading room. I smiled. "I'm coming in, Sweetheart," I said, and opened the door, closing it again as I stepped inside. Small bathroom. Lindsay was sitting on the toilet just ahead of me. The tub and shower were against the wall to my left, and a vanity sat against the wall just beyond Lindsay. Newspapers and advertising inserts lay over the side of the tub.
"Other people need to use this room, too, Sweetheart," I told her. "Are you finished yet?"
"Yup," she replied. "I just had to go pee."
"Well, come on, then," I said, taking the Digest from her and setting it on the vanity. When she was ready, I sent her out the door. "I'll be right there."
A quick piss, flush, and handwash and I was heading back to the livingroom. It wasn't a large room. A large green sofa covered with a blue blanket and a red afghan over the back cushions sat under a single window against the far wall. A rather cluttered coffee table sat in front of it. A computer table with wall shelves above it sat just to the left. The computer was turned on and a desktop picture of a man I didn't know filled the screen. The wall farthest from me, to the right of the sofa, opened into the single bedroom. The bed wasn't made. A wooden stand full of plants stood against the bedroom window at the front of the apartment There was a long shelf above the door upon which sat a number of very old glass bottles and a few snowman ornaments, plus a small sign which read, "So this isn't Home Sweet Home. Adjust".
On the wall opposite the sofa, just to my right, a huge, home-made, wooden entertainment unit and bookshelves covered most of the wall from floor to the very high ceiling. There were lots of books - encyclopaedias, old hardbacks, a number of paperbacks, and numerous coffee table books - and knick-knacks, as well as a small collection of DVDs. The highest shelves contained an assortment of jigsaw puzzles, ornaments, wicker baskets, and a large vase of flowers that seemed to be made of the same stuff from which Lindsay had made my coaster. The television was off, but a small stereo system sitting on a shelf below was playing Bach's Third Brandenburg concerto. On a shelf above the television were a VCR and DVD player. A large ceiling fan spun overhead.
Early hand-me-down decor. Thrift-shop chic.
"CFMX?" I commented, nodding to the stereo.
"Yes," Neil said. He was looking at Brad. Then he looked at me. "It's the only station I listen to."
"Excuse me," Brad said as he stepped between us on his way to the bathroom. Neil watched him go. Stared at him, actually. There was an odd look in his eyes - sad, perhaps - and he stared at the door even after I heard it close. I got the strangest feeling that he'd met Brad before. He took a deep breath and let it out again before returning his attention to me.
Lindsay was all over the dog. She looked at Neil. "Why is her leg bent like that?" she asked. It was obvious the dog had been injured. She stood upright on her left front leg, but her right leg was bent at the ankle and her entire foot lay almost flat on the carpeted floor.
"She was hit by a car a few years ago," Neil said. "The car ran over her leg. She was in a cast for a few months."
"Poor doggy," Lindsay said, giving her another hug. "Does it hurt?"
"No," Neil said. "It just makes it harder for her to walk, that's all."
"I had a cast on my arm," Lindsay said, holding it up for inspection. "It's all better now."
Neil smiled at her. "That's good." Then he said, "Would you like to give Sam a treat?"
"Can I!?" Lindsay loved dogs. I should consider getting her one now that she had a permanent home for a dog.
Neil seemed nervous, but not in a ‘nervous' way. I got the feeling that was the way he always was. I mean, his face didn't look nervous. He just shook slightly, and his movements were calculated and precise, as if he were planning them in his mind before he did them and was very conscious of them. He searched through the top bag of his grocery cart and pulled out a crinkling deli-wrap package. As he opened it, Sam escaped Lindsay's grasp and headed for her master. She knew that sound. Neil opened the package and pulled out four small pepperoni sticks.
Brad returned. "Please," Neil said to both of us. "Have a seat for a bit."
I had planned only on letting Lindsay use the bathroom, getting directions, and moving along, but I liked this man. I don't know what was wrong with him, causing his limp. I didn't ask. His life was simple and slow, but he seemed content with it and didn't seem to resent what life had handed him. He was taking it in stride and dealing as best he could. He may have been alone, but he didn't appear lonely. Our chance visit with him seemed to bring a welcomed break to an otherwise wearisome routine, so we found ourselves staying..
Brad and I sat on the sofa.
"I have to buy these for her each time I go shopping or she gets mad at me," Neil said smiling as he approached Lindsay, the dog following close behind. He broke two of the sticks into five bite- sized pieces as he walked. It looked odd, both master and dog limping like that. He set the pieces on the coffee table and set the other two sticks aside. "When you give them to her, just say ‘easy'."
"Okay," Lindsay said.
Neil took off his cap, smoothing out his thinning hair with a sweep of his hand, and sat on the chair in front of the computer with some effort and even more relief. He spun the chair around to face us.
"Mister?" Lindsay said as the dog happily munched on another piece of pepperoni. "Can I have a drink?"
"I don't have any pop," Neil said, "but I have milk or iced tea or cranberry juice." He started pushing himself out of the chair.
Ever to the rescue, Brad stood up. "I can get it," he said.
Neil settled back into the chair. "The glasses are in the corner cabinet to the right of the sink."
"What would you like, Lindsay?" Brad asked.
"Help yourself if you'd like some," Neil said. His eyes were locked on Brad's face. "There's plenty. Coffee there, too, or I can make tea if you prefer."
"Thanks," Brad replied. To me, he said, "Ted?"
"Iced tea if there's enough."
"There's more than enough," Neil said.
Brad turned to Neil. "Can I get you anything?"
"Nothing, thanks," he said. "I'm fine."
Brad left for the kitchen, and, again, the older man watched him go until he disappeared around the corner.
"So," Neil said as he turned back to me. "You're lost, eh?"
"We're trying to get to the zoo and the Lift Lock, and then the fireworks tonight. I'm not sure where we went today, but it certainly wasn't where we wanted to go."
He smiled knowingly. "Easy enough to get lost in Peterpatch. Streets don't match." He pushed himself out of the chair and moved to the sofa. Before he sat down, he grabbed up a small tray with a plastic tub of tobacco and a cigarette rolling machine which was sitting on the corner of the coffee table. He set it out of the way near his computer. "I see you don't smoke," he said. "Neither do I when I have visitors."
"Thank you," I said.
He sat down and reached toward a shelf below the coffee table. He located a folded map and handed it to me as he took off his glasses and exchanged them for another pair on the table.
The dog had finished her treats and was now lying on a large, cushioned rug just to the right of the bedroom door. Lindsay had joined Sam there and was petting her again. It had taken considerable effort for the dog to lie down and I suspected she was much older than she looked, and probably suffering from serious arthritis.
"How old is she?" I asked.
"I'm not exactly sure," Neil replied. "Thirteen, fourteen maybe."
"She's beautiful,' I told him.
I opened the map and began looking at it. Neil looked on from the side. "You only need to remember three streets," he said. He pointed to the map and his finger suddenly began to shake even more than it had before. More of a jerking motion, actually, as if he were trying to counteract each shake. "Sorry," he apologized, and pulled his hand back and set it into his lap to join his other hand. He took a deep breath.
I pointed to where he had pointed. "Here?"
"Yes. Now, move right to George Street." I did. "It runs one way south. The next street over is Water. It's one way north." I found them easily. "Now, go south a few blocks and find Hunter." Again, easily found. My finger traced his directions on the map. "Go east across the river to the canal. That's the Lift Lock. The zoo is way up on Water Street. Look for Riverview Park."
I found that easily, too. "We were so close to where I wanted to be," I said.
Brad returned with three glasses in his hands, letting Lindsay take one first before handing the other to me. Neil began to rise from the sofa.
"You're okay," Brad said. "There's plenty of room." He settled in beside me.
"The fireworks are down George Street at Little Lake," Neil said. "Look for Creary Park." Once I located the lake, it was easy finding the park. "Three streets," he added. "George, Water, and Hunter. His eyes returned to Brad.
"That's simple enough," I said as I folded the map again and began to replace it on the table shelf.
"Take it," Neil said. "I don't need it." He removed the black-rimmed glasses and exchanged them with the gold-coloured ones again.
"Thanks," I said and tucked it between myself and Brad.
"Are you a Stargate fan?" Brad asked our host. "I saw Daniel Jackson on your computer screen."
"Big fan," he said. Neil seemed lost in Brad's face. "I watch it in reruns every night. Pretty stupid for an old guy like me."
"It's not stupid," Brad said with his chipped-tooth smile. "I like the show, too. I always liked Jack O'Neill, though." Then the smile disappeared and he said, "Excuse me, but you keep staring at me."
Neil looked like he'd just been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. "I'm sorry," he said as he looked away. "I didn't even notice."
"I remind you of someone, don't I?" Brad asked. "It's like you already know me.
Neil looked at Brad again, then pushed himself out of the sofa, putting his hands on his knees to push himself upright. He circled the coffee table, stepped carefully over the dog's feet, and went into the bedroom. He opened a large, blue plastic container sitting on the floor and pulled out a crumpled shoe box and carried it back into the livingroom. He returned to the computer chair and opened the box. I could see him rifling through an assortment of photos before pulling out two of them. He held them out to me and I stretched to reach for them.
Brad and I looked at them, then we looked at each other, and finally back to Neil. "He looks just like me," Brad said in astonishment.
"Can I see, Daddy?" Brad handed the photos to Lindsay. The dog lifted her head off Lindsay's lap, sniffed at the photos, then settled her head back onto her new friend's leg.
Brad looked at Neil again, and the older man looked away. Brad's voice was gentle and caring. "You loved him, didn't you? When you look at me, you have the same look in your eyes that Ted has when he looks at me, but it's sadder somehow."
"Yes," Neil admitted. He sighed deeply and settled back against the chair.
Brad's hand found mine and clutched it tightly. "He didn't love you back," Brad said.
Neil shook his head and raised his eyebrows. "No, he didn't. He couldn't." He looked back into Brad's green eyes. "He was about your age when I met him back in ‘83. Nineteen. I was thirty- two." Brad's hand squeezed mine even tighter. "He's shorter than you, though. A lot shorter. And his eyes are a different colour. . ." He smiled timidly. "And he doesn't have a chipped tooth. But ‘yes', you are very much like he was when he was your age."
The photos flashed into my mind again. The resemblance had been astonishing and had extended to the midsection as well. Neil's friend wasn't quite as blessed as Brad, but it was still quite impressive. "Where is he now?" I asked.
"I don't know. I haven't seen him for a few years. But that's life. You live with it or you let it get you down."
Until that moment, I hadn't realized how lucky I was. The similarities in our lives were eerily similar, but that's where they stopped. I had found love, and it had found me. Neil would probably never find it. He had only his memories of long ago and what might have been.
"Would you like to join us today?" Brad asked.
Neil smiled as he sat back down. "No," he said. "But thanks for asking. I can't do that anymore. Too much standing and walking."
"I'm sorry," Brad said.
Neil simply smiled and shrugged. "I do what I can. Just can't do that."
We should have left then. We had things to do, but we ended up staying for almost another hour and another glass of iced tea. Neil still didn't drink anything.
"Did you make the flowers?" Lindsay asked, pointing to the vase on the shelf.
"Yes, I did," Neil said. "A long time ago."
"It's plastic canvas, isn't it?"
"I only make flat things," Lindsay said. "I hope I can do stuff like that some day."
"The clock above you is plastic canvas, too." Lindsay looked up. "If you practice enough, you can do things like that as well." He paused a moment, then his face brightened. "I have something for you," Neil said. He pushed himself out of the chair again and made his way once more into the bedroom. He returned a moment later with a bird house, all stitched in blues and whites and tans. It was in the shape of a Swiss chalet and small enough to sit on a shelf. A bird was perched outside the circular hatchway. He handed it to Lindsay.
Lindsay ran her fingers over the stitching, examining the bird house, front and back. She poked gently at the bird and found that it actually moved. "It's so pretty," she said. Her eyes were wide with wonder and excitement.
"I made this for my mother a long time ago," Neil said. "When she died a few years ago, I got it back. I'd like you to have it." There was no sadness in his voice when he spoke of her.
"Sweetheart," I said, "I think you should give it back."
"Please, Ted," the older man said, "I'd like her to have it. It just sits on my dresser." He smiled at Lindsay. "You keep it and enjoy it." Then he walked back to his chair and sat down.
"Thank you, Neil," Lindsay said.
We talked for awhile. Brad and Neil got into a pleasant discussion about this Stargate programme and Brad teased him lightly about his obsession with Daniel Jackson and asked how he felt about Jonas Quinn. Neil's eyebrows raised high on his head and a small grin crossed his face. He motioned Brad to the computer. He clicked an icon, quickly bringing up a word processing program. He found the file he wanted and opened it. He scrolled down the page and Brad skimmed it over his shoulder.
"You wrote a story about Daniel and Jonas?"
Neil's smile was rather embarrassed. "Two of them, actually. I always thought they belonged together. Besides, it passes time and keeps this old brain moving."
"I'd like to read it sometime," Brad said with genuine interest.
"It's online in a forum I belong to," Neil said as he handed Brad a small note pad and pen. "‘justusboys dot com'."
I don't think Brad wanted to leave any more than I did, but Lindsay was getting antsy and anxious to see what we had come to Peterborough to see. After another toidy break, we left, hoping this wouldn't be the last time we saw this man. Neil and Sam stood on the front porch, watching us as we walked to the corner, Lindsay clutching her bird house in her arms. We turned for one final, happy wave and ‘goodbye' from us and a cheery ‘take care, eh?' from Neil, and then we were gone.
* * * * *
I was surprised to see how close we had been to our goal without even knowing it. Another block would have taken us there. But it was like all the forgotten maps and the ‘uh ohs' and dead ends and wrong turns and zigzags had taken us to find Neil. I didn't really believe in fate, but I'm sure now that fate had a hand in this. Whatever it was, we were destined to meet him, and Brad and I were forever changed by meeting him. My love for Brad shot into orbit when I realized how lucky I had been that he had chosen to love me back.
* * * * *
With Brad reading the map, we found the Lift Lock easily enough. We got there just as a tourist boat was pulling into the tank at the bottom level. More small watercraft waited to board, but there was little room left in the large tank. The other tank, at the top level, already had boats bobbing in it.
The lock looked like a concrete castle with side-by-side drawbridges and square towers on either side. A round, red-roofed tower divided the tanks. The gigantic tanks took the place of the drawbridges - one at the lower level and the other at the top. A huge metal cylinder held up the upper tank.
We watched the gates close, locking the boats in place, and then the upper tank began to sink. As it did, the lower tank slowly rose out of the water. It looked like a giant swimming pool balanced on a gigantic, metal pedestal. The tanks moved slowly at first, and I thought it would take forever for them to exchange positions, but suddenly they began to move much more swiftly. I could imagine the rush the people on the boats felt. For those in the top level, it would be like riding down in an elevator and suddenly having the cables cut away.
We waited and watched the full process from beginning to end again before getting back in the car and heading out to find the zoo. The drive to it was pleasant for a Sunday afternoon. Following the map, I improvised a bit and took the scenic route out, following the meandering river. As we crossed the bridge to rejoin Water Street, we could see Trent University to our right. All concrete. I think it would look rather depressing in the rain.
The zoo was pretty crowded, even though the streets weren't, and Lindsay ran from exhibit to exhibit with Brad and I tagging along as best we could. We came across a small orchestra playing music for the visitors in a small circular courtyard. We found a place to sit on the rim of a huge fountain set into the pathway and Brad went to a small concession stand nearby to get us each an ice cream cone.
"Daddy," Lindsay asked. "Why didn't Neil want to come with us?"
"I don't think he could, Sweetheart," I told her. "He has trouble walking and he wouldn't have been able to keep up with us." I smiled at her. "Especially you."
"I could walk slower," she offered.
"I'm not sure that would have helped, Sweetheart."
She took a few licks from her cone and said, "I hope we see him again. I liked him."
"I do, too, Sweetheart." But I wasn't sure if we ever would.
Fortunately for Lindsay, I'd had the forethought to pack a few changes of clothes for her. When we finally found the playground, Lindsay headed first for the wading pool. She had on her shorts and a light blouse, so all she had to do was to take off her shoes and socks. She spent a half hour in there, splashing around and playing with the other children, before hitting all the tunnel slides and swings and all the jungle gyms and all the other things Peterborough had given her to play on, and all at the cost of a single ice cream cone.
Lindsay was changed into a dry pair of shorts and blouse and I'd brushed the wetness out of her hair. It dried in no time at all. It wasn't hard finding a place to eat supper. There were plenty of restaurants around now that we didn't need one in a hurry and I let Lindsay choose. Fortunately, she picked a family restaurant where I could order something other than a burger and fries.
We arrived early for the outdoor concert and there was already a sizeable crowd there. Many were sitting in lawn chairs, but a lot of people were standing. Brad set up our two chairs where Lindsay would have a good view of the stage, and then we sat and waited. Lindsay sat in my lap. Before the concert started, Brad went to the concession stand there and bought pops for each of us and several bags of potato chips and a barrel of popcorn. We munched away as the concert unfolded.
It was quite enjoyable, even for the adults attending, and Lindsay was enraptured by it. When the concert finally ended, we were alerted to move to the lake for the boat show and fireworks display. Brad carried the chairs and I carried Lindsay. It was dark by then.
The boat show was nothing like I had expected it would be. Music played in the background and the small sailing boats danced a ballet in the water. The sails were furled, but white twinkle lights trimmed everything - the boat, the spar, the boom, and all the rigging. We could barely hear the outboard motors running. I was very impressed, and Lindsay watched in total fascination. The fireworks which followed were equally impressive.
As we walked back to find our car in the shopping centre parking lot across the street from the lake, Lindsay wrapped her arm around my neck and curled into my chest, resting her cheek there. I knew she wouldn't be awake much longer. Brad returned the lawn chairs to the trunk as I buckled Lindsay into the back seat. I gave her a kiss and handed her a pillow. "Thank you, Daddy," she said. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Sweetheart." I gave her another kiss and closed the door. She propped the pillow between her head and the side window. By the time I got behind the wheel, she was sound asleep, her cherished bird house clutched gently in her arms.
* * * * *
I had to wake Lindsay up to go to the bathroom, but that was it for her. She was asleep again before I crossed the hall into her bedroom. I changed her, tucked her in, kissed her goodnight, and went to bed myself.
Brad was already there. He'd unloaded the car, then locked up the house for the night. I stripped and climbed into bed and Brad climbed into my arms.
"I thought I loved you before today," he said softly. "I didn't realize just how much until this afternoon."
"I know," I told him. "I feel the same way. I couldn't believe how much his friend looked like you. Even the hair was the same."
"Did you notice that we were both about the same ages they were when they met?"
"Deja vu," I said. "It was like I was looking at my own future, except that you were with me and I wasn't all alone."
"I can't see myself being anywhere except with you, Ted. I don't want to be anywhere else."
We were quiet for awhile, just holding each other. "I wish I had got his address, or at least his phone number," I said.
"I saw his name on a phone bill on the coffee table," Brad said. "I can look it up."
I kissed him then. "I love you so much, Bradley Hayes."
"I love you, too, Ted."
We kissed again.
Before we fell asleep, Brad said, "Did you set the alarm clock?"
To Be Continued