The Start (a novella-in-progress)


The forecast had called for rain turning to sleet after sundown and Tom was certain he’d be able to make it home before the snow started to fall.  The faculty meeting had gone longer than he’d hoped but shorter than he’d imagined.  It was his first as new Chair of the department and although he was nervous, he liked the way that it had gone, with the exception of repeated outbursts from Corrine about budget cuts.  Budget cuts were de rigueur these days but Corrine couldn’t understand why Humanities took the brunt while departments like Athletics and Engineering were able to increase their faculty base.

Tom was a few miles past the county line when large damp snowflakes began to fall like heavy, wet, lacy napkins.  His wipers swept them to the side of the windshield where they had begun to collect like damp towels.  If this snow began to stick it could prove to be very hazardous.  The temperature had already dipped below freezing and Tom had the sinking feeling that there’d be a few inches on the ground by morning.

His Pathfinder navigated the highway easily enough, its over-sized tires pulling him through the thickening sleet like a faithful dogsled team.  He was a couple miles from home when he spotted a car at the side of the road on the opposite side with its hazard lights flashing.  As he slowed down he spotted a young man in a sweatshirt standing by the car looking under the hood.

Tom looked at his watch which read 10:40 p.m. then pulled cautiously to the side of the road, stopped, did a U-turn and drove the Pathfinder behind the stranded vehicle.  He grabbed his jacket and climbed out of his truck and walked to the young man dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt standing next to his car.

“Got a problem?” Tom asked the stranger.

“It’s my friend’s car.  I dropped him off at the airport and was driving back to campus when it stalled,” the young man explained.

“Well, I know absolutely nothing about cars but I know a great mechanic.  Unfortunately they’re closed for the night.  Given the weather conditions out here in the middle of nowhere I’d say you’d be better off leaving it here overnight,” Tom added.

“That sounds great.  But how am I going to get back to campus?” the young man asked.

“The weather is getting worse and you’re already looked soaked.  My name is Tom Ford and I teach at the University.  I live less than two miles from here.  Why don’t you leave your car here for the night and crash at my place,” suddenly aware of how odd his generosity must sound to the young man.

“How about you give me a lift back to school?” the young man countered, then paused, thought for a moment and shivered, “damn I’m freezing!”

“If I drove you back to campus I’d not make it back home before the weather gets worse.  Listen, I’m on the faculty, Chair of the Humanities Department.  I have a guest room I can offer you.  Tomorrow we’ll call my mechanic, get someone out here.  But tonight the weather is promising to get worse and there’s nothing we can do about the car tonight.  But it’s up to you,” Tom added while zipping up his jacket.

“Okay,” the young man says, “let me get my backpack from the car.”

“And don’t forget your jacket,” Tom says sounding matronly.

“This is all I’ve got,” the young man adds walking to the car and opening the door.

Oh , the immortality of youth, Tom thinks to himself as he walks back to the Pathfinder and climbs inside.  The young man opens the passenger door and climbs in shivering the whole time.

“Damn, it’s cold,” the young man says once settled.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if you had worn a coat,” Tom says and is immediately sorry he had.

“Fuck,” the young man says, “you sound like my mom.”

“Sorry,” Tom says apologetically, “let’s start over; my name is Tom Ford, and you are?”

“I’m Nathan Bowman,” the young man says extending his hand.

Tom shakes Nathan’s hand then reaches into the back seat for the blanket he has at the ready.

“Here, put this on, it’ll help ward off the chills,” Tom says.

“Thanks,” Nathan says slumping into the seat and covering himself up with the thick Pendleton blanket.  “This is better, I can actually feel my fingers again.”

Tom’s floodlights on the Pathfinder did little to cancel the hypnotic trance that the heavy snowfall was creating in his headlights.

“It looks like it’s getting worse,” Nathan says now shivering next to Tom.

Tom turns the heat up in the Pathfinder, “Put your hands by the vents, it’ll help,” he added.

“Naw, I’ll be okay,” Nathan says trying to sound tough.

A hundred yards ahead Tom sees the familiar yard light of his driveway and slows the Pathfinder to make the turn.  The drive meanders through pine trees whose boughs are already heavy with snow.  As the drive makes a sharp turn it empties into a large circular drive in front of a craftsman style home nestled in woods.  The garage is on one side, a path leading into the thicket is on the other.  Tom stops the Pathfinder in front of the porch.

“Here we are,” Tom says as he turns off the engine and climbs out of the Pathfinder.  Nathan opens his door, grabs his backpack and while still covered with the blanket follows Tom up the snowy steps to the front door.

“Beautiful home, and set in the woods like this, you’re very lucky,” Nathan says while shivering and looking at the home and garden.

“It took a while to get it like this.  It started out as hunters shack and I guess I’m good at seeing promising prospects.  I think you’ll find it homey,” he says as he turns the key and the heavy wooden door swings open.  Nathan follows Tom into the great room with high vaulted ceilings and at the far end of the room is a fireplace made out of river stones which disappear into the ceiling.  Beyond the stone hearth is the kitchen and beyond that a bay of windows through which the snow continues to fall.

Tom takes off his coat and hangs it on a hook on the large pier mirror in the hall as well as kicks off his loafers.  “Just kick off your shoes there on the rug,” he says as he walks through the great room, past the fireplace and into the kitchen.  “Is there anything I can get you?  Are you hungry?  Thirsty,” he asks Nathan who is still standing in the entry hall.

“No, I’m good, thanks,” Nathan replies feeling a bit nervous.

Tom walks back to Nathan carrying a bottle of San Pellegrino and starts to climb heavy wooden stairs to the second floor, “Follow me,” he says without looking back, “I’ll show you the guest room.”

Nathan follows slowly behind Tom up the staircase and onto the second floor.  Tom enters the guest room which is decorated with a contemporary yet country feel, but what is most evident is the large four-poster bed replete with a heavy down comforter and a dozen pillows.  There’s an easy chair in front of French doors which lead to a small Juliet balcony.  Nathan walks to the French doors, “It’s still coming down out there; I bet we’ll get at least six inches before all is said and done,” he says as he surveys the rest of the room; a small LCD TV is affixed to the wall above a low chest of drawers; two lamps flank either side of the bed; a floor lamp casts soft light onto the easy chair; there are two paintings on the wall, both water colors of the marshlands in the area.  The room is one in which someone could sequester themselves.

“Here’s the bathroom,” Tom says as he gives Nathan the tour, “It’s nothing special just your run of the mill bathroom,” he says as he turns on the lights.  Nathan sidled up next to Tom and pokes his head into the room, “Yep, it looks pretty much like your standard bathroom,” he says feeling a bit more relaxed.

“Follow me,” Tom says while walking past Nathan and into the hallway.  Nathan follows slowly studying the photographs on the walls, the pottery on the hall table and the carnations which spill out the top to where Tom has stopped.  “This is my room,” Tom says proudly.  Nathan walks into the large bedroom; a large bed sits squarely in the room, a large chest of drawers with an antique mirror hung above; and a wall of windows which look directly into the forest of trees.

“Is this facing east or west?” Nathan asks, “I’m funny with directions,” he admits.

“This is facing east so I get the early morning sun flooding my room,” Tom answers as he walks into the bathroom, “Come on in here,” he asks Nathan.

Nathan again follows Tom into the expansive bathroom.  Although large it doesn’t seem ostentatious.  A large claw foot tub sits directly in a bay of windows, two large porcelain sinks and an enormous shower with multi-head shower sprays all clad in a travertine marble.  Nathan feels very comfortable in the bathroom and is pleased to see the care and time it took to design it.  “I guess the hunter’s shack didn’t have this bathroom in it, did it?” he says jokingly.

“No, this was my pet project.  I tend to spend more time than I should soaking in the tub, especially in the early morning,” Tom says while looking at Nathan.

“I wouldn’t mind spending time soaking in that tub,” Nathan says quietly.

“Well,” Tom says, “I bet you’re chilled to the bone.  Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes, draw yourself a bath, and let me throw your stuff into the wash.  Use the spearmint salts, the aromatherapy will help you relax,” he says.

Nathan looks at Tom and then looks at the tub knowing that a hot bath is exactly what he’d enjoy, but he feels rather embarrassed.  “Naw, I don’t think. . .”

“Listen, it’s here and you’re here. . .there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. . .besides I have some work to do before I hit the hay and it’ll give you some time to relax.  When you’re finished with your bath. . .” Tom says as he walks past Nathan and back into the guest room, “You can put on something from in here,” he calls to Nathan.

Nathan follows Tom to the guest room and sees Tom digging through the chest of drawers.  “I think these would fit you. . .they might be a bit big. . .but. . .you’ll see. . .just help yourself. . .” he says.

“You’re stuff will be too big on me. . .I’ll swim in them. . .” Nathan objects.

“These are Scott’s things. . .you and he are about the same size. . .he’s a bit broader but I’m sure they’ll fit you,” Tom adds.

“Won’t Scott be angry that you’re letting some guy wear his things?” Nathan asks.

“Scott just left and won’t be back for a few months. . .I’m absolutely positive that he won’t mind you borrowing a couple of his things.  Go back into my bathroom, get undressed, throw your stuff into the hall, and have a nice hot bath.  When you’re done come back in here and get dressed.  Easy.  What do you think?” Tom asks.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Nathan answers.

“Good.  I’ll be downstairs.  Holler if you need anything,” Tom says as he walks past Nathan and goes downstairs.

Nathan stands for a moment in the guest room looking at the drawers of clothing, the bed, the windows then spies a photograph on a nightstand.  He walks to it and picks it up and sees Tom standing with his arm around an attractive Asian lad.  That must be Scott, Nathan thinks to himself, but why is he gone for three months.  Nathan makes a mental note to ask Tom after his bath.

After turning on the hot water Nathan sprinkles the spearmint bath salts into the tub.  The chill he acquired on the dark road hasn’t yet passed and he’s yearning for the hot water to envelop him.  He pulls his hooded sweatshirt over his head, then unfastens his jeans and lets them and his briefs fall to the floor, he leans down and peels one sock from one foot and then the other.  Simply removing the wet clothing is already warming his body.  He walks to the door, opens it and piles his clothes in the hallway feeling a little odd, but also tired and cold.  He hurries back to the bathtub, turns off the faucet and lowers himself slowly into the hot water.  Immediately he begins to feel better.

Tom brings in some firewood from the back porch and has begun to build a fire in the hearth.  Once the kindling is ignited he places it under the logs and blows strongly on the fire.  Soon the logs are engulfed in flame.  He walks to the kitchen and sets a pot to boil and retrieves two large mugs from the cabinet.  He takes some herbal tea from the shelf and walks to the bar and grabs the Maker’s Mark whiskey and places it next to the mugs.  Tom then walks to his briefcase and extracts a pile of papers and a red pen and walks back into the great room and places them on the leather chair in front of the hearth.  The chill in the room has already begun to ebb as the fire burns hotly.

The kettle begins to whistle and he walks into the kitchen and turns off the burner.  He pours the hot water into a porcelain tea kettle and adds the tea.  Once finished he walks through the house and up the stairs to his bedroom where he finds Nathan’s clothes outside the bathroom door, “Everything going alright in there?” he asks through the door.

“It’s perfect, thanks,” Nathan replies from the bathtub.

“I’m taking your clothes to the wash,” Tom says as he scoops them into his arms.

“There’s really no need for you to wash them,” Nathan says half-heartedly, thinking he’s thankful that he won’t have to put his wet clothes back on after the hot bath.

“It’s no trouble, Nathan,” Tom answers, “I’ve got a few things of my own that I’ve got to wash.”

“I’m thankful then,” Nathan admits, “I’ll be out of the tub in a few minutes.”

“Stay in as long as you like, there’s no hurry,” Tom says as he turns and walks down the stairs to the laundry room off the mud room.

Nathan dunks his head under the hot water wondering how lucky he was that Tom happened to be driving along County 31 at that time of night and on this night in particular with the blizzard happening outside.  But who was Scott and why’d he leave for three months he continued to wonder.

Tom opens the lid to the washing machine and starts the machine.  He throws in some soap and tosses Nathan’s hoodie and then checks the pockets of his jeans and finds a set of keys, wallet and some slips of paper which he places on the table before throwing the jeans into the washer.  He closes the lid, sets the cycle and walks back into the kitchen to the tea pot.  He scoops out the tea leaves and throws them away then places the tea pot, cups, spoons and Maker’s Mark on a tray and carries it into the Great Room and places it on the coffee table in front of the hearth.  He pours himself a cup of tea then adds a shot of Maker’s Mark to the tea.  He sips it slowly as he sits down in the chair and begins to pour over the stack of reports.

Nathan stands from the bath and takes hold of a warm towel from the rack and begins to towel himself dry.  He steps out from the tub and walks to the sink and opens the medicine cabinet looking for a comb or brush.  Inside the medicine cabinet he finds various toiletries; toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, nail scissors, a comb and a brush.  He takes out the comb and draws it through his hair lightly then puts it back inside and closes the door.  Nathan wraps the towel around his waist and opens the bathroom door and walks to the guest room.  Once there he opens the chest of drawers and withdraws a pair of jeans and a cream-colored cashmere cable-knit sweater.  He slips into the jeans which are a little loose and pulls the sweater over his head.  The cashmere feels very soft against his skin.  He makes a mental note to try and buy cashmere.  He takes the damp towel into the guest bathroom and hangs it across the shower door.

Nathan opens the guest room door and walks downstairs to find Tom sitting in a leather chair in front of a burning fire in the hearth.  He sees the tea pot and cup on the coffee table.

“Feeling better, now?” Tom asks upon seeing him.

“Much better,” Nathan says walking to him, “That bath was exactly what the doctor ordered, thanks,” he says.

“And how do the clothes fit?” Tom asks.

“The jeans are a little loose but the sweater fits fine and it’s so soft,” Nathan answers.

“We bought that sweater in a shop in a small town in Nova Scotia last autumn.  We had seriously underestimated the chill of the area and Scott fell in love with the sweater,” Tom adds.

“He has a lot of clothes.”

Laughing, Tom says, “Yes he does!  And that’s only what he didn’t take with him.  I brewed some tea, would you like a cup?” Tom asks.

“Tea sounds great,” Nathan says.

“Do you want some whiskey in it? It helps on a night like tonight,” Tom asks.

“Whiskey?  Well, um, sure,” Nathan says as he pours himself a cup of tea then adds some whiskey.  He takes the steaming mug and sits on the rock ledge next to the hearth.  He likes the warmth there.

“Who’s Scott?” Nathan asks.

“Scott?  Scott, well. . .hm, Scott was my boyfriend, or shall I say is my boyfriend, but, well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. . .you see Scott and I had been living together for six months. . .he happened to come over to my house one rainy night and never left until, that is, a couple of weeks ago when he went away to Columbia to work on his Master’s degree,” Tom answers.

“So your boyfriend is in New York going to Columbia?” Nathan asks.

“Well, Scott is in New York going to Columbia, but I wouldn’t quite add the other part,” Tom says.

“So Scott isn’t your boyfriend any longer?” Nathan asks.

Tom looks into his cup of tea, swirls its contents around and takes a long drink, “Yes you’re right, Scott isn’t my boyfriend any longer.”

“But all his stuff is still here?” Nathan asks.

“Well, it’s complicated, Nathan. . .all the stuff that’s still here was accumulated while we were together.  It’s all his stuff, the clothing, the knickknacks, some photographs. . .he couldn’t possibly take it all with him and since I have the room. . .” Tom says trailing off the conversation.

“It may as well stay here.  That’s very generous of you, Tom,” Nathan says quietly.

“Well, we’ll see. . .at least it served one purpose. . .allowing you to slip into something warm and dry as opposed to the sloppy mess you arrived in!” Tom says as he stands and walks into the kitchen.  Nathan studies the magazine atop the coffee table when Tom returns with a pair of snifters.  “I’ve had enough tea for one night, I think I’ll take my Maker’s straight; you?” he asks Nathan.

“I’m not much of a drinker, but if you’re having some, I’ll have one, a small one, please,” Nathan asks.

Tom pours a small amount of Maker’s Mark into a snifter and hands it to Nathan.  Tom watches Nathan’s small hand reach out for the glass.  Their fingers touch slightly during the hand-off.  It was as if Tom had touched an open flame.  Tom then pours himself a larger amount and sits back down in his chair.  “Now a question for you,” Tom says.

“Shoot,” Nathan responds.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t driven up?” Tom asks.

“Someone was bound to come along eventually.  At least I was hoping someone would come along.  I guess if push came to shove I would’ve tried to walk, but in that blizzard I’d have had a better chance making it through the night freezing in the car.  I’m just glad you came along when you did.  And you’ve been very generous letting me take a bath and crash here tonight, not to mention washing my clothes.” Nathan answers.

Tom swirls the whiskey in his glass, “You’d still be out in that crap if I didn’t have to attend that damned faculty meeting, so I guess there’s a silver lining for just about everything.”

“The fire is nice; you’ve got a beautiful home, Tom. . .I can’t see why Scott would want to leave it. . .” Nathan says ruefully.

“It’s more my home than it was Scott’s home; Scott doesn’t have a home yet; this was close but it was a wayside for him; I almost knew it from the beginning; does “too good to be true” sound too trite right now?  I built this home almost from the ground up, so it really is my home.  Scott happened upon it like a bee to a flower, and he enjoyed what it had to offer, and when his life started calling him back, off he went to the next flower.  I don’t want to be sore about it.  I love Scott and I know that Scott loves me, it’s just that right here, right now isn’t what’s on his mind.  New York is,” Tom says quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Nathan says quietly, “and thankful at the same time because I have this lovely sweater to wear.”

Tom takes the last long swallow of his whiskey.  “I’d say it’s about time to hit the hay, wouldn’t you?  We’ll have a fairly early morning.  How are you at running a snow plow?” Tom asks Nathan.

“Excellent!” Nathan answers.

“Really?” Tom asks surprised.

“Really!  Excellent because I’ve never ran one and therefore haven’t made any mistakes,” Nathan says laughing.

“Well, we’ll see how good you are in the morning when we plow the drive way,” Tom says.

Nathan stands next to the fireplace and finishes his whiskey “What do you do with the fire?” he  asks.

“It’ll burn itself out sometime during the night.  First thing In the morning we’ll call my mechanic and get your car towed into town,” Tom says as he carries the tray into the kitchen and switches off the lights, “And then we’ll hook up the plow to the Pathfinder and clear away some of this snow.”

Nathan follows Tom up the stairs.  At the guest room Nathan stops, looks at Tom and stretches out his hand, “Good night, Tom and thanks for your hospitality.  You’ve been more than generous,” he says.

Tom shakes Nathan’s hand firmly, “It’s nice to have someone else around this big house, good night, Nathan,” Tom says as he walks down the hall, entering his room and closing the door.

Nathan stands in the guest room and peels off the sweater when there’s a knock on the door.  He walks to the door and opens it and sees Tom in the hall.  Tom sees Nathan standing shirtless in the doorway.  Tom survey’s Nathan’s torso: a short neck speckled with stubble expands to narrow shoulders upon which hang arms defined by lean muscles; his chest rises slightly like the crest of a hill and his dime-sized nipples are the only blemish on his porcelain skin and which are pointed due to the chill; his chest drops away to his belly which is flat and almost two-dimensional as he stands in the doorway; his concave belly button drops a thin line of dark hair past the waistband of his jeans which hang loosely on his narrow hips.  “I forgot to tell you that there are extra toothbrushes and toothpaste in the medicine cabinet along with other toiletries you may need.  Scott was good about keeping it stocked for guests.  The towels are fresh as well.  Good night.”

“Thanks, Tom.  Good night,” Nathan says as he slowly closes the door.  At first he thought of locking the deadbolt but then decided against it.  He walks into the bathroom, turns on the light which is on a dimmer and opens the medicine cabinet which is stocked with every imaginable notion one may need as a traveler; toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, combs, brushes, band-aids, aspirin of all varieties, mouthwash, small sample bottles of cologne, deodorant, bath salts, bubble bath, moisturizer, conditioner, shampoo, assorted facial products.  Nathan withdraws a toothbrush, squeezes some toothpaste onto it and begins to brush his teeth recalling the conversation he had with Tom recently.  Nathan thinks that Tom seems to be a real gentleman and that Scott’s leaving has left a sore spot.  Nathan makes a mental note not to talk about Scott unless Tom raises the subject.

After brushing his teeth Nathan walks back into the bedroom and dims the lights on either side of the bed.  He unsnaps, unzips and drops the jeans which he scoops up from the floor and lays on the chair by the French doors.  He peels back the heavy comforter as though he were pulling a tarp off a sailboat, fluffs the pillows and crawls into bed.  His body sinks into the down feather-bed as he pulls the down comforter up and over his body.  This is, by far, the most comfortable bed he has ever slept in.  He turns to switch out the light and sees the photograph of Tom and Scott, reaches for it and studies it recognizing how happy Tom appears in the photograph; he’s almost glowing he appears so happy.  He places it back onto the night stand and switches off the light listening to the wind in the trees outside the windows.

Tom slowly closes the door to his suite and enters the walk-in closet.  Automatically lights come on and are dimmed for evening.  Tom reaches for his iPod remote and turns it on; Coltrane begins to seep from the speakers throughout his suite.  He takes off his sweater and folds it and delicately places it atop his other sweaters on the shelf.  He unbuttons his shirt revealing a hairy chest and pulls the tails of his shirt from the waistband of his trousers and tosses the shirt into the hamper.  He takes off his socks and throws them into the hamper as well.  Finally he unbuckles his belt and pulls it through the waistband of his trousers and hangs it on a peg in the dressing room.  He unfastens the snap on his pants and pulls each leg free then hangs the trousers on a metal pants hanger in the closet.  Standing in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt he grabs a robe from a peg and throws it on as he makes his way into the bathroom.  There he opens the medicine cabinet, withdraws a toothbrush and toothpaste and begins to brush his teeth recalling his earlier conversation with Nathan.  How he is basically the same age as Scott, and yet so different than Scott; appreciative of what is offered; unimpressed by his surroundings.  First thing in the morning he’ll call and get the car towed to Don’s place.