Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Never Again – 26


Two days after Joseph's talk with Steve, Cal reappeared and immediately called a meeting for all of the people who worked for Rebuild NOLA. As soon as everyone was seated or standing along the walls of the largest room in the Rebuild headquarters, he held up a thick folder.

"We now own the apartment complex and have all the paperwork needed to start refurbishing it."

A cheer went up from the men and women. Only then did Cal break into a wide smile, his glance landing on Joseph for just an instant before it returned to the group as a whole.

"I'll supervise there. Steve will handle the day-to-day on the houses we're still working on until they're finished. I'm pulling Dan, George, Lars, and Joe off of them to work with me."

Well, at least he's apparently not regretting our last meeting, was Joseph's immediate thought when he heard his name called. Hopefully.

After that, Cal had Steve briefly go over what still needed to be done on the houses to get everyone up to speed, and then the meeting broke up. All the men left with the exception of the four Cal would have on his crew.

"This is going to be a big job," Cal told them. "The biggest one we've done so far. So we're going to have to plan things out down to the smallest detail."

With that said, they moved to a smaller room where he had the building plans laid out on a large table. For the next hour they went over them inch by inch. Then they headed out to the site.

It took most of the rest of the day to set up the chain-link perimeter fences and the various workstations. Cal seemed to be everywhere at once since this job was ten times as big as any of the ones for the houses. He helped with a recalcitrant area of the fence and explained how he wanted the workstations set up. At one point he handed Joseph a list, telling him to check that all the supplies he'd ordered had come in, before dashing off to do something else.

Joseph had the feeling they wouldn't have broken for lunch if he hadn't taken it upon himself to call a local deli for food to be delivered. When it arrived, Cal seemed ready to protest they didn't have the time before thinking better of it. He grabbed one of the subs, scarfed it down in half the time of a normal man, and was on his feet and back to work seconds later.

"He's going to kill himself if he doesn't slow down," George grumbled. "Or us," he added with a small grin.

Lars nodded. "I've never seen him this excited and I've been with Rebuild almost from the start."

As the newest member on the team by far, Joseph couldn't comment other than to say, "He probably considers this the first step to getting more buildings and wants to make sure nothing goes wrong."

The other men agreed, but from the look Dan gave him, Joseph wondered if he'd spoken out of turn.

As they returned to work, Joseph saw Dan grab Lars' arm and whisper something to him, glancing back at Joseph as he did. He had the feeling whatever Dan was saying, it wasn't complimentary.

By the end of the day, everything was set up. Cal did a quick walk-through, said they'd done a good job, and told them he'd see them in the morning. As everyone walked to their vehicles, he came up beside Joseph, asking quietly, "Do you have time for a beer?"

Since it was the first time today he'd actually spoken to him other than to give orders, Joseph was surprised at the question but replied by saying, "Sure. Where?"

"Do you know Makey's on Royal?"

"Vaguely. It's not too far from here. Right?"

"Right. Just take St Claude, hang a left at Piety and a right on Royal."

"I'll find it. See you there in fifteen."

Monday, May 20, 2024

Never Again – 25


After a long moment of silence, as he thought about what Steve had told him, Joseph said, "Look, I get what you're saying, but why come to me? It sounds like he's already got a good friend in you."

"Not really. That was a one-time thing. Overall we're just two men with the same objective, to help the homeless and, by extension, the Lower Ninth. He needs a real friend, someone he can connect with and trust. For whatever reason, I have the feeling that could be you."

Joseph took a deep breath before replying. "I can try to be a friend if he's willing to accept me as one. But that's all, Steve. Just a friend, nothing more. I respect that you care about him and his welfare but you're talking about something beyond what I'm willing to do." He chuckled softly. "In some quarters what you're doing would be called pimping me out."

"Now hang on there, that's not what I'm doing, I swear. I just figured you might understand where he's coming from more than most. At least in that respect."

"I'll accept that." Joseph looked at his barely touched beer, took a swig and put it down before standing. "I think I'm going to head home. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow and I need to get some sleep."

Steve nodded in acknowledgement. "I'll see you in the morning, and thanks for at least listening to me."

"Welcome. Night."

* * * *

On the way home all Joseph could think about was what Steve had said, which was not very surprising under the circumstances.

So now what do I do about it? To start with, unless I miss my guess, Cal is not the kind of man who will accept friendship that he doesn't instigate. Secondly, his opening up to me, as little as he did that morning, was probably the first and last time for him. By now he's realized what he did and will pull away as fast and as far as possible without cutting off all communication.

And if he doesn't, how the hell do I handle it? I don't want to get close to someone. I've stayed away from that since, well… forever, it seems—other than Beth and Brian, of course.

Speaking of which, I need to have a few well-chosen words with Brian about letting out secrets that aren't his to tell.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair while waiting for a light to change.

How did I get myself into this mess? If it is a mess, which it might not be. I'm probably over thinking the whole thing. Cal will show up when he shows up, hopefully with everything finalized so we can start to work on the apartment building. Then he'll move on to the next project, leaving the rest of us to do the work there.

That's not true and I know it. He'll be as hands-on as he always is. Unless he decides to play keep-away from me because he let his hair down for a few minutes. If he tries—well, I can back away myself. Tell him I have something I have to take care of, like at BEN. Yeah, that would work.

He pulled up and stopped at the next light, waiting for it to change. He stared out the window but he saw nothing except Cal's face when he'd actually smiled and meant it as they joked around a bit, just before Cal had driven away the last time Joseph had seen him.

He looks good when he smiles—like a different man entirely. He should do it more often. And get your mind off of that train of thought right now, damn it. Maybe, just maybe, if he doesn't shut me down, we can become friends. That's it. End of story. Because no way will I let it become more. Not that I think there's a chance in hell it would, but I'm not taking that chance.

When the light changed, he continued on his way home, pushing everything he'd been thinking to the back of his mind. But one small thought insisted on popping up when he did.

He's not right for me. He's… he's human.

And yet he couldn't get the image of Cal's smile out of his head.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Never Again – 24


Joseph wouldn't know the answer to his question for two weeks.

In the interim, he worked on the sites with the rest of the team, under the direction of Steve Wood, the man who ran things when Cal wasn't available. Mr. Wood was an older man who had, according to the Rebuild files, signed on soon after Cal started the organization. A local contractor, he wanted to do something to help restore the city following the devastation wrought by Katrina. He saw his opportunity with Rebuild after getting frustrated with all the hoops the city had forced him to jump through when he tried it on his own.

One evening after work, Steve asked if Joseph wanted to stop for a couple of beers. Surprised, Joseph agreed. They ended up at a corner table in a small local bar. After their drinks arrived, Steve leaned back to survey the room before turning his attention to Joseph, saying, "Rumor has it you and Cal are friends."

"I'm not certain I'd go that far. We ate lunch together a couple of times when I first started with Rebuild, and he seems to trust me enough to ask my opinion sometimes. That's about it."

"That sounds about right, knowing him. He always has been one to keep to himself."

"I take it you might have known him before all this?"

Steve nodded. "When he first returned to civilian life, he got a job with my company. He was good and caught on fast, but—"

"He has a temper and doesn't control it well at times. Yeah, he told me. So you let him go, I take it."

"I had to. He got in fights with a couple of my guys. The first time, I let it pass but not the second." Steve shook his head. "I felt guilty later when I found out he'd ended up on the streets, but at the time I figured he wasn't worth keeping around."

"I doubt anyone would blame you, even Cal."

"He didn't. When I showed up, telling him I was willing to lend my expertise and donate time to Rebuild, he pretty much greeted me with open arms." Steve chuckled. "Well, as much as he'd do that with anyone." He took a long pull on his beer before saying, "You're probably wondering what this is all about."

"Definitely. I don't think you brought me here just for my company."

"Pleasant as it is, no, I didn't. He needs someone like you around."

"I'm not planning on going anywhere."

"Good, but that's not quite what I meant."

Joseph chuckled. "Didn't think it was. However, I can hardly force my friendship on him. It's really his choice if he wants to trust me or not, beyond my working for him."

Steve sighed, pointedly looking around the bar. Wondering what he was searching for, Joseph looked as well. Then it hit him and he almost got up and left before he lost his temper. Although there were a few women, parts of mixed couples, the majority of the customers were male, which might not have been surprising at a local bar except for one thing, the majority of the men were quite obviously with other men. Not blatantly, but enough so that Joseph wondered how the hell he hadn't picked up on that from the moment they walked in.

Not expecting it, he thought wryly, even though he was pissed. When Steve returned his attention to him, Joseph said acidly, "This is what you meant by his needing someone like me. What the hell makes you think I'm one of them?" He nodded pointedly to one pair of men.

"I know Brian Craig."

"Hell, is there anyone in the city he doesn't know? And why would knowing him make you think I'm gay. And if I were, which I'm not admitting to, why do you think it would matter to Cal, other than to push him as far away from me as possible?" Joseph knew the answer to that one from the brief talk he'd had with Cal—if he could even call it a talk. But he wanted to hear Steve say it.

Steve rolled his beer between his hands, apparently trying to figure out how to reply. Finally he said, "First off, I've known Brian for a long time. He happened to mention soon after he met Beth, by way of nothing particular, that her uncle was gay. Very closeted, but gay. I shrugged it off, figuring it didn't matter one way or the other in this city. Besides which, I never thought I'd run into you."

"Okay, I'll buy that, I guess. It still doesn't answer my second question."

"Cal's gay, Joe. He's just as closeted as you but with good reason. Or more he had a good reason while he was in the army and it's carried over into his civilian life."

"He told you this?"

Steve nodded. "Right after I joined Rebuild, the organization went through a rough spot and he was pissed, worried, and generally uptight. We went out for a few drinks because I figured it might help him relax. Instead he went overboard, got roaring drunk, and began talking about how unfair life was. Everything came out." He shook his head. "The next day Cal didn't remember spilling his guts like that and I never told him. I figured, knowing him, it would only be asking for trouble."

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Never Again – 23


Turning his head, Cal frowned at him. "You don't know me. How the hell could you like me?"

"I have good instincts when it comes to people. Under that tough exterior you've built up there's a man worth knowing and liking. At least, that's how I see it."

"Joe, you're stone crazy. For all you know, I'm a worthless piece of shit who's managed to con a lot of people into going along with my grift. Tomorrow I could clean out Rebuild's bank account and be on my way to Tahiti."

"They say Belize is nicer."

Cal shot him a startled look then laughed. "Actually, given my druthers, I'd head to the Greek islands—or maybe Ireland."

"Ireland would be good."

"Ever been there?"

"I've never been out of the country, much to my shame. I was always too busy working to take the time off to travel."

"And yet now when you can, you're here busting your balls to help out people you don't even know and probably never will."

"Same as you, Cal."

"Yeah, except I do know them, at least to some extent. As they say, been there, done that, have the scars to prove it,"

"That rough?"

"It can be. In some ways it can be as bad as Iraq, except no one's trying to blow you to kingdom come or shoot your ass off—usually." He shot a look at Joseph, shaking his head. "How did you do that?"

"Do what?" Joseph replied innocently.

"Get me talking about… things."

Joseph grinned. "It's a talent."

After starting up the truck, Cal muttered, "One you're quite adept at."

"It is, was, how I earned my living."

As they pulled out of the apartment building lot, Cal asked, "Didn't you ever do anything just for fun? I mean you said you've never traveled, but damn, you didn't just work and go home did you?"

"Pretty much. I'm not exactly social all in all. What do you do, when you're not working?"

"Go home and crash," Cal admitted.

"So we're two of a kind, at least in that respect."

"Only in that respect. Trust me, otherwise we're as opposite as we can be." He paused as he turned onto the street leading back to the work site, frowning. "Hang on a second, you mean you don't have a wife or a girlfriend to keep you busy on your off-hours?"

"Not a one. Like I said, I'm the solitary sort. I know you're not married but what about a girlfriend?"

Cal shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road. "Not my thing."

Leaning back, Joseph looked at him. "As in you think having a woman around is a waste of time except when you need some R&R or they're really not your thing?"

"You know the saying, the one that was in all the papers until just recently. Stick with it, Joe, because I sure do."

It took Joseph a moment to figure out what the hell he was talking about. Then it hit him and he smiled. "Got it. And I won't."

Cal glanced at him for a second. "Ask or tell?"

Joseph chuckled. "Both."

A small smile crossed Cal's lips for a second before his almost perpetual frown returned. "I did sort of wonder, rich boy. Now I know."

"Would you quit with the 'rich boy'?"

"Why? You are."

"Not my damned fault."

"Mine either, and we're here. Hop out so I can go deal with all the paperwork and we can get hold of that building and rebuild it according to all the damned government guidelines."

When Cal pulled to a stop, Joseph did get out, leaning in to say, "Let me know how it goes. Okay?"

"Your money, you'll be the first to know," Cal told him with a slight grin. "Now move it. It won't impress the powers-that-be if I arrive with you hanging out the window."

Laughing, Joseph stepped back. As he watched Cal drive off, he thought, I don't quite know how I did it, but he's finally opening up a bit. Now to see if he regrets it the second he's had time to think.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Never Again – 22


As if some higher being wanted to make a liar out of Joseph, Cal was already at the site when he arrived the next morning.

The minute Cal saw him, he beckoned to him, saying, when Joseph joined him beside his truck, "Come on, there's something I want to show you."

When they were in the truck Joseph asked, "Another house?"

Cal shook his head as he pulled away from the curb. "An abandoned apartment building, still structurally sound according to the city inspectors but that's about it. It'll take… well, you'll see when we get there."

A few minutes later, Cal pulled into what had been the parking lot of a three-story building which, to Joseph, looked more like an old motel from some horror movie. There were steel stairways, some of them missing, leading up to the balconies on the second and third levels. Many of the doors were missing and on the ground level sheets of plywood took their place. The outer walls were covered with graffiti, some of it artistic but most just tags.

He pointed to one, asking, "Have gangs tried to take this over?"

"Tried, yeah, but the cops kick them out when they see them."

"Are they going to be a problem?"

Cal smiled tightly. "Not once we buy the building—if we do. That's why I wanted you to see it, rich boy. It's what I want to spend the money on you gave me."

Joseph nodded slowly as they got out of the truck. "So show me."

Cal did, but not until they had both donned the gear he had in the back of the truck, including respirators. Then they made their way across the debris-littered parking lot to one of the flights of stairs leading to the first balcony.

The apartments were small, with a living area, kitchen, one bedroom, and a bath. Abandoned, destroyed furniture littered them. Mold climbed halfway up some of the walls. Joseph had the feeling the ones on the ground floor were probably totally mold-covered. The third level was marginally better, although Joseph knew the mold would be in the walls if not on them.

"So there you have it," Cal said when they returned to the parking lot. "I figure it can house twenty to forty people, depending on if they're couples, singles, or families."

"You've checked with the zoning and building departments? Will you have any problems getting the permits we need?"

"There'll be the usual hassle, but Mr. Folkes, one of our supporters, has the right pull with the city to get things moving and he's volunteered to help me with this. The city wants things cleaned up down here faster than it's happening so far. And they want the homeless off the streets. They already closed down the encampment under the Pontchartrain Causeway, but there isn't enough room in the shelters, even if the people wanted in. A lot of them don't. They like their freedom." Cal sighed. "If we do this it'll help, marginally, but at least it's another place and who knows, it could set a precedent the way our rebuilding the houses has. Not just here, but all over the city."

Joseph snorted. "First you'd have to get the building owners to get up off their land. The tax breaks they earn until they find a buyer make it worth their while to hang on to it, come hell or high water."

"I know." Leaning back against the truck, Cal stared at the building. "So, honestly, what do you think?"

"Get the licenses and let's get the project on the road."

Cal turned to look at him, a bright smile on his face. "Thanks."

"For what? You wanted my opinion, I gave it to you. It's a good idea."

"Yeah, but sometimes what I think will work, others think is crazy."

"Like when you started Rebuild?"

"Yeah. There I was, a guy with no real experience and no job trying to…" Cal turned away suddenly, going around the truck to get in.

Joseph slid into the passenger seat before saying quietly, "There's nothing wrong with talking about yourself, Cal. No one's going to think less of you because you—"

"Because I what?" Cal broke in angrily.

"Lived the way you had to in order to survive."

"Like you'd know, rich boy," Cal snarled in reply, apparently surprised Joseph knew about it.

"True, I've never had to live on the streets. That doesn't mean I condemn those who have to. I wouldn't be here and trying to help if I did. You want someone to be angry at, take your pick." Joseph's voice filled with disgust as he spoke. "The government that does next to nothing, the military that hands you your discharge papers then tells you you're on your own, the mental hospitals that kick patients to the curb because they don't have room for them. That's who you go after. Not me."

Cal wrapped his arms around the steering wheel, resting his forehead on them. "Sorry," he muttered, so low Joseph barely heard him.

Instinctively, Joseph reached out to rub his shoulders. "It's okay. I shouldn't have pushed but then, that's me."

"The newspaper gene?" Cal said with a small chuckle, leaning back into Joseph's touch for a moment before pulling away quickly.

"That and the fact I like you and want to know… what makes you tick I guess."