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."

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Never Again – 21

 


Joseph arrived at Beth's to find most of the BEN people were already there. Everyone greeted him like a long lost brother and soon he was hearing everything about how the website and the company were doing now that he was no longer involved. He had to admit it gave his ego a bit of a boost to know he was missed. Still he didn't in the least regret having turned everything over to Beth and Brian.

Beth cornered him at one point, looking him over with an appraising eye.

"You've lost weight and you're tan," she commented.

"I've been working my ass off for Rebuild NOLA."

"You, doing physical labor?" She looked at him aghast then ducked away, laughing when he tried to swat her behind.

"Yes, my dear niece, I am actually doing something other than sitting on my butt. And I'm loving it."

"So, who is he?" she asked, giving him her best innocent stare.

"There is no 'he'. Remember when you told me to find something I cared about? To find a wrong and try to help right it? I have and in my own small way, that's what I'm doing." He went on to tell her exactly what it was. By the time he finished he found he had an audience.

Most of them remembered Jennifer's feature story on the homeless from earlier in the year and so knew what questions to ask about how they could help. Joseph answered as best he could, making suggestions based primarily on what he'd learned from talking to the men who worked for Rebuild NOLA.

"Mr. Gilbert's done a great job building it into a worthwhile organization from what I've heard," Brian commented a few minutes later when most of the others had drifted away again.

"Indeed he has," Joseph agreed.

"I'm not surprised, considering his background."

Joseph arched an eyebrow in question. "You know his background? All I've been able to find out is that he was in the army and after he finished his tour of duty, he didn't re-up. Fairly soon after that he started Rebuild."

"Nine months after. Before that, he was homeless."

"Okay, how do you know that?" Joseph asked in surprise. "It certainly isn't in any of the information I've found on him—or in the information about Rebuild."

"Remember the story we did on people dumping animals and just about anything else they wanted to dispose of, in the Lower Ninth? I met him there. He'd been living in one of the abandoned houses, the same kind he's refurbishing now. He wasn't willing to be interviewed but we did talk some. Apparently when he left the army, he wasn't able to keep a job, when he was able to even find one, because, well as he put it he has anger control issues."

"PTSD?"

"He denied it when I asked. He said he's always been short tempered and for all I know, that's the truth. Anyway, since—and I quote loosely—'he had nothing better to do with his time', he began helping with the cleanup. I suspect it was just a short step from getting rid of the jungle of weeds and everything they covered to his deciding something had to be done about the houses themselves."

Joseph nodded. "He must be quite the salesman, though you couldn't prove it by me," he said with a slight laugh.

"Meaning getting the funding to start Rebuild?"

"Funding, permissions, everything it entails, because he did get it all and in a very short span of time, according to the files he lent me, which by the way are very dry reading."

"Those kinds of things usually are. And there you have it, what little I know about him."

"That's more than I did and I've been working with him for a few weeks now. Okay, not with him at this point. Hell, after the first couple of days, I've barely seen him," Joseph said ruefully.

"But you'd like to," Beth put in.

Joseph shrugged. "It could be interesting to find out more about what makes him tick. As I told him when I tried prying a bit, it's the reporter gene in me. He did not take kindly to that."

"Doesn't surprise me in the least," Brian said. "He only talked with me that one time. When I tried to buttonhole him again, he closed down like a steel trap."

"Guys," one of the men hollered at that point, "if you want anything to eat, you'd better get over here. The hungry hordes are descending like ravenous wolves."

Brian snorted. "You can tell he's a reporter just from the descriptions." Putting an arm around Beth's waist, he walked with her toward the table laden with food.

Joseph followed, but his mind was more on what he'd learned about Cal than on barbequed ribs and potato salad.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Never Again – 20


 

Over the next few weeks Joseph became an integral part of the Rebuild NOLA, working with several of the other men on the team, most of whom had been homeless before Cal had hired them. He now knew more than he ever thought possible about how to rebuild hurricane and flood damaged houses, from the initial health issues involved in cleaning them so they would be habitable, to the final painting before they were to be refurnished and given over to their new owners.

During all that time, he rarely saw Cal other than just before leaving whichever site he was at. Cal would show up, check everything, and give the men, including Joseph, their next assignments if the current job was finished.

One evening just before Labor Day, after Cal had come and gone, Joseph asked Terry, one of the men he'd become friendly with, "Is he usually like this?"

"No. I've never seen him so uptight, except once right after I met him. He's usually the kind of guy who'll pop for a six-pack then sit and drink it with us."

"Really?" Joseph replied in surprise.

"Yeah. Guess something's going on with him again, not that he'll talk about it. He never says anything about his personal life. Sometimes I wonder if he even has one."

Joseph wondered as well, but refrained from commenting. After all, he was hardly one to talk when it came down to it. Since the first day he's started working for the team, he had gone straight home to eat and then collapsed into bed. He hadn't even gone for a run.

* * * *

Labor Day morning dawned hot and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. Cal had given everyone the day off, which left Joseph at loose ends as far as he was concerned. Beth and Brian had invited him for their annual barbeque, but that wouldn't start until early afternoon.

I might as well take advantage of the time off and head out to the Bayou, he thought while he threw together an omelet for breakfast. If I don't, Beth will call me snappish, and I probably would be. It has been a while since I've shifted.

It occurred to him the only reason he hadn't been uptight in the last few days was the fact he'd managed to work off any excess energy on the job. Guess there's a lot to be said for hard physical labor.

The thought was reinforced half an hour later as he looked at himself in the bedroom mirror while dressing. It wasn't that he was ever overweight. Given his genetics, it was impossible. But now he was as lean and muscular as he'd been when he was just a youth and new to his shifting abilities. My face however… he studied it, seeing faint wrinkles around his eyes and creases in his forehead. Nothing remarkable and they'd vanish as soon as he shifted back after his run. Not that anyone will notice, I'm sure, expect perhaps Beth if she was to see me right now. Just like Elizabeth, she knows what to look for.

He finished getting dressed then took off. As he headed toward Bayou Sauvage, he began to realize today might not be the best one for running. The traffic was heavy, going in the same direction, which meant families and tourists were planning on making a day of it sightseeing there. So, staying on Route Ten, he continued on to Morgan Bluff, where he parked beside the river then crossed to the bayou side. Once he was deep into it, he shed his clothes and shifted.

Exhilaration flooded him as he raced, splashing through the water, adroitly evading two alligators who were sunning on a fallen tree a few yards away. He darted between cypress trees, and even raced along a half-destroyed wooden path built for tourists and long abandoned. Finally he dropped down along the edge of the water, batting playfully at some fish as they swam lazily past him.

Then realizing it was close to noon, he returned to where he'd begun, shifted, dressed, and headed back to the city.