This golden, gorgeous October is one of the top highlights of my year, and it’s a year full of highlights. My brother’s wedding. (His joy radiates from him.) I have a sister-in-law! His bachelor party. My mom and her sisters sang the national anthem at Wrigley field. A Chicago park named after my great aunt Midge. My beloved godson’s wedding to a powerful, talented woman. Gay Romance Lit.
I wrote two books and two short stories out this year. Three dozen reviews written by people who took the time to read my books and thought they deserved their serious consideration when penning their words. Some of them hated it, but many of them loved it, and reviews are like love letters sometimes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Love letters. I got to be author-of-the-month for dear friends. Made ‘crush alert’ for one review site. Made new friends.
My heart is full.
Impossibly, it got fuller this October, my favorite month of the year.
I like to wander under colorful, sun-drenched foliage as most everyone does. I do not consider myself unique. We all love it. I took five hundred photos of leaves and streams and rocks and little glimmers of splattered red leaves against hard blue skies, including a great photo of a sunflower that seemed to wave right at the sun. And the sun waved back.
Everyone does this, too. We all take lots of dumb leaf photos.
In fact, there’s little that’s unique about my October traditions, but that’s why I like them because you love them, too, and it makes us more connected to know we all crane our heads at the eight shades of orange, maroon, firetruck red, and the most fierce slivers of marigold ripping through slender branches.
The leaves are mostly gone now. The trees are all but unmasked. I have been drunk on falling leaves for weeks now. But we’ve reached that time in October to celebrate the chilly night, the Halloween scratches of brittle twigs with no colorful flags to wave. I now spend evenings wandering the streets, listening to music and thinking about life. It’s a good time.
Tonight, my cell phone rang while I was a dozen blocks from home. I contemplated not answering because autumn is my favorite time of year and this is my favorite kind of night and I felt drunk on fresh air. But it was Joel.
Joel is one of the very first friends I made when writing my first Vin Vanbly tale. (I had published the first stories in a free-stories website.) I had received emails about Vin’s story. More and more emails came in, asking who is this guy, Vin Vanbly? What kind of story was this? Joel was an early email friend who said, “I read your story an hour ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s making my sternum vibrate. Why is that?”
We became email friends. Then, real email address friends. Then, phone friends. Once when I was in his city for work, we were in-person friends. I love Joel.
Joel called tonight and I realized he’d be the perfect companion on an autumn walk, so I happily answered and we instantly began chatting about sexual words we found distasteful to say aloud. This was our hello. I told him of a recent radio show where I was a guest and I ranted against the word ‘quim,’ like a freakin’ lunatic and we laughed and were silly and chortled. I kicked leaves and Joel was with me.
We shared stories about our lives right now, the milestones in the last month, the in-between-big-events stuff that is interesting to your best friends. I started a story about someone I saw recently and Joel said, “Oh yeah, I remember him. You told me about that guy once. Like two years ago.” Joel shared his recent news and we rocked it together, gently in a warm blanket between us, his happy relationship with his boyfriend. He didn’t know he would ever be this much in love.
So we held hands, metaphorically, and walked through the night. I pointed out a moment he was showering himself with king love and he said, “Yeah,” kinda softly. We were quiet with each other because that’s what love is sometimes. Quiet. And laughing about raunchy words.
The air got colder.
Joel and I had walked together for the better part of an hour. I could hear more branches clattering together in the cold wind. Turned my steps toward home. Our evening stroll was coming to a close.
Walking up my street, I saw two boys, maybe eleven or twelve coming toward me. They had passed my house and were in front of my next door neighbor’s home. I saw a flash of white as one of the boys held it to his face and the other one laughed. They were already stuffing it into the backpack as I drew closer. It was the standard, serial killer Halloween mask, white plastic with holes and eye slits so the murderer can see who he’s hacking to bits.
They had just stolen my yard monster’s Halloween masks. I just hung that up yesterday.
I spent all day in the yard yesterday, doing a half-assed job of preparing for winter. Trying to fertilize the lawn, something I should have done weeks ago. I mowed, gathered bag after bag of leaf mulch and grass, yanked out the tomato plants, moved giant pots to the basement, and yet still had time to find Halloween masks for the yard monster.
The masks lasted one day on the tree before these two little fuckers stole them.
I said to Joel, “Can you hang on for a minute?”
I let the phone fall to my side. The kids reached me, chuckling and zipping up the backpack.
“Guys, stop. You just took the masks off the yard monster back there.”
Both their eyes widened. “No!”
One shook his head in sheer disbelief that they were busted almost immediately after their caper.
I don’t want to be the neighborhood hard ass. My friend Jenna predicted that kids in the neighborhood will call me “Old Manning,” and I will yell at them in my bathrobe from the front yard, shaking a folding chair at them. The really cheap, light folding chairs.
I don’t want to be that guy.
But I don’t want to be a pushover and pretend like it’s okay.
Joel was in my hand, listening (I imagined) to my every word.
“Guys,” I said, “I just saw you. C’mon.”
They protested, but the little guy was breaking already, his eyes turning into terror. Would I insist we go to his parents? Was that what was in store?
I said, “Be cool. Let me have them.”
This was the second time I implied there was more than one mask stolen though I had only seen the one mask. But there could be more and I didn’t want to fight them on every mask. So I just decided to bullshit my way with confidence.
The smaller guy said in a mournful voice, “We’re sorry.”
He began to unzip the backpack.
This is the first time in the history of me, my uttering the words ‘Be cool,’ ever worked on anyone. I almost wanted to yell, “Ha! Gotcha!” But that, um, wouldn’t be cool.
His chubby companion who was the first to deny any theft, clearly was not ready to risk fleeing by foot. He looked down and said, “Yeah, I’m sorry.”
He and his buddy were out enjoying this perfect autumn evening the way eleven-year-old boys do, mischief and talking trash, the way I was talking trash with my lifelong friend, Joel. Just guys out enjoying the glorious night. And in the end, these boys were relatively harmless.
I said, “Don’t sweat it. I appreciate your giving them back. I just want people to enjoy them for a few days. It’s my way of sharing with the whole neighborhood, so don’t take them again, okay?”
Together, they humbly said in unison, “Okay.”
The younger one pulled out a second mask, the really creepy clear one.
My bluff paid off.
As he handed it over, he said in a tone of sad appreciation, “This mask is so awful. What it does to your face.”
I said, “I know, right? It’s really gross. Worse than the hockey mask.”
He nodded and sorta smiled faintly.
We have the same sick humor, this goonie kid and I.
I said, “Tell you what. If you leave the masks on the tree until Halloween is over, you can have them both on Saturday. Just come and take them. You have my permission. But leave them up for a few more days, okay?”
They both brightened considerably and immediately promised, “Sure, no problem.”
I said, “Thanks, guys. Goodnight.”
They waved and said, “Thanks.”
We had conducted master negotiations.
Those two buddies resumed their walk and I resumed mine with my buddy.
He said, “Where were you? What happened?”
I conveyed the whole story, especially my excitement that I said the phrase ‘be cool’ and it worked just like a magical disarming spell is supposed to work. Joel though I was missing the point of the experience.
He said, “You showered them with king love.”
His saying this to me caused me to shower myself in king love, to scrub in this golden, five-shades-of-orange-and-yellow love into my body, remembering I don’t have to turn into Old Manning. I can keep love in my heart even with the punk neighborhood kids. I felt like I instantly, explosively showered in autumn leaves as they plummeted and swirled from the trees above.
Our friends unmask us, find the best in us, and witness the worst in us. If they’re really good friends, they help convert the worst in us to the best in us.
Tonight, I walked the neighborhood with Joel.
We unmasked each other.