Despite being piled up high with work to do, I couldn't help pausing for a moment to stare out the back window of my study to appreciate the wondrous kaleidoscope of color that was greeting me. It was one of those glorious autumn days when the weather was just perfect - highs in the mid-70's, breezy, and sunny, with a crispness in the air in the early morning that gave way to a pleasant warmth later in the day. The variety of trees that surrounded Britin and provided the stately home with spring color and shade in the summer had now succumbed to the inevitable, quickly-shortening days of fall, producing a beautiful landscape of color now, almost as rich and detailed as the ones that my partner loved to create in his studio upstairs. There were streaks of gold, candy-apple red, Kelly green and even purples mixed in with the deciduous trees that were interspersed as far as the eye could see. The trees undulated almost elegantly in the wind like waves as their colors changed in a never-ending pattern of beauty. Even someone as jaded and cynical as I often was couldn't help but think how magnificent it looked as I gazed at the spectacle surrounding me.
I turned around in my leather swivel chair as I heard a soft knock at my door; I smiled softly at the picture in front of me - my partner was standing there, holding my son's hand, Gus decked out in a pair of jeans and a miniature, lightweight plaid shirt. Once he had found out that Gus was coming to visit for a few days while Lindsay tended to some business in Pittsburgh, it hadn't taken Justin very long to rush out and find some 'appropriate' outfits for Gus to wear; how appropriate they were, however, was a matter of discussion. Even I, however, couldn't deny that my son looked quite adorable at the moment in his little 'country' outfit as I asked in a formal tone of voice with a slight British accent, "To what do I owe this honor, Master Gus?"
Justin grinned at me in amusement as my son merely giggled, evoking yet another, wider smile from me.
"You're silly, Daddy," Gus chided him as I lifted one of the corners of my mouth and shrugged back at him with a grin of my own. "Justin's taking me for a walk."
I lifted my eyebrows in curiosity. "Oh, he is, is he? Back in the woods?" I knew how much my son loved to go exploring back there; and it seemed like the dirtier or messier the environment, the better. Either Justin or I pretty much could expect to have to wash whatever outfit Gus wore on such occasions, so perhaps it was best that he wasn't decked out in Armani at the moment after all; a recent rain had made the trails somewhat muddy, and the blanket of wet leaves on the trail would no doubt make for a slippery hike.
Gus nodded his head vigorously as Justin let go of his hand and he came rushing toward me like some unstoppable cyclone. "Yep!" he verified excitedly, his eyes gleaming at the thought. "We're going to find some pretty leaves and some nuts!"
"You are?" I said as he nodded solemnly and I held onto his upper arms to gaze at him. "That sounds like a lot of fun, Sonny Boy. Just make sure you stay with Justin at all times, though, okay?" I knew how easy it would be for a curious, adventuresome boy such as Gus to get lost up there; Justin and I had done a lot exploring amongst the back acres of our property, finding a couple of amazing waterfalls that had quickly become a favorite subject of Justin's sketching, along with several caves and high outcroppings consisting of steep precipices. It was definitely NOT a safe place for a young child to either traverse alone or get lost in. "Promise me, okay?" I asked a little sternly, finding myself getting just a little choked up at the thought of anything happening to a boy that I loved so dearly.
Gus nodded as I pulled him gently toward me to wrap him into a hug. My heart melted just like it always did as I felt his small hands slide around my neck and his lips give me a brief but slightly slobbery kiss on my cheek before I let him go. "Well, you boys have fun, then," I told him as I locked gazes on my partner and he smiled at me with a nod.
"Can't you come, too, Daddy?" Gus asked me, his green eyes gazing into mine as he blinked his eyelashes at me coquettishly, almost like someone else I knew. Normally, that would get both 'boys' whatever the hell they wanted, but not this time; I simply had way too much work to do and not nearly enough time to get it done.
"Not this time, Gus," I told him softly with regret. Hastily trying to wipe the disappointed look off my son's face, I hurried to add, "But I promise that when I get done in a few hours we'll all do something together, okay? Maybe you can go ride your pony with us up into the fields." I was rewarded with my son's face lighting up at the thought as he literally jiggled up and down in anticipation.
"Yay!" he cried out as he twisted around and, as soon as I released him, went rushing back to my partner. "Did you hear that, Justin? Daddy's going to let me ride the pony again!" The Shetland pony had been a rather impetuous gift to my son last Christmas, only accepted by Mel and Lindsay after I swore that I would make sure that Gus took horseback riding lessons, a vow that to my credit I had followed through on when he had come to visit me this past summer. Now my son was quite an accomplished little equestrian and a source of pride to me. Of course, I was always proud of my son, however; this was merely another reason to continue feeling that way.
Justin laughed softly as he reached instinctively to grasp Gus's outstretched hand, my heart skipping a beat at the feeling of how right that looked and how easily Gus had come to trust and love my partner like another father. I knew Justin loved him just as deeply, too; he showed it constantly in so many ways, just like he was doing right now. I thought silently of how wonderful he would be with another child one day - perhaps one of our very own - before I tamped the thought down temporarily.
"Yes, I heard," Justin replied with a smile. "And we're going to hold you to that, Dad," he replied, looking over at me. "Two more hours and then your work day is over, got it?"
I smiled back at him, my tongue in my cheek. "I got it, Sunshine," I replied softly. "Now make like good little squirrels and go and gather your berries and nuts while I finish up, okay?" Justin nodded as Gus gave me a little, royal-type wave and they disappeared out of sight. Shaking my head in amusement, I quickly returned to my work.
Two Hours Later...
I just managed to shut my laptop down when I heard Justin state from my open doorway, "Perfect timing; we just got back."
I glanced up as I rubbed the back of my neck in an attempt to remove the stiffness there as I realized Gus was nowhere to be found. "Where's the other boy scout?" I asked with a grin. "I thought you promised to keep an eye on him."
"Well, we ran into a couple of grizzlies and it was either him or me; I figured he would be tastier." He grinned back at me impishly.
I rolled my eyes. As if Justin would ever put my son at risk; I knew he would rather pull his eyeballs out than let anything ever happen to Gus. "Well, I hope you at least salvaged some of his new clothes."
Justin nodded solemnly as he played along. "I did. The shoes, at least; they were the most expensive." He walked into the room as my eyes fell upon one of those cheap, canvas grocery shopping bags that Justin always insisted on taking with him to the local supermarket while he vowed we were saving trees or spouted some other tree-hugger nonsense. I noticed the lumpy, green bag he was holding was bursting out of the seams with something.
"When I said gather nuts and berries, Sunshine, I was kidding."
Justin walked up and plopped the bag down noisily on my desk with a decided clunk. Reaching in, he pulled out a lumpy looking green object about the same shape and size as a small baked potato. "You didn't say anything about fruit, though."
I snorted. "I've seen enough fruits at Babylon to last a lifetime," I quipped as he handed the mainly smooth object to me; I noticed a slight indentation on one end where it had evidently been attached to some tree. Apparently, Justin wasn't kidding. I felt the coolness of the fruit against the palm of my hand as I asked, "What in the fuck IS this?"
"It's a paw paw, Daddy," came the reply from my doorway as my son came lumbering in, dragging another green bag along on the ground beside him; this one was stuffed even fuller than the one that Justin had brought in and looked to be extremely heavy.
"A what?" I asked as I furrowed my brow. Surely my son was mixing up the name of whatever it was. No respectable fruit would ever be called a paw paw.
But apparently it was, because my favorite public service announcer helpfully responded, "That's what it is; it's a fruit indigenous to this area; in fact, the paw paw tree is quite abundant across the entire eastern United States."
"You've got to be kidding," I mumbled as I brought the fruit up to my nose and gave it a tentative smell. It wasn't an especially offensive smell, but it was unlike any other fruit I had ever sniffed before, not that I made a practice of it. I continued to stare at it. "And these are edible?" I lifted my eyes to stare up into Justin's as he nodded.
"Oh, yeah," he told me, his eyes alit with what could have been excitement. "My grandmother used to collect these to use all the time when fall came. They kind of have the consistency of a banana, but they have a little tarter taste than they do. Try one," he urged me.
"Yeah, Daddy, try one," Gus chimed in, still holding onto the other bag beside by the handles as it lay on the floor beside him. "I ate one," he said almost as a challenge. "They're really good, but they're kind of messy."
"No, thanks," I said as I eyed the fruit warily, that last statement having sealed the deal. "I've tasted enough tarts in my lifetime."
Justin snorted softly. "You can say that again," he replied as I grinned back at him. "Doesn't matter," he said to Gus as I handed the fruit back to him. "We're going to use them in recipes anyway."
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but how?"
"All kinds of things!" Justin exclaimed, his eyes aglow at the thought. I wasn't surprised by how excited he was, though; after making love, eating, and art (not necessarily in that order, though), his next most favorite thing was cooking, with me as the normal guinea pig. That wasn't half bad, usually; Justin had become a pretty decent cook. I wasn't sure about being the test subject for this particular type of food, though. Despite my trepidation, however - or perhaps because of it - he began to rattle off a virtual smorgasbord of possibilities.
"There's paw paw ice cream, paw paw bread, paw paw cookies, paw paw pie, paw paw milkshakes..."
"Okay, okay," I interrupted him before my stomach turned to knots and my head became dizzy from all the alliterations. "I think I get the idea," I replied dryly. I glanced down at the bulging grocery sack next to my son as I asked, "And is that more of them?"
"Oh, no, Daddy!" my son replied as he reached in and retrieved another green object; this one, however, was rounder in shape and much bigger with a pebbled surface resembling some mutated softball. "l found these instead! Aren't they neat?"
"Uh, huh," I said as I eyed them suspiciously. I gave Justin a long-suffering look as I shrugged my shoulders in admission. "Okay, I give - what is it?"
"It's a horse apple," Gus chimed in proudly; it was so large he had to hold it up with both small hands.
"A horse apple?" I repeated dumbly as I stared at him; I heard Justin giggle over my pained expression as I commented, "That definitely does not look like the apples I feed our horses, nor would one of those monstrosities even fit in a horse's mouth." I looked at Justin in confusion, wondering what other treasures they had managed to procure during their walk.
"Actually, cows and horses DO eat them sometimes," Justin told me. "They're also called Osage Oranges, but they're inedible for humans. Well, they're edible, that is - if you don't mind throwing up afterward."
I snorted. "I think I'll pass on that, too, then. Just make sure we don't have horse apple pie for dessert tonight." I pulled my son up into my lap as he continued to hold onto the fruit like it was some great treasure; from the entranced look on my son's face, perhaps to him it was. "Is that bag full of those things?" I asked him as he nodded vigorously.
"Uh, huh," he responded with a big grin. "I'm going to take some back with me when I leave so I can show Mommy and Mama."
"Good," I said with a smile. "Maybe your mama would like some horse apple tea."
"Brian," Justin chided me as I grinned up at him, tongue firmly tucked in cheek. "Don't give him any ideas."
"Mama doesn't like tea, Daddy," Gus replied, spoiling my dream. "She drinks coffee. Lots of it." He frowned as a sudden realization seemed to hit him. "She always has to go the bathroom."
I guffawed in reaction. "Well, it was worth a shot," I replied with a shrug as Justin covered his mouth with his hand to keep Gus from seeing him smiling.
"Did you find any other treasures, Sonny Boy?" I asked with a smile as he nodded. I was amazed by how his face was glowing right now, almost as if he had visited his favorite amusement park instead of just having taken a simple walk in the woods with Justin. But by the expression on his face, I could tell that he had had a glorious time nonetheless.
"We found some really pretty leaves," he reported with excitement and pride in his voice. "All kinds of colors and shapes."
I stared, mesmerized, into his animated face, so like my own, and wondered what my life would have been like if he - and my partner - hadn't entered it on the same day. I felt like I had, indeed, won the lottery, not once but twice. "I'm not surprised," I told him as I held onto him by his upper arms. "It really is beautiful out there right now with all the leaves changing," I found myself admitting, and it was true. As much as I had never envisioned actually enjoying living out in the country, it did have its perks; the wondrous patterns of nature that constantly changed here at Britin was one of them. That, and the fact that at last Justin and I were together in the same place, and we had an opportunity to see my son on a frequent basis. That realization filled my heart with a completeness that I would have never thought imaginable to where it almost threatened to burst at the seams with contentment.
I brought myself back to the present as I asked, "What are you going to do with all of the leaves?"
"It's a surprise, Daddy," he answered mysteriously as he twisted around enough in my arms to look back at Justin, who grinned at him conspiratorially and winked at him. "You'll have to wait and find out."
I made a melodramatic groan of disappointment as I sighed. "Okay, if I have to. This won't involve macaroni, will it?" I asked warily, envisioning pasta strewn everywhere on the kitchen floor and purple Elmer's glue stuck to every nook and cranny of not only our kitchen table but also my partner's skin, although the thought of removing the substance from his pale, smooth flesh inch by inch did have a sort of kinky appeal to it.
Justin made a symbolic show of crossing his heart with his left hand as he whispered, "No, I promise; no food stuffs will be sacrificed in the making of this project."
I digested that information thoughtfully before nodding. "Good. Well, then, go to it, Picasso and Picasso, Jr.," I urged them.
Justin turned to instruct my son, "Go on upstairs to my studio and spread your leaves out onto my big drawing table, okay? I'll be right there."
"Okay, Justin!" Gus shouted out excitedly; he squirmed vigorously in my lap until I let him go, scampering off and completely forgetting his other treasures still bulging out of the green grocery sack now lying nelgected on the floor.
"Someone left their crown jewels behind," I deadpanned to Justin, who grinned back at me. "Before Britin becomes overrun with some exotic bug infestation, you think you can at least take those things out to the garage?"
Justin nodded as he walked over to pick up the bag; just before he had a chance to pick it up, however, I reached and tugged on his wrist to topple him off balance, right into my lap where I was aiming for him to land all along. He let out a sort of surprised but satisfied 'oomph' as he fell against me side-saddle style, raising his arms to slide them around my neck for balance.
"Uh, you needed me?" he asked coyly with a sly look.
I stared into his face - the face I had memorized countless times before but never grew tired of before I found myself replying softly, "Always," unable for some reason to say something smart ass like I normally would. I watched Justin's eyes widen slightly in astonishment; even though I had gotten a little better about expressing my feelings out loud to him, it was still so few and far between that when I did, it still took him by surprise.
He smiled to quickly cover up his initial shock as he commented, "Good answer, Dad. Now I'd better be going before Gus discovers the wonders of shellac up there and makes all my walls shiny; or worse, varnishes my latest painting. You know how fast he works when he finds something he wants to experiment with."
I smiled at him and nodded before our lips met for a short but passionate kiss, a unspoken promise of more to come later; reluctantly releasing him, I admired the slow, side-by-side movement of his ass as he leaned over to pick up the rather heavy bag and, with one more backward look at me, quietly left the room to do what he had done so many times before - spend time loving and cherishing my son, making ME love and cherish HIM even more as the days went by.
Later, after my son had gone back to Canada and I sat there in my study gazing at the finished project of a rainbow of leaves encased under the glass of a shadow box frame, complete with an overlay of Gus's handprint decorating the corner, I couldn't help thinking what a lucky man I was.
The title of this story is from the musical "Camelot" with lyrics written by Robert Goulet:
If ever I would leave you But if I'd ever leave you, And could I leave you If ever I would leave you,
It wouldn't be in summer.
Seeing you in summer I never would go.
Your hair streaked with sun-light,
Your lips red as flame,
Your face with a luster
that puts gold to shame!
It couldn't be in autumn.
How I'd leave in autumn I never will know.
I've seen how you sparkle
When fall nips the air.
I know you in autumn
And I must be there.
running merrily through the snow?
Or on a wintry evening
when you catch the fire's glow?
How could it be in spring-time?
Knowing how in spring I'm bewitched by you so?
Oh, no! not in spring-time!
Summer, winter or fall!
No, never could I leave you at all!
But if I'd ever leave you,
And could I leave you
If ever I would leave you,
I know - mushy; but I couldn't help it!:) Thanks for reading!