Trials and Tribulations

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

 

Once again, Ben strolled into the Simone Gallery.  He slowly meandered through the main gallery, visiting each of the little “rooms” that contained Justin’s unique work that ranged from sketches, to miniature oil paintings, to small sculptures.  Eventually Ben found himself in the large gallery in the back, sitting in front of the wall of nudes.  Surrounded by the portraits of his “family”, Ben felt comforted.  His eyes skimmed over Brian’s portrait.  Ben had seen enough of a naked Brian to last a lifetime.  Not!  No one in their right mind could ever get enough of Brian but that was the superficial Brian.  Ben knew the real Brian and valued that friendship.

Ben gazed at his own portrait.  He laughed to himself, recalling how nervous he was posing for Justin.  Those big blue Taylor eyes got Ben to say yes but he was still very nervous until Brian sauntered in, dropped his own pants then mesmerized Ben with his own intense hazel eyes.  Ben soon relaxed then “voilà,” a painting of Ben in all his glory.

“We meet again,” Armand said as he walked into the room.

“Yes, we do,” Ben replied pleasantly.

“I hope the intrusion is not unwelcome.”

“On the contrary; please sit,” Ben invited as he made room on the bench.

“Thank you.  I see the nudes draw you in.”

“Yes, they do but not for the obvious reasons.”

 “Go on,” Armand urged.

“I’ve known these people for most of my adult life.  They are my family.”

“And they bring you a little touch of home while you are on holiday.”

“Yes, they do.”

“Have you seen other sites while you’ve been here?”

“Yes.”  Armand and Ben discussed the usual tourist attractions he had visited while he and John shepherded the kids around for the week.

“Would you think me too bold if I offered to show you other beautiful sites the city has to offer?”

Ben thought about it before answering.  The invitation appeared sincere.  Besides, Ben could take care of himself.

“I’d like that very much,” Ben replied.  “But if you’re going to be my guide then the day shall be my treat.”

“Magnifique!  First, we breakfast then we walk off the breakfast,” Armand teased.  Ben gave Armand a genuine smile and they were off to see the Paris that tourists don’t get to see.

 

*****

 

“JR!” Candy called out when JR walked into the Liberty Diner in search of warmth.  “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it.”

The women behind Rage embraced each other, pleased to be together even on this dreary day.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to make either,” JR said unbundling herself, sitting down at their booth as she glanced out the window.  It had started snowing again.  Most of the North East was covered under a blanket of white. 

 “I’m surprised you’re open,” JR said to Lacy.  Lacy sat down after placing a mug of hot cocoa in front of JR.

“We’re always open,” Lacy stated as she looked around the diner.  There was only one other brave soul who came in for breakfast.

“Liberty Avenue is pretty quiet.  Emmett’s is open but Sean lives upstairs,” JR explained.

“So why did you open the comic book store?  I can’t believe comics are on your “go to” list during a blizzard,” Candy teased.

“Honestly?” JR began sadly.  “I went to the store because I can’t stand watching my dad sulk around the house anymore.”  Candy and Lacy exchanged looks.

“Is it really that bad?” Lacy gently asked.  JR nodded.

“Ben didn’t come back with Uncle Bri and Justin,” JR explained.  “I’ve been listening to my father go on about how Ben is, you know, tricking in Paris.”  JR had tears in her eyes.

“No, I don’t believe that,” Lacy said.  “Ben would never break his vows!”

“That’s what I keep telling my dad but he doesn’t believe me.  He just mopes around the house complaining that Uncle Brian betrayed him and that no one loves him or is on his side.  I tried to tell him that no one is taking sides but he won’t listen.”

Lacy got up to bring over more hot cocoa and a plate of lemon bars; the girls dug in.

“So what are you going to do?” Candy asked.

“I’m not sure.  I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do until Ben comes home,” JR admitted.  The girls nibbled on the lemon bars until Candy began to discuss Rage.

“You know that idea your dad had about Zephyr?” Candy asked, JR nodded.  “Well, we finally came up with a storyline that made sense.”

“Really?” JR asked with awe.

“Yes, at least we think so but I’m not sure if Michael will like it,” Candy said.

“At the moment my father isn’t liking anything, so one more thing to bitch about isn’t going to make that big of a difference,” JR griped.  She took another large bite of lemon bar then washed it down with hot cocoa.  “So what’s your idea?”

“Professor Ken and Zephyr have a huge argument and are no longer speaking to each other,” Candy started to explain. 

“Art imitating life?” JR snarked.

“Because the argument goes on and on, Rage is having trouble keeping Gayopolis safe.  He even enlists the help of the angelic Sunshine and Sateeena but the bad vibes from the ongoing argument that Zephyr and Ken keep having are fueling the strength of the bad guys,” Candy explained with excitement.

“Then Rage has had enough of the bullshit.  He kidnaps Zephyr and Ken and places them in a special room in Rage’s lair,” Lacy continued with the plotline.  “While Rage is busy with Zephyr and Ken, he sends his Sunshine out to find The Moderator, to bring him to the lair.  Rage asks The Moderator to intervene between Ken and Zephyr in hopes of getting them on the right track.”

“Which eventually saves Gayopolis!” JR cried out in triumph.  “That sounds perfect.”

“You like it?” Candy asked.

“Yup.  Question, who’s The Moderator?” JR asked. Candy looked at Lacy who shrugged her shoulders.

“We sort of based The Moderator on Glen and Alex,” Candy explained.

“Really?  Do they know?”

“Not yet.  I guess we should ask them if it’s all right with them,” Candy said.  Lacy nodded in agreement.

“What made you choose them?” JR asked.  “Not that I don’t like the idea.  I kinda wish my dad would get off his ass and go to a therapist or counselor, somebody.  Instead of complaining all the time.”

“I think I chose them because of last summer.  Something about how Alex and Glen are when they’re together.  The way the two of them joined forces to help Brian and Justin deal with Justin’s dad.  They just impressed me,” Candy explained.

 “So how are you planning to draw The Moderator?” Lacy asked.

“I’m thinking of drawing him as two parts or maybe two men.  Separately they’re quiet gentle men but when needed they combine into a great wise man.  But the weight of their knowledge and compassion when combined, forces them to use a special chair to get around until they’re no longer needed.  Then they separate back into two distinct men.”

“Wow,” JR exclaimed.

“I agree, that sounds fantastic,” Lacy agreed.

“You really think so?  I just made up half of that,” Candy said all flush with excitement.

Lacy took out a small pad from her pocket to quickly jot down notes as Candy took out a small sketch pad from her ever present messenger bag.  As Lacy began writing notes, Candy sketched out her vision for The Moderator.

“Mind if I help myself to more cocoa?” JR asked Lacy.  Getting a small grunt, JR took it as an affirmative.  Pouring out cocoa for herself and her two companions, JR sat back to watch the snow fall.  “If only the real Rage could fix my dads,” JR murmured as she sipped her cocoa.

 

*****

 

“Just another day in paradise,” Brian mumbled to himself as he sipped his coffee and stared out the large sun porch windows. 

It had been snowing steadily for several days.  Most of the North East was at a standstill or at least slowed down.  For those on the lane, life went on but at a snail’s pace.  The kids were currently “home schooled” via computer links to their teachers.  Bobby and John spent quiet hours up in their attic office working, as did Brian.  Most of Kinnetik, Part Deux, and N’rgy were working remotely.  Justin still wasn’t inspired enough to sketch or paint so he decided to update his catalogs and work on his much neglected correspondence. Emmett and Drew had braved the elements during a break in the weather to drive to the lane.  Emmett had visions of his beloved lane neighbors wasting away from lack of food and other provisions.  So they came loaded with enough food and sundry to last several months. 

“What’s wrong, little brother?”  

“White was never my color,” Brian growled.

“What about those legendary white parties I heard about.”

“We wore white, we didn't have to stare at it for weeks on end.”  John laughed as he clapped his brother on the back.  “Watch the coffee,” Brian groused.

“Yes, sire.  It’s early, why are you awake?  The sun’s not up yet.”

“I could ask you the same.”

“Habit.  I know you’re usually up with the birds but the birds are still asleep.  Are you worried about something?”

“Not some thing,” Brian said with an exaggerated sigh.  “Some one.  Two someones.”

“Michael and Ben,” John easily surmised.  “Have you heard from them?”

“I’ve spoken to Ben.  He’s actually looking forward to coming home to the lane but nothing’s landing here.  He’s thinking of going to London for a while then leave from there when the weather clears.  Shane will take care of him.”

“That’s a switch.  I thought Ben was drinking in all that Parisian culture.”

“Yeah, well, I think his cup overflowed and he’s a little spooked by it.”

“What are you talking about?” John asked, unsure of the Brian-speak double talk.

“Ben met someone, a nice looking Parisian male someone.  He spent several days sightseeing and felt he was enjoying himself a little too much.  He’s supposed to be reflecting not joyriding with handsome Frenchmen.  He decided to remove himself from the temptation.”

“Good move.”

“And Michael?”

“He’s not taking my calls.  JR says he’s sulking.  She couldn’t take it anymore so she’s been going to the store.”

“In this weather?”

“Relax, big bro, she’s staying at the Tremont building.  JR, Lacy, and Ted have been trudging their way to Liberty Avenue and back.”  Brian showed John a picture that JR sent of the three of them tethered together with rope and using makeshift ski poles.  Brian and John laughed; the trio looked like the poor man’s version of mountain climbers.

“JR said it’s really not that bad.  The streets are plowed but comics aren’t on the top of anyone’s shopping list.  Ted wanted to check on Kinnetik, the theater, and the bowling alley.  Lacy has the diner open.  She says that the city workers are very grateful for hot coffee, good meals, and the clean restrooms.”

“I bet the sanitation department is running on overtime and coffee.”

“Yup.  John, I’m worried about Michael.”

“This is something you can’t fix.  They have to work this out on their own.”

“I hate it when you’re right.  Sometimes I wish I really was Rage, I have no doubt that he’d get those two idiots back together.”

“No doubt at all,” John said as he and Brian stared out the windows watching the sun rise and the snow fall.

 

*****

 

Michael looked at his phone.  He saw the calls from Brian, but none from Ben.  None from his mother.  None from any of his so-called friends.  He got up from the sofa in his house and walked to the front window.  It was truly a winter wonderland out there, but it did nothing to lift his spirits.  He thought maybe he should go out and shovel the walkway and the sidewalk in front of the house, but he didn't have the energy.  It could wait until it stopped snowing, or some kid offered to do it for a few bucks.

"Better them than me," Michael muttered.

He looked at his phone again.  Nothing.  He couldn't believe how alone he was.

 

*****

 

Lindsay pushed the ledger away from her as she sat behind her desk at the gallery.  She had struggled to get there through the heavy snow, but she knew she'd likely not have any customers, and it would be a perfect time to catch up on her paperwork.  However, a whole day of paperwork could be so boring.  She leaned her head back against the headrest of her office chair.

She let her mind wander to Paris, and Charles, and the small adventure they had had there.  She smiled to herself.  She did enjoy being with Charles.  He was such a gentleman and so solicitous of her well being.  She liked his accent a lot, and found him very charming.  However, that was as far as the feelings went.  He was a good escort and occasional sex partner.  She shook her head slightly as another thought crept into her mind.

Sam Auerbach!  It had been so different when she had first met Sam - all raw need and animal passion.  Such a difference from Charles.  But that didn't make it better than what she had with Charles - just different.  It had been a long time since she had seen Sam or thought of him, until he appeared so suddenly at that cafe in Paris.  He was so totally different from Charles - just as arrogant and opinionated, but so ready to break the rules where Charles lived by rules.  There was an inherent excitement that came with Sam.  That was part of what made him so attractive.

"Stop it, Lindsay," she said to herself.  It would probably be another ten/fifteen years before she saw Sam Auerbach again, if ever.

The phone on her desk rang.  She picked it up.  "Hello," she said.

"How's my girl?"

Lindsay felt her pulse quicken.  "Sam?"

"Correct in one try."

"What the hell do you want?" she demanded.

"Now, now, now, play nice."

"I'm not in the mood to play nice, especially not with you.  I repeat!  What do you want?"

"I told you in Paris that I wanted to mount a new show."

"So what?  That has nothing to do with me," Lindsay stated.

"It could have."

"What?"

"I'd like you to exhibit my work in your gallery."

"Oh, so you got turned down in Europe and now you're going to use me."

"Hey, I'm not that crass."

"Sure you are," Lindsay said.

"You really have a low opinion of me these days, don't you?"

"Is there any reason I shouldn't."

"Lindsay..."

"Look, Sam ... it's been a long time and I'm really not interested."

"You might be if I showed you my new work," Sam insisted.

"You're trying something different?" Lindsay asked in spite of herself.  Sam had been a very talented artist at one time.

"I am."

"Since when?"

"Since people started getting tired of the same old, same old from me."

"You finally figured that out, did you?" Lindsay asked pointedly.

"I've gone simpler and smaller with my paintings.  They're totally geometric," Sam explained.

"Really?"

"Yeah, they're quite different from what I used to do."

"Sounds ... interesting."

"I think you'll like them."

"Are you still in Paris?"

"No, I'm in New York.  I was going to come and talk to you directly, but the snowstorm has grounded most flights into Pittsburgh."

"You were coming here?"

"Yes."

"That's kind of presumptuous."

"You know me ... unpredictable."

"Actually, you're quite predictable.  You still think you're God's gift to ... mankind."

Sam laughed.  "You mean I'm not."

It was Lindsay's turn to laugh.  "Okay, if you come to Pittsburgh, I'll have a good look at your work and make my decision then."

"That's all I ask."

"And that's all you'll get," Lindsay stated before she cut the connection.  She slid down in her chair and closed her eyes.  She wasn't half as bold as she had tried to make Sam believe.  She wondered what might happen when Sam actually did come to Pittsburgh.

 

*****

 

"Looks like the snow is finally petering out," John said as he looked up from the jigsaw they were all still working on.  They had made good progress, getting all the edge pieces together.  Each of the six of them was working on one of the pictures surrounding the Eiffel Tower.  Whenever they found a piece that looked like the tower, it went into the center of the puzzle.

"I hope so, Uncle John," Bree said.  "I want to go outside."

"If it clears a bit more, I'll go plow the lane," John said.  "Maybe you and Patrick could shovel the walkways for the cottages."

"Sure, Dad," Patrick said.  "Maybe we can get Peter to help."

"Good idea," Bree agreed.  There were a lot of houses on the lane.  More than Bree wanted to shovel.

"I'll call Peter," Patrick said.

"Let's do some more of the puzzle until the snow finishes," Bree suggested.  "I've got most of the Opera done."

"Looks good, sweetheart," Justin told her as he worked on the Place de la Concorde with its huge Ferris wheel.

Within the hour they were all bundled up and ready to venture out into the cold.  John got his Navigator cranked up and started plowing the lane.  Patrick, Peter and Bree shoveled their way out of the conjoined cottages and then went to Debbie's so Carl and Debbie could get out if they wanted to.  Next they went to Drew and Emmett's where Drew was already shoveling.  With Drew's help they made short work of the job.  He accompanied them as they worked on the rest of the lane walkways.

In the meantime Justin had been phoning the residents of the lane to invite them all to dinner that he had started with a big pot roast.  Everyone offered to contribute and agreed to meet as soon as possible in the conjoined cottages.

By the time the plowing and shoveling was done all the residents were at Brian and Justin's.  Rachel brought a big pot of potatoes.  Debbie had a lasagna that she whipped up.  Emmett was making his popovers.  Brian was throwing together a huge salad with everything he could find from the fridge.  

They all worked so well together, Brian thought as he looked around the kitchen.  It was peaceful and full of harmony.  He wondered why Michael could never see and appreciate that.  He felt badly that Michael was in Pittsburgh all by himself, but that had been his choice.  He had packed up and left.  Brian supposed that JR would keep an eye on her father, but he couldn't help worrying about Michael being all alone.  Even Deb had turned on her son.

Brian shook himself out of his reverie as he heard the front door open.  In came the tired workers.  John and Bobby were finished with their plowing and checking the empty houses.  Bree, Patrick, Peter and Drew looked wiped by their exertions with shoveling snow up and down the lane.

"That snow is fu... heavy," Drew said as Emmett helped him off with his coat.

"We've got hot chocolate and my popovers will be out of the oven in a minute or two," Emmett told them.  "But don't eat too many cause dinner's almost ready."

"How are we going to do dinner?" Justin asked all of a sudden.

"What do you mean, Sunshine?" Debbie asked.  "Everything's just about ready."

"I mean ... we've got the jigsaw all over the table.  Where is everybody going to sit?"

"Shit!" Brian exclaimed.  "Let's see if we can move it over a bit," he suggested.

"I'll do that," Carl offered.

"We've got a card table in our cottage," Bobby said.  "We can set that up at the end of the big table."

"There's one at our place too," George offered.  "I can get it."

"Stay put," Bobby said.  "I'll go get it and Patrick can get ours."

"Sure, Poppa," Patrick said heading for his side of the cottages.

"I'll start getting dishes out," Debbie informed them.  "Give me a hand, Bree?"

"Okay, Grandma Deb," Bree said wiping the last of her hot chocolate off her mouth.  "Can you help too, Peter?"

"Sure."

They all got to their jobs and were soon ready for dinner.  Brian couldn't help but marvel at how easily they all worked together.  He wished Michael was there and working with them, but Michael seemed to have chosen a different path.

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