Ready

Paul needed therapy. At least that’s what his friends in Manhattan would have said. But he was not ready for that kind of therapy just yet, the talking kind where some bearded bespectacled guy in a cozy Upper West Side office keeps asking why you’re doing what you’re doing and how does it feel and who do you think you are–that is, when you’re not talking about it between bouts of cappuccino and cannoli with your Manhattan friends while analyzing independent films which best expressed the discontent that you all knew to be life. For now he just wanted to engage in the moving kind of therapy, the kind where you get clear just by moving and not getting stuck in a place where you’ve overstayed your welcome. Especially when moving means barely having escaped getting caught yesterday in bed with that sweet luscious Darcy at the University of Arkansas, who said that Lucas would not be back for an hour.

So here he was the next day having hitchhiked out of Fayetteville under cover of night, here at the Trailways bus station in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was moving not only because Lucas was looking for him and would inevitably come to Fort Smith to pick up plumbing supplies for the week. He was moving because he just had to. He just had to experience one last way-station on this pilgrimage before he could accept that it was over. He had been hitchhiking around the country for nearly a year, unwilling to accept that despite all his literary pretensions from having written a first and best-selling novel at Yale and having dropped out senior year to be the next Hemingway/Kerouac/Updike, he did not have another novel in him. Accept that he too would probably end up a suit-and-tie Manhattan commuter from Westchester in an executive training program. But before this whole journey became an autumn-scented memory his eventual children probably would not want to hear their old man recount yet again, he just had to meet one more person with a new world for him to discover and explore.

An elderly gentleman sat facing him on the oaken bus station bench across from the one where he sat. This stranger was elderly not in a white-haired, wizened way, but with shiny dark silver hair and a glow to his ruddy complexion. His radiance emanated from beneath the gleam of his perspiration in this Arkansas Indian summer heat, from within the soft skin on his face. The same luminous golden red skin dripped to form his pendulous ear lobes, spilled over his hands with copper freckles, and descended his long thick fleshy fingers. He wore a thin white dress shirt made whiter in the torso by an undershirt. His suit pants and jacket were an undistinguished pale gray with a faint plaid, the pants too tight across the heavy thighs, the wings of the jacket hanging like two drapes from his broad shoulders.

He grimaced as he tried to peel back the ring-tabbed metal top of a shallow can about the size of a small cat food container. His finger tip did not fit into the ring tab.

Paul lowered his notebook and pen. “May I help you?” he asked.

The man looked up and smiled. “Why that would be right kind of you, sir.”

Paul moved to sit beside him. He slipped his finger tip into the ring tab and peeled off the cover of the can.

“I could always use a strapping young man like you,” the stranger said.

Paul shrugged. “My pleasure to help.”

The man lingered in his admiring gaze at Paul. He raised the opened can. “Care for some Vienna sausage?”

Paul wrinkled his nose as he peered down at the pale brown stubby missiles of meat packed in their shallow little liquid-filled silo.

The man guffawed. “Ah, Lawsey me. They won’t bite you. Go ahead and have one.”

“No, thanks,” Paul said.

“How about a biscuit?” Hank asked, reaching down and opening a brown paper bag atop a little leather suitcase.

“Thanks again, but I’m just not hungry right now.”

The man cocked his head and eyed him with a wry smile. “Not hungry? You’re not from around here, are you.”

Paul shook his head. “Just passing through on my way back to New York.”

“New York,” the man replied. “Ten years ago Annie and Hank stayed in the Waldorf Astoria when they attended the National Mothers Convention. Annie was the Alabama National Mother of the Year.”

“Who are Annie and Hank?”

He laughed with a hearty haw haw haw, placing his hand upon his heart as a woman would. “That’s my wife and I. You’ll have to excuse Hank–Henry Emerson McClellan, actually. Eleventh generation of General McClellan. Hank has a silly habit of referring to himself in the third person. It’s just what he does. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all,” Paul replied. Actually, the idiosyncrasy not only amused Paul, but appealed to him. He had always been drawn to those with full-blooded laughter, especially those who could laugh at themselves. “Paul Silven,” he said, extending his hand.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Paul,” Hank said, shaking his hand. “Paul,” he repeated pensively in a prolonged Southern drawl. “Finding Damascus in Alabama.” Then Hank studied him. “Now ‘Silven.’ What would be the origin of that name?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where are your people from?”

Paul could tell him of the silver traders and jewelers of Russia-Poland in the early twentieth century, the ancestors his father’s father in a Miami Beach retirement hotel had described in stories before he died. He could tell him of the descendants of those European merchants, the Westchester businessmen and lawyers of his childhood who kept their version of the faith, dedicating the High Holidays to morning services and then afternoons of quality time with clients on a country club golf course.

In the past Paul had qualified his statements about the religion of his childhood, saying he was raised in its teachings and rituals, but had never practiced them as an adult. Yet that approach to answering Hank’s question was merely that: an approach. A long-winded calculated reply. A cover-up for the real and simple response. For this identity was still an essential part of him–no matter how much he disagreed with or disliked those who presumed to be the upholders of the faith– forever defining him as a wanderer, a wonderer, a reflecting observer of Gentile family lives.

Paul said, “I’m Jewish, Hank.”

“God’s Chosen,” Hank replied.

Paul nodded. “Distinctive, for sure. But that phrase can cause problems.”

“Your people believe that, don’t they? My people do. God chose you from among all nations to proclaim His wonders.”

“Some Jews believe that. Or the politically acceptable version–that the Jews were the only ones at the time who chose to live by God’s laws. Whatever the case, I’d just rather stay away from the whole ‘Chosen’ thing.”

“You’re denying you were chosen?”

Paul did not want to get into a theological debate and make the sadly easy choice of dismissing this unusual stranger as just an inappropriately curious old man. “Let’s just say we chose to meet each other today.”

Hank smiled. “Hank likes that.”

Paul said, “So do I, Hank. You’re from around here, I assume?”

“Alabama, sir. On my way back after visiting my daughter Mimi in Boulder, Colorado. She’s the free bird in the brood, the one who never wanted offspring. They’re all independent-minded and high-spirited, my twelve children and thirty grandchildren. I ramble the Earth to see them all. Would you like to see pictures?”

“Sure,” Paul said. He did not mind getting into a prolonged conversation with this talkative stranger. The story he had started to write about his exploits in Fayetteville was not going well, and his bus would not arrive from Dallas for another hour.

Hank withdrew a bulging wallet from inside his suit jacket. He opened it to allow an accordion pack of plastic-sleeved photos to unfold as a multi-colored strap down to the floor. To every picture there was a story that Hank deemed worth thousands of words for capturing the utmost detail. There was Mark beaming before the chicken hatchery he and his brothers had just completed building behind his house. There was David in Bankhead National Forest proudly holding up the antlers of a buck he had felled. There was Sarah posing in a miner’s lamp hat with her small pale spelunking husband before the mouth of Missouri cave they were about to explore. Most of his children were school professionals, teachers or former teachers now presiding as guidance counselors or principals or district administrators throughout the Tennessee River Valley of northern Alabama, following part of the path their father had trodden.

Teaching was just one of the jobs Hank had fulfilled to support his large family. “Father, farmer, teacher, preacher” was the way Hank defined himself. The cotton and soybean cultivation he had learned from his father. The lesson he took to heart, though, after proving to himself and his brothers that he too was a man who could earn a living with his hands, was this: working the same damn cinnamon-colored dirt day after day, year after year, was not for him. And the development of his mind required more than teaching forty children with illiterate parents the three R’s in a two-room paint-peeling Red Dirt, Alabama, school house. He just sensed that he was meant for a higher calling.

It came one night as a glowing angel which descended upon the giant pecan tree commanding his front yard along Alabama Route 72. The angel pronounced that he should dedicate his life to the Lord and use his God-given towering size and booming voice to spread the Holy Word.

So from that day forward Hank became the harbinger of a great awakening in the Tennessee River Valley. He visited Methodist parishes across Alabama for weeks at a time, preaching a revival of passion for clean and humble living without the holy-roller carryings-on of all Baptist performers

When he was home, his deeds and his words were as impassioned as they were in his travels. He and his wife bred, fed, and disciplined progeny outnumbering them six-to-one. Forget to cap a response or request with a “sir” or “please”? No dessert at the next meal. Homework or chores not completed? No supper. Talking back to parents? Bend over for the paddle.

In his heart Hank detested imposing the discipline. He knew it was necessary to help control and guide his little congregation of descendants in Red Dirt, Alabama, but he hated it. He would let the child see the tears brimming in his eyes with each whack of the paddle he brought down upon his or her behind. When he would send one to bed with no supper, he made sure to go into the child’s bedroom and wish him or her goodnight with a kiss on the back of the head turned away in anger.

As Paul listened to Hank’s story, he heard not the details as much as he felt Hank’s adoration.

“You’re a lucky man,” Paul said.

“Blessed,” Hank replied, dabbing beads of sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. “I can only pray that everyone would know my blessings.”

“Your wife, too, is blessed,” Paul said, “to have a husband who’s such a loving father for her children. She couldn’t travel with you this time?”

“She passed away seven years ago, Paul.”

“Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

“No need to apologize, sir,” he said, patting Paul’s knee. “I was blessed to have had Annie as long as I did. But I do get wild with loneliness sometimes in The Big House.” Then he turned to Paul. “Too bad you have to go back to New York. My people would love to meet you.”

“I’d like to meet them as well some day.”

Hank’s face brightened. “How about today?!”

Paul was prepared to decline with bullet-pointed reasons as to why it was time he returned home. Yet the delight in his Hank’s face, the simplicity of his request, led Paul to question where home really was. Where had it been during his whole journey the past year if not with the ones he found himself feeling at home with, such as his companion at this moment?

Paul smiled. “Why not.”

“Oh happy day!” Hank exclaimed with a clap of his hands as he looked heavenward. “Now Hank will not have to rove this wilderness alone!”

Hank leaned over and hugged him. As Paul found himself enveloped in the fierce scent of the man’s sweat, he thought, What am I getting into? That he was afraid, though, that he felt something which shook his core, attracted him to experience what might ensue.

* * *

Coming home with Hank meant first taking a guest tour of the Tennessee River Valley in his 10-year-old 1973 Chrysler Valiant to visit his kin and former parishioners. The most reverent of their hosts could only afford to offer glasses of hissing RC Cola without ice or buttermilk. Paul found the former to be too sweet for his taste and the latter to be far too sour. Yet he would not make his displeasure known. These humble folks were offering him the best they could. They would have given up their own beds for the night and slept on the floor if Hank and Paul had so requested. Their humility humbled Paul, silenced him.

Hank introduced Paul as if he were a titled celebrity. (“This is my new traveling companion: Paul Silven. He’s a Jew from New York.”) Paul initially felt uncomfortable with the title, perhaps bothered by the image of a money-driven, tight-fisted shopkeeper or financier he himself associated with a phrase linking “Jew” and “New York.” He came to understand, however, from the quiet acknowledging nods of Hank’s family members or former congregants that this choice of words was just the unsophisticated, outspoken way Hank expressed himself. Maybe some of these folk harbored resentments against Jews as grasping opportunists, but Paul sensed that if any of them did bear a prejudice, it was of the fundamentalist Christian welcoming variety. Welcome the Jew, God’s Chosen. For Christ was a Jew, and one never knew in what form he would come again and again in your life. You could wait for the vision of an angel, as Hank had witnessed, or just open your home to an unexpected visitor from a distant land called New York.

When Hank recounted how he met this one of the Chosen from New York, the facts were like a dining room table upon which he quilted his new-found tale. He declared, “As soon as I walked into that bus station, this handsome young man caught my eye from across the waiting room.” The Vienna sausage at the bus station became an irresistible early-bird special feast at Fort Smith’s best diner. This diner offered fried chicken and fried okra golden tasty in a salt-and-peppered batter. There were bowls, baskets, and plates of corn on the cob and corn bread steaming from the iron skillet. And to top it off: pie filled with pecans as sweet as those from that giant of a tree Hank planted by Route 72 nearly fifty years ago.

“We ramblers have a hell of an appetite,” Paul chimed in during one re-enactment, supposedly quoting what he had said on that historic occasion. “’That’s why we’re meant to be together,’ I said. Isn’t that right, Hank.”

Hank bathed him with a tender, grateful gaze. “That’s right, sir,” he said softly.

When it was time to go home, home meant “The Big House” in Red Dirt, Alabama. The McClelland household acquired that name from birth: one weekend all the men who attended the nearby Mount Moriah Methodist Church framed for their new minister and his expanding family the only two-story structure in Red Dirt at the time. Hank’s grown children still referred to it that way from their days of jumping on beds and decorating and populating dollhouses.

It was now one part apartment and three parts museum. The apartment was the kitchen and the pantry remodeled into Hank’s bedroom. The museum consisted of one open-floor room upstairs with four sets of bunk beds where all the boys once slept, a large parlor that had served as the girls bedroom, and the living room. Once filled with the strains of “Chopsticks” or Methodist hymns on the piano or the canned laughter of television shows starring Andy Griffith or Jackie Gleason, the living room now housed bridge tables laden with rocks from every one of the 48 continental United States that Hank had passed through (he never made it up to Alaska). Each pocket-sized igneous, sedimentary, and conglomerate representative of the earth’s evolution rested behind a 3”x5” index card bearing in Hank’s over-sized child-like penned print the name of the rock, its former state of residence, and the name of that state’s capital, bird, and flower.

The girls’ bedroom featured a plush red carpet and a broad bed with a nubby white cotton spread. It stood not in one corner or perpendicular to a wall, but away from the corner along the room’s diagonal. After Hank had finished assembling it in exactly that position many years ago, he decided the placement was perfect. It served as a reminder that the Lord could work in whimsical, mischievous ways.

This was the room where Paul slept. Each morning Hank would knock on the closed bedroom door and ask him what he would like for breakfast. Paul could easily imagine how devoted a husband he must have been.

One of those mornings Paul lay awake in the queen-sized bed amidst the smell of old wood and dusty window curtains as beads of sweat carpeted his face. It struck him how he had surrounded himself with old or at least older people in a country beyond what his Manhattan friends could ever fathom. He was not sure that he even understood why he was here. He knew he needed a retreat, a sanctuary from the boundless world of his hitchhiking. Yet maybe he had gone to the other extreme in his stay here. Maybe he had settled for something staid in his escape from a journey where change was relentless and rules were what you made up along the way.

So that morning he asked Hank if he might meet the grandchildren. He wanted to play with them and immerse himself in the noisy, ever-changing mess of life. Hank and he visited the homes of the McClellan children. And grandchildren they indeed had to offer. Flocks of them running around, shrieking, giggling, and “showing out.” The smallest number of sibling in any one family was three; the average, five or six.

Paul felt strange at first being enveloped by such large families. The human presence in these homes was as thick and filling as the food deep-fried in Crisco. Yet within days he felt at home. It was not just a feeling. It was the whole enthralling commotion of Hank’s Alabama. Everything which had once struck him as so overdone in the South–the heat, the deep-fry, the eyeliner and mascara and teased-up bleach-blond hair, the rising inflection as if every sentence ended embroidered as a question–now impressed him as what they really were. A spicing up, an emphasis, and more than that, a request for reaffirmation. Like the verbena, jessamine, and wisteria blaring their colors and scents throughout the countryside or the kudzu vine blanketing more and more forests in an undulating crescendo of green fronds overwhelming green leaves, the people of Hank’s Alabama were saying in voice and cosmetics, “Here I am! Amidst this land of profusion, can you see me? Can you hear me?” And the chorus of a response could be heard in every Alabaman’s “Yes, sir” or “Yes, m’am.” So Hank’s listeners would nod or punctuate his drawling “Isn’t that right?” with an “mm-hmm” or a “That’s right, sir.” It was a litany fostered in Hank’s churches and nurtured in the homes of his family, especially since because he had been the extraordinary provider of instruction and entertainment for so many years.

Yet, Paul sensed, there was more to it than just a matter of people wanting to be recognized. It was as if all the commotion, all the breeding and eating and talking and relentless heat in these fields and homes of Alabama were filling in an absence before an awaited event.

He came to understand what the event was the night David rescued him after he got lost in Bankhead National Forest while bow-hunting deer.

“Praise God you’re all right,” Hank declared with a clap of his hands, glancing heavenward when David brought him home in the dark to The Big House. Hank stepped toward Paul and engulfed him in a hug.

“There was never a question,” David asserted as Paul stepped back after Hank released him. David gave Paul a kidding shove. “I told him to wait for the deer, not try to sleep with it.” Paul smile sheepishly. “He saw that sun dip behind the ridge, but he had to stay ju-u-ust a bit longer in the Bankhead. He wanted to ‘experience’ more of the wilds.”

Hank placed his hand on Paul’s shoulders. “The wilds, huh.” He fixed Paul with that tender, relentless gaze. “You don’t have to leave Red Dirt to experience the wilds.”

Hank did not let go of his shoulders, his pale blue eyes locking on Paul’s. And suddenly Paul was aware of what had been obvious all along. That lingering admiration, that silent steady staring he had earned from certain fastidiously coiffed and garbed older men in Greenwich Village bars. It seemed old Hank had a hankering for this New York strip steak named Paul Silven.

He gave Hank a tight smile and stepped back out of his grasp. The living room couch, though, was right behind him. It hit the back of his calves, causing him to sit down abruptly in its deep cushions.

Hank descended to sit right beside him. He encircled Paul’s shoulders with his arm. “Now you tell old Hank what happened to you out there. You had Hank worried to death.”

Paul stood up. “I will. But first tell me about all these rocks you’ve collected from around the country,” he said, motioning toward the bridge tables laden with the treasures from Hank’s travels. “I never heard the whole story.”

“Daddy, I have to get home and change,” David said by the front door. “Renee and the kids are waiting. We’ll see you at the church?”

“Of course you will. You think I’d miss a revival?”

David shrugged. “Just checking. You always said, ‘Don’t take things for granted.”

“Well if you only learned one lesson from me, that would be it.”

“And,” David added, “I know you don’t take to Reverend Harley.”

“Why would I say that?” Hank asked. “Just because he gets all duded up like a television evangelist and his wife wears so much make-up her eyes look like two burnt holes in a blanket?”

“Daddy…”

“Of course I’ll be there. I can’t stand the sight of him, but I’ll still be there to witness the Lord coming through.”

David nodded. “We’ll save you and Paul a seat.” He departed.

Paul had not known they were attending a church revival tonight. It was highly unusual for Hank not to mention an imminent event of such obvious importance. For wasn’t this an event, maybe the event, long awaited in Hank’s Alabama? A time and a place where everyone could put to rest all his comings and goings and let their prayers, their inner yearnings, be heard and answered? Yet Hank had made it obvious in his response to David that to a degree he was reluctant to attend, that to a degree his attendance would be complying with what everyone around him expected him to do. Understanding Hank at that moment as a fenced-in center of his family’s attention, Paul bore a newfound affection for his companion. Yet Hank was getting literally too close for comfort.

He said, “I think I’m heading home tomorrow, Hank.”

Hank stared at him, his eyes growing suddenly moist. ”Why?” he asked.

“It’s just time,” Paul said. “I want to get back to Manhattan.”

Hank’s shoulders sank as he let out a sigh like an adolescent crushed by unrequited love.

“I’ll keep in touch,” Paul said, trying to comfort him. He questioned, though, now that he thought about it, whether he would keep the promise he just made once he returned to his New York life.

Hank’s crestfallen expression did not change.

Then it struck Paul: maybe this was the story he was meant to write. Answering this man’s prayers. Had he come all this way to be afraid of an unexpected experience?

“Hank,” Paul said. Hank looked up, his baby-blue eyes nearly brimming with tears. “Do you want to touch me?”

Hank stared at him, as if not comprehending what had just been said.

Paul, too, was not sure why he was starting to extend this invitation. Maybe he wanted to offer Hank a comfort the man had long sought, but was too afraid to request. Maybe he himself was curious as to what it was like to be touched by another man, to know what was known by couples he had observed and turned his eyes from those nights in West Street bars, where the beat of the juke box music felt like your own heart being amplified. Maybe he was just committing an act that could only be attributable to the voyeur most out of touch with other human beings, a writer merely hungry for new story material.

“I said,” Paul repeated, “do you want to touch me?”

Paul then wondered if Hank understood what he meant until a tear gathered in the corner of his companion’s eye.

Hank said, “Hank would like that very much, sir.”

Paul beckoned with his hands. “Come.”

Hank’s face settled in a very serious, purposeful expression. He tip-toed around the room and pulled down the window shades. Then he reached up under the shade of the only standing lamp in the room and turned out the light.

The room shrank into darkness, nearly black except for the thin bright apron of light along the edge of the front door window shade from the bare yellow outdoor porch bulb. The weak illumination outlined Hank’s huge frame. The floorboards groaned as he approached. The tart scent of his cologne was thick in the warm room. By the angle at which Hank’s gold eyeglass frames glinted, Paul could tell that the old man was staring at his crotch.

“Hank would like to touch your root, Paul.”

So this was it, Paul thought. The choice. He could stop now and be untainted by the strange thing he was about to allow. Or let himself know that after this he was free, finally free, free to do whatever he once thought was too down and dirty to do.

Paul unzipped his pants and pushed down his underpants.

Hank’s breathing took on a mucous-y whistle. His big hand bumped into Paul’s pelvis, the shaky fingers vibrating down along the pubic hair. Then they grabbed Paul’s penis and pinched it.

“Ow!” Paul cried. “What the fuck are you doing?!” He yanked up his clothes, moved to the lamp, and switched on the light.

“Hank is so sorry,” Hank said, wringing his hands. He approached Paul.

“Get away from me!”

Hank retreated back to his tables of rocks. “If Hank could undo what he just–”

“Enough with the ‘Hank this’ and the ‘Hank that.’ You–not ‘Hank’–you touched me. Why can’t you deal with that?”

Hank turned his back to Paul and seemed to cower in the corner. Then his shoulders trembled as he began to sob, a deep mournful whimpering animal sound.

“Hank,” Paul said softly.

Hank continued his constricted, hushed cry of pain.

Paul sighed, not with impatience, but with recognition. ‘Why can’t you deal with that?’ Where did he think he was–Manhattan?

“Hank, I’m sorry.”

Hank sniffled. “Hank…I’m the one to be sorry.”

“For what?”

Hank turned to him. “I’m a dirty man, Paul.”

“No,” Paul stated. “You’re just real.”

Hank looked at the floor. “Real dirty deep down.”

Paul moved right in front of him and raised his chin with an index finger so that they stood eye to eye. “No,” Paul said again. “You’re more real than anyone I’ve known. Far more real than I.”

“Doesn’t change what I did.”

“Yes,” Paul replied. “And what did you do, Hank? What terrible, sinful thing did you do? Give into the ‘lust lurking in your heart?’ No. You’ve just had an urge for a long time. And I was more curious than I was willing to acknowledge. We met, and we came together in a way that was too weird for me. That’s all.”

“Easy to say where you come from maybe.”

“Ah yes: New York City and the wayward North. Your ‘duded up’ evangelist is probably pumping himself up right now to preach against it. And all your family is getting ready to hear it. But we didn’t commit a ‘sin.’ We just made a mistake. I don’t know about sin, but mistakes are easy to forgive, Hank.” Paul paused to see how Hank was taking this all in. His eyes seemed brighter. Paul placed his hand upon his shoulder. “We’re not dirty, my friend. Do you believe that?”

Hank pursed lips. Then he nodded. “I’d like to.”

Paul nodded. “Well, maybe this will make it easier.” He encircled Hank’s shoulders in his arms and hugged him. As he felt Hank relax and the man’s arms encircle the small of his back, Paul smiled. “Just don’t pinch me.”

Hank let out a hearty haw haw haw, his big body jiggling with relief. In the vibration of Hank’s joyful embrace, Paul joined in the deep down laughter. When it subsided, they stayed in each other’s arms, listening to the crickets outside screaming with hilarity in the Alabama night. Their chorus sank for a moment beneath the growl of a logging truck that passed by on Route 72.

Paul released Hank, and Hank responded in kind.

“They’ll be wondering where we are at the church,” Paul said, zipping his pants. He buckled his belt.

“Yes,” Hank said, moving to the bathroom at the back of the house. Paul followed and stopped at the bathroom doorway, watching his companion examine himself in the little cabinet mirror above the sink. Hank combed a few stray silver hairs into place and straightened the knot in his red necktie.

How, Paul wondered. How could he tell them in Manhattan about this. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. At least not for a while. And if he ever published the tale, it would probably be after Hank was long gone, free from being scrutinized or sniggered at or prayed for by family members or pitied by some strangers who happened to read Paul’s words in print.

Hank tore a wad off the toilet paper roll and eyeing himself one last time in the mirror, dabbed away beads of sweat upon his brow and above his upper lip. A few teeny bits of white tissue stuck to the shiny golden red skin above the lip.

Hank turned to him and with a raised eyebrow said, “Ready, sir?”

Paul stepped next to him and lightly brushed the remains of tissue off his face, his fingers grazing his friend’s soft lips.

“Ready,” Paul said.

* * *