Over a year ago, I went on a business trip to Kansas and when there was a day off, I ended up in Wamego Kansas. The town felt like it was out of the sixties and it seemed magical. While we were there, we visited the Oz Museum, the Oz Winery and took a walk down their yellow brick road. I had to feature it in a story. Actually three stories. The third story, Trapped in Oz, just released. Spend a little of your time on Wamego... er Oz.
Martin Long has plans and dreams, but they are derailed when his parents move and must sell their house. In need of a place to stay, fast, he answers an ad for a roommate, and even though the house needs work, the owner seems nice so Martin agrees to move in.
Gary Hunter is barely making ends meet, with mysteriously disappearing tips at work and tuition to pay. Disowned by his family and left with a house in need of repair, Gary desperately needs the extra set of hands along with the money.
When Gary confesses that his family disowned him for being gay, Martin makes his own confession that opens a world of possibilities. But Gary has paid a heavy price for being who he is, and Martin’s unwillingness to open up to his family puts strain on the fledgling relationship.
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MARTIN LONG drove the nine miles or so from the warehouse to the small town where he lived with his parents. He worked packing shoes in shipping boxes. He’d been out of high school for a couple years now, and he considered himself lucky. He had a job that would allow him to move out and be on his own. But before he did that, Martin had been saving for the trip of a lifetime. He’d lived his whole life in Wamego, Kansas, and he’d always wished he could see more of the world.
A few years earlier, he’d hoped to go to college and make more of his life than toiling the way his father had. His dad had worked for thirty years at the farm-equipment factory in town, doing almost the same thing day in and day out. It had sounded mind-numbing to Martin, and he had vowed to not fall into that trap. He wanted to make more of himself. Unfortunately, he hadn’t listened to his parents when they’d begged him to study harder in school. He’d figured they didn’t know shit at the time. Well, the older he got, the smarter his parents seemed. So after he graduated, he managed to get a job at the warehouse and was making decent money. He had some savings and paid his folks a few hundred dollars a month for his room. Life was good, and overall he was happy with his situation.
He drove down the main street of town on a bright summer day, singing up a storm to the radio playing his favorite song. It was Friday and he was done for the week. The next two days were his, and while he had no plans, the weekend loomed brightly in front of him. At the far side of Wamego, he drove into the quiet area where his family owned the small home where he’d lived for as long as he could remember. Martin and his dad had converted the attic into a large open space years ago, and that had been turned into his bedroom. It was large enough that he had a seating area, as well as a sleeping area, so it was like his own private apartment. That gave both him and his mom and dad privacy. He turned into the driveway and parked behind his dad’s truck. Martin checked the clock on the dash and wondered what was going on. His dad wasn’t supposed to get home for another hour.
Martin got out of his eight-year-old Camry. He’d bought it used a year earlier and had worked with his dad to fix it up. Together they had it running like a top, and he loved it. His dad could do just about anything he put his mind to mechanically. He hurried inside and found his mother in the dining room setting the table for dinner, the scent of roasted chicken filling the entire house and making him hungry. “Is anything wrong?”
His mother humphed. “You better ask your dad.” She was not happy, and Martin’s stomach clenched.
Martin knew he wouldn’t get anything out of her, so he went and found his father in the living room, watching television. “Hey, Dad.” He sat down next to him. “Mom’s out there trying not to break the dishes over something.” He was trying to make light of things, but it didn’t work.
“You know I’ve been asking for an opportunity for years,” his dad began. “Well, today they noticed me and decided to give me one. I was offered a promotion and a chance to get off the factory floor.”
“They’re making you a supervisor?” Martin asked, even though the question didn’t make a lot of sense. His mother wouldn’t be upset about that. His dad getting into management was a good thing.
“Well, I’ve been a team leader for a few years now, you know that. And they’ve been happy with my work and that of the team, so today they said they want me to help develop a team training and development program for use in all the plants. They said I’d taken one of the hardest teams in the plant and turned it into a well-oiled machine.”
“That’s so cool, Dad,” Martin said. “The chance to get into management, right?”
“It is, and the chance for your mother and me to have the possibility of a decent retirement.” His father sighed, reached over to the coffee table for the remote, and turned off the television. Everyone said Martin and his dad looked alike. Martin always took that as a compliment, because his dad was a handsome man. Martin had noticed handsome men for a while now. He and his dad both had thick brown hair that tended to wave when it got longer, and the same blue eyes and lanky build. Neither of them could sit still for very long because they both tended to run in high gear.
“So what’s the problem?”
“The job is outside Houston. Your mother and I would need to relocate… and if I take the job, I would start in two weeks.”
Martin’s mouth dropped open slightly, and he turned toward the kitchen. “That explains why she’s upset.” His mother had spent her entire life in Wamego, and she was more than happy. This was home, and his mother was the very definition of a homebody. She was one of those people who couldn’t go anywhere without running into people she knew, because basically his mother knew everyone in town.
“Yeah, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. They’ll help us sell the house and find a new one.” His dad stopped and turned back to the now silent television. “Your mother loves this house and this town, but this is what I’ve been hoping for. It could be the difference between us having a retirement where we exist from day to day, or one where she and I can do the things we’ve always wanted.” His dad flopped back in the chair. “I’ve wanted a chance like this for a very long time.”
“Then you have to take it,” Martin said. He was still in shock, but he could adjust. “I can find a job in Houston, I’m sure of that.”
His dad shook his head. “No. You need to stay here. You have a good job at Shoebox. They like you, and they have a college assistance program that will kick in soon. You’ll be able to pay for college and get a degree. After that, you can go anywhere you want. Even with the extra money, your mother and I can’t afford to pay for college, and you need to go. You took a couple years off after high school, and that’s fine, but it’s time for you to figure out what you want to do with your life. I know it isn’t working in a warehouse for the rest of your life.” Sadness filled his father’s eyes. “Did I tell you I tried to go to college once?”
“No,” Martin said, dread spreading through him.
“Well, I did. I started and took an English class. Never finished it. Now I wish I had stuck with it. Our lives would be so much different if I had. This seems to be the year for chances, for all of us.”
“So you don’t want me to go with you?”
His dad shook his head. “I want you to make a life for yourself. You’re an adult now, and you have friends here. This is your home and you have a job, and believe it or not, an opportunity here. Stuff like that only comes around once.” His dad sighed, looking older than he had in a while. Martin could tell he was nervous, scared, and excited all at the same time. “If you give it up, you may not get another one. And the same goes for me. So when your mother calms down, she and I will figure out how we’re going to do this.” He reached out and squeezed Martin’s shoulder. “We’ll come back to visit, and you can come see us. Yes, it’s a drive, but it’s not like we’re an entire country away.”
“No, that’s true.”
“I suspect we’ll be selling the house. The company has a program that will buy the house if we can’t sell it, so….”
Martin nodded. “So I’ll need to find a place to live.” He thought of asking his folks about renting the house. He could find some roommates, and they could live there. But he discarded the idea. This house held most of what his folks had managed to build. They didn’t have a lot of other money, so the equity in the house was important to them, and they would need it to buy another one.
“Let me think about it,” Martin said, more to soothe his own ego than anything. He knew his dad was right, but the thought of being on his own without his family there to help him made his stomach churn. He had plans. He wanted to travel, and yeah, he wanted to go to college. But seeing the world was what he’d really hoped to do, and now all of that had changed within a few minutes.
“You need to do more than think about it. Things are going to start moving quickly for all of us.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“Of course not,” his mother said when she came in the room. “But your father is right. You have a chance here that he and I never had.” She walked over and sat on the edge of her husband’s chair, wiping her hands on her apron. “If either he or I had been able to go to school and stick with it, our lives could be very different. But we really didn’t have that option. You have it, and we can’t let you throw it away.” She leaned closer. “This isn’t the end of the world for any of us.”
“I know,” Martin said. They were right, but he was afraid.
“Sweetheart, I have a feeling this is going to work out for the best for all of us.” She smiled and tilted her head toward Martin’s dad. His mom had had a hard life. She was the youngest of seven from a farming family that hadn’t had two sticks to rub together. She and his dad had worked their entire lives to give him what they hadn’t had. Martin was grateful for everything they’d done.
“Okay,” Martin agreed. “When you know what’s supposed to happen, let me know. I’ll check with some friends and stuff, see if any of them need a roommate.” He smiled. Martin was happy for his dad and mom, he really was. His dad deserved this. He’d worked hard for years and had helped out everyone at the plant. Opportunities didn’t come around often, not in a small town like this, and they all needed to make the most of them.
“Dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Go get cleaned up, both of you,” his mother said. Martin left the room, figuring he could shower and change quickly enough to give his dad a chance to get ready.
Martin went up to his room and grabbed a change of clothes. Then he went back down to the bathroom and started the shower. He washed up fast and changed into fresh clothes. Then he went back up to his room and made a phone call.
“Darren,” he said as soon as it was answered.
“Dude, you sound upset. What’s going on?”
“My folks are going to move to Houston. Dad’s getting a promotion, and I need to find a place to live. Do you still need a roommate?” At least he knew he and Darren got along.
“Man…. Dude, your timing sucks. I just agreed to let Stevie move in. He needed a place bad and… shit, I can call him….”
“No. You agreed, and you shouldn’t back out.”
“But you’re my best friend.”
“Doesn’t matter, you know that. Besides, Stevie’s been through hell, with the accident and all. He needs guys like you to help prop him up. I was just hoping you hadn’t found anyone yet. It isn’t urgent, but I thought I would start with you.” Martin flopped on his bed and saw the easy answer to his problems float away like a cloud in a gale.
“That’s cool, and I’ll let you know if anything changes or if I hear of anything,” Darren said, and Martin heard a sound followed by a female voice. “I gotta go, if you know what I mean. I’ll call you later.”
He hung up, and Martin ended the call as well. What in the hell had he been thinking? Rooming with Darren would be hell. There would be girls coming and going at all hours. Darren had been the quarterback in high school, and he was a star. Everyone loved him. Including Martin, but he had kept his high school crush a secret. Thank God, because Darren was as straight as an arrow, no doubt about it. Martin swore there wasn’t a girl within ten miles Darren hadn’t been sniffing around, and he usually got what he wanted.
He and Darren had been friends since grade school. Stevie had been the outcast in school, mainly because he was small and easily picked on. He’d always had a hard time of it until he agreed to help Darren in algebra. Stevie knew how to explain shit and should have been a teacher. He’d had big plans for college that ended when his folks died in a car crash. Suddenly he was out on his own without money for college. After helping Darren with algebra, their core group of friends had sort of opened up and taken him in. Stevie turned out to be a great guy once he’d opened up as well, and Martin didn’t want to add to his friend’s misery. Life had already done plenty of that.
“Martin, dinner,” his mother called up the stairs.
He got off the bed and walked downstairs into the modest dining room, where the table was already set.
“Were you on the phone?” his mother asked.
“Yeah, I was checking on possible roommates,” he said as he pulled out his usual chair. “Of course it would be too easy to find one just like that.”
“You will, dear,” his mother said and patted him on the shoulder. He could tell she was nervous and unsettled. His mother was great, but she wasn’t usually a fussy person who hung around all the time. That changed when she was nervous. She always got clingy, especially to his dad, but she did it with him too. He’d thought it was her mother-hen instinct kicking in, keeping her chicks close. “There’s going to be changes for all of us.”
He nodded and waited while she brought the food to the table and continued fussing. His father joined them a few moments later. His mother sat down as well, and then they joined hands and prayed. It was a ritual that had happened each night at dinner for as long as he could remember. The prayer was always the same, but they said it each night. Thankfully, they didn’t do it when they went out, but at home it happened every time. When they were done, food was passed and plates were filled.
No one talked a great deal. Martin suspected they had things on their minds.
“So what will we do?” his mother finally asked.
“What do you think, Grace?” his father asked. “You know it will be hard to turn this down. They won’t ask again. And it’s a lot more money, and the potential for bonuses.”
She nodded, her near perfectly done salt-and-pepper hair moving with her. A small curl fell into her eyes, and she set it back in place. “I know, dear. We have to do this. But I don’t want to leave our friends and everyone we’ve known for years.” She set her fork down on her plate. “Maybe we could keep the house here and buy one there. Martin could live here and take care of this one and….”
“Homes in Houston are a lot more expensive than here,” his father said. “We’re going to need the money from this house as a down payment.” He reached over and took her hand. “We’ll be able to find a nice place we like. We’ll be in the Houston area, but not right in the city. They tell me there are nice places, and the company will find a real estate agent for us. They’ll help us look.”
“I know. It’s just that we’ve lived here for a long time and….” She used her napkin to wipe the corner of her eyes.
“Dear, think of it as an adventure. We’re going to be living in one of the most vibrant cities in the country. There will be things you can do as well, opportunities that you never would have had here. I was thinking if you wanted, you could get a job. You sew, so maybe work in a fabric store. Whatever you want.”
“Maybe,” his mother said with a slight smile. “I was thinking I might try for a bookkeeping job. I did that the first years we were married, and I helped Mack with his books all those years. It might be nice to work in an office as long as I didn’t have to travel too far.” She began to smile, and Martin’s dad returned it.
Martin finished eating and then took his plate to the sink. He rinsed the dishes and left them there before leaving the room. He went up to his bedroom and began making calls to his various friends. They, of course, didn’t need roommates, but it didn’t hurt to let people know what he needed in case they heard things.
“Try Craigslist,” his friend Maria suggested.
They’d gone to high school together, and she was the only person in the world he’d told about his crush on Darren and consequently the fact that he liked boys instead of girls. She hadn’t cared, but he’d kept it quiet otherwise. This was a small town, and Martin didn’t want to be the token gay kid.
“They have listings for all kinds of stuff. You might need to look as far as Manhattan. There are lots of college kids there looking to share apartments and stuff. It would mean driving a little farther to work, but it wouldn’t be bad.”
“I’ll think about it. I was hoping to stay here in town, but I doubt this is a real Craigslist kind of place.”
“You never know,” Maria said. “So your folks are really going to move? I always thought your mom would never leave.”
“So did I, but some things are too good to pass up, and I can’t blame them.”
“Why don’t you go with them?” Maria asked.
“I have a good job here, and I think I’m going to start taking some classes at Kansas State in the fall or spring. Work will help pay for it, so….” He didn’t tell her his parents had said he needed to stay. He had a good job with a chance at a future. He couldn’t give it up, and if things changed, then he could always move later.
“I’m so jealous of that.”
“Maybe we could start taking classes together, get financial aid. I bet Mrs. Jarvis at the high school would help us get all the papers and stuff together.” She was the guidance counselor, and Martin knew she’d helped other kids who had been out of school a while. That was the kind of lady she was. “If we’re serious….”
“That still doesn’t help you find a place.”
“No, but I have a little time yet.” They talked a little longer, and then he hung up. Martin rejoined his folks downstairs. They were watching television, so he sat in the empty chair and watched with them for a while. Then he went up to bed and tried to fall asleep earlier than he normally would. God, in a single day his life and plans had altered and would continue to be fluid. Eventually he fell asleep trying to think of people he could talk to about a place to live.
OVER THE next two weeks, Martin didn’t have much luck as far as the living situation went. His parents made plans to leave, and his dad was getting ready to start his new job in Texas. His mom had cleaned the house from top to bottom, and when she met with a Realtor and got ready to list the house, it really unsettled Martin. He was starting to get nervous he would end up homeless. “There are some ads in the paper tonight,” his mother said and handed him the classified section. She’d been hinting for a while now. Martin had blissfully kept his head in the sand. That was over; he had to find a place.
His friends hadn’t come through with anything, so he figured what the hell and thumbed through the classifieds. He saw a few apartment listings, but the rent was more than he wanted to spend. He was really hoping to find a place that would allow him some breathing room on expenses. If he had to get an apartment alone, he could do it, but it would mean his expenses would be tight, and he didn’t want that. He called about a few ads, but the initial ones for roommates had already been filled. He continued calling and got to the bottom of a rather short list.
“Hello,” a deep male voice said when the line connected.
“Yeah, my name is Martin, and I’m calling about the roommate ad.”
“Oh, sure,” the man said. “Hang on.” The phone was set down. “Gary, it’s for you.”
Martin waited and then heard the phone being picked up. “Sorry about that. Can I help you?” a much mellower voice asked.
“I’m Martin, and I’m calling about the ad for a roommate,” Martin said.
“Hey, cool,” Gary said. “The guy who answered is Doug, and he’s moving out. Do you go to State?”
“No, but I hope to. I live in Wamego and I’m looking for a place,” Martin explained, trying to act cool.
“No sweat. The house is just off the park on North Third, number 181. I’m Gary, by the way. When did you want to stop by? You can see the place and we can talk.”
“I’m a few blocks away, so I can be there in fifteen if that’s okay?” Martin got off his bed and went to the bathroom. He needed to clean up if he was going to meet a potential roommate. He didn’t want Gary to think he was a slob or something.
“Sure, I’ll be here,” Gary said brightly. “Just ring the bell.” He hung up, and Martin got a move on.
“Where are you going?” his mother asked as she looked up from the box she was stacking in the hallway outside the spare bedroom. His mother had been packing like a fiend to get the house ready to be shown.
“I have a possible place to live. I need to go over and see it.” He rushed up to her and gave her a hug. “You were a big help.” He hurried into the bathroom and cleaned up. He didn’t have time for a shower, but he made sure he was presentable before returning to his room to change into a clean pair of jeans and a green polo. He checked himself in the mirror and then grabbed his bag and raced out of the house and onto the sidewalk, where he headed down the street, hopeful for the first time since his dad had told him about his upcoming promotion.