The Rubaiyat of Joseph-Zachary Barstow
(A Bryce Going Story)
by Jeff Baker
I first kissed a guy in public the day of the Bicentennial, July Fourth, Nineteen Seventy-Six. We thought we were alone.
I had a job working at a concession stand at a boat rental at Lake Manakopa that summer. It was up near the Canadian border. It wasn’t an Indian name, my Boss’s family owned it and it was a version of their original Russian name. I didn’t mind. It fit since “Bryce Going” wasn’t my real name anyway.
It was a pretty easy job, and that was where I met Jozac. Joseph-Zachary Barstow was sixteen, I was about the same age but pretending to be older. He was a little shorter than I was but we were both tanned and muscular (he more than me) and had a big grin that could melt butter.
I was falling for him. He was my first big summer crush. And nobody knew. At least, I thought nobody did.
Usually, I manned the stand while Jozac (as he insisted on being called!) helped with the boats and other stuff, like sweeping the small wooden boardwalk. When things were slow, Jozac and I had time to talk and he would ramble on about everything. He said he was going to write his ramblings down and maybe call it “The Rubaiyat of Joseph-Zachary Barstow.” I laughed and told him I’d read the poem a while back.
He stared at me for a moment and said he’d never met a guy who liked poetry. He said he was serious about doing the book, all about his misadventures which included running away when he was thirteen and hiding in an abandoned building for a week before the police caught him and took him home.
A few days later, I caught him in a mirror very definitely giving me the once-over. Checking me out. It wasn’t the first time someone had done that since I’d been out on my own.
Being a teenage runaway, especially a closeted one I was pretty careful around other guys, especially older ones. But Jozac was actually the same age I was. And I started checking him out when he wasn’t looking. I think he knew. He started wearing tight t-shirts to work, saying it was to “entice the girls to rent boats.” But when he said that, he gave me this look.
It was early one afternoon in June when he and I were both in the concession stand, unpacking boxes of canned soda when I blurted it out. The first part anyway.
“Uhhh…” I managed. “I’m doing the same thing you did when you were thirteen.” I said. “But I’ve been doing it for about a year. Since my folks bailed on me. My name isn’t Bryce Going. Not really…”
I had my hand on the last unopened box of sodas. Jozac put his hand on mine and we looked at each other for a moment. Then, Jozac looked around, saw nobody and kissed me. Really fast.
Then we went back to unpacking boxes and stocking soda.
That wasn’t when we kissed in public. We made out a few times, catching moments when we could. Jozac was still living with his folks in town and I was sleeping in the back storeroom. I think our boss suspected I wasn’t who I said I was but I don’t think he knew Jozac and I were gay, even though we really were spending a lot of time together, even when we weren’t working.
Jozac and I were sitting pretty close at the beach party some of the employees threw the last week in June, but nobody noticed. It was a little cool after dark and a bunch of us were huddled together around a fire actually toasting hot dogs.
“Naw, man, hey these hot dogs are good.” That was Bryan, one of the guys we worked with who I thought really looked good in a Hawaiian shirt halfway unbuttoned. It was cold, but he liked to show off his abs. The girl on his arm thought so too.
“Yeah,” the girl said. “That way we won’t have to throw them out into the lake, like my Grandmother used to….”
“Throw them out? What for?” Jozac said.
“To appease the Gods of the Lake,” she said. “The Natives who lived here told her that the lake was one of the original Great Lakes and its bottom stretches to infinity.” She laughed. “My Grandmother believed things like that.”
“Well, I’m from New Jersey and I don’t,” Bryan said.
“I heard some of that stuff growing up in Kenosha, when I was a kid,” one of the others said. “Old legends.”
I was about to say I’d run into a few odd things since leaving Philly, but the less said about me, the better.
We sat, ate, talked, laughed and watched sparks from the fire drift up to the stars.
The days were busy leading up to Sunday, July 4th. On the day, Jozac and I were working the booth. We had a little black and white TV in the booth and got to see some of the specials with the tall ships in New York Harbor. When things slowed down a bit, the boss told us to take an hour off and enjoy ourselves a bit.
“This is only going to come around once,” he said.
I think he probably knew but wasn’t saying anything.
Anyway, Jozac and I walked a ways down the shore watching the people swimming, throwing beach balls and boating. We were up near the rocky part of the beach when we heard some fireworks popping. Small ones at first and then a huge BOOM!
We about jumped out of our skins. And then we heard a splash and we looked out at the lake in time to see a huge, no other way to describe it, sea monster jump halfway out of the water. Blue-green skin, long neck, sleek body, serpent like. It splashed back into the water and was gone.
Jozac and I gawked at the lake then at each other. And that was when I pulled him over and kissed him full on the lips. After a moment, we pulled apart and he smiled and said “Happy Fourth.”
We glanced around. Most of the people were further down the shore and everyone was distracted by the fireworks but I could see a couple of people pointing to where the sea monster had been.
“Yeah, happy Fourth,” I said.
Then we started walking back to our booth, holding hands for another moment.
We stayed open until later in August when school started up. That was when I decided to take the first bus out of town. I’d noticed a couple of cops lurking around and a runaway didn’t need the attention. I said goodbye to Jozac and left, wishing him luck.
He smiled and said he’d put me in his book. I told him to wait about four years until I actually was twenty. The only time I’d told him anything about my real life.
I had other reasons to leave.
I kept having dreams about that lake monster one night slithering ashore…