WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?

"A Queer As Folk USA FanFic"

by Gaedhal

This is Chapter 15 of the "Queer Identities" series.

The narrator is Michael Novotny, and features Dr. David Cameron, Hank Cameron, Debbie Novotny, Carl Horvath, Edwin, Mr. Bostridge, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: An unexpected find. Pittsburgh, June 2003.
Disclaimer: You know the drill. This is for fun, not profit. Enjoy.

David is running late this morning, which means I'm running late, too.

"You'll have to take Hank to school," he says, sorting through a tangle of papers on the counter, looking for a lost bill. "And don't forget that we're invited to dinner tonight at Bobo and Melisande's."

"No problem. And don't worry -- I haven't forgotten about dinner."

I wish David would just go. When he's like this he just makes me nervous. And Hank, too.

"Come ON!" says Hank in his stressed-out voice. "I'm going to be late for first period!"

"Okay, I think I have everything," says David, finally. "I'll see you boys this evening." He gives me a quick kiss and punches Hank playfully, then rushes out the door.

"Are you ready, Hank?" I ask.

He puffs impatiently, slinging his backpack onto his shoulder. "I've been ready since yesterday! Can we go now? I have a test in A.P. History and I need to look over my notes!"

"You can look them over while we're driving."

But once we get in the car and head to St. James' Hank seems to forget about the test. Instead, he sniffs and fiddles with his backpack.

"Are you and Dad really getting married?" he asks suddenly.

I was wondering when he was going to mention that. Ever since David told him about the wedding, Hank has been strangely silent.

Hank has always been okay with our relationship. More than okay, actually. He's known his father was gay since he was pretty small, so it's something he's grown up with. But he's not a little kid anymore. He's a teenager and high school is another world all together. It's true that St. James' has changed a lot since Justin was a student there, but teenagers haven't changed all that much. They can be pretty hard on a kid who is different, or who has parents who are different. Hank doesn't talk about it much, but you can tell there's some tension there.

"Yes," I say. "In August."

"Oh," says Hank, sinking down in his seat and staring straight ahead.

I wish Hank was having this talk with David. He's the one who should be explaining things to his son. But Hank doesn't really do a lot of confiding in David. David isn't always the most approachable guy in the world. And he tends to jump to conclusions. I guess I understand why Hank finds it hard to discuss things with him. So he tends to come to me when things are bothering him. And I'm never sure that I'm doing it right. I love Hank and we get along great, but fatherhood isn't something that comes easily to me. I'm always afraid I'm going to say or do the wrong thing and then David will completely freak out.

"It's not going to be a large wedding," I tell him. "Just some of our friends. Steve and Laura. Bobo and Melisande. Your mom. My mom. Uncle Vic and my friend Emmett are going to cater it, so you know the food will be good." When in doubt, mention food. Hank likes food even more than he likes comic books and video games.

"Is your friend Brian going to be there?" he asks.

That surprises me. I don't think I've ever heard Hank ask about Brian before. So why now?

"I don't know," I say truthfully. "He's making a movie right now. With Clint Eastwood." I can't help adding that part. Yeah, I'm proud of Brian. So sue me! "I don't know if he'll be able to come."

"If Brian Kinney comes there'll probably be lots of reporters there. And it'll be on the news."

Is that it? Hank is afraid our wedding will be on the news? That all of his pals will see his two gay dads getting married? Is he afraid we're going to wear wedding dresses or do something to embarrass him?

"Not necessarily. It's not Brian getting married -- God forbid! And it's not like Brian is Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. The paparazzi don't follow him to the bathroom like that. He's not that famous."

Hank gapes at me. "Are you kidding? He's a big movie star! When my friends found out that you know him, they all wanted me to get his autograph! If Brian Kinney came to your wedding, the people from 'Entertainment Tonight' would definitely be there!"

"So you want 'Entertainment Tonight' to be there?" Now I'm really confused.

Hank looks at me like I'm the stupidest guy in the world. "Duh! Besides, then SHE would believe me!"

That catches my attention. "She? She who?"

Hank's face closes up. "Nobody."

"You can tell me, you know. I'm not your dad. I won't get all weird. At least, I hope I won't."

He sighs. One of those weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders sighs that only a 15 year old can really pull off. "Destiny."

"Destiny?"

"Yeah." His eyes get all starry. "Destiny Finklestein."

"Destiny Finklestein?"

"Her father is Dr. Finklestein. They live two streets down, on Bluebird Place. She's in my A.P. English class and also in the Anime Club. She's heavily into manga."

"Oh," I say. "She sounds great."

Hank has a crush. On a girl. I'm not sure how to react. I guess it's a good thing. He's 15 and straight -- at least David and I have always assumed he's straight -- so having a crush on a girl is fine. I mean, I doubt they are doing anything. It doesn't sound like they are. Maybe this girl doesn't even know Hank is alive. Who knows at this age?

"She has red hair," he continues. "Well, not red exactly. More maroon, with some pink in it. She dyes it."

"Maroon." I can see just David's face when he hears about the maroon-haired manga girl!

"She's totally cool." Hank gazes out the window. He must be picturing Destiny Finklestein. "Totally."

"And if she thought that you knew Brian Kinney, then she'd be impressed?"

"You better fucking believe she'd be impressed!" he almost shouts. "Sorry, Michael. I mean she really would be impressed. She loves Brian Kinney. She thinks he's hot! All the girls think so!"

"Brian IS hot," I agree. Then I frown. "She does know he's gay, right?"

Hank rolls his eyes. "Of course she knows he's gay! She's not an idiot!"

"But she likes him anyway?"

"Don't you get it? She likes him because he IS gay! Destiny and her friends are way into yaoi. I think all that boys' love shit is lame -- no offense, Michael! -- but the girls like them."

That makes a lot of sense. Yaoi manga are all about boy/boy romances. Some of the titles are pretty graphic sexually, but their readers are almost all female. I recently started carrying them in the store and was surprised at the number of teenage girls -- and also grown women -- who come in to buy them. I have to keep the R-rated ones behind the counter to make sure the younger girls don't grab them -- I could get busted if I accidently sold them to minors -- but there are still plenty of softer manga that are all about pretty boys in love.

"The girls LOVE 'Fake' and 'Gravitation,' and especially 'Gorgeous Carat.' Destiny told me that Brian Kinney looks like the main guys in those mangas -- tall, dark hair, great clothes," Hank continues. "She's seen 'The Olympian' about a million times! And she has pictures of him in her locker and all over her notebook. And pictures of that blond-haired guy he hangs around with. The one from 'The National Enquirer.'"

Holy shit! "You mean Justin? Your girlfriend has pictures of Brian and Justin on her notebook?"

"Destiny is NOT my girlfriend!" he insists, turning red. "Yeah, Justin Taylor, who used to go to St. James'. She has pictures of them kissing! The girls got them off some internet gossip site. I think it's gross, but you know how girls are."

Actually, I have no idea how girls are, but I'm not about to tell Hank that!

"He's the guy who got bashed a few years ago and almost died," he informs me. "But I guess you already know that."

"Yes, I know." I know all too well, I want to add. "Justin used to be my roommate. We both lived in Brian's loft here in Pittsburgh for a while."

"You lived with Justin Taylor? In Brian Kinney's place?" Hank stares at me. "No fucking way!"

"Way," I reply. It isn't often I can impress Hank, so I take full advantage of the opportunity. "I've known Justin as long as Brian's known him. He lived at my mom's house for a while. In my old room. If you don't believe me, ask your dad."

"Crap!" Hank explains. "No one at school is going to believe this! Destiny will think I'm making it all up to look like a big deal! Unless... unless Brian Kinney comes to your wedding and I can get pictures of myself with him! Or..." Hank turns and looks at me pleadingly. "If you and Dad invite Destiny to the wedding! Then she can meet Brian Kinney in person! Do you know how fucking awesome that would be?"

"Hank, I can't promise that Brian will be at the wedding." Yeah, wait until David hears about it. If he had his way, Brian would going to Mars on the next rocket leaving Earth instead of to our wedding!

"Don't you want him to come?"

"Of course I want him to come!" I say. "More than anything. He's my best friend in the world and has been since we were 14. But I can't guarantee he'll be able to come. Not even for Destiny Finklestein."

"Oh," says Hank. "I understand. He's a big movie star. He's busy with movie stuff out in Hollywood. Your wedding probably isn't all that important."

Ouch. Hank is probably right, but it still stings to hear it. David and me getting married isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things. Especially considering the way Brian feels about weddings in general. And about my relationship with David in particular.

When I pull up in front of St. James', I immediately think of that morning almost three years ago when Brian and I dropped Justin off after he'd spent that first night with Brian. Some pint-sized juvenile delinquents had vandalized the Jeep the night before, spray-painting 'faggot' across the side in hot pink letters. I thought Brian would have a shit-fit when he saw it, but he actually seemed to think it was funny. Maybe he was just in too good a mood to be angry. After all, his son had just been born. And he'd also gotten laid. More than laid. He'd gotten clobbered by something he wasn't expecting -- Justin Taylor! None of us knew it then, but nothing would ever be the same after that night.

Come to think of it, I guess Brian and I outed Justin that morning. Maybe what ended up happening to him at the prom all started right here in this spot -- getting out of Brian's Fuckmobile in front of the entire school. But Justin didn't seem to care. He only had eyes for Brian. And who can blame him?

I'm glad Hank doesn't have to go through all that. Not that it would be bad if Hank were gay -- it would be fine. But I still think it's easier for a kid to be straight. Even though St. James' now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, and all students and teachers are required to go to lectures on sexual orientation and tolerance and all that stuff. Hank is a great kid and I want his life to be as easy as possible. So the arrival of Destiny Finklestein is a good thing, even if she breaks his heart. Which she will. Don't they always? I suppose. A girl never broke my heart, but it still got broken. Maybe it's still broken a little, deep down inside. But I've learned to live with it. And so will Hank.

"Hey, Hank -- have a good day."

"Thanks, Michael," he says, jumping out of the car. "I'll catch a ride home with Nick, okay?"

"Okay." Nick is his buddy. They both like comic books and video games and hanging out at Red Cape after school and on weekends. I wonder what Nick thinks about Destiny Finklestein?

Since it was too hectic this morning for me to eat anything more than juice and a piece of toast, I decide to go to the diner before I open the store.

But the first person I see when I walk in is that cop Ma is seeing. Dating. Going out with.

And fucking. Maybe.

I just can't get my head around it. Ma and a man! Not just any man, but a fucking cop! A straight cop! I mean, of course he's straight, or else he wouldn't be interested in Ma. But the weird thing is that she's interested in him! It's bizarre!

"Hey, honey!" Ma calls as she rushes by with a tray. "Set your butt down. I'll be with you in a sec."

"Yeah," I mumble. All the booths are taken and I have no choice but to sit at the counter. Right next to Ma's cop. I glance at him. He looks just like a cop all right. Heavy-set. Balding. Red-faced. Bright blue eyes. Brian would notice his clothes, so I look them over. He's wearing a baggy dark blue suit and heavy black shoes. I don't know what that means. I still don't know designer labels or any of that crap.

Brian would know. Brian could tell me what it says about him. And Brian could also tell me whether or not this cop is a good thing for Ma.

I guess it's a good thing. Vic is living with Tim, I'm living with David, and Ma is all by herself in the house. I can tell she's lonely. She's needs something in her life. But why does it have to be a guy? And why THIS guy? This cop. Who's probably a homophobic, bigoted jerk!

"Hello, Michael," says the cop.

"Hello, Carl." That's his name. Carl Horvath. I guess I better get used to saying it.

Why do things have to change? Why can't they just stay the same? I remember a few years ago when everything was fine. Brian was working at Ryder, I was at the Big Q, Em at Torso, and Ted at Wertshafter. We went to Woody's. We went to Babylon. We came here, to the diner, to eat. It was great. Everything was in place. Brian picked up tricks and we watched with envy. Em tried on new fashions and we laughed at them. Ted got shot down by cute guys and we commiserated with him.

And me... I tried to stay under the radar. I kept my mouth shut at the Big Q and hoped no one would find out my Big Secret.

And Ma took care of Vic. We waited and worried, wondering how much time he had left. At least we did until his new drugs kicked in.

Maybe things weren't so great back then, after all.

"Congratulations on your wedding," says Carl. "Your mother told me all about it. She's really happy for you. David must be a great guy."

"He is," I reply. "A great guy."

"And a doctor, too. That's swell," Carl nods over his Breakfast Special -- ham and eggs with hash browns on the side. "I hear he has a son who lives with you guys."

"Hank. He's a smart kid."

"I got two kids," Carl adds. "A son and daughter. Of course, they're both grown up with families of their own. It's a big responsibility, raising kids. But I guess two guys can do it as well as anybody. At least your mother thinks so."

"Why not?" I say defensively. I think David and are doing pretty well with Hank. And he's a hell of lot happier now than he was in Portland with David's ex-wife and her soon-to-be--ex-husband! "Ma raised me all by herself -- with a little help from Uncle Vic."

"Yeah, she did a wonderful job," says Carl. His eyes follow her around the diner as she bustles from table to table. He really likes her. Maybe he even loves her. I can see it on his face. "Just wonderful."

It's no skin off my ass if my mother has a... a boyfriend. Why should I give a fuck? Why?

I'm jealous, that's why. I've always been the main focus of her life. Sure, there's her job and also taking care of Vic when he was sick, but I was always number one. And now... maybe I won't be number one anymore. If she's really serious about this guy. And I don't like it one bit.

"Whatcha gonna have, Mikey?" Ma asks, taking out her pad.

"Don't call me that!" I gripe. "It sounds like I'm five years old!" That's when she smacks the side of my head. Hard! I never expect it when she does it, even though I should be used to it by now. "Ow! Jesus, Ma! That hurt!"

"It's supposed to hurt, you little shit." she states. "If I want to call you Mikey, then I'll call you Mikey. Now, what'll you have?"

"I'm not hungry anymore," I sulk.

"See what I gotta put up with, Carl?" she says to the cop. "Nothing but grief!"

He laughs. "I hope you don't start hitting me like that!"

"Don't you worry, sweetie," she purrs. They grin at each other in a goofy way that makes me want to barf. Then Ma turns and glares at me. "And you -- you're eating breakfast! Pancakes, sausages, and home fries -- coming right up!" Then she marches back to the kitchen to put in the order.

"Your mother is quite a character," Carl says fondly.

"You can say that again," I reply. "Among the other things she is."

Carl smiles. "I like her guts. She says what she thinks and she says it right to your face. Not a lot of people are so honest. I admire that."

"Whatever," I say. I don't want to like Carl. I don't care how nice he is to Ma.

I eat the pancakes and sausages and home fries. In fact, I stuff myself and end up waddling out of the diner. Carl is still there, lingering over his breakfast and making goo-goo eyes at my mother. Aren't there any murderers or drug dealers in Pittsburgh for him to catch? Apparently not today.

When I get to the store, Edwin has already opened. He's at the counter, working on some Rage panels. He still hasn't given up on the comic, even though it's fucking hopeless. "Hey, Michael, you got a call from some guy. He's got some stuff for you to look at. Here's the number." He pushes a scrap of paper at me.

I go back into the office and call it. A half hour later I'm driving out to Squirrel Hill, looking for the address the guy gave me. An old house with some old comic books in the attic.

It's a large, shabby Victorian on a hilly side street. The front yard is overgrown and the house could use a coat of paint. Inside a pair of guys are walking around with clipboards, tagging big, ugly pieces of furniture. "Where's Mr. Bostridge?" I ask one of them.

"Upstairs," he says, distractedly.

Mr. Bostridge is an impatient man in his forties wearing an expensive gray suit. He looks thoroughly pissed. "Are you the comic book guy?" He doesn't wait for me to reply, but marches up a flight of stairs to the attic, expecting me to follow. There's a layer of dust about an inch thick over everything. "The house has been sold and I have less than a week to clear this junk out of here. I was just going to toss it all in the trash, but the boys downstairs told me some of these comic books might be valuable. That's why I called your store."

There are five boxes piled in a corner. I lift the lid on one. A plastic garbage bag is wrapped around the books and taped closed. I pull off the tape and look inside. At a quick glance I can see they're from the 1960's. "Are all these comics from the same time period? These are about 40 years old."

Mr. Bostridge shakes his head in exasperation. "How the hell should I know? This house belonged to my wife's aunt and I imagine most of this junk was her husband's. He's been dead since the early '80's. He collected all kinds of worthless crap like this. I just want it out of here as soon as possible."

I open up another box, which also contains a garbage bag filled with comics. "There's a lot of stuff here, Mr. Bostridge. It'll take me a while to go through it all and figure out a fair price."

"Listen, as far as I'm concerned, you can have it all. In fact, I'd give you $100 to haul it away, except my wife would kill me if she found out they were worth something. You decide what you think is a fair price and get it all out of here -- today, if possible."

Today? It'll take me hours to check these boxes! How can I quote him a price when I have no idea what's in here? The boxes aren't standard and the books aren't labeled or bagged. There might be 200 books per box, but who knows? And condition is another thing. The books in the first two boxes are in pretty good shape, but what about the others?

"Well? Do you want them or not?" Mr. Bostridge's sharp voice startles me. He's glancing at his watch. "I have to go downstairs and see how those other two are doing with the furniture. What'll you give me for the whole bunch?"

I try to do a rough estimate. There could be a thousand comic books here, more or less. But what they're really worth is another story. "Um... a thousand dollars?" I say, tentatively. A dollar a book isn't a bad price. I only wish I had more time to examine them.

Mr. Bostridge stares at me. "You're joking, right? For this junk?" Then he shrugs. "All right. Can you get them out of here today?"

I nod and take out my checkbook.

***

Edwin helps me unload the boxes from the trunk and the backseat. "Anything good in here?"

"I have no idea. The guy didn't give me much time to look at them."

Edwin makes a face. "You mean you didn't check? And you gave the guy a thousand bucks?"

"I took the chance. He said they were all comic books. I looked at two boxes and they were mainly from the 1960's, so I should be able to recoup on those."

"They're probably all 'Archie' comics," Edwin says dismissively. Edwin is only interested in superhero comics from the classic period.

"If I can get one good box from all of these, it'll be well worth it," I say as we pile the last box in the storage room.

"You want me to help you sort them out?"

"Nah." There are a couple of people in the store, but soon school will let out and the kids will start coming in. Then we'll be pretty busy. "I'll do one box at a time. There's no real hurry."

Edwin goes back to the front counter, but I just stand there, staring at the boxes. I've opened two, but I need to check the other three to make certain there are actually comics inside and not old copies of 'National Geographic'!

I open the other boxes. They all have garbage bags taped shut. The old guy who collected these obviously didn't want them to get damp. I rip open one of the bags and immediately see a couple of books from the 1950's. 'Tales From the Crypt,' in good condition. These are valuable. They predate the Congressional hearings that led to the banning of a lot of the more violent comics like these. Some psychologist wrote a book that claimed reading comic books would make your kid gay, or a juvenile delinquent, or a Communist, and they all freaked out about it. Well, for me it was only one out of the three!

I put some of the 'Crypts' aside. I'll bag them and then check their value. I have a couple of online customers who will definitely be interested in these.

I go through the next box. Mostly books from the 1970's. If the old man died in the early '80's, that's what I'd expect to find. Everything is pretty mainstream. No underground stuff. Just books you could have picked up at any drugstore back then. I recognize titles I bought as a kid. That's when I started collecting, when I was around 8 or 9. Batman, Superman, Captain Astro -- of course! -- and Wonder Woman, too. This really brings back memories! I open up a Captain Astro and page through it.

My cell buzzes. It's David. "Hey. What's up?"

"Just making sure you haven't forgotten about tonight. We're due at Bobo and Melisande's at 7:30."

"I haven't forgotten. I was just going through a collection I bought today. Just to let you know -- I wrote a check on our account. But I'll replace it when I sell the books."

I hear David make a clicking noise. That's the sound he makes when he's annoyed. "How much?"

I take a deep breath. "A thousand."

David doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. I know how he feels about the store. He likes that it keeps me busy, but he doesn't like the fact that it's still a marginal business. Rent on this street is high and the economy stinks, but there's nothing I can do about that. It's my store. And it's important to me.

"I said that I'd pay you back, David."

"It's not my money, Michael, it's OUR money. But I wish you wouldn't throw it around buying things you don't need. You already have boxes and boxes of comics at the store and in the garage. But you're still buying more!"

"This is my business," I tell him. "I said I'll pay the money back. And I mean it."

"I have a patient," he cuts me off. "Let's talk about this later. I'll see you at home, Michael."

Yeah. At home. Where I'll get a goddamn lecture. I love David, but sometimes he treats me like I'm Hank's age. Except Hank would fight back. Hank would tell his father to shove it. So why can't I do that?

I open up the final box. It's lighter than the others. The plastic bag wrapping the comics is not a garbage bag, but a big Horne's bag. Horne's was a department store that went out of business years ago. And there's a sheet of note paper taped on top. It reads 'KEEP!!!"

"Well," I say to the unknown old man. "Your wife kept these, just like you wanted. And her niece's husband almost trashed them. But I've got them now. And I'll make sure they go to people who'll appreciate them."

I tear open the final bag and look. Then I look again. And again. I check the other books in the bag. All from the 1940's. All in mint condition. Then I look once more at the first comic book on the pile.

I set the bag down and walk to the front of the store. "I need to use the computer," I almost yell at Edwin. "Now!"

"Sure." Edwin moves over, eyeing me like I'm nuts.

I log in and go online. I check one site. Then another. And another. Just to be certain. To make sure.

"Michael? Is something wrong?" Edwin asks.

"No. Nothing! Nothing at all."

I go back into the storage room and close the door. I pick up the comic. Slip it into a plastic comic book bag to protect it and seal the bag tightly. Then I sit on the floor and cradle it, just staring.

Because in my hands is a near-mint copy of 'Detective Comics 27' from May 1939. It features the debut of a new character drawn by Bob Kane. A character named The Bat-Man. According to my online check there are only about 20 in existence and the last time a copy came up for sale was three years ago. It went for $250,000 at auction. The only comic book more valuable is 'Action Comics 1' -- the debut of Superman.

I could be holding anything between a quarter and a half a million dollars in my lap. Thinking about it makes me dizzy. Makes me sick to my stomach. Makes me want to get up and dance around the fucking store!

This is what every collector dreams of. The jackpot. The ultimate find.

So what the hell should I do now?

©Gaedhal, October 2007.

Continue on to "Impact".

Posted October 25, 2007.