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Published:June 26th, 2007 05:37 EST
 The Gray Area

The Gray Area

By Bob Strother

The notebooks surfaced while he and Patti were cleaning out the attic " dragging down his parents` typical collection of trash and treasures to make room for their own. They`d purchased the home he grew up in a few weeks earlier " after his Mom and Dad, empty-nesters for nearly six years, had finally decided to downsize.

Jake? " His wife wiped the sweat from her forehead and balled up a cobweb that had attached itself to her Nine Inch Nails` Downward Spiral t-shirt. You`ll have to get this one. It`s way too heavy for me. " She lifted the flaps of a cardboard box about two feet square. Looks like " old homework or something. "

He dropped the broken stadium seat back into a box marked Halloween Stuff, " ducked under low-hanging rafters and made his way over to Patti. Despite the heat, grime and sweat, she still looked good to him " sky-blue eyes, tendrils of golden hair sticking to her face, the moist t-shirt molding itself to her body. Kneeling, he pulled out a couple of spiral-bound notebooks. One was labeled Geometry, another Sociology. He riffled through one, recognized his older sister`s back-slanted, looping scrawl, and smiled. It`s Barb`s high school stuff. I`ll set it out in the garage for recycling. "

Jake discovered the first one as he transferred the books from the box to the recycling bin in the garage. Unlike the others, which bore names of specific class subjects, this one simply read Barbara Gray-1986-7. Thumbing it open somewhere near the middle, he thought at first it was a diary. No, not exactly a diary " there weren`t entries for every day " but definitely some kind of journal. As early evening gave way to a hazy, firefly-filled twilight, he began to read.
January 29, 1987 " Finally! Danny Simmons asked me to the Valentine`s Day dance! Omigod! He is so cool. Beth was jealous. I told her she could get a date too (okay, I know it`s not really a date since we`re just meeting at the gym, but who cares) if she`d quit acting so stank.
P.S. Jake keeps looking at me funny, which definitely creeps me out. I think there must be something wrong with that boy.
Jake! " Patti hung halfway out of the door leading from the garage to the kitchen. What are you doing? "
He closed the notebook and looked at Patti over his shoulder. Recycling. "
C`mon, babe. " She came out onto the concrete floor barefoot and smelling of apples. I`ve showered already. " She waggled her eyebrows. It`s Saturday night and it`s Miller time. " The look she gave him held a promise for later.
Be right there. " He brushed her cheek with his lips. Just let me finish up. " He watched her walk lightly back to the door then quickly sorted through the remaining pile of notebooks. They were all there " 1986-7 through 1989-90 " one for each year of Barb`s high school years. He stuck them under a pile of newspapers in the corner and tossed the rest into the bin. He wasn`t sure why he hid them, but that was something he`d deal with later. Right then, it was Saturday night " and Miller time.

On Sunday afternoon, when Patti went to the mall to catch some late-summer sales, Jake pulled out the journals and settled down on the sofa in the living room. Returning to the first volume, he scanned the first half of the book " mostly snippets about adjusting to high school, new friends, old friends, and boys. The first reference to Jake was the one he`d seen last night " January 29,1987


He`d been twelve at the time and obsessed with thoughts of the much-discussed, but illusive concept of sex. He`d spied on his sister when the opportunity presented itself, and was thrilled to discover that " like the women in the Playboys he`d lifted from the Corner Mart " his own sister also had a blouse full of goodies. She`d acted irritated by his unwarranted attention, but, reflecting back on it, he thought she`d been a bit flattered.
Barbara had come out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, trailing ribbons of steam from the shower. She stopped in front of where he was sitting on the floor in the hallway with his own towel around his shoulders.
What are you doing sitting there? "
Waiting for you to get through. "
Why out here? "
He clambered to his feet. Even though he was nearly two years younger, he was already as tall as his sister. Why not? " His eyes slid down to where the towel was tightly drawn across her chest.
What are you looking at? "
He shrugged. Nothing. "
She crossed her arms under her breasts and squeezed, causing a slight swell above the towel and a shadow of cleavage that made all Jake`s body alarms start to clang.
She glanced down at herself, then looked back at him and smiled. Well, stop it, creep-o. " Then she turned and flounced down the hallway to her bedroom.
Jake had stood under the shower until the water ran cold. It hadn`t helped.

He found another entry in June of 1988.
Beth and Jennifer came over today to sunbathe in the back yard. Jake was a jerk as usual and wouldn`t leave us alone. I asked Mom to lock him in his room, but she refused so we put him to use.
Jake? "
He shifted his gaze over to Jennifer.
Would you mind turning the water on us again? "
Jake stepped down from the porch and around the lounge chairs to the garden hose. He twisted the nozzle around to fine mist " and directed the spray over the three gleaming bodies. Beth and Jennifer were baking on their stomachs. Barbara was on her back, with her chair slightly elevated. The water beaded up and rolled off her shoulders, down into the narrow channel between her breasts, and finally pooled in the hollow of her belly-button.
That`s enough for now, " Beth said. Then a few seconds later, Jake? "
He glanced up from his task. What? "
I said that`s enough for now. "
Oh. Right. "
He turned off the water and retreated to his watch-post on the porch. Minutes later, there was a tinkle of soft laughter, and Jennifer sang out.
Oh Jake? " The way she said it, it sounded like "Jay-ache.` If you bring us some lemonade, we`ll let you rub lotion on our backs. "
He was inside and back out in less than five minutes. Jennifer handed him the Coppertone and rolled back over on her stomach. Beth was next, and while he dutifully applied the lotion he glanced over at Barbara. She was looking at him with an expression he thought embraced both contempt and pity. When he finished with Beth, he came over and stood by Barbara`s chair.
She looked up at him, then over to the two girls. Jennifer, Beth, would one of you please oil my back? "
Can`t do it, " Jennifer said. Way too relaxed over here. "
Beth mumbled, I`m already asleep. "
Jake waited.
Finally, Barbara gave a frustrated snort and rolled over on her stomach. But, as Jake`s hands moved lightly over the dips and swells of her back he could feel her relaxing. Within minutes, she was asleep.
When his touch began to drag against her skin, he squirted more oil into his palm and started all over again.

The telephone in the den rang, but Jake let the answering machine pick it up. He recognized his father`s voice but couldn`t make out the words. He was into the third journal, Barb`s junior year and his first year at the high school.
October 22, 1988 " It`s worse than I thought it would be. Jake`s everywhere I go. Two tables over in the lunch room, twenty yards back in the halls between classes. Is this a weird puberty thing? Or, is this CRAZY? Still, he is very accommodating and will do just about anything I ask.
It had been torture, Jake remembered, but it was sweet torture. He didn`t think he was actually following her around, but there she was " everywhere he went, everywhere he looked. He watched her laugh and whisper to her girlfriends and felt hollow inside when she flirted with the boys.
Jake, come with me. I`ve got somebody I want you to meet. " He`d followed his sister to the freshman English class at the end of the second-floor hallway. A petite brunette with liquid brown eyes and lips the color of cotton candy waited outside the classroom doorway.
Jake, this is Missy Rawlings from my gym class. She`s a freshman too. Missy, this is my brother Jake. He`s kind of a dork, but he`s not bad-looking. " She shifted her gaze to Jake. Missy`s church is having a hayride Saturday night and she needs a date. I told her you`d go. Okay? "
He nodded. Sure, all right. "
The bell rang. Missy gave him a big smile and disappeared into the classroom.
This`ll be good for you, Jake. You`ll see. " Barb had squeezed his arm and headed down the stairs.
He and Missy had gone on the hayride, and they`d gotten along well. Before the evening was over she`d even let him touch her breasts a little " over her clothes.
He was in bed ready to turn off the lamp on the nightstand when he`d heard the soft knock on his door.
Yeah? "
The door swung open slowly and Barbara peered in from behind it. Can I come in? "
Sure. "
She wore a shiny, peach-colored robe, cinched at the waist. When she sat down beside him on the bed, the fabric fell away, revealing one bare thigh. She pulled the robe back together quickly and held it there.
So, " she asked. How`d it go? "
It was fine. "
She grinned at him. Did you kiss her? "
His lips curled to match hers. Yeah. "
See. I told you this would be good for you. " She stood up and glided back out of his room, pulling the door closed behind her.
He leaned over and shut out the light, but as he began his nightly ritual, it was not Missy Rawlings he thought about, but, instead, that one bare thigh.

Jake checked his wristwatch. Three-thirty. Patti would be getting back soon. He picked up the last notebook and flipped through the pages quickly.
In September of her senior year, Barbara had sex with Brian Hendricks on a blanket at the lake. It was her first time. They had dated until late April, when he decided they were getting too serious and broke up with her.
May 3, 1990 " Beth and I drove to North Carolina yesterday and got tattoos. She said it would help me get over (asshole) Brian. A guy named Mario did mine. He was kind of scary-looking, but the tattoo turned out okay. I`m dying to show it to somebody.
Can you keep a secret? " she`d asked. She had on a cropped t-shirt and pink Nike gym shorts.
He was lying on his bed, supposedly cramming for Monday`s chemistry test, but he kept dozing off every few minutes. He stretched and looked Barbara right in the eyes. She stood facing him, barely two feet away. What do you think? "
He swallowed hard as she eased the elasticized band down over her flat, firm abdomen. Poking up from what would have been her bikini line, she slowly revealed a perfect long-stemmed rose, the pink-and-red petals outlined in blue.
Jeez! " He kept staring at the tattoo, at her belly-button, at the finely-pebbled skin just above the line of her pubic hair. Is it sore? Can I touch it? "
She came over closer and he tested the delicate spot with a fingertip.
That`s cool, Barb. " He began to slide his fingertip along her waistband.
She stepped away and pulled the shorts back up. Uh-Uh, buddy. You know you have an unhealthy obsession, don`t you? "
He sat up a little in the bed, and smiled. Actually, I think it`s very healthy. I also think you should indulge me. "
I wish you`d get a life, Jake. It`s not easy having a pervert for a brother. " She grinned at him and headed for the door.
He called after her. I have one. You`re it. " He lay there quietly for a minute, visualizing the tattoo, envying the artist. Now how was he going to study?

The last entry was dated September 8th, 1990, a Saturday.
Going away party tonight at Jennifer`s (absent) parents` pool! Probably make some memories. Can`t wait till Monday " off to college in Vermont! So long, Sandlappers.
Stay sober, okay? " She handed him the car keys as they walked around the house to the backyard pool and patio. As for me, I`m blowing it out. "
Go ahead. Get drunk. I`ll take care of you. "
Why do I feel like Little Red Riding Hood? "
Jake grinned and bared his teeth.

She was on her fifth Rusty Nail and woozy. Jake mostly hung in the background and kept her from falling either into the pool or the hands of several horny, post-grad football players. It was nearing midnight, and despite all efforts to the contrary, the group`s hard-partying had finally begun to wear them down.
Barbara levered herself carefully out of the lounge chair, and walked unsteadily into the cabana where the bar was set up. Jake followed.
I can`t find the goddamned Drambuie. " She knocked over a container of swizzle sticks and leaned back against the bar facing him. The rose tattoo peeked up from her bikini bottom. Can you help me find the goddamned stuff? " She held out a glass.
He walked over and took it gently from her hand. They were standing very close. I think you should stop drinking now. "
She put a hand on his bare chest and tilted her head to one side. She sighed, and he could smell the sweet liqueur on her breath. Who are you? " she asked.
He leaned into her and his pulse began to race. Me? I`m the Big Bad Wolf. " He kissed her " lightly at first " then harder and deeper, and her arms slid around his neck, and he was lost in a scotch-scented fog for a long, long time.
When she finally pulled away, his whole body was throbbing like a jackhammer. She leaned her head on his chest and said, Take me home, Jake. "
He did.
She`d stayed in bed all the next day. Jake`s parents told her they hoped she`d learned her lesson. She promised them indeed she had, and vowed never to mix scotch and Drambuie together again. While her parents didn`t openly embrace the remark, they took it as a good sign that she still had a sense of humor. On Monday morning, Jake watched as they packed Barbara`s bags into the station wagon and left for the airport.
She`d worked the summers in Vermont, coming home only for the occasional holiday. After graduation, she stayed on for her master`s and secured a lucrative position with a well-established international environmental consulting firm in Burlington.
Jake graduated high school seventy-fourth in a class of three hundred and twenty, and went on to major in landscape architecture at the University of Georgia " where he met Patti. They were married three months after he received his degree.
In 1998, Barbara had accepted a position in her firm`s London office and had lived there since. Jake`s parents had visited her from time to time, but because of demanding work schedules, he and Patti had not.

Jake heard the garage door open and close, and the rustle of shopping bags being dropped on the love seat in the den. He set the last notebook aside and padded barefoot down the hallway.
Patti met him with a peck on the lips. Who called? " she asked.
Dad, I think. I let the machine get it. "
She walked over and pressed the play " button.
Jake, Patti " this is Dad. Guess what. Barb`s coming! She`s flying in Wednesday for a conference in Atlanta. She`ll be here Saturday afternoon and Sunday. We`re cooking out Saturday. What? Oh. Patti, Mom says please bring your coleslaw. Gotta go. Call us. Love you both. "
Patti pressed the erase " button. Wow! How long`s it been? "
He pursed his lips in thought. Seven years? "
Wow! " Patti repeated.

They all sat under the covered veranda of his parents` new suburban patio home, sipping beer or chardonnay. Nearby, delicious, hickory-scented smoke roiled around the Coleman grill. The conversation was lively, except for Jake " who seemed to be listening but was unusually quiet.
He wasn`t really hearing the words or the laughter; he was floating somewhere above himself, looking down on the family and remembering the sounds of a song that the band America " had made popular back in the "70s "
Well, I keep on thinkin` "bout you, sister golden hair surprise
And I just can`t live without you; can`t you see it in my eyes?
He`d taken the four notebooks, tied them together with a cloth ribbon he`d found in Patti`s odds-and-ends drawer, and placed them on the front seat of Barb`s rental car in the driveway.
Jake! Jake! Are you with us? " His dad was tapping him on the arm. I said, "I can`t believe how much these two girls look alike.` Don`t you think? That blonde hair and those blue, blue eyes. They could almost be sisters. "
Jake didn`t answer. It was a rhetorical question. He did look over at Barb, who was watching him with a very knowing look and a Mona Lisa smile.
Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care?

He gave her a shrug and a wink and slid his hand over to place it on Patti`s sleek, warm thigh.

Bob Strother can be contacted at

Reprint from moonShine review, Anne Hicks, Publisher. THRIFT Poetic Arts Press, volume 2, issue 2, 2006,