No for an answer six:

Tarry in the garden

"I get it," Brewer said, smiling brightly. "It's a conspiracy, right?"

"Damn right," called somebody at the far end of the room. Brewer couldn't see who in the dim light and he couldn't pick out the voice. "Now sit down, we've got some more people to humiliate."

Brewer first pulled on the watchcap, gloves and scarf, flourishing them broadly as he did so to cover up the fact that he really wished he wasn't on display at all, and then sat at the first empty seat he could find, which was not the one where his jackets, the old and the new, were stashed: somebody else was sitting there now. Brewer expected he'd get his jackets back when it was time to leave. Instead he was face to face with an abandoned slice of Tres Leches cake and a half-drunk highboy glass of . . . something. Whatever it was, it made Brewer's eyes water just from proximity and he sincerely hoped the person whose seat he'd stolen wasn't driving home tonight. The carefully choreographed mixing exercise had collapsed into chaos, which seemed to suit Merry and Joan just fine, since people were joking around with staff members they usually never saw.

He noticed Bonnie was sitting next to him again. "So whose idea was this, anyway?" brewer asked, fingering the very pleasant scarf, not because he really wanted to know that Manny was talking about him behind his back -- and he was talking behind Manny's back, too, so what was the difference? -- but because he couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Lisa's," she said. Lisa was an intake worker whose office was quite close to the lobby. "She said she was tired of seeing you come in soaked to the chones everyday and taking up the bathroom to change into your dry things. But once she started it, everybody chipped in. The monograms were my idea, after Manny said we'd have to make them impossible to give away. Benny wanted to get them in ridiculous colors that nobody would take if you tried to give them, but there's no way you'd wear something that wasn't pretty normal, so I said monograms."

"Oh," Brewer said. "Well, I guess you got my number."

"You're pretty embarrassed, aren't you?" Bonnie asked.

"Oh, I don't know. A little, maybe," Brewer said, and then broke into helpless laughter, joined in by all his tablemates. He doubted anybody but Bonnie knew exactly what set him off. They were laughing because it was funny to see him there in his damp flannel shirt and his cap and scarf and gloves, here in this overly warm restaurant, laughing his ass off.

- - - -- ----

Brewer's trip to see his family was nearly uneventful. He hitched a ride with a neighbor who also had family in the Valley, and saved the cost of a car rental (there wasn't a convenient bus to his family's particular suburb). His family was pleasant enough, though awkward as usual. The worst conversation came up around the cat, which he had brought in a carrier, as always. This time Brewer's mother asked him the cat's name. Somehow that had never come up before. Unbelievable, now that it did come up.

Brewer frowned thoughtfully. "I don't really know," he said. He shrugged and turned back to the process of preparing the cat's medicine.

"You don't know the name of your cat?" asked his sister Katelyn, who had come into the kitchen in search of juice for her three year old daughter Gracie.

"It's not really my cat," Brewer said. Tickling the cat's head, he said to it, "Okay, cat, medicine time," and as his mother, his sister, his niece, and his brother's dog watch transfixed, Brewer slipped the pill pocket into the cat's mouth, who, amazingly, swallowed it complacently.

"How do you do that?" Brewer's mother asked.

"Whose cat is it?" his sister asked.

"I don't really do anything. It's just a really cooperative cat," Brewer said. "The cat belongs to a friend of mine."

"But you've been bringing it for years. Is it your boyfriend's cat?" Katelyn asked. Gracie made a lunge for the refrigerator door.

"Not a boyfriend. I don't have a boyfriend," Brewer said, checking for an exit. Now Katelyn and his mother would start in on him, he was sure, and he'd have to tell them there was nobody waiting in the wings, and it would feel so unfair this time because if he hadn't been such an obtuse idiot it might not be true . . . Manny hadn't picked up the couple of times Brewer tried to call him, and he hadn't returned the calls, either. It was safe to assume that the gift of the disks had been merely the humiliating coda to that awkward might-have-been. And it was dumb of him to be pining over Manny now when he knew he couldn't have him, when before he hadn't even noticed that he could. Gracie was tugging determinedly on the refrigerator door handle, but she wasn't strong enough to open it, at least not from the angle she was standing in, wedged flat against the door and hiding behind Brewer's legs.

"Okay, not a boyfriend. Your friend goes someplace on holidays he can't take a cat? And you never remember to ask him the cat's name?"

"I have the cat full-time," Brewer admitted with a sigh. "My friend can't keep the cat where he lives."

"So when's he going to move to a better apartment? And why don't you ask him the cat's name? Or give it one yourself?"

"Probably never, and I never thought of it. There's only one cat. We're never in any confusion about which cat we're talking about."

"How cold," Katelyn said. "Gracie, cut that out, I'll get you the juice. Just wait a minute while I figure out your idiot uncle."

"There's nothing to figure out."

"If it's his cat, why doesn't he move somewhere he can keep it?" Katelyn asked. Brewer's mother made a great show of turning away to busy herself with some arcane kitchen task, not to be implicated in this inquisition but also not to miss out on the upshot of it.

"He doesn't have any choice," Brewer said and immediately regretted it.

"Crap! Your ex is in prison!" Katelyn said. "No wonder you don't want to give his cat a name!"

"What?" Brewer said. "Katelyn, you can't trap me like that. He's not just a friend, he's a client, and I'm not telling you anything about him. Except he's not my ex. If I ever get a boyfriend -- you won't be the first to know, but you'll know, okay?"

Katelyn stared at him for an uncomfortable moment while he scratched the cat's cheeks, until Grace pulled on her shirt with all the force she had been exerting on the refrigerator door, whining, "Juice!"

Brewer stepped around Katelyn who was staring at him as if he had admitted to dating a large alpine sheep, and opened the refrigerator himself. "Do you want grape juice or range juice?" he asked Gracie. "Or there's some lemonade too."

- --- - - ---

By the time Brewer returned to work he still hadn't heard from Manny and he figured it was time to give up. Again. He wished he hadn't been bullied into making an overture with the Secret Santa gift. It was too obscure. Manny probably thought it was just a heavy-handed joke. It was heavy-handed. Anyway, Manny was dating other men. Probably. And why should be different from the other men Brewer had met, none of whom had been interested in him? Any interest he had probably faded at the moment that he walked away last month.

There was always a lot of work to do after the Christmas week off. The worst of the winter weather really only started in January, and there were always men who hit a wall during the holiday season. Men whose family support cracked up at last in dramatic episodes at the Christmas party: men who lost their homes as of the first of the year: men who had been depending on programs that ended on that date. And there was of course an extra load of reports to do. Brewer was swamped, as he had come to expect. Only in the evenings did he even remember that he had anything to feel dissatisfied with. And sometimes, walking to and from work, bundled up in his excessively thorough monogrammed all-weather set, when he would sometimes imagine Manny's voice drawling "he'll just give it away unless you make it impossible."

He hadn't actually told anybody that he'd given all his rain gear away after the first storm. Manny just knew it. And if he knew that about Brewer, why didn't he know that Brewer -- it was not worth wondering about. Much less obsessing about, he told himself as he pilled the cat or hung up his yachtsman's coat to dry.

--- ----

It was February before Manny approached him again. Brewer had bravely smiled and said good morning, good afternoon, but he hadn't started any conversations. He'd been taking his lunch in his office mainly, going out with some group of coworkers not including Manny twice in the new year. He felt it was necessary to make an effort. He would tell his lonely clients that: you have to keep up the connections you do have, and not dwell on the ones you don't.

It was one of those days that make you want to throw out the calendar. The days may still be short, but the acacia trees were in full bloom and the purple leaf plum trees across the street from Brewer's apartment had already begun to litter the sidewalk with their pink petals. On a sunny day like this, it was warm on the street, and the smell right under the plum trees was heavenly. Today Brewer was spending his lunch neither in his office nor in the Chinese café three blocks down, but just wandering up and down the block, smelling the plum blossoms, checking out the sidewalk planters. He was in some ecstatic state, removed from everything but the late winter light and the unfolding flowers. People walked past, and he heard their footsteps, but they were just background music.

He felt a hand on his arm and became aware that a male voice was singing familiar words.

"as you're walking in the garden, plucking roses wet with dew

would you be in any way offended if I walk and talk with you?"

There was only one possible answer to that: the chorus of the song, which was simply "No sir!" Which Brewer caroled out before even processing that the song was addressed to him, that when he turned he'd see a familiar face. Manny was standing with his hands in his dark grey corduroy pockets, a kind of abashed smile on his face, his head cocked, as if he meant to overcome a month and a half of silence with this one coy and cutesome maneuver.

Yeah, he could. Brewer debated singing the next verse, which began "I know this world is very cruel, if you have no one to care," but the rest of the verse was about obedience to a fierce father and Brewer didn't think it was relevant at all. While he was trying to think of something to say, Manny started.

"Did you mean for that CD to be a kissoff?" he asked.

"No," Brewer said.

"Would you refuse to talk about it?" Manny asked again, raising an eyebrow.

"No," Brewer said, opening his mouth to tell Manny everything that had gone on in his mind since Manny had walked away from him, but Brewer beat him to it.

"If I asked you to lunch, would you refuse to come?"

"No --"

"Will you refuse to let me pay for it, since we both know you spent your last paycheck on charitable giving?"

Brewer began to be a bit annoyed, but Manny made a face and Brewer sighed and said, "No." He even fell alongside Manny's footsteps as they set out towards the other café, the one that Manny and Brewer used to frequent.

Manny waited half a block before his next question. "Will you keep saying no, no matter what I say?" he asked.

"Not if you don't keep asking the same kind of question," Brewer said. "Can we talk like normal people now?"

"Okay," Manny said. "That was a pretty strange gift. I noticed right away there were three versions of "No, John, No" on there. I figured that must mean something. Some of the other songs were pretty confusing though."

"My friends' sense of humor. It was all their idea. They bullied me into it."

"Don't be too bitter. I never would have realized you even cared otherwise. You don't give away a thing."

"And here you were just implying that I give away too much."

"So I'm ready to hear your side of things," Manny said as they came to the café door. Brewer saw that the table was free where they had had their last, weird conversation, and turned his back on it. "Let's order at the counter and sit outside," he said. "The weather might not be this good again for weeks."

"So ---" Manny started when they were at last seated in the little courtyard behind the café.

"So you do realize I didn't even know you were interested in me?" Brewer said. "As far as I could tell you were just chatting to be friendly. You asked me if I wasn't lonely, I said I wasn't, and I really wasn't until this happened, and when you got pushy I was thinking you were going to try to fix me up with a blind date or something. I'm not very experienced with this stuff, you know that."

"Yeah, I know that. Having said no to the one person you deigned to notice."

Brewer frowned. "You know, that wasn't even like I said it was," he admitted. "Cal didn't really ask me out -- well, he did, but just on a date, not out out, if you know what I mean. I don't think he realized until after he got with Joey that I even had such a huge a crush on him. He just asked me to go with him to this concert, and I only said no because it would have meant missing two days of school and I didn't think I could get away with that. here's really never been anybody interested in me that I know of except Sam, and he only decided that after he committed himself and I was his major connection to the outside world."

Manny was staring at him. "So you really didn't know what I was getting at."

"Nope," Brewer said.

"That's kind of a blow to my ego, you know. That you didn't even notice me."

"I noticed you. I thought you were this really great guy who was really friendly and I was lucky to know you."

"But you weren't attracted to me."

"Oh yeah I was. But for me there's never any point to dwelling on attractions, because there's not going to be any interest from the other guy, you know? So I just kind of accept that I'm going to be attracted to men sometimes, and never expect anything to come from it."

Manny rolled his eyes. "How would you ever know if you never ask?"

"That's a good point," Brewer said, taking a deep swallow of his coffee. "It was kind of comfortable not knowing for sure that you could never be interested in me that way. I didn't want to disturb that and worry about it."

Manny grimaced at his sandwich. "I knew you were self-effacing, but that's kind of ridiculous."

"I guess," Brewer said. "Well, anyway. Now you know why I missed the boat with you."

Manny didn't say anything. He was chewing his sandwich.

Brewer didn't like the way this was going. He was having to take all the blame for what happened. It wasn't fair. "You know, you could have said something yourself," he said. "Or at least asked the right questions. If it had to be questions."

"The right questions." Manny appeared to be trying to tie his pickle spear into a knot.

"Yeah. You asked me if I wasn't lonely, if I didn't miss having a lover, something like that. How could I answer that? I'm not pining away. I'm living a life. Now -- if you'd asked me if I liked you, I'd have said yes. If you asked me if I was willing to try to be with you, I would have said maybe. Or I didn't know. Or maybe I'd have said yes. But I wouldn't have said no. I know that. Because I'm kind of a coward, but not that much of one. Sorry. I know it's too late now, but I just feel like it needs to be said. So you know. I'd have been interested."

"Why is it too late?" Manny asked, with a truly puzzled frown.

Brewer wasn't too stupid to catch the implications of that question.

"It isn't? You were dating other guys last month."

"Yeah, twice. They were just dates, Brewer. I figured if I had taken no for an answer, I should move on. But those dates didn't go anywhere. I'm still here."

Brewer gaped. He shut his mouth slowly, swallowed, tried twice before any words would come out. "I don't know what to say to that," he said. "I never imagined that you'd say anything remotely like that."

"So I understand," Manny said. "How about we coach each other this time through, okay? You tell me the right question, and I'll tell you the right answer."

"Okay." The sun dipped behind the brick wall at the back of the courtyard. "The right question is do you want to go out with me?"

Manny grinned. "All right then, the right answer is yes."

"Yes it is," Brewer said. "Yes."


A/N: And . . . complete. My first completed project of the New Year. A slight thing, I know, but . . .

I'm gathering that folks are kind of interested in seeing Prospect Road finished, so I've opened it up. No deadline promises though.