Their voices carried down the hall from the family room to the kitchen.
"Damn! This'll be our fourteenth straight weekend of fishing," Joe Bob said excitedly.
His wife, Molly, looked at me across the kitchen table with a warm twinkle in her eyes.
Another man's voice said, "Chuck, is your brother a queer?"
"Jesus Christ, keep your fucking voice down. The women can hear you," Chuck replied amid snickers from the others.
My brother wasn't speaking to Jesus, of course. He was speaking to Junior, one of his good-ole'-boy fishing buddies.
"Well, shit. He acts queer."
"He just doesn't like to fish."
"That's what I mean. Any man who don't fish ain't a real man."
I heard the whoops of the crowd and Chuck's heavy footsteps before he slammed the door leading down the hall.
"My signal to leave," Molly said, pushing back from the kitchen table.
"Me, too," Bessie chimed in. "Can we do anything before we go?"
"Oh, no. It's all done," Abby replied as she stood. "Penny' staying over. She doesn't want to be alone while the guys are gone. Jamie will be here this weekend. He'll keep us company and baby-sit tomorrow while we shop."
Molly and Bessie each kissed me on the cheek before going to the family room to say goodbye to their husbands. Abby saw her guests out as Penny sat at the table with me. Penny was the new woman in the group because her husband was the new fisherman in the club. Penny was twenty, although Junior was thirty-two, the same as Chuck. She was average in size and shape. She had two distinguishing features. She was very quiet and she was seven months pregnant.
Junior wasn't the first of Chuck's friends to find humor at my expense. Chuck could have put an end to it if he wanted to. But he didn't. Chuck didn't think of me as one of the guys. Whatever he did for me was because I was his half-brother and, on her deathbed, Mother asked him to watch out for me.
He and I are not alike. Chuck's seven years older. He's a big, burly, outdoor type who owns a construction company. I'm shorter and slightly built. Chuck employs me as his office manager while I get my master's degree. His face would be called ruggedly masculine. My face is pretty. Not handsome. Pretty.
To top it off, there are our names. He's Chuck. It's short, strong. I'm Jamie. Mother named me James William. Nobody calls me that. They don't call me James or Jim or even Jimmy. It's Jamie. It's always been Jamie.
"Baby, we're leaving," Junior shouted from the doorway. Penny arduously stood to go kiss him goodbye. Shortly, she returned with Abby.
I like Abby. She's Chuck's age. They've been married ten years and have two children. She's a good woman, with a ready smile and a warm heart. She understands Chuck and his friends. She loves him in spite of his faults, or, maybe, because of them.
"Ask him yourself," Abby said to Penny as they reentered the room.
"Ask me what?" I said.
Penny turned beet red again. She couldn't look at me.
"What is it, Penny?" I said.
"Jamie, are you, I mean, well..."
"Am I what?"
"Are you a queer?"
"That's not a nice word, Penny. Homosexuals prefer to be called gay."
"I'm sorry," she gushed as she flashed red again. "I didn't mean anything bad by it."
"No offense taken. Sit here and we can talk," I said, pulling a chair back from the table.
Abby had been watching with an amused smile. When Penny hesitated, she gently pushed her toward the chair.
"Sit and talk with him, Penny. He's interesting. Have you ever talked to a man before?"
"Not really. Junior's not much for talk unless it's about his hobbies. My daddy's the same way," she said as she lowered herself into the chair.
"Jamie's a good talker. Talk to him. Talk all night if you like. I'm going to get ready for bed."
It took awhile before Penny came out of her shell. Once she got started, Penny herself was quite a talker. When Abby returned in her nightshirt, she saw we were engrossed. She excused herself and went to bed. We talked about everything except my sexuality. Penny didn't want to hurt me by asking. There was a warm and very sweet woman inside her. It was a pleasure to see her come alive.
Time flew and it got late. Penny yawned, a big one she didn't even try to stifle. She stretched and rubbed her back, trying to reach the lower part of her spine.
"Backache?" I asked.
"Yes. My momma says the worst part of being pregnant is the backaches. They're even worse than the delivery because they last longer."
"I'll rub it for you," I said.
She froze to stare at me. I imagined the wheels spinning in her brain. Finally, she smiled shyly.
"Well, since it's you, I guess it's all right," she said.
She laboriously stood and I followed her down the hall. I waited outside the guest bedroom until she called me to come in. She wore a thick cotton nightgown, which came to her knees. It fit tightly across her bloated stomach.
"You look beautiful," I said.
"No, I don't. I'm ugly," she snapped. She blushed and looked away shyly. "But it's nice of you to say."
"You're beautiful. What makes you think you aren't?"
"Pregnant women are ugly. That's what Junior says." Her tone indicated a sureness of knowledge, as if quoting the Gospel according to Junior.
"Junior's wrong. Pregnant women are beautiful. You're beautiful-a beautiful flower about to bloom."
Her tender face told me what I'd said pleased her, but she didn't believe it. She gave me that shy smile again. "Come rub my back, Jamie," she said.
She lay on her side with her back to me and I began to rub through the cotton of her nightgown. She was silent as I worked the lower part of her spine.
"I've never met a man like you before," she said quietly. "A man who thinks I'm beautiful. Who likes talking to me. A man who likes me."