"No excuses today, Jess. You said you would help out and today you will," Ken said, not giving Jess a chance to come up with yet another excuse. Every week Jess had one reason or another why he couldn't come and meet the kids. Ken was determined that Jess would meet his kids today even as he noticed Jess bristle.
"They weren't excuses! Paperwork has to get done some time. Since I am the boss, I have to check all the job sites during the week. That leaves Saturday the only day for paperwork," Jess snapped.
"It's rained all week. You've had plenty of time to get paperwork done," Ken said. He leaned over the table, looked in Jess's eyes and continued, "Don't play the boss card in our home. You're a man of your word. Now keep it."
"I will keep it! It's only been a few weeks since I said I would go," Jess said. "And I can go today. I wasn't going to make any excuses. Besides, I don't know why you want me to help with those kids."
Seeing Jess slumped over his bowl of cereal, Ken was baffled at how this man, the man that in unguarded moments could show such tenderness, didn't understand his own worth.
"Those kids need role models, Jess. Not an after school special, but real life people who can help them become productive adults. You can talk to them. You've been there, Jess. You started at the bottom and worked your way up through the trades. They'll respect that. You can tell them what a contractor is looking for, why he would hire them, or what skills they would need to be a good employee,"
Jess was quiet as they finished their breakfast. Ken wanted Jess to relax, to see these kids as he saw them. These were kids that most people had given up on. The poverty line was above many of the kids' heads, and abuse was common. Ken was lost in his own thoughts when Jess spoke.
"How'd you get involved with this? These kids?"
"I was one of those kids. The difference is they didn't have alternative schools, or programs like At Risk. I ended up dropping out of school and living on the streets. I don't ever want to see another kid go through that. If I can do something to help, then I have to."
"You? Mr Dominant himself? You were a delinquent?"
"If the fates had tossed the coin differently or the gods had whispered another story, I could've ended up a mean SOB, an abusive man," Ken said.
"I just can't see you as a troublemaker," Jess admitted.
"I wasn't really a troublemaker; I just made some monumental mistakes. I also learned there were some mistakes you can never make up for. So you do your best to help others who make mistakes of their own."
"What mistake did you make? How'd you end up on the streets?"
"That's a story for another time; we're almost there," Ken said as they turned down a street with warehouse looking buildings. "The vocational technology buildings are down here. They're not by the high school. The mechanics' building is over there," Ken said, pointing his head to the left. "And over here is the woodshop. Further down the road is the agricultural school."
"I didn't even know they had this shit in high school," Jess said, looking around the large complex.
"I didn't either. During the week, high school kids can earn credits by working in the vocational areas. They split their time, half in regular school and half the time here. This group meets just on Saturdays. They are a part of the At Risk group."
Ken parked the truck next to a few older cars where a group of teenage boys stood. He turned to Jess and said, "Just be yourself. They'll be a bit wary at first, but they warm up eventually."
Ken chuckled softly as he heard Jess mumble, "Great, eventually."
As they walked toward the boys, Ken saw one of the boys look over at them.
"Man, Kevin's hung over. He was so fucked up last night, he.." the boy talking stopped when another elbowed him sharply. "Hey, what the fuck?"
"Hey, Ken," the other boy said loudly.
"Hey Mark. Come on guys, let's get in and get started. This is Jess. He's the contractor I told you about. He's the guy you want to impress. He might hire you in a year or two, once you get your shit together," Ken was hoping to impress upon these boys that they could succeed; they could get a decent job.
Ken watched Jess square his shoulders as the boys sized him up. Ken loved the strength he saw in Jess's body. They were the same height, and although Jess did quite a bit of office work, he still pitched in with the manual labor. Jess might not be quite as muscular as Ken but he was a close runner up. Ken knew that Jess was trying to use his intimidating build to hide his nervousness.
Ken learned early in their relationship that Jess hid his vulnerability, his insecurities, with his physical size. When Jess was upset he'd lift his chin just a fraction higher. When guilt was eating away at him, he often crossed his arms over his chest, as if he was holding the pain in. Ken had never gone to college. He wondered to himself if he could get a degree in Jess. He studied him enough.
His attention was brought back to the group when Mark, the self proclaimed ring leader of the group, turned to Jess and asked, "So what's a contractor actually do?"
"Mark? Right? Well what a contractor does is hire the people to complete a project. Once a project's been approved, the contractor hires the cabinet makers, the plumbers, electricians: everyone it takes to complete a building."
"So, you don't actually do any real work, huh?" Mark walked away.
"Already making friends I see," Ken said and smiled at Jess, hoping to ease the slight tension.
"Oh, yeah," Jess said. Ken imagined he could see sarcasm drip onto the floor. "We'll all be best buddies and have a sleep over real soon."
"Yep, that's what I want to hear! Positive thinking," Ken said, slapping Jess on his back. "OK, boys, you all know what you need to be working on. Jess and I will check on each one of you. If you need help, just holler out."
The boys all scattered to the work benches. Ken told Jess, "Most of them are working on small things; bird houses, curio shelves, small wood projects that they can give as gifts. It's the discipline to finish what they start, and to be respectful with the tools. Just walk around, ask them what they are making."
The day passed swiftly as both men soon became immersed in the various projects the boys had going. Lunch was a quick feast of delivered pizza, a treat most of these boys rarely had. Jess appeared to have made a tentative rapport with a couple of the kids and was chatting to one of them.
"You can't show any weakness," Ken heard Jess tell the boy.
Ken kept half an ear on the kid that was talking to him, and the other half on Jess. Trying not to be obvious, he heard Jess continue, "If you do, that just gives the strong a chance to beat you down."
Jess's comment startled Ken. He wasn't sure that was the lesson he wanted these boys to learn. He wanted them to know that it was ok to ask for help, to show a bit of vulnerability to the right person. He wanted Jess to know that.
"I heard what you said to Mark; about showing weakness and the strong beating you down. Do you really believe that?" Ken asked Jess as they drove home that afternoon.
"Hell yes," Jess said. "I don't just believe it, I know it. That was my father's mantra growing up. If I showed any weakness, cried, didn't do well on a test, he'd tell me the same thing. Then I had to prove that I was the strong, not the weak."
Ken remembered the brutal fists of his own father slamming into his face. He had to know if Jess's dad tried to punch it in to him that he had to be strong. "How'd you have to prove you were strong?"
"Oh, you know the usual," Jess said.
"No, I don't know. Tell me," Ken knew his tone was sharp when Jess gave him a look.
"Just the usual stuff; if I cried he told me that men don't cry, or if I flunked a test I'd be grounded until I made an A on the next one. It's not that he beat me or anything. He just taught me one of life's lessons: never show weakness." Ken heard Jess sigh. "God, he never let up. It was always, be stronger, don't be a cry baby, or you're a pansy. I heard over and over that I'd never amount to shit. Well, I showed him. I own the company he used to work for."
Ken felt a small amount of relief, but knew that verbal punches scarred as much as the physical ones. Jess's admission also gave Ken an insight on why Jess always seemed to be on the offensive when Wes was around.
"You think Wes is weak, don't you?" Ken asked.
"No. Well, not anymore," Jess chuckled a little. "That kid had me on my ass so fast. I didn't even see it coming."
"That kid is a man. He runs a pretty tight ship. The men in my shop respect him and listen to him. Yes, he is younger than you, but he's not weak. You never gave him a chance," Ken said, watching Jess cross his arms over his chest and duck his head a little.
"No, he's not weak," Jess agreed.
"You aren't weak, either," Ken said to Jess. "Even when you are ass up over my lap, you aren't weak. Only a strong man can submit to punishment. You sure as hell aren't weak when you take me in you. Only a strong man can surrender so completely."
Ken knew that Jess was thinking about what he'd said. They were quiet the rest of the way home, both lost in their own thoughts.
Ken knew it would take years for Jess to finally come to terms with who he was and years more to become comfortable with it. Pulling into the driveway of their home, Ken knew he wanted to be with Jess as he did come to terms with it all. It might take a lifetime, but it was a lifetime Ken was willing to share.