Ranch Manny - B.A. Tortuga
Thanks to my editor, Desi Chapman, and my agent, Saritza Hernandez, for all the care and input. You brought the guys to life. Also, deep thanks as always to Jaymi for the proofing, and Teresa and Cinders for the beta reading.
I wanted to acknowledge all the LGBTQ+ teachers that sacrifice so much for their calling. You are seen and heard and appreciated. I will tell your stories as best I can.
I also owe a huge thank you to Jodi Payne, who held my hand and reassured me and pointed out that 1986 wasn’t yesterday (dammit).
Finally, I could do none of this without my wife. She’s my muse, my soul, and my heartbeat. Love you, J.
Much love, y’all,
“Trace Redding, what the hell are you thinking? Have you lost your goddamn mind?” Nate’s voice snapped through the phone line, the frustration as present now as when they’d been lovers.
“Just…” What was he supposed to do? Trace Redding had never expected to be in this position. Not now, not even in his wildest imagination.
Sitting in a nasty-assed hotel room south of Austin, with a hundred dollars in his pocket, everything he owned in a two-door hatchback, and Christmas lights still twinkling outside even though it was the third of January.
“Just what? You can’t—you have a kid, for fuck’s sake! You have to be sensible.”
“I am!” He was, wasn’t he? He hadn’t asked for this, none of it. He hadn’t asked to lose his job. He hadn’t asked Taneshia to die. Or to lose the apartment.
“How? How exactly are you being sensible? Come home.” Nate was just growling, which Trace had thought was cute once.
“Home?” He couldn’t have held back the bitter laughter if he’d tried, and he didn’t try too terribly hard.
“Yes. Home. Here to Austin. You and Susannah can sleep in the living room until you get your job back.”
He shook his head, even though Nate couldn’t see him. The last thing on earth he wanted was to sleep on the couch that used to be his while the man that also used to be his was happily humping Ivan or Igor or whatever the hell the guy who’d replaced him was named. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t ask his little girl to do that. “No. No. I can figure out something. A lot of these little school districts have to need help.”
“Round Rock needs subs. Come on, man. You work the second half of the year, a semester or two, and you’ll be back in like you were never gone.”
Right. Like he was never gone. “I was let go, man.”
“Well, yes. You stopped going to work.” Smartass.
Like it was so easy. It had taken Taneshia one nine-month period to die—from nasty cough and diagnosis to gone. That was it. Trace had been her help, had seen her naked and bald and broken, which was so sad considering that, although he was the father of her child, he’d never intended to see her so intimately. God, what a mess. Still, he wouldn’t take it back.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t try.” He sighed. “Look, let me think about it and call you back, Nate. I… I appreciate the offer.” Those last words tasted like sawdust.
“Just do it, man. Cut your hair, hide your ink, and come back to work. I’ll get you an interview.”
“Like you helped me keep my job?” It wasn’t fair. He knew it wasn’t, but damn, it rankled. Nate taught high school; Trace taught elementary. When he was outed, his option to keep his job was to find a woman, have a baby. Just like that. So, he did it—by the letter of the law if not the spirit. He found a woman. He jacked off in a cup. They had a baby. Taneshia wasn’t supposed to die, dammit.
“Look, asshole. You didn’t have to go out and have a baby with a Black lesbian activist! You were on shaky ground before the cancer, and you know it.”
“I know. I know.” He looked at Susannah, who was frowning in her sleep. “I’m sorry I made a mess of things. I’ll call back soon.”
“Bye.” He hung up, panting softly, trying to keep from bursting into tears. Oh God. He was a fuckup. Like a giant, bleeding fuckup.
His whole life had been one big, out-of-control freight train for years, but this was a new low. He got up and headed to the little bathroom to stare at his short dreads, wondering if Nate was right. He’d started growing his hair out