Book 2: The Return Home
by Rick Beck
Being Educated – Better Late Than Never
The following week Mr. Elliot cast the play Inherit the Wind. He called on Simon first to read for Scopes. I scrunched way down in my seat, hoping Mr. Elliot had forgotten his promise to make me read for the same part.
As he read the lines, Simon's delivery was flawless. Dressed in a white shirt with broad red stripes, red suspenders, and strangely colored pleated pants, I thought his delivery was more reminiscent of Miss Scarlett in another windy story.
The girls gathered around him in adoration. The boys kept a respectful distance, and I sat low on the horizon, hoping to escape a fate worse than death. Simon was Simon. He told the girls the color of his pants and that his mother did the pleating herself. He blushed and took the class by storm with even the boys warming up to him as he took center stage. Simon was a character all right.
"That was quite good, Simon," Mr. Elliot said in a not-so-fast voice. "You are a little…flamboyant for what I have in mind. This is a biology teacher who has dared to challenge the school board's edict that only creationism be taught in school. By the time of the trial we have a local matter becoming a national story. The country is focused on the events unfolding in Dayton, Tennessee. The radio networks are there. Two of the greatest figures of the age are opposing one another, on stage if you will. This is a show trial that pit the Bible against Darwin and his theory of evolution. Scopes has been overwhelmed by what was his tiny rebellion against ignorance. He feels that science is to be taught by teachers, like himself, and Creation should be taught at church. Billie Joe can read next. Simon doesn't fit the role no matter how good he sounds. We need understatement. Scopes is caught in a protest that has swept him up in a nation furor. He wishes he weren't there, but he is at the center of the confrontation between religion and science in a small Bible belt town in Tennessee."
I hesitated before realizing there was no escape. The class waited for me to read. Mr. Elliot stood behind the chair in the center front of the room. He turned the pages back to where my reading would start. His finger stayed on the line where he wanted me to start. I read hesitantly, looking up at the friendly class while trying to imagine an audience in the auditorium. It did nothing for my delivery. I spoke hesitantly as I read the answer to each of Mr. Elliot's questions. It was touch and go but I survived, becoming a little more comfortable as I read the words that were the Scope's testimony..
"He looks like a deer in the headlights," Kenny Walsh said.
"Yes, he does," Mr. Elliot said. "How would Scopes feel, making his private little protest about a system that teaches only Creationism, and suddenly he finds himself center stage in a national debate. It might be overwhelming to a small town boy. He probably looked like a deer in the headlights of the national media uproar."
"Yeah," the class agreed.
"Okay, Billie Joe, you're our man. Thank you."
No one wanted fashion tips from me and my delivery was anything but flamboyant. I returned to my seat with Simon smiling broadly at me. I felt a little like the deer that had just been run over by a Mack Truck.
"Better you than me," he said. "My southern accent is better than yours."
"Yeah, you sounded like Minie Pearl. You did that on purpose," I said, realizing he'd played the teacher in a way I couldn't imagine.
The last thing I wanted was to be on stage where everyone could see me. Simon said that no one cared whether or not I was on stage. But the drama class treated me as though I was someone important to the play and to them. There were no George Phelps or James Combs types among the twenty students each of the two periods I took the class. Being one of the players got me equal treatment in both classes. It gave me twice as much time for rehearsing in class.
I was the only one cast in an important role in my third period class with the two central characters being cast from the fifth and sixth period drama classes. I spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Scopes role. I had become integrated into a role that made me important during class. It also got me out of most of the backstage work. I was supposed to rehearse my lines, but not lose the halting delivery or my wide eyed look.
I did participate in class when the flats and scenery were built to make the stage into a courtroom. It seemed like a whole lot of work for a play that would run a total of three nights as well as a complete dress rehearsal in front of the school at an assembly. It did get my mind off of what people thought about me as the year began to pass without my paying much attention to time. I wrote on a perpetual letter to Carl, sending each once it was getting too large to fit into a single envelop. I'd start a new letter before getting the last to the post office. He in turn sent me a letter more often but with less to talk about his were rarely more than a couple of pages.
When I announced at the dinner table that I had become a thespian, it was met with a blank expression from my father. I'm certain he thought it was some kind of sexual deviation dwarfs or animals. I explained I'd be studying for my role and would be part of the senior play. This was seen as far more admirable than thespians, but I didn't explain any more than necessary.
When Ty called he was excited about me going into acting. He either wanted to be an actor or a basketball player. I thought he could do either or both if he wanted. Walt wasn't doing well but he wanted to say hello.
"Hey, Champ, you going to be an actor, huh?" Walt asked, but his voice was weak and he talked slow.
When he handed the phone back to Ty, I asked, "He's getting worse?'
"Yeah, …it's nice hearing your voice too. How's your Army buddy?"
"Carl, he's great. Just got my second letter in two days."
Ty wanted to hear some of my dialogue. I tried to recite it from memory, but I knew I left some out and put some in, but hey, I was still in rehearsal. It sounded funny to talk about a play and my being in it. I told Ty about Simon and he laughed and said he wish he could be here with me and meet my friends.
"I've got to go, Billy Joe. I'm going to fix some soup for Walt."
"What's going to happen to you when he dies?" I asked, horrified at the prospects of him being on the street on his own again.
"I'll be okay. I do everything at the house now. Walt is going to see I'm taken care of. Todd says he'll make sure I'm okay."
"I'm sorry you can't come here," I said.
"Hillbilly heaven, no doubt. Don't worry about me. I always end up on my feet," Ty said.
"Yeah, size thirteen triple E.
"Almost. I love you, Billie Joe. Goodnight."
If I hadn't come home I could be there for Ty now. If I hadn't come home I could be dead now. Life had its benefits but it sure was fucked up on some stuff. I'd never be able to understand why kids were homeless on the street. I didn't remember how I got there and I was damn lucky to escape. I remembered how Ty rescued me my first night on the street and then at the end, he was the one who came to get me off the street. If it weren't for Ty I'd be dead or worse.
When Simon came over one Saturday to read with me for the play, my father didn't know if Simon was a butch girl or a feminine boy. His reaction was priceless.
"I'm sorry for my father," I told Simon once we went up to my room. "He's quite conservative."
"That's the most fun part of every day," he said, laughing at my concern. "I'm not here to make a good impression on your father, I'm here to help my friend prepare for his role in the senior play."
The word friend played with my head. In spite of my reluctance Simon and I were friends. I just didn't think of it in those terms. I found no reason not to be his friend, once I accepted the way he dressed and acted, especially around girls. Simon always seemed more comfortable with girls. Even in drama class he was usually the one who got the most attention. It had little to do with drama, except, like the girls, his life was a drama worthy of afternoon soap opera status.
My mother's reaction to Simon was similar to the girls at school. She made a point of sitting him next to my father at the table, after inviting him to stay for dinner, but she stopped at asking him for fashion tips. It was the first time I realized that my mother had a sense of humor and aimed it squarely at her husband. Simon and I would become hysterical up in my bedroom where we relived my father's reaction to the dainty way in which he approached his food, never forgetting to compliment the cook.
I had made up my mind not to befriend Simon. He would only complicate my life because he was gay and ill-equipped to hide the fact. I suppose if you used Simon's logic, I didn't befriend him, he befriended me. Even though he was obvious to most observant people and all teenage boys, I found him funny ha ha and not funny queer, although there was that. He didn't take anything seriously, especially how different people reacted to him. Life presented a new challenge each day and Simon showed up to see what they would be.
I immersed myself in school work, but only English and English Literature required work. Psychology required memorization, but if you stayed awake in class you got all the answers that might appear on tests. Even if you slept through the class common sense would answer most of the questions asked.
With Simon's coming over periodically to read the play with me, he brought a book he was reading in his English Lit class, Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck. I read it in two nights, and couldn't wait to get to the library for a refill. I was guided to a section where the works of Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway abounded as the classic writing of the early twentieth century. I knew the names and little more. I checked out two books, read them by the end of the week, and checked out three more for the weekend. No one noticed I'd discovered a world that did something nothing else had ever done, it took me to other lives in other places from the safety of my bedroom. The irony didn't escape me.
I'd never read before. I didn't tell Simon I'd read his book. He asked for it and I returned it to the nightstand where he left it. He'd either forgotten it or left it there for me to read. He didn't say and I didn't ask. I began to understand how Simon survived growing up gay. He'd found literature to help him escape the small minds and ignorant people who insisted everyone be exactly like everyone else. He lost himself in books.
When I discovered The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, I was dumbstruck by how easy it was to read and how much information had been packed into such a small novel. I knew the title from somewhere before I picked it out. It was one of those hidden treasures that I discovered in the library. I was hooked on books.
I opened The Great Gatsby on a Friday night and fell asleep after finishing the last page early Saturday morning. I could not put it down even to pee. I'd only read text books before and skimmed over forced reading assignments. It seemed as though everything had been written about... almost everything. I wondered about books that told me stories about what I'd gone on the road to find. The idea festered for a few days before I could summon enough courage to approach the librarian.
I went to the gray-haired matron who sat behind the main desk.
"Excuse me! I have an assignment to check out gay topics in literature," I said, nervously looking around to make certain no one heard but her. "Maybe novels."
The gray haired woman sat for a second, typed something into her computer, taped her pencil on the desk.
"I usually recommend Wilde in such instances. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. You'll find it half way down the isle to the left as you turn around from the counter. If you need more or don't appreciate Wilde's style, I can search for something you might like better."
I was back in a flash with the book, not wanting to deal with anyone else who might look upon the selection with curiosity about the selector. Why this was such a big deal to me, I can't say. I simply wasn't interested in anyone else knowing or suspecting my sexuality was anything but ordinary.
I kept books on my nightstand to disguise my interest in gay novelists. There was Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Stephen King with Oscar Wilde mixed up in there. The book reinforced everything I'd learned on the street. It was about beauty, youth, and over indulgence, with Dorian being willing to sell his soul to maintain his beauty. Tragedy doesn't begin to describe the read. It tormented me and tortured him as such novels always end badly. This was known from the beginning and you were merely a silent observer to the self-destruction of someone who wanted to stay young and beautiful. What I knew of the modern gay era told me not much had changed and the worship of youth and beauty was not much different from Dorian Gray. It depressed me about my prospects. Is this all there was. You were a star at twenty and over the hill at thirty? If this was a gay related novel I didn't want to read any more. There had to be more to being gay than partying until you drop or burn out.
Where were we represented in the library beyond this self-indulgent gay male? Who wrote about their trials and tribulations of gay youth? Who told the story about growing up gay in America? Who wrote about the kids living on the streets? There was no way to ask the questions that might get me a response. I needed to work on my nerve, and I'd be back wanting better gay literature than from a hundred years ago.
One evening when I was preparing for my weekend reading, I stopped at the Librarian's desk. A thin older man smiled and met my gaze with his.
"I'm looking for literature on growing up gay. Don't tell me to read Wilde or any other depressing books that make you think you'd be better off dead than face that type of bleak stories."
"Whom do you like?" he asked in a soft pleasant voice with just enough concern..
"Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway. I loved The Great Gatsby. I hated The Picture of Dorian Gray."
"So you don't so much object to historic novels as you do to the overindulgence in an overindulgent age?"
"Why yes, that describes it perfectly. I don't want to read about pretty people being desired by everyone else."
He wrote a title down on a message slip and pointed out the way once he tore it off and handed it to me. He didn't turn to the computer. When I looked at him he gave me a polite smile. That hadn't been all that difficult. No lecture, no blank stare, just a title.
Bitterweed Path by Thomas Howell Phillips, sounded depressing but a few pages in I was caught up in historic Mississippi and became engrossed in the time and place where the boys who were at heart of the story lived. It was a huge step forward in how I viewed that era and my own. It was a time not far removed from Oscar Wilde's, but it was as different from Wilde as night and day.
From then on I knew who to ask for the books that would interest me most. I didn't need to read all about being gay. I was gay and I didn't need an instruction manual, but reading about how other people lived in times when gay men weren't persecuted was fine, even if there was a sad ending. I feared many gay men lived sad lives in my world and I wasn't planning to be one of them. I wanted to have a real life where the fantasy world sometimes overlaps. Living in a fantasy world where the real world sometime overlaps wasn't in my plan.
It allowed me to imagine a time when the first thing I said to define myself wasn't, "I'm a gay man." That was information that was only necessary for the people I regarded as important. Letting narrow-minded, hateful people define me as unacceptable by their standards only proved how devoid they were of compassion. As long as gay men accepted each other, that was what I regarded as important to me. It wasn't about Dorian Gray's popularity. It was about the rest of us creating a community where we all could celebrate our diversity as something worth celebrating.
Reading for pleasure was a new idea for me. I had plenty of time on my hands and couldn't stop reading once I got going. Most days I couldn't wait to gobble down dinner to get to my room and whatever book had worked its way to the top of the pile. This made the rest of what I did at school make much more sense. I realized it was important to understand English so I understood what I read. I knew it was important to get involved in discussions in English Lit, because it led to a better understanding of what we were reading.
Speech class was different. You were required to make presentations to the class for each type of speech we studied. This was where I planned to learn to speak in front of people, but instead, drama class had ended up putting me out in front of people to talk. There wasn't any difference, except in speech class you were all on your own; drama required other people to interact with you so you stayed on script. It was easier to focus on the other actors than on the audience. In fact it was recommended you ignore the audience, although I don't know how they felt about it.
What I learned in my classes each day had me wanting to learn more. Up until my senior year my idea of school was arriving a minute before the bell rang for us to be there and leaving a minute after the bell rang releasing us. I did have extra time in my life, but preferred not to dwell on why. I mostly filled my life with things I enjoyed, when reading was work to me. I guess as you mature you expand what you know..
Time passed faster as I raced home to read whatever book I'd placed on my nightstand from the night before, but there were those days a letter arrived from Carl. On these days the book waited. I went to my sock drawer where I kept the picture of Carl and placed it on my chest once I'd laid on the bed.
As I read his words, I periodically picked up the picture and I felt the rush of feelings I had for him. He described his days as I'd asked him to do. From time to time there was a new picture and I would spend extra time staring into the photograph, wishing I could touch him, but I couldn't and the letters would do until he came home from Japan. He'd now had word his trip home would be later than originally planned by a month or perhaps two. He was in the Army and got no say in the matter.
A year was forever, and one or two months was a little more than forever to me. I wanted to be with him as soon as possible, but I had something I needed to do before I left home again. I never gave that much thought to it before but graduating high school had to come first. Then all my time would belong to Carl and that thought made me smile. I wrote it down in my letter to him. Once I graduate from high school, I'll have nothing to do but wait for my love. My life will there ever after belong to you my love.
I'd never had anything I wanted as much as I wanted him. My life had never been full of things I wanted or needed. There had been a calm resignation that the life I had was the life that I'd always have. It was difficult to realize how meeting one person, on a bus no less, could alter everything I knew and was. Carl was my reason for living.
Looking in the library for stories to tell me what it meant to be gay was like looking down a well. I suppose I wasn't supposed to fall in love at my age, but I remembered my first year of high school English. We read Romeo and Juliet. It was a story about two kids in love. If they could fall in love at fourteen and fifteen, my falling in love couldn't have been that unusual, unless it worked different for gay kids than it did for Romeo and Juliet. There was nothing to tell me how often teens fell in love or who it was they loved.
I was angry with myself for being weak and doing all the insane things I did. It could have easily cost me my life, when I had Carl waiting for me. Maybe I didn't know if he would wait or trust that he meant everything he told me, except he did and he still said it in each letter. I knew I'd gone in search of some mythical gay community once Ralphie killed himself. I'd gone in search of what it meant to be gay and I'd found nothing, except Carl without knowing he was what I was looking for. But he left me as quick as we'd met and I was too stupid to go home and wait for him to return to me. I knew nothing about love and less about being gay and it was no wonder I did such a stupid thing as go off on my own before I was ready. Now I was content looking for meaning at the library.
Now I searched the library for stories about gay men and their lives. What was gay community? Could it really be about just partying and run no deeper than searching for people like yourself so you can spend the rest of your life boinking as often as you felt like? I was gay and the idea didn't sound like what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be around people like me and have a life. I wanted to know I could find acceptance as we supported and assisted one another through the tough times as well as the good times. As long as we accepted each other, we didn't need to have universal acceptance in my mind.
My only worry came in the form of worrying about how long it would be before we were together again. The pictures made imagining him easier and before and after school I took a peak at my love. Why would someone so perfect fall in love with someone as dumb as I had been? I didn't have the answer, but I was certainly glad he did. It made my life worth living as I waited to meet him.
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