Book 2: The Return Home
by Rick Beck
Insanity vs. Madness
At home life was the same as before I left, once I remembered how to act around my parents, except I spent a lot of time escaping to my room to read myself into other worlds and times. Before I was always running around because I had someone to run around with. Now I closed the door of my room to open books. It might sound simple but it offered me the idea that I was maturing and no longer needed to be occupied with something every minute of every day until I was exhausted. Reading in my bed achieved the same thing while I put myself in the setting of each book as I read the words.
Each time I went to the library and saw Jack behind the desk, he'd jot down a title and point me in the right direction. When I took home City of Night, by John Rechy, I knew by the end of the first chapter that it wasn't a book I'd leave sitting on my nightstand, but by mixing it in with a few works by Faulkner and Hemingway it wasn't likely to be discovered by my mother's prying eyes as she cleaned my room. .
While I had spent months searching for a gay community that represented a place for everyone gay, I was no longer sure it existed in any meaningful way. I envisioned. Rechy's words took me back to the street and the desperation of those who were lost there. It was all about adults, but it wasn't far removed from the life I'd lived in San Francisco. How could someone write about it without gay men doing something about the lost souls. Didn't they feel any responsibility for one another? No one else was going to give a damn about us. Was the only community found in bars and baths? This book scared me. It was too close to the truth, though it was another older novel. Maybe it had changed and I merely went to the wrong place, but The Castro crowd walked passed me every day, unable to see me, except for the men with lustful leering eyes. Was Rechy right? Is that all there is?
With each new book came a different reality, not all offering great prospects as far as community went. Once I was done with the latest book, I looked forward to seeing Jack to get another glimpse into how other men dealt with being gay.
Jack was a pleasant man with a twinkle in his eye that told me he was once a boy in search of some meaning to life beyond the quest for survival and having the biggest toys. The death of my best friend, the fact he gave up on life, forced me to find something that went beyond what Ralphie saw. There was no way I would admit to life's being futile, just because we all died in the end. I knew there was nothing wrong with being gay, because I was one of God's creatures no matter what God you prayed to, and God wasn't likely to make the kind of mistake men make. No, there wasn't anything wrong with me, but there was something seriously wrong with a culture that tolerates parents disowning their children before they are old enough to take care of themselves. What would Jesus say about the homeless children on our streets? Great job you ass wipes. Nothing was worse than those parents and it didn't take God to recognize that fact.
I stopped making my Sunday trip to church with my parents. If there was a God and he sat silent on the sideline while children were tormented, I was on the outs with him, until he did something about it. If there was no God allowing this injustice then church was merely a social event where people met to make each other feel better about what they tolerated in the world around them. I preferred the latter of the two options. There is no God standing watch to spank us after we die for all our sins and he isn't letting children suffer at the hands of an unrepentant society.
My participation in the senior play gave me another view of God and the people who worship him. In Tennessee they were so devoted that creationism was taught in school by law in 1925. Scopes, by choice or as a part of a larger act of disobedience, taught a science class and in that class he taught evolution. He was not teaching that there was no God, he was merely teaching that science was independent of God, even if created by God.
Darrow and Bryan, the real lawyers in the case were larger than life characters. Darrow had defended two boys who were guilty beyond any doubt and he got them off with life in prison rather than the certain death penalty everyone wanted. Bryan was a towering figure in the religious community and eagerly defended the Bible as God's truth. Darrow used the Bible to disprove Bryan's contention that it was the literal word of God. Using passages he proved that not all passages got the same treatment and not all passages made sense, unless you were Bryan and could add to any comment, "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
The play was far more dramatic than the trial. This was a town founded on Christianity and Scopes was never supposed to beat the charge. He was found guilty so he could appeal and thus the case would be heard in the state supreme court and possibly the highest court in the land. The argument wasn't about science but it was about the separation of church and state. Teachers in public school should not be teaching religion was Scopes position. In the end creationism was removed from public schools as part of curriculum.
Literature nourished me with people, all long ago dead, who devoted themselves to their lives and their particular quest. It could be as simple as the love between two children who both die rather than live without the other, as do Romeo and Juliet. "All are punish'ed," the prince tells the two warring families who would rather fight than allow their children to join the two families with marriage. How wise the children and how stupid the adult's hatred for one another in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.
It could be as complex as a fisherman fishing and catching a fish as big as his boat; he respected the fish and the reader comes to respect the heart of the fisherman in Hemingway's, The Old Man and The Sea. Catching the big fish was his dream to prove his value as the best fisherman. When the fish is devoured before he can get his boat back to shore, he apologizes for failing to honor the fish. He has respect for a fish because in his world the fish represents life. I was halfway through the story before I got it. I wanted to be as passionate about my life as that old fisherman was about his. I felt something for the fish as well as the man before Hemingway finished with me.
I didn't need to hide Hemingway or Shakespeare, although both were preoccupied with war and the warriors. The habit of reading in my room was discussed at the dinner table, our family's forum. Mother would ask me what I was reading and I'd be careful to zip off a few middle-of-the-road titles. My father would complain about congress's being run by the apologist Democrats, weakening our image in the world.
I was always careful to compliment my mother's meals. She did spend a lot of her time in the kitchen and the food was always tasty. I got all I needed and then some. She was always fretting over an ingredient she was certain hadn't been added in the proper proportion. No matter how good it was, she was sure it wasn't right.
When she asked my father, he answered by quoting one of his favorite columnists, who hadn't actually eaten my mother's food. I'd mention drama class and how my role was developing. My mother asked me if the potatoes had too much or too little salt. My father quoted the price of gold and how he should have invested when it was so low a few years back before the housing market heated up just before it collapsed.
I always left the dinner table wondering who these people were or more importantly, who I was. My brother had left home at sixteen. He was a lot older than I was and all it meant to me was more space in my bedroom. While visiting before I took my act on the road, he mentioned the madness and how our parents had been married to one another for over a quarter of a century and yet neither knew or even cared about what went on inside the mind of the other.
The most intimate they seemed to get was while mother was trying to identify the latest lost ingredient for a dish, he'd say, "Yes, dear. It was fine." And she'd reply, "It may have been the basil." Little changed if I wasn't in the dock for cross examination for whatever I'd done, forgot to do, or wasn't supposed to do under any circumstances unless they told me I should or could.
She'd constantly worry about what she'd forgotten to add in the way of ingredients. My father never talked about the food. I always complimented her in an effort to relieve her worries.
She'd then ask, "Did you think it had enough salt?"
This is when we might hear from my father, "You know the doctor told me to cut down my salt intake."
I liked inviting Simon to dinner. My father looked at him like he knew what he was but couldn't quite put a name to it. My mother loved his clothes and his complimentary style. Simon appreciated everything all the time, because he was too polite to let on if everything wasn't perfect, but my mother would have rather had a complaint she could worry about.
After I'd been home a few months, Simon was in my room giving me my lines when he admitted to me, "Your parents are quite mad, you know."
"Yes, they are," I said, feeling better that someone agreed with me.
"They talk to each other but they're having unrelated conversations. He talks about financial stuff and she talks about the food. I listen to her. She's a good cook," Simon said.
When I thought I was crazy, my parents were both reinforcement and reassurance. They were making it through life fine and my brother was a regular well-adjusted male with none of these apparent quirks, but he'd gotten out at sixteen. Maybe the craziness at our house was enough to encourage him to make the move.
Simon's mother was no walk in the park. She was overly protective and she spent a lot of time tending to Simon's wardrobe. It was a wonder being gay was his only unpopular trait. Simon was remarkably well balanced if you disregarded his flamboyant clothes. While I didn't see him interact in other classes, in drama he was one of the most popular kids and his clothes were an asset. Everyone knew Simon was gay, but in drama class it wasn't a disabling factor.
The performances of the senior play were drawing closer and my preparation was complete, except once it was complete and I felt as though I knew the role, it left time to worry and so I rehearsed my lines twice a week with Simon in my bedroom. I knew the role, but Scopes didn't have a very big part in his own trial.
"What's this?" Simon asked, picking up one of the books from my book pile, knowing my mother would assume they were the same books as were there the week before. But once you got beyond Faulkner and Hemingway, you came to A Map of the Harbor Islands by Hayes or At Swim, Two Boys by O'Neill. Both were books whose titles were already marked on Jack's message pad when I approached the counter the last time I went to the library. I never spent more than a few seconds at the counter where he sat.
"Thank you," was my only response to the titles he suspected would interest me, and he was always right. Of course a librarian probably is able to know what to recommend by what you've previously checked out. Jack knew my reading habits.
The books he advised me to read gave me a greater appreciation for the diversity of gay men and how far and wide we spread across the horizon. At first I was amazed, then I was grateful, and it finally got to the point where I needed to have a talk with my mentor Jack. I wanted him to know how far I'd gone in my search for a gay community and that he'd given me more to go on in his selection of literature than I had learned after months on the street.
I gathered up the copy of Dream Boy by Grimsley that he'd recommend via his written message the Tuesday before. I'd read it, Simon had read it over the weekend, and now I'd return it to the library, and this time I'd talk to Jack about how he knew so much about what I would enjoy reading. As of yet, he hadn't steered me wrong and I wanted to let him know that he'd shown me a world I never knew existed.
I returned the book, slipping it in the slot provided. I went to the counter and spoke.
"The fellow who worked this time of night, when will he be here?"
"He was replacing one of the girls. He's done here. She's back and he's moved on to sub at another library I expect."
"Oh, thank you very much."
"Are you Billie Joe?" she asked as I turned to retreat down one of the isles and regroup.
"Yes, do you need to see my ID?"
"No, he said you'd stop and ask about him. He left this for you," she said, handing me Jack's final note.
"The rest is up to you. There is a book called Homosexuals in History. You will be surprised at how well known some are. You will recognize some of the names. Good luck with your journey."
I was amazed. First I was amazed by the librarian's reaction to my checking out Homosexuals in History. She never looked at me. She typed in the information off the book and off my library card, sliding the book across the counter to me with my ID on top.
"Thank you," she said pleasantly, turning her attention to the next person waiting to check out a book.
"Thank you," I replied, feeling somehow vindicated by her lack of interest in my selection of reading literature.
From the final book Jack guided me to, I got names, loads of names. That was enough to encourage me, but I wanted more. Starting with Alexander the Great, I checked out one biography after another to learn that some of the most revered people to walk the face of the earth were gay and still managed to make a mark on history and I read about them.
How cool was that?
From that day forward I didn't hesitate to check out the books I wanted to read. Discovering literature had been a great comfort to me as I sought more than simply enduring the school year. Knowing that books on the subject matter that interested me most were limitless made it easier. That way I didn't have so much free time.
Later that week I went to my locker before homeroom for a book exchange and I couldn't believe my eyes. Marked on my locker door in magic marker were the words FAG HAS AIDS.
Being stunned, I stood staring at the words while the hall backed up behind me and readers digested the words. I wanted to rip off the locker door. I wanted to stand in front of the epithet until the hall emptied of people. I turned different shades of red as my anger boiled into the silent rage that came to the surface each time I faced the hateful minds that delighted in stirring up trouble. When I got mad my brain quit functioning. At times like this I was powerless to stop it. I needed someone to vent the rage upon.
I heard laughter coming from down the hall where I saw George Phelps and his mindless minion watching my reaction. I saw no way to avoid the confrontation that was brewing since my return to school. I was ready for a fight, knowing George would only instigate the trouble before stepping out of the way of it. It didn't matter.
I dumped my books in the locker, slamming the door. I turned toward the mocking taunts. I knew better than to walk to where they stood, but I was on my way without considering the consequences. I refused to be helpless in the face of adversity. If I let them go unchallenged there would be no end to it. If I hit George Phelps, it was likely Mr. Burgess would expel me, but I had to do something. I didn't mind getting my ass kicked if I made an impression on them. I would swallow my fear and take them on and I'd do my best to make it something they'd think twice about next time. It was the best I could do on short notice.
"Did you do that?" I yelled at George, stopping in front of him.
"Me? No, but someone must know you pretty well. We don't need your type in our school."
"Mr. Walker!" an angry Mr. Burgess bellowed from the other end of the hall.
There were three other boys besides George and I had no doubt they'd be more than happy to jump into any fight I started. If I did something violent I could kiss my diploma goodbye. I'd let it go this time with Mr. Burgess being my only salvation.
I turned to respond to Mr. Burgess. I forced myself toward where Mr. Burgess waited in front of my locker.
"Did they do this?" Mr. Burgess asked through his tight lipped anger..
"I don't know who did it, but they stayed around to enjoy the show."
"Did you forget about our agreement? That's nowhere close to my office," he said, looking at where my nemesis had been standing when he arrived.
"No, sir. This was about now. Turning my back on those assholes would simply encourage them."
"Language, Mr. Walker. So your best guess would be Phelps and his crew?"
"It was those assholes," Simon said, jumping into the fire with me, but staying behind Mr. Burgess..
"That's enough, Mr. Betts. Neither of you are setting much of an example," Mr. Burgess said to us as the maintenance engineer came with his supplies and stepped around us to go to work on my locker door.
Simon followed us to the office, but Mr. Burgess dismissed him before I was back in his office yet again. Simon told me he'd see me in drama class and headed toward his homeroom. I sat across from Mr. Burgess as he went through the messages on his desk. I wasn't sure what I'd done but I was sure I was going to hear about it.
"I want a copy of the letter the clinic sent you saying you were negative on the second test. Do you mind if I have it on hand?"
"No," I answered, sensing no conflict as long as it was negative.
"Since Mr. Phelps is the only one who seems to have the information about your being tested, I'll assume he's at the bottom of the message left on your locker door."
"Well, not exactly. Simon knows."
"I hardly think Mr. Betts is the type to write those particular words anywhere. Since Mr. Phelps stayed around to observe your reaction, I'd be inclined to think him the culprit. You bring me that letter with you in the morning. I'll speak to Mr. Phelps. You are to avoid him on school property. My advice for you is to avoid him completely, but you don't seem to be inclined to take my advice."
"I'd love nothing more than to follow your advice, Mr. Burgess. I don't want any trouble with anyone, but don't expect me to run away from him. I know better if you've forgotten the law of the jungle, I haven't."
"So it seems. I want you to know I wish I could do more but I've got to wait for some concrete evidence of wrong doing on his part. My suspicions will only get me relieved of duty if I act upon them. Do your best, Walker. I'll do mine."
My speech teacher was less than thrilled with my late arrival. I handed him the note from Mr. Burgess and sat down to listen to his directions on how to deliver an impromptu speech. I liked Mr. Crockett. He was an okay guy and speech was but an extension of drama in some ways. He knew I was Scopes in the play and encouraged me to rehearse the role and he'd accept it as an impromptu speech if I worded it in that fashion, not using my dialogue as the text.
When I got to drama class, we were trying on our costumes. Luckily my vintage suit was all I wore on stage. Before the class was over Simon cornered me among the completed flats that simulated people sitting around in a courtroom.
"Would you walk me home today?" Simon asked nervously.
"What's up?" I asked.
"One of Phelps' boys told me they were going to get me after school for going to Mr. Burgess."
"You brought him to my locker?"
"Yes. I've already seen you in action once. I don't need to see it again. I could only imagine what they'd do to you if you decided to fight them."
"I didn't fight James. I blew up. I don't even remember hitting him. He got all the anger from what happened to me on the street."
"Well, you could have fooled me. Will you go with me? They might not want to fight me if you're with me.
"Right! We are the dynamic duo. We make a fine looking pair Simon. They're sure to be scared shitless when they see the two of us."
"Well, that's a lot better than the one of me," he said softly.
"Sure. There's no rehearsal after school today. Meet me at my locker after last period."
"Should I tell Mr. Burgess?"
"He's stirred up enough about me. I'll walk with you and maybe they'll leave us alone. Can you run?"
"Me? It's one of my best things, but I'm not good at it."
"If they do try something with us, if I tell you to run, you run."
"What are you going to do if I run?"
"I've got a feeling I'll probably be fighting no matter if I want to or not. You're just the way they plan to get to me. I don't think they'll hurt you. Not if I'm there."
I knew fighting George was inevitable. Threatening Simon was just another way for him to get to me. Simon was no threat to anyone. That's what kept him safe from everything but harsh words and sour looks. Being my friend was dangerous when someone like George had a grudge he wanted to settle in a way only the feeble minded found satisfying. There was no compromise that would satisfy someone who had already made up their mind to get me.
I thought about the Karate I learned in elementary school. It was more like dancing than fighting, but it had saved my ass when the guy in the car with the dark windows was about to overpower us. It was the only time I'd used anything I'd learned about self-defense. I had plenty of time to be scared and I was.
There was a chance my karate knowledge from so long ago would surface if the danger required it. I wasn't counting on it. That hadn't happened when I faced James Combs. I was more like a cornered animal, acting defeated until James dropped his guard, and then, what he'd started, I finished without ever intending to finish it. Springing to my feet, I was as totally out of control as I'd ever been. I'm not sure what motivated me to act against a bigger and stronger boy. If I let him get away with hitting me I was a marked man for anyone who took offense at me breathing the same air. I hadn't seen James Combs since our dust up.
I breathed the air George Phelps breathed and I knew he intended to change that if he could. I needed to find a way to avoid fighting if I could. There didn't seem to be a way to end the threat short of bleeding all over him, which didn't appeal to me all that much. No matter what I did, when George decided to get me, he'd pick the time and place. It would come by surprise and I'd need to act regardless of when or where it was.
If I could duplicate the same ferocity as I did against Combs, I might be home free. I thought about how more tactful people in literature avoided fighting when it seemed inevitable. There always seemed to be a bully in everyone's story. Where did all the assholes come from anyway? Didn't anyone teach them better or give them a taste of their own medicine? I knew it wasn't my style, my job. That's probably why I had the problem I did.
My story had taken twists and turns no one could have predicted. When compared to all the danger on the street, George Phelps was a small fish in a sea of sharks. I didn't particularly want to get my ass kicked or be forced to kick his, but I fought bigger battles in my summer away. I wouldn't let fear control my actions even if I was afraid. I could deal with whatever happened.
I wasn't going to run, although it was what I told Simon to do when the time came. He'd never been on the street or faced anything more frightening than the fear that the color of his clothes might clash. I didn't want that to change on my account. Simon was no more than a pawn in George Phelps' chess game.
It was my fight in the end.
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