Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

The Gauntlet

I met Simon at my locker, and it was easy to see how happy he was that I showed up. He turned toward my locker as I jettisoned most of my books and pulled out the ones I'd need for homework.

"I thought Mr. Shaw was going to paint over those awful words?"

"He wanted to, but I told him not to," I said.

"Why not. I can still read it," Simon said.

"I know, but it's faded from all the scrubbing he did on it. Can you imagine what it would look like with orange paint on it? It would stand out like a sore thumb and remind everyone why it looked that way."

"I'd let him paint it," Simon said as I closed my locker and spun the combination off the final number. "Scared?" he wanted to know.

"A little," I said.

"I'm shaking," he admitted, showing me his nervous hand.

"They aren't interested in you. They want me, Simon."

"It felt like it was me they were after, when he told me they were going to get me on my way home."

"They want you to be scared. It's what they thrive on."

"I guess they'll get what they want from me. I can't fight," he confessed.

"Neither can I," I said.

"Yeah, I saw you not fight, remember?"

"I'm not proud of losing it in front of all those people. It's not how you deal with problems."

"Go get Mr. Burgess?"

"That's what got you into this mess. They were just fine gunning for me, until you got involved," I reminded him.

"I can't let a friend get beat up if I can do something about it."

"So now we both get beat up. That's better?"

"When you put it that way, I guess not. Mr. Burgess can't guard us or keep those jerks away from us. Why can't they be happy beating each other up."

"That sounds too much like logic for them to grasp. All Mr. Burgess does is stand in the way of what's eventually going to take place. He's as much as admitted it to me."

"He is on your side, you know?"

We walked together out the back entrance and cut around the fence that surrounded the athletic field. We turned off on the path that would take us to the last street in our neighborhood. I was a little more scared as we came to the spot where George was likely to intercept us. The street was empty and I was relieved.

"I figured they'd wait here for me," Simon said.

"No, they can wait. How does it make you feel?" I asked him.

"Scared. I thought they'd be here today and now I don't know where they'll come after me. What I know is they plan to get me."

"It's how their minds work. Make the threat and then let you wait for it. They knew you'd expect it today and probably have someone with you for protection. It's the bully game of chess. Your move."

"I want to move home and get in the house," Simon said.

"Look, I'll walk you to your house. I'll walk you home after school each day, but we have rehearsals three days a week. You could come help with back-stage work and we'll walk home together. They won't wait around for that long. Their minds aren't wrapped tight enough to sit in one place for long."

"Thank you, Billie Joe. I know you think I'm helpless, but I've never had to fight. The girls have always taken care of any rude boys for me. This is different."

"They want me not you. It'll pass Simon. The memory of your going to Mr. Burgess to help me isn't likely to become a part of their long term memory."

I walked him to his house, and his mother opened the door and watched us saying goodbye. She was an attractive woman even without makeup and dressed in the fancy clothes she always wore outside. She waved and I waved back knowing Simon would tell her I was his bodyguard. Maybe being his friend wasn't all that great an idea for him.

I remembered that I didn't intend to be friends with Simon, because of his attention-getting flamboyance, but I liked that he didn't know how to be anyone but himself. He was honest, told me of his fear, and asked for my help. He didn't blame me for the problem or stay away from me, even if it was the safe thing for him to do.

These were mostly things I didn't understand. Simon was from another world. Dressing up to me was my best pair of Wranglers and a new T-shirt. It was what I felt comfortable wearing. I had no interest in being the center of attention for girls or for boys. I'd prefer not to be outcast, but I wasn't sucking up to anyone to get their approval either.

It never occurred to me that George would try to get at me through someone else. The fact it was Simon showed how simple minded George was, and his crew was going to follow him. They risked getting their eyes scratched out by the girls at school if they hurt Simon, but I didn't want it to get that far.

Simon stayed after school the following day and helped move scenery and prepare the costumes. We'd done a lot of work in drama class and even rehearsed lines there by the time the scenery was well on its way to being completed. He watched from the wings as we did a casual rehearsal, using the stage in the auditorium.

My part consisted of sitting in the courtroom and being examined and then cross examined by the two attorneys, who were the stars of the play. This required me to be on stage all the time during the play, even after my speaking part of the role was done. The two titans threw barbs and jabs at one another to exercise their equally grand egos.

It was easy for me to maintain my confused look as the two eloquent attorneys jousted, hardly paying attention to my answers to their questions before they fired another question. One would object, the other complained, and the judge seemed as confused as Scopes—me. He too was caught at the center of the drama he had no control over. It did not necessarily give me much confidence in the justice system when the judge allowed the attorneys to control the trial, but no one remembered who the judge was and Scopes was merely the name attached to "The Scopes Monkey Trial."

The actual law had just been passed and applied to the Tennessee schools. It made it against the law to teach anything that denied the Creation as described in the Bible. In my limited legal opinion, Scopes was teaching Biology and never denied Creationism as part of the larger world. He merely discussed and made pictures available from Darwin's book on evolution.

It didn't mention Creationism pro or con. It didn't deny it or say evolution wasn't in some way inspired by God. The mere idea that evolution took time beyond what the Bible retold didn't enter the fray, although there was a lot of talk about Abel's wife and family and where they came from, which didn't seem to be mentioned in the Bible either.

I understood my part and the significance of the play. It was a very simple case that took on national importance when the subject of teaching Creationism in school attracted a three-time presidential candidate to defend the law and the best known lawyer of the time to argue against the law. The trial was no longer about a biology teacher teaching biology in Tennessee. It was about two American titans, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and the national media strung miles of cable to allow the American people to follow the "Scopes Monkey Trial."

It was a prize fight with two heavy weights slugging it out, determined to land a fatal verbal blow that would end up with the opponent being counted out as the champion of his cause.

There would be no winner in this philosophical battle, which has surfaced again seventy-five years later with Creationism becoming the "Theory" of Intelligent Design, but the argument is the same. Do Biblical teachings belong inside the biology classroom alongside scientific theory?

I rented the movie by the same name with two old guys arguing the case. At the end the Darrow character seems to be sympathetic to the beliefs of the Bryan character, which seemed far fetched after going through all the trouble of obviously battering his opponent in Hollywood's version.

The play seemed more realistic than the movie to me. Seeing the movie "Inherit the Wind" allowed me to gain a larger view. I related to Scopes role but found it disconcerting that Scopes in the movie was a character in the sitcom Bewitched I use to watch on Nickelodeon TV.

Everyone had his own opinion at the time and mine was that it was a good play and my part wasn't too large, which made it an even better play. Putting myself in my character's shoes, why would anyone want a science teacher to teach religion?

A good teacher surely wouldn't attempt to teach something as complicated and controversial as religion in a science classroom. It was obviously a different time and I didn't have an understanding of why you didn't learn Creationism in church or Sunday school. Those would be perfect places to talk about the Bible and make certain it was presented in its proper context.

With judges and juries aside I was more worried about forgetting my lines than how the trial turned out, which I could find by looking at the last page. The small fine Scopes paid for violating this state law didn't match up with all the fuss it created.

I guess you had to have been there and I hadn't been, but I could bring a new realism to my character once I realized how confusing it must have been for Scopes. Yet, as much as the play was on my mind, other classes did occupy a lot of my time.

In speech class we continued to give impromptu speeches. Each student was called on at random and asked if he or she was ready to deliver. So far about half the class was and my answer was always, I'm in rehearsals and haven't got time to be impromptu. Mr. Crockett asked me if I knew what I was talking about, and I assured him I did, even if it amused him when I said it.

Mr. Crockett add his name to the list that made it clear I should come to him in the case of difficulty. He'd heard about my locker being labeled and suggested that it was best for me to deal with it head on, since everyone in school knew about the message.

"You need to present yourself as something other than what the knuckleheads are labeling you. If you don't speak they are the only one heard. All you need do is speak up. The other students know who the knuckleheads are. Let them see who you are."

"I don't know how," I told him.

"You can start with speech class. Word gets around school fast."

"I wouldn't know what to say."

"You've tested?"

"Yeah, but what's that mean?"

"Do you have AIDS?"

"No!" I said.

"You've tested. You don't have AIDS. It makes the message on your locker a lie. Put a lie to one part of it and the students will see it all as a lie. You have nothing to fear but the lies told about you."

It all sounded fine but I was already in the middle of a play and I wasn't quite ready to take on any more speaking engagements.

I continued walking Simon home and neither George nor his emissaries intercepted us, although I'd seen him in school. I wondered if Mr. Burgess had interceded. That could have encouraged George to back off. It was his senior year too, and it wouldn't be pleasant for either of us to get expelled.

On Thursday afternoon I was held up by my last period teacher, who wanted to talk about the senior play. I did my best to give short answers and get to my locker to meet Simon, but I ran into Mr. Burgess in the hallway that led to my locker and he wanted to know how things were going. I assured him everything was fine and there was no more trouble with George.

I was ten minutes late when I showed up to meet Simon but no Simon. I figured he couldn't be that far ahead of me and once I'd exchanged books, I headed for the path that went through the woods. By this time I was worried about leaving Simon to walk home alone. He'd said several times that I made him feel safer, but he'd gone on alone, knowing I was usually at my locker shortly after the final bell.

I stopped to straighten out my books and get them back under control. I heard some laughter just beyond where I was, which was within a few hundred feet of the street that led into our housing development.

When I rounded the final turn in the path, I saw George's car parked across the path where it came out of the trees. Laying on his backside, his books and loose papers scattered around, Simon was making no effort to collect his things as one of George's boys stood just above Simon.

"You okay?" I asked, moving onto the scene as George and the two other boys broke off from leaning on the car.

Collecting the loose papers first, I pushed them into his notebook.

"Ain't he cute, picking up after his boyfriend?" one of them said.

"Asshole," I said, realizing the situation didn't favor a good outcome.

Most of the kids from school that took the path were at home. I stood up and the nearest boy stepped back to join his buddies. Simon didn't move and the smirk on George's face told me this is what he'd been waiting for. He held all the cards and he was the dealer.

"Get your books and go on, Simon. They don't want you."

Simon didn't move and when I glanced at him I saw the blood dripping from his nose onto his baby blue satin shirt.

"Yeah, the little faggot can go. We don't want him," George agreed.

Simon stood up and moved his books off to one side. He then moved over beside me.

"Simon, take off while you have a chance," I warned.

"Yeah, little fag, we won't hurt you."

"I'm not going anywhere," Simon said.

"Simon, this is no time to go nutso on me. Get out of here. They aren't after you."

"He hit me," Simon said, pointing out the culprit.

"What, you want I should apologize?" the boy asked, bringing on a round of laughter.

I didn't know what to make of Simon's refusal. I'd walked with him all that time to make him feel safer walking home. What he was doing wasn't smart or safe. He could slip away with no further damage, but he stood beside me. I could see he was shaking but he wasn't leaving me. This was a calculation I hadn't figured on. I'd always seen George and his crew finding me alone, where they'd jump me.

"Stand behind me," I said.

"No," he said, balling up his fists, putting his thumb up inside his fingers, which assured if he did hit anything, his thumbs would break.

"Your thumbs go outside the fist," I told him.

There was more laughter as I instructed Simon on how to make a fist. It didn't make for a very imposing picture and I needed to come up with something that might prevent a fight we couldn't win in spite of Simon's show of courage.

"You asked for it," George said to Simon, moving forward with his crew beside him.

"There are some rules I want to make you aware of so you don't get hurt," I said, thinking as fast as I could.

"Rules? What rules? There aren't any stinking rules, asshole. You're on my turf now," George boasted.

"No, not that kind of rule. It's in my blood. The AIDS. If you get my blood on your fist or on your skin anywhere… well, you could get it. It only takes a drop. You see the way Simon's bleeding?"

"Yeah," George said hesitantly. "See the drops on his shirt and above his lip?"

"Yeah, sure," George observed without having much understanding of what I was telling him.

"That's enough blood to infect all of you with the AIDS. It only takes a speck, because the virus is so tiny you can't see it or know how much is on you."

"I knew I was right. You got that shit!" George said alarmed.

"I'm only warning you so you don't get it. You really should think twice about making me bleed. I'd hate to think I infected all of you. I'd really hate that. I don't have any hard feelings for you, George. We've never really been friends but that doesn't mean I'd want to give you a disease that was likely to kill you."

"Shit, George, let's split. I ain't hittin' that asshole. No way."

"Yeah," the other two agreed, turning toward the car they'd come out of."

"What about James?" George quizzed.

"Oh, I don't care about him. He ought to get tested but I haven't known him all my life like you, George. I wouldn't want you to risk being infected."

All the fight had gone out of the four of them as their posture of attack mode gave way to a posture looking more like retreat. I knew George was thinking it over and he'd lost his crew. They were ready to follow George if there was no risk involved. All they knew about AIDS was that it killed people. They saw no future in taking the risk.

"Okay, Billie Joe, I'm going to let you go this time. No point in messing someone up that's got that shit. You just stay away from me, and you too, you little shit," he yelled the final words at Simon, who had dared to stand up with me to face them. "I bet you got that shit too. All you fags do."

"Well, if my blood got on any of you, I wouldn't be sleeping so soundly for the next six months," Simon explained.

"Six months?" George howled.

"Oh yeah, it can come up months and months after you are exposed. Then, there's no way for doctors to know how you got it. They just assume you are gay if you get it," I furthered the argument.

"They shouldn't allow you people around normal people," George said, and I almost laughed in his face at the concept of George's somehow being normal people, but I choked back the humor I found in his words.

The car doors slammed before they backed onto the street and drove away. Simon looked at me as I watched the car.

"You don't have AIDS. You showed me the test," he protested.

"Yeah, but they don't know that. What's wrong with you," I chastised him angrily. "You didn't need to put yourself in jeopardy."

"The guy hit me," Simon complained.

"That the first time you've ever been hit?"

"No, but it's the first time it made me mad."

"You could have gotten away," I said.

"I knew you'd come up with a way to discourage them. What do you think they're going to do with the knowledge you gave them."

"They'll do something stupid, but the knowledge they have is wrong. So whatever they do will make them look more stupid than usual."

Simon's mother met us at the front door and was immediately checking over her little boy and his expensive shirt. Simon told her to get some washcloths with cold water in them and place them on both sides of the stains.

"I thought you were protecting him?" she leveled her charge at me.

"Cool it, Mom. He wasn't there when I got hit. He came and got rid of them before they could hit me again. It wasn't that big a deal. I'm fine."

"Why are they after you?" she asked.

"They aren't," I said. "They're after me. Simon and I are friends so they are trying to get to me through him."

"I don't like the sound of that. Maybe Simon shouldn't spend so much time with you," she concluded.

"Cool it, mom. Billie Joe and I are friends. Those assholes aren't going to change that."

"Simon Betts, where are you picking up such language."

His mother was far more horrified by this new independent streak than by the fact he was in a fight. I began to see him in a different light. He'd never had a friend that stood up for himself before. I was as new to it as he was, but she didn't know that. It was all a matter of deductive reasoning to me. If you did this what would happen, and if that's unappealing you move on to another solution.

I didn't want to fight if I could avoid it. The edge I'd gained by living on the street was slowly diminishing. Thinking fast and avoiding danger wasn't the same at school. I'd so far been able to avoid most trouble by using my head. I couldn't tell how long I could save my ass by using my mouth.

Having Simon in the middle of my trouble was disconcerting. I didn't want him to get hurt because of me, but he was my only friend. Maybe George Phelps would back off now that he'd backed down. If his mother found out about the results of my test he'd be twice as mean as before, once he realized I'd put one over on him.

Mrs. Betts served us soda and chips in the kitchen, but she wasn't happy about it. Simon turned to talking about the play and she didn't interrupt the discussion. By the time I got home it was dinner time and the chips had worn off. I went to my room and read once dinner was done, and Ty called at about nine.

"Hey, handsome, how you doing?" I quizzed.

"Walt died this afternoon," Ty said softly.

"I'm sorry. He was a nice guy," I said, remembering the arrangements Walt told me about.

"It's not like I haven't been expecting it."

"How are you?" I asked.

"I'm fine. My mother called me last week," he said. "Todd told her where to find me. She left my old man and she wants me to come live with her."

"You don't have Walt to look after anymore," I observed.

"No, I don't. I've been away from home for so long, I don't know I want to live that way again. She says it's okay now and she'll give me whatever room I need if I come home."

"I came home. It's not a picnic but it's not all that bad. I don't need to worry about food or how I'm going to make it through the night. I feel safer in most ways."

"Yeah, I know. I'm glad you went home, Billie Joe."

"You were as responsible as anyone," I said. "If it wasn't for you I might still be out there."

It was nice hearing Ty's voice. It was clear he was conflicted about going home to his family and finding a way to stay on his own. He was smart and could easily go back to school or get a GED.

I was sorry about Walt. He was nice to me. I was sure he'd been a nice man. It baffled me how one guy, Ty, stayed sturdy and kept his looks, while Walt had sunk down to skin and bone and was barely alive when I saw him last. What made the difference? Ty had been on medication since they found the virus in a routine blood test. I didn't know how long he had or if he'd stay healthy because of being young and strong.

Once I hung up my mind switched back to San Francisco. I recalled all the faces, even some who no longer had names I remembered. I wondered about Gene and how he was doing. I'd stayed with him the longest. I wondered about Jesus and his place down beside a warehouse in a refrigerator box.

It seemed like another life and another time. What I faced as a high school senior was nothing like the street. I still worried, had concerns, and couldn't be certain how it would all turn out, but when compared to Ty's and Gene's, my life was a picnic.

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