Book 2: The Return Home
by Rick Beck
Everyone knows Billie Joe
My fitful sleep wasn't very satisfying. I had resisted my mother's efforts to get me to eat dinner and stayed in bed. I slept until eight in the evening and felt even worse than before my nap. I spent a lot of time on stage listening to howling laughter through the night. I spent a lot of time crying My only solace came from the knowledge that I'd be out of school in a few months and Christmas holidays were straight ahead. I'd still be forced to face the student body for a long, long time before graduation, but I'd do it.
It was daylight when I woke up for the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth time. It was too light to be very early, which meant I was probably late for school. Somehow it didn't seem important. My mother hadn't bothered to get me up.
"You planning to get up or what?" Simon said from the chair across from the foot of my bed.
"Who let you in?" I asked in my go-to-hell voice.
"Your mother answered the door. I let myself into your room when she told me you were still in bed.
"Billie Joe, staying in bed for the rest of your life isn't a good idea. Besides, you've got a play to do tonight."
"Yeah, don't remind me. Everyone will probably want to come see the little faggot with AIDS."
"You don't have AIDS. They only think you have AIDS."
"Well, the faggot, then."
"They won't see me. I'll be backstage."
"What time is it?"
"Nine fifteen. You're late for school," Simon said.
"Well, since we go to school together, I guess I am."
"How cold is it out?"
"You don't want to know! It's Minnesota. It's almost December. Your mother will drive us."
"You going to babysit me all day?"
"Maybe. Why don't you get up and get dressed and I'll go see if your mother has something to eat."
"I'm not hungry," I said.
"You're always starved," I said.
"And your mother's a good cook. Funny how that works. I'll meet you at the table. I smelled cinnamon buns when I came in. Your mother's cinnamon buns are to die for."
"You're going to get fat," I said.
"Got to do something."
My mother dropped us at the door nearest my locker. I grabbed my notebook and headed for the office to get my late slip.
"Hi, Billie Joe," a girl said, passing us in the hall.
"Hi," I said. "Who was that?" I asked Simon.
"I don't know. I don't know all the girls. I think she's a junior."
Simon followed me into the office as the girl at the counter looked up from a copy of the school newspaper.
"You can go on in," she said, looking me over.
"I just need a late slip," I said. "I overslept."
"Mr. Burgess said to send you in when you showed up, Billie Joe."
I shrugged and started around the counter with Simon behind me.
"Not you, Betts. He didn't say anything about you," she continued.
"Won't he be surprised to see me," Simon said, not being slowed down by the reprimand.
"What, you're the Bobbsey twins?" Mr. Burgess said as we went into the office.
"It wasn't safe leaving him alone," Simon said.
"Well, this involves you as well. You're late," Mr. Burgess said looking at his watch. "Very late. Both of you are very late."
"Yes, sir," I said, not really concerned about scheduling.
"Sit. Both of you. Phelps is gone. The administration met last night to expel him. He'll be able to go to school across town, but he won't get any leeway on his behavior. The superintendent is aware of why we expelled him and they will be keeping a close eye on him.
"Two of his three protégés are on probation. You won't be having any trouble from them. I spoke to their parents. The third boy isn't any problem by himself, but I read him the riot act to be sure.
"Things should quiet down without Phelps stirring up trouble. I hope this meets with your approval," Mr. Burgess said. "You're both late."
"Oh, here, Billie's mom makes exquisite cinnamon buns. I thought you might like one about this time of day. I didn't have any way to bring you a cup of coffee," Simon said, sitting down after delivering the napkin he'd carefully wrapped around the bun he took to have later. I could feel his pain.
"Bribery, Mr. Betts?" Mr. Burgess said with disapproval. "Does smell good. Your mom's a cook, Billie Joe? My mother liked to bake," he said, sniffing the napkin in front of him and touching it gently with the tip of his fingers. "Well, I'll write you a note saying you were both busy with the play to explain your tardiness."
"Yes, sir," I said, standing up as he wrote out two late slips.
"I was particularly moved by your poise under adverse circumstances, Billie Joe. A lesser boy might have been unable to do what you did. You can be proud of your courage. I am.
"You two get out of here so I can get back to work," he said, giving the napkin in front of him a telltale glance.
The two girls behind the counter stood watching us as we rounded the counter and headed for the door.
"Bye, Billie Joe," they both sang, giggling for good measure.
"Later," I said and Simon giggled too.
"I think you're a hit," Simon said.
When I handed my late slip to my teacher the class was buzzing about my late appearance. I took my seat and tried to locate where we were in the lesson. By the time my mind began to work the bell rang ending the class.
"Hi, Billie Joe," someone said in the hall as I headed for drama class.
"Hi, Billie Joe," someone else said as they passed me in the hallway.
In spite of my annoyance with people I didn't know speaking to me, I answered each salutation with "Hi" while trying to figure out who the person was, but by the time I had, someone else spoke.
It was the same thing several more times until I opened the door to the auditorium. There were several people there ahead of me and as I headed for the stage they turned toward me and applauded my entrance. I forced a smile and became cordial, saying hello more times than I can remember saying almost forever. Was it a joke? I didn't understand the attention. I'd nearly ruined the play. People who didn't have all that much to say to me before went out of their way to come to say hello.
It wasn't a big class but it seemed big with so many people noticing me. My lousy night's sleep and late arrival at school did nothing for my disposition. I tried hard to be polite and not act like a jerk. The idea of being a face in the crowd was over. For whatever reason I was noticed by people I didn't know by name. I still felt out of place. Trying to make sense of it made no sense. I had too much to do and it didn't take much time to say hi back to the people who greeted me. Just the same I'd be glad when I went back to being a face in the crowd.
Mr. Elliot came in with his arms loaded with books and once relieved of his burden, he took to patting me on the back as the class stood around us. Everyone was happy with me at a time when it was rare that anyone was happy with me. I took it all in without being rude and was happy when we got down to business. It was obvious everyone was happy that the play hadn't been ruined, even though it was only in front of the students who weren't paying to see it.
My frame of reference wasn't very large and I did things out of practicality. The idea that I'd done something whose motivation was something other than fear and humiliation made no sense. I hadn't gone out in front of the curtain to save the play. I'd gone out there to save myself. Had George Phelps been allowed to have the final word on who and what I was, my life wouldn't have been worth a pile of donkey doo. No, I knew why I did what I did when what I really wanted to do was curl up in a ball and die.
Did I bother to tell these people how wrong they were about me or did I do the easy thing and let them believe what they believed. It seemed dishonest not to speak up but what the hell, it was better than the labels I'd been tagged with in front of the entire school and I was the only one who knew the truth. I smiled and kept it to myself.
The Friday night performance was a breeze. Most of the seats were filled with parents, friends, and other family members of the cast and stage crew. Mrs. Betts showed up and was dressed in a royal blue evening dress with a single strand of pearls adorning her slender neck. She got as much attention as the cast. Simon blushed when people kept asking, "Who's the beautiful woman in the evening gown?"
'Better her than me,' I thought. I was glad she came to all three shows. By Sunday night I was played out. When the final curtain came down on Inherit the Wind, I was relieved. The cast party was Sunday night after the final performance. Parents brought the food and there was plenty for everyone, but I wasn't all that hungry.
The conversation was all about the stars of the show and how everything went well in each performance. This is the way I saw it and wasn't reluctant that the limelight no longer shined on me. I'd done one thing in one moment to help things along, but the two stars had made the play fun for everyone to see.
We all relaxed and chatted until one by one people began to say good night. Simon's mother came to pick us up and she was very happy about how well the play went. She was sure Simon would have a roll in the next play so he could show off his talent. Simon didn't act all that excited by the prospect.
Carl called Sunday night late. It helped me to hear his voice. He wanted to know all about the play but I left out the parts I wanted to forget. He was pleased that I had done it and his only regret was not being able to see me perform. I told him he'd get to see me perform plenty, once he came back to me. This made him giggle and sound very un-army like. I giggled back and felt giddy. I was such a dope.
I was remarkably refreshed Monday morning when I met Simon on his way to meeting me. It was December and in a few weeks we'd be off from school until in January. The hard part was over. School would become less and less a factor as I waited to graduate and to count the days until I would travel back to SeaTac Airport. I'd probably visit my brother for a couple of days. I needed to thank him for giving me cover the summer before. He only did it to keep from telling my father any sooner than he had to that his youngest son had flown the coop.
Simon was full of conversation on the way to school that morning and I was glad things were back to normal. It was cold but not bitter and the same could be said of me. I'd escaped again, not knowing what I was escaping from, but being glad I hadn't found out. I'd always been lucky and before I was lucky I was too dumb to realize what a pain in the ass life could be. Then, I remembered when I found it out for myself and I pushed it out of my brain. I wasn't going to dwell on Ralphie and a life that didn't exist any longer.
Simon went on his way as I headed for my locker to make my morning book exchange. I'd fallen behind in every class the last few weeks, and I'd need to carry all my books and appear like I intended to catch up before Christmas vacation. As I spun my combination and started to open my locker, a long arm shot in over my shoulder and ended up on my locker door.
I recognized the arm, or what was on it. It was a letterman's jacked. The long blue material of the arm was only broken where the white interrupted the blue near the shoulder. A twinge of anger and acceptance ran through me.
"What?" I said in as unpleasant and surly a voice as I had.
"Oh, sorry," a soft voice said and the arm moved a few inches so I was able to finish opening my locker. "You've got guts, Billie Joe. I wanted to tell you that. I know we don't talk but I had to say it to your face."
I left my locker door waggling as I turned to face the taller leaner boy in the athlete's jacket.
"I'm Brit," he said, having his hand at the ready for a shaking. "I've wanted to talk to you, but we don't move in the same circle. What you did… what you said… well, you got guts and I wanted to say that."
"Britain. My parents are from England. Not me. They decided I should be named after the homeland. Brit works better."
"Oh," I said, finding his lovely blue eyes with black lashes far too beautiful for a boy. "Thanks.
"You're on the…," I found myself checking the jacket for some athletic designation that might give me a clue.
"Track team," he said proudly, showing me his chest with one white shoe and the word track above it.
"Of course," I agreed.
"I've got to get to homeroom," he said, alerting me. "That was the final bell."
"Oh," I said, shutting my locker and turning down the hall.
He turned around as he started down the hall, walking backwards and saying, "You ought to get your books. I think you were after your books."
I realized my arms were empty as he jogged into the empty expanse of the school. 'What was that about?' I wondered.
There were still hellos. People spoke to me and I didn't have the slightest clue who they were. I'd recognize some faces but not others, and I always said hello back.
"Hey," Brit said, sitting down with me at lunch that day.
I'd seen Brit before. I may have even seen him in his track uniform once. We'd never spoken that I remembered, but I'd never associated with athletes. Brit was right, we didn't move in the same circles. Why was he suddenly moving in mine?
His tray was filled with milk cartons. There were greens, cottage cheese, pear slices, peaches, and something that looked like shredded carrot with raison that looked a little like bugs. He had a banana and an orange.
"Where do you get that stuff?"
"Oh, Coach has them fix us special plates. Can't eat the fat crap you guys eat, you know."
"Oh, of course not," I said, as if it was understood I wasn't entitled to such special treatment.
"I could get you one if you like. I can get all I want," he bragged, as I discovered the celery and carrot sticks hidden by the fruit.
"No, thank you. I wouldn't be sure what to do with it. You enjoy it," I teased, biting into my hamburger and noticing him glancing at the meat.
I sat my burger back on the plate, looked around, and slid it toward him as his eyes never left the burger.
"Go ahead. No one will know. You look like you could use a little meat and grease. You're awful thin, you know," I said, noticing his well shaped chest and conditioned arms in the shirt of a design to show them off.
Brit looked casually to one side and then to the other. He picked up the burger and bit into it. His eyes closed and the most incredible look came over his face as he savored the fat and the grease that now coated his mouth.
"Damn, that's good," he said, taking a second bite before setting it back on the plate as the cheese oozed over where he'd left his mark.
"Go ahead. I don't need it," I said. "Fries?"
I watched Brit eat my lunch and rather enjoyed the way it made me feel to know I'd tempted him into doing something he knew he wasn't supposed to be doing.
"Well, I've got to go," I said, standing and gathering my books. "We're taking the set apart. I've got to lend a hand. Enjoy your…," I said, casting a glance at his still full plate. "Lunch?"
I knew I was bad. I knew Brit knew I was bad, but I suspected it wouldn't be the last time he sat down at the table where I liked sitting alone, except when Simon sat down to entertain me with his stories about this girl or that. I wondered if Brit would sit down with Simon at the table. I decided it wasn't important. Brit was a kid that I went to school with. Why he bothered to mention my performance in front of the student body, I don't know. He said I had guts, but I knew better. I was a survivor, but I didn't have a tough bone in my body. I didn't have guts beyond what we were all born with and those seemed irrelevant beyond their intended use.
I suppose Brit's attention changed things for me. Not simply because I was evil and got him to do something he shouldn't, or was probably told he shouldn't. No, that wasn't it. We were teen agers after all and eating junk was part of it. I probably ate better than he did, only buying the burgers at school, because they had a particularly juicy flavor I'd grown addicted to. After you've dumpster dived to eat, the time and effort my mother put into meal preparation was not wasted on the son she hardly knew.
Brit's willingness to speak, sit with, and share something of himself with me changed everything. I gladly accepted the smiles and salutations after that. It didn't matter why people spoke to me; they did. There was no great revelation or moment of truth. I was simply happy to be there and half way through my senior year. Maybe that's what changed things. Sometimes it's hard to know why you change your mind or what comes over you, but for me it came over me after Brit spoke to me and started eating lunch with me and sometimes Simon.
I wrote Carl constantly with the holidays closing in on us and I missed him about that much. His letters became less suggestive, but always at the end was, "remember Seattle." I held onto that and knew it was dangerous for Carl to say too much while he was so far away.
There were more pictures of him and his buddy Leon. I didn't appreciate the ones with Leon. One showed the two of them in green boxers lying on the same bed with Leon's leg over top of Carl's leg just above the knee, and they both had those big green helmets on. Besides their boots that was it. Carl's body had grown bigger and stronger looking. Leon looked a little wimpish with his pale skin and long skinny body next to Carl's tan skin and growing muscles. What I wouldn't have given to have been there in place of Leon. I lay on my bed staring at the picture for hours at a time.
I started to imagine they were more than best friends. Any guy with three kids by the time he was nineteen had to be a horny fuck. Then I thought Carl wouldn't send the pictures of them together if they were doing any sex stuff. He wouldn't remember to tell me to remember Seattle if he was getting some in Japan.
I cut him some slack and tried not to be jealous when he called, but I was anyway. He knew it. He laughed and told me Leon didn't make him feel anything between his thighs and that if it wasn't for the baggy uniform he wouldn't be able to walk back to the barracks for an hour after we talked on the phone. He said talking to me turned him hard as stone. If that ain't love, what is? I laughed and it was all right.
Ty called from San Francisco my last day of school. I'd sent a letter the week before. He told me he was still healthy and he had spent Thanksgiving with his mother. If everything continued to go smoothly he was spending Christmas with her and her parents. Ty sounded happy and thought he'd enjoy returning to school or at least taking classes to allow him to get his GED. He wanted to go to college after that.
I wanted Ty to be happy and it sounded as if he was on his way to reconnecting with his mother. She'd left his father and there was no longer anything to keep Ty from going home. Todd had been instrumental in keeping Ty out of the social service's maze that would complicate any reunion. I thought it would be a wonderful Christmas present.
I knew that Ty and I were linked in a way that I'd never forget, but I could tell by his voice that he wanted to put the past few years away for good. He was smart and attractive and could likely become anything he wanted to become, but he'd need to let go of everything that might remind him of the street. As Ty reminded me of the street so I couldn't help but remind him.
Ty was healthy and Todd had him on the latest cocktail so he'd stay healthy. His T-cells were up and he was eating good food. I couldn't help but be glad that Ty's life seemed to be finding a direction of his own design.
After talking to Ty was when I missed the street the most. It's funny how dying can seem like living, when you don't care if you live or die. The streets had an allure that called me from time to time, especially when I was pissed at the world and getting down on myself for not being a better person. Anything goes in the streets. There is no one to say no. There is no reason to say no.
You stay up for days taking one drug after another, not remembering what you've taken or how much, until you don't know where you are or who you are. Then, you moved from one person to the next, being passed around like a snack tray and giving everything to get the approval of the hungry admirers. Some of them are your companions and you are with them every day of your life, but you don't know if you know the others, and you don't remember their faces or their names, if you ever knew their names at all. The drugs make it unimportant at the time, but the nature of what you did or think you did makes a name something you think you should have.
You pig out, eating everything and anything, and then you eat nothing, sleeping for days at a time, not knowing who is sleeping next to you, or if they are sleeping or just waiting for you to sleep so they can take whatever they can get off of you even when you have nothing.
You have a negative value on the street. The only time you are worth anything is when people are taking something from you. The drugs and the sex are the first thing everyone wants, but your food, shoes, or anything of value will do. Once you start to recover, you pull yourself together in order to have something to give, and to get it you must steal it or bargain yourself away for it. This is all a dream, except when you are awake. Each night it comes back to haunt you long after you've moved on.
Even to read about it disgusts me, but that doesn't diminish the allure of total freedom to do it. There are no adults standing over you to make you do what they can force you to do. You run from the cops, protecting one another with your life if that's what it takes, and sometimes it does. A human sacrifice is the price for a few to survive, and you remember the face for a day or maybe two, before they become a name you once knew, or thought you did. They are the fallen, those that gave it all, the missing in action and the lost souls that never existed for long.
This was the price I paid for survival. My mind exploded with ideas and impressions once I spoke to Carl and Ty back to back at a tempestuous time. They were at the root of who I was, who I became, and what I was once I came home. It was all in there without rhyme or reason. There was no way to completely undo what I'd done to myself. I could never wash enough to get the street off of me. I'd been there and I'd consumed it all, except, unlike most of my companions, I came home.
It was all a dream and all too real. I lay with my head hanging off the bed and daylight shining into my window. My covers and pillows were all on the floor as I measured my memories one more time. I tried to remember them all, their names, and where I'd last seen each. I once more had thoughts of Gene. We'd been inseparable forever. He'd taken me to meet Jesus and one day he walked way. There was no goodbye and no I'll see you around. He walked away and I never saw him again.
I often asked Ty about Gene when I was first home, but we no longer talked about the street or the boys we'd left on them. These boys that had kept me alive were dead to me now. Ty could not go to them any longer and I'd never return, hating the sights, the sounds, the smells that I could not forget.
Was Gene dead?
I fell asleep again and I was blessed not to dream.
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